Saturday, 21 November 2009

PinPao Guesthouse, Old Sukthothai

I've just posted a comment on my review of the Orchid Hibiscus to update it and break the news about Paolo and Pinthong's new place in Old Sukhothai - PinPao.

The comment is here too if you don't want to read about the OH.

Paolo and Pinthong have just opened another guesthouse - the eponymous PinPao which is a large new house on the main road into Old Sukhothai. They were just putting the finishing touches to PinPao while we were there and Pinthong showed us around a couple of days before they opened its doors to guests for Loi Krathong. The place is fantastic inside. It is a guesthouse rather than bungalows or rooms around a garden so it is different in character to the Orchid Hibiscus. Each room is ensuite and slightly differently sumptiously decorated in Pinthong's signature contemporary Thai style. Expect lots of plump cushions, cereamic flowers and handpainted woodwork. PinPao is on the riverside and breakfast will be set on a terrace overlooking the river. Paolo and Pinthong are looking into boat trips along the river to the Historical Park.

A wooden footbridge leads over to a swimming pool set in a concrete lido, with more ceramic flowers, and garden. The pool and garden were coming to the end of construction when we looked around.

PinPao is another five-star mid-range guesthouse for Sukhothai, building on the success of the Orchid Hibiscus. Prices are the same - currently 800baht for a double room with the same style breakfast included. PinPao also has a cafe specialising in authentic Italian coffee, as you'd expect from Paolo. The main advantage of the PinPao over the Orchid are its position on the main road which put it much closer to the Historical Park. This means it is an easy walking distance to the Park and other amenities of Old Sukhothai. You can expect the same high quality service and rooms as well as a swimming pool but not quite the same extent of gardens nor family romos. If 800baht is your budget, even just for a few nights of a longer trip, I doubt you'll be disappointed by either of Paolo and Pinthong's guesthouses while in Old Sukhothai.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The White Temple

Wat Rong Khun - White Temple

There is a new Buddhist temple being built outside Chiang Rai, if merely built is the right word. Imagined into existence is possibly a better description for this phantasmagoric brainchild of Thai artist Chaloemchai Khositphiphat and his overworking imagination.

It is close to the city of historical temples yet so far removed from them as to almost deserve a different classification. For one there is not the quiet reverent space of many temples, but a bustling tourist attraction complete with shopping and dining area, camera-snapping Thais and guardians keeping the masses in line. Welcome to Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple, the

Attention to detail is incredible with the outside of the building and other structures decorated lavishly with ornate swirling designs. The exterior is white with silver mirrors and changes colour with cloud and sun. Under cloud it has a deathly pale yellow palor, which when set behind leafless trees, is reminiscent of a Tim Burton film set. When the sun shines the mirrors twinkle and the white takes on the hues of its surroundings - grass green, sky blue and clothings reds, yellows and oranges.

The art inside the hall does strike me as being the product of a talented fantasy-loving teenager or 70s heavy metal album cover artist. That, however is not a surprise or such criticism as it may sound. Where, after all, did the artists of psychedelic album covers or fantasy novel covers get some of their inspiration? Hindu and Buddhist religious art. The wat's art brings these influences together.

It is a lot of fun with hints at attempts to make statements. Superman, Spiderman and the Matrix sit alongside Buddhist apsaras, garudas and demons. The World Trade Centre is shown during its destruction by Al Qaida with a demon-headed serpentine petrol pump pipe snaking around one of the towers. Yet how much do intended meanings resonate after a single visit? That probably depends on your attitudes to politics, fantasy and Buddhist religious art.

The dream is still being built and all power to him for making something so bold that it generates reactions from visitors. You will either love or hate it but you're unlikely to feel indifferent towards it.

As you enter you come face-to-face with a gold structure bearing a white Buddha in its ornate folds and twists.

Wat Rong Khun - White Temple

After passing the first structure between ponds with white fish you are next greeted at the approach to the central hall by concrete hands reaching out to the air and your sense of fun. Some hold skulls up next to others proffering alms bowls.

Wat Rong Khun - White Temple

Apsaras or bodhisatvas float in the air either side of the approach to the central hall. Every inch of the white building is adorned with white mirrors.

Wat Rong Khun - White Temple

Wat Rong Khun - White Temple

To either side of the hall are matching pairs of Buddhas facing each other.

Wat Rong Khun - White Temple

The purity of white certainly makes a statement that cannot fail to influence you in some way, even if only while there. It is perhaps part Barcelona's Sagrada Familia, part Taj Maha, part Southfork.

The temple is very easy to reach from Chiang Rai. A sangthaew from the produce market station near Wat Phra Singh costs 20 baht and they leave regularly through the day. You should not have to wait more than 20 minutes. Tell the drivers you want a minibus not taxi to catch one of the regular departures rather than charter a whole vehicle for yourself at maybe 500-700 baht. You can also catch a local bus to Phayao from the old bus station in the city centre or a Chiang Mai bus from the new station on the city's edge. The journey takes less than 30 minutes. To return to Chiang Rai go up to the main road and flag down a passing sangthaew or bus. A sangthaew driver spotted us walking towards the road and waited for us to get to him.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Loi Krathong, Thailand

Krathongs made from coloured ice cream cornets

Loi Krathong, Chiang Mai 2009

Loi Krathong is one of Thailand's major annual festivals and a must do for anyone visiting the country in the autumn. The festival is a celebration of water through light, thanking water for the fertility it provides and apologising for pollution we cause by sending small floats of plants and flowers with incense and candles into rivers and other waterways. The Thai for the floats is krathong and to loi is to float them on their way. Millions of Thais throughout the country make or buy krathongs then gather at specific locations in each city, town or village that have traditionally been used for centuries to loi their krathongs. The candles seem to go out quite quickly and darkened krathongs tend to gather along the water's edge, so anyone expecting to see rivers sparkling with lights may be disappointed unless the weather is totally calm. Think giant vegetable soup with too many cooks. Households light candles at their boundaries and entrances, in many ways similar to Hindu diwali.

Kom Loi about to be released

Where the festival is so enjoyable is because it s an almighty excuse for Thais to do what they love best - eating, shopping, having fun and listening to loud music. Food and gift stalls line the streets, performances are held and processions of motorised krathongs head down streets. It is as much a celebration of modern Thai life as it is one of tradition. The best way to experience it is to throw yourself right in, while keeping out of the water. You might also need to keep your head down from the odd stray firework or quickly descending kom loi, a miniature candle-powered hot air balloon that are set floating in the sky in droves. Many have wishes attached to them. Not all manage to ascend to the heavens before they reach a tree or power cables or simply lose their upward momentum above a crowd.


The festival is not the same date every year according to the Gregorian calender because it is fixed to the 13 month lunar calendar, falling on the full moon of the 12th month. Wherever you are in Thailand at the time of Loi Krathong you will undoubtedly enjoy. I have met farang women staying in villages who have been dressed as Thai women and put on the top of krathongs in processions. Three of my favourite places to loi a krathong are Chiang Mai, Sukhothai and Ayutthaya.

Tha Phrae gate, Chiang Mai

People in Chiang Mai know how to enjoy life and bring this zest for fun to Loi Krathong over 4 days or so. Each night activity is focused around the Tha Phrae Gate and Narawat Bridge on the Ping River. Where Tha Phae gate is a laidback market full of teanagers comically posing for photos below lanterns, the River is a cacophony of noise and sound resounding to fireworks carronading from the bridge. Call into a wat on the route to the river to sign a kom loi with a wish and float it away with the help of young monks. A procession that begins at the gate converges on the river on the night of Loi Krathong itself.

Buddhist Loi Krathong ceremony, Chiang Rai

Sukhothai Historical Park

Where Loi Krathong in Chiang Mai is one great street party, in Sukhothai it is the creation of a magical, twinkling world of light and dark over four evenings. The World Heritage Historical Park is taken over with thousands of candles and lanterns on the chedis and in the ponds. A sound and light show animates Wat Mahathat with colourful lights and loud noises culminating in a firework display. The road to the park and the lanes in the park are lined with food and gift stalls.

Picnics below the lights in Sukhothai

Buddhas for sale in a Loi Krathong market

Ayutthaya may be a World Heritage Historical Park similar to Sukhothai but Loi Krathong is totally different. Here it is a brash six-day fairground and festival featuring lots of loud dance music, dodgems, shows and sound stages of boy bands. This action is concentrated in one corner near Wat Mahathat but the main loi locations are on the Chao Praya river near Wat Yai Chai Mongkol. Plenty of people loi on the ponds of the historical park too and boys tread water to either help the krathongs away from the banks or to salvage and resell them later.

Kom Loi gang