Gulf of Thailand Paradise Preserved – Santhiya Koh Pha-Ngan

Gulf of Thailand Paradise Preserved – Santhiya Koh Pha-Ngan

Koh Pha-Ngan, or just Pha-Ngan in local parlance, is a heart-shaped dot in a remote corner of the Gulf of Thailand, and an island with a split personality. For several decades now, it has been popular among world-trekking backpackers who have been known to congregate by the tens of thousands on Haad Rin beach, the southern tip of the island, for its now (in)famous monthly Full Moon Party.

Pha-Ngan-easterm coastline.

The steep eastern coastline of the island of Koh Pha-Ngan is covered with forests rising from its rocky shore.

But topography has been kind to Pha-Ngan. Almost three-quarters of the 168 square kilometer (65 square mile) surface of this tropical paradise are covered with mountainous terrain that has safeguarded it from the invasion of mass tourism. Its mainly inaccessible interior remains covered with great swaths of pristine rain forest. Its small local population and most of the tourism activity have settled on the narrow strip of sand and coconut groves that outlines the southern and western sides of the island.

 

Phangan - Santhiya

The bay of Thong Nai Pan is home to Santhiya Resort and Spa.

The eastern side, however, is an entirely different world, an unspoiled coastline of steep hills covered with dense tropical forests rising from the rocky shore. And at its remote northern end, the secluded bay of Thong Nai Pan, rightfully reputed as one of Pha-Ngan’s loveliest beaches, is home to the idyllic Santhiya Resort and Spa.

 

 

Recreating the Mystique of Siam

It’s a pleasant thirty-minute ride in the resort’s private speedboat from Koh Samui, Pha-Ngnan’s larger and more established sister, to Thong Nai Pan. Santhiya emerges from the white sand of the bay, visible only as sharply peaked roofs randomly peering through the lush tropical foliage.

Santhiya-Reception

Antique panels of intricately carved wood provide a backdrop for the reception desk.

The natural and cultural preservation ethos of Santhiya is instantly apparent, in myriad details that evoke the timeless elegance of its Thai heritage and harmoniously blend it with twenty-first century concerns for environmental sustainability and comfort expectations. The property is conceived to take full advantage its glorious ocean views while respecting the topography of the land and its existing mature vegetation. Its architecture, inspired by the soaring nineteenth century teakwood structures of the King Rama V period gives a timeless grace to the decade-old property.

Santhiya-Garden gate;

The privacy fence of my villa’s entrance patio is constructed from repurposed planking.

From the grand pavilions of the common areas with their elaborate filigree carvings to the guest quarters and the gardens, much is constructed from recycled wood.

In the gardens especially, the original function of the landscaping timber is still discernable. Former barn beams have become garden path railings, with orchids blooming from cracks in the wood. Gates are held by water buffalo yokes, and planking that was once the hull of longtail boats now fences the secluded patios of guest villas.

Santhiya - Villa 313 plunge pool.

My villa opens onto a  plunge pool with its own waterfall,

My own accommodation, a 110 square meter (1200 square foot) Ocean View Pool Villa (Number 313) is designed for optimal indoor-outdoor living and superb privacy. The glass-fronted teak pavilion has a soaring peaked roof that dwarfs the king-size four-poster bed. It opens onto a tree-shaded deck and a 7.5-meter (25-foot) long whirlpool plunge pool with its own rocky waterfall, a separate oversized bathtub and a sweeping view of the bay. At the rear of the bedroom, a walled-in courtyard houses a bathroom with the latest in water-saving fixtures and an open air shower. It is the ultimate tropical haven to return to after enjoying the varied attractions the resort has to offer.

Keeping Traditional Lifestyle Arts Alive

Santhiya - Chantara

At the Chantara restaurant, the classic Thai cuisine is at sumptuous as the decor.

At Santhiya, there is a concerted effort to preserve, and give guests every opportunity to appreciate, traditional lifestyle arts. The world-renowned Thai cuisine is not only showcased on the restaurant’s menu, but also transmitted to interested guests in cooking classes offered by master chef God Keawpeth. I thoroughly enjoy my private lesson with him as he demystifies some of my favorite dishes, including Tom Yam Goong (spicy prawn soup) and Phad Thai.

 

Santhiyana- Thai dances.

On Thai Evening, staff members perform traditional dances from the various parts of the country.

On the weekly “Thai evening” at the main restaurant, Chantara, a wide selection of classic Thai dishes is served buffet-style for an opportunity to sample lesser-known specialties. The evening also features a performance by Santhiya’s own dance group. Staff members, who come from various provinces around the country, are encouraged to transmit their regional dances to each other and to young girls from the local school, and to perform for the guests.

 

Santhiya - Ayurvana.

Ayurvana Spa’s enjoys a panoramic view of the bay.

Then there is the Ayurvana Spa, an intimate retreat of private treatment rooms and covered terraces overlooking the bay. Their ninety-minute signature massage combining hot oils with the best of traditional Thai and international methods is one of the finest I have enjoyed anywhere. But equally memorable is my return visit for an lengthy cooling massage with freshly extracted aloe gel, which greatly relieves my discomfort when I return from a morning of snorkeling to discover that yes, you can sunburn while floating below the surface of the water.

With its idyllic location on one of the most pristine islands of the Gulf of Thailand, strong commitment to the conservation of its natural and cultural heritage, and outstanding Thai hospitality, Santhiya excels in putting in a contemporary context the mystique of the exotic Kingdom of Siam.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – There are near-hourly flight connections from Bangkok to the nearby island of Koh Samui (a one-hour flight), as well as a couple of daily flight from Chiang Mai (a two-hour flight) and Phuket (one hour). The main carrier serving the island is Bangkok Air, although Thai Air also has twice-daily service. From the airport, the easiest option is to have Santhiya arrange a shuttle for you to the Petcharat Pier, where you catch the resort’s speedboat.
  • Getting in touch – Santhiya Resort and Spa, 22/7 Moo 5 Bantain, Koh Pha-Ngan, Surat Thani, 84280, Thailand. Contact: e-mail reservation@santhiya.com. Tel. +66 77 428 999, mobile +66 81 968 2026.
  • The property includes 59 private villas and 40 rooms nestled among seven hectares (18 acres) of lush tropical grounds cascading down a to private bay. It can accommodate up to 202 guests and employs a staff of 200.
  • Beach – The pristine private white sand beach is lined with cushioned lounge chairs beneath white canvas umbrellas. Cheerful attendants are always on hand to offer fresh towels and bottled of chilled water. Complimentary equipment is available for guests interested in snorkeling, sea kayaking or sailing around the bay.
  • Pool – The stunning 1,200 square meter (13,000 square foot) bi-level free-form swimming pool with its own 30 foot (10 meter) manmade rock waterfall stands at the edge of the beach. A second lagoon-like infinity pool is built high on the hillside. This pool, which features handcrafted floating beds reminiscent of traditional Thai boats and an endless sea view, is reserved for the exclusive use of the guests in the adjacent Supreme Deluxe building.
  • Restaurants – Chantara, the property’s main restaurant has a refined menu that combines a variety of classical Thai dishes and continental offerings for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and an extensive international wine list. At the edge of the beach, the casual By the Sea iproposes a lighter fare of grilled fish, meat and vegetable, and exquisite fresh juices and smoothies.

Location, location, location!

Santhiiya Resort and Spa

Chiang Mai at its Lanna Thai Best – Tamarind Village

Chiang Mai at its Lanna Thai Best – Tamarind Village

I can think of no better place than Tamarind Village to channel Chiang Mai’s glorious Lanna Thai past. Located a mere five-minute walk from the iconic Wat Chedi Luang, the charming boutique hotel is a haven of timeless grace in the very heart of the Old City. And it is a prime example of the positive impact of responsible tourism in the preservation of local cultural heritage.

Chiang-Mai-Tamarind Village courtyard.

An ancient tamarind tree dominates the main courtyard of Tamarind Village.

In 2002, award-winning architect Ong-ard Satrabhandhu used a rare 4,000-square-meter (one-acre) vacant lot just off Rajdamnoen Road, one of the most vibrant historic arteries within the medieval moat, to construct the first Lanna-style hotel in Chiang Mai. Here, he revived the use of centuries-old design, building techniques and materials to translate distinctive Northern Thai architectural elements into an inviting contemporary version of a traditional village. Today, Tamarind Village is credited with playing a key role in the current revival of the popularity of traditional architecture throughout the area. Ong-ard’s contribution was recognized in 2007, when Tamarind Village was awarded a commendation in the prestigious UNESCO Asia-Pacific awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation.

A Village Around a Tree

Chiang Mai-Lanna Thai contemporary.

The revival of centuries-old architectural elements creates the contemporary version of a traditional Lanna Thai village.

From Rajdamnoen Road, a path shaded by an arch of soaring bamboo leads to the discrete gate of Tamarind Village. Named after the towering 200-year-old tamarind tree that dominates the property, the complex of public areas and guest quarters is laid-out around intimate courtyards filled with flowering trees. With its typical whitewashed plaster walls, dark timber beams and peaked roofs of thin clay tiles, it is a reflection of the simple elegance of the local Lanna Thai culture, in harmony with the ancient temples and historic sites that surround it.

Chiang Mai-Tamarind Village pool.

The common areas open onto an ornamental swimming pool.

The common areas are dominated by a swimming pool tiled in royal blue ceramic for an ornamental garden feel. Its length is outlined by a covered walkway leading to a vast reception and lounge area. Under a peaked tiled roof held by high masonry pillars, the entire room opens onto the pool on one side and the main Village courtyard with its ancient tamarind tree on the other. The lounge is decorated with distinctive crafts from the nearby hill-tribes, and from the tall paintings behind the reception desk to antique side-tables holding oversized ceramic bowls filled with sumptuous arrangements of orchids, every detail pays homage to the Lanna Kingdom artistic legacy.

Contemporary Lanna Thai Flair

Chiang Mai-Tamarind Village Lanna Deluxe.

My Lanna Deluxe Room combines Lanna Thai architectural elements and decorative touches with contemporary comforts.

My second-floor Lanna Deluxe room (Number 1201) lives up the promise of its name, with its whitewashed rough-plastered walls, high cathedral ceilings and dark grey polished concrete floors. The comfortable dark wood and rattan furniture creates an effective backdrop for the striking display of lacquered boxes and intricately embroidered tribal children hats. Behind a partition of floor-to-ceiling closets, the bathroom successfully preserves the feel of rustic simplicity while delivering all the contemporary trappings of a luxury property. It is partitioned into three distinct areas, a water closet, a roomy shower, and in the center, a vanity made from a deep copper washbasin of the type used by rural populations, resting on an antique table against a backsplash of jewel-colored ceramic tiles.

Timeless Romantic Retreat

Chiang Mai-Tamarind Courtyard Dusk.

At dusk, the golden chedi of a nearby temple shines over the Village wall.

But the ultimate charm of Tamarind Village rests in its tranquil atmosphere throughout. It’s on the roofed balcony of my room, where I settle into the deep cushions of a loveseat built into the railing to gaze through the branches of the ancient tamarind tree as the last rays of sunshine brush the golden chedi (pagoda) of the seven-centuries old Wat Umong right over the Village wall. It’s all along the garden paths lit at dusk with dancing oil lanterns, and the swimming pool where their reflection shimmers in the water. And it flows in on the gentle evening breeze, carrying with it the sounds of temple bells and the spirit of a culture reaching back a millennium.

It is even in the restaurant, Ruen Tamarind, on the far side of the pool, with its series of French doors opened onto a waterside terrace for candle-lit indoor or outdoors dining. The serene attentive presence of the staff as well as the menu contributes its own homage to the Lanna past.

Northern Thai Delights

Chiang Mai-Ruen Tamarind

Ruen Tamarind poolside dinning.

At Ruen Tamarind, an extensive selection of Northern Thai dishes from original family recipes handed down through generations complements the classic Thai and international offerings. To make the most of this culinary opportunity, I order all my meal from the Northern Thai menu, including breakfast when is forgo the standard buffet offering in favor of traditional Thai soup, a delicate broth filled with nuggets bursting with flavor. I discover superb dinner dishes as well. My favorites are deep-fried bamboo shoot stuffed with ground pork, served with a hot but sweet peanut sauce and fresh-water fish filets marinated in curry, then served in banana leaves en papillote over jasmine rice.

The Village Spa

Chiang Mai-Village Spa

The reception lounge of the Village Spa.

The Village Spa is a serene sanctuary located on the second floor of the most secluded courtyard at the far end Tamarind Village. Its public space embraces the Lanna Thai architectural concept of open galleries under a tiled roof. Loveseats are built into the gallery’s railing to face the doors of the six treatment rooms. This is where I am invited to enjoy a complimentary traditional footbath and foot massage before entering my treatment room.

Chiang Mai -Village Spa Treatment.

A treatment room at the Village Spa.

In consultation with the spa supervisor I select the treatment that best suits me, and from an assortment of essential oils, the scent I prefer for my massage. The spa uses only herbal products drawn from the Lanna Thai heritage of natural healing. To restore my travel-weary body, I chose the 90-minute Village Signature Massage, a heavenly combination of deep tissue massage and applications of heated herbal pouches that soothes and relaxes every fiber of my body and leaves my spirit in a state of zoned-out bliss. I do wish I could package the experience and bring it home with me.

Exploring the Old City

Chiang Mai-Wat Duang Dee offering.

Traditional daily food offering to the monks of Wat Duang Dee.

The Tamarind Village concierge is also its resident expert on Lanna history and northern ethnic crafts. She leads me on a fascinating morning walk in the neighborhoods of the Old City. Our first stop is Wat Duang Dee, a small temple where we deliver the hotel’s traditional daily offering of food to the monks and receive their blessings. Then we walk on to some of the nearby historic sites. This complimentary tour is available daily to hotel guests by previous arrangements.

 

Good to Know

  • Tamarind Village is at 50/1 Rajdamnoen Road Sriphoon, Muang, Chiang Mai, 50200 Thailand. Contact: e-mail reservation@tamarindvillage.com. Tel. + 66 53 418896-9.
  • The 45-room property includes three suites. It consists of two-level structures set around three courtyards. It can accommodate up to 90 guests and employs a staff of 60.
  • There are no elevators on the property. Consequently the upper-level rooms do not allow for mobility-impaired guest access.
  • If your itinerary includes a weekend-stay, the famous Sunday Night market is ideally located just a few steps away from the bamboo archway entrance of Tamarind Village.
  • The hotel is a 15-minute taxi ride from Chiang Mai Airport.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Tamarind Village

Thailand’s Lanna Heritage Shines Through in Contemporary Chiang Mai

Thailand’s Lanna Heritage Shines Through in Contemporary Chiang Mai

Founded in the thirteenth century as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, a powerful state centered in present-day northern Thailand, Chiang Mai still retains within the perimeter of its fortified moat the rich heritage of its glorious past as a cultural and religious center. However, its geographic and business center has moved eastward in more recent times, from the Old City to the area between the moat and the Ping River, where it is dominated by the famous Vieng Ping Night Bazaar.

A Nightly Tradition

Chiang Mai-Night Bazaar.

The Night Bazaar is a time-honored destination for tourists.

A vast three-story shopping arcade under a temple-style roof filled with stalls bursting with crafts, clothing and antiques (real and fake), the Vieng Ping Night Bazaar tradition traces back to the Chinese trading caravans that traveled the ancient route from Yunnan to the sea ports of Burma. In front of the arcade, both sides of Chang Khlan Road are a gauntlet of street vendors hawking souvenirs and mass-produced articles of all kinds. Open from dusk until around midnight, the bazaar is not merely a place to shop but also one of the most popular tourist attractions in Chiang Mai.

Across the street, the less hectic Kalare Center is host to a more varied array of shops that range from artist studios, jewelers, upscale clothing and home décor outlets to tour operators. It also includes a vast food hall and entertainment area where traditional Thai dancers and musicians perform at random intervals throughout the evening.

Coupon Dining

Chiang Mai-Kalare Food Hall.

The Kalare food hall offers a broad range of dining options.

The Kalare food hall is unusual in that it operates on a “coupon system.” The outside perimeter of the hall is lined with small stalls offering a broad range of choices. There are varied Thai specialties, but also but also Chinese, Indian, Japanese, seafood, vegetarian, etc.. Vendors have their dishes on display, usually about six to eight options, with the price prominently indicated, i.e. 20 TBH, 40 TBH, 60 TBH, etc. (yes, that’s fifty cents to one-fifty dollar U.S.!). You browse the offerings and purchase a handful of small denomination coupons from a central booth. Then you point at your selections, hand over the appropriate coupons, and your meal is cooked on demand by the time you’ve found yourself a place to sit at one of the many tables in the center of the hall.

Warorot Market

In Chiang Mai, you don’t have to wait till dusk for a dizzying market experience. Just a few minutes’ walk from the Night Bazaar, the Warorot Market is where locals do their shopping. In Northern Thai (or Lanna) language, it’s called Kat Luang (big market). Warorot actually refers to the entire district, which also happens to be the city’s Chinatown.

Chiang Mai - Worarat Market.

The Warorot Market is a favorite shopping destination for locals as well as tourists.

The side streets are a pandemonium of shops, stalls and street vendors selling everything you can imagine, or not (fried insects anyone?). And in the middle of it all stands the covered market itself. It’s actually two city-block-size, three-story buildings, the Warorot and the Lam Yia markets, linked by a footbridge. Their offerings are similar, all manner of foodstuffs on the ground floor, with plenty of noodles and rice stalls thrown in. Then everything from household goods, clothing and beauty supplies to handicrafts, electronic gadgets, herbal medicines and fireworks are on the upper two floor mezzanines.

The covered markets are open from around 6:00 am to 7:00 pm, but in the surrounding streets the action keeps going well into the evening. And, by the way, the prices are some of the best in the city.

Textile Treasures

The Hmong are one of the most populous “hill-tribe” groups across Southeast Asia, and a number of them are settled in the mountains above Chiang Mai. They are famous for their vibrant costumes, the quality of their textiles and beautiful handmade clothes.

Chiang Mai-Hmong Lane.

The Hmong people are famous for their vibrant clothing.

Just off the southwestern corner of the Warorot Market, the narrow “Hmong Lane” is the ultimate textile extravaganza. Mountains of elaborately pleated skirts, brilliantly embroidered tops, bags and accessories compete for space with bolts of colorful batiks, quilts of all sizes made from repurposed ancient fabric panels  and bins overflowing with antique notions. The sky, or your airline’s luggage allowance, is the limit here.

Wat Saen Fang

Chiang Mai-Wat Saen Fang Chedi.

With its rainbow of mirrored tiles, the chedi of Wat Saen Fang shows a strong Burmese influence.

After an overwhelming couple of hours in Warorot, you may long for the serenity of a Buddhist temple (of wat). At a busy corner of Tapae Road, Wat Saen Fang announces itself by a tall bright red iron gate sandwiched between two grubby storefronts. Through its elaborate latticework, two imposing Nagas (dragon-like serpents) show the way. Follow their undulating bodies to the end the alleyway and you find yourself in the flamboyant compound of Wat Saen Fang. The Burmese influence dominates here, especially in the spectacular whitewashed chedi (pagoda) with its rainbow of mirrored tiles. With its rambling buildings guarded by more Nagas and other spirits, it is not only a peaceful retreat but also a timeless photographers’ haven right in the heart of contemporary Chiang Mai.

Taking to the hills

Chiang Mai-Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

Doi Suthep is one of the most sacred temples in Thailand.

A visit to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (of Doi Suthep for short) is the ultimate must of a trip to Chiang Mai. Built in the late fourteenth century on a promontory some 1,000 meters (3,200 feet) high, 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) from the city center, it offers scenic views of Chiang Mai and the Ping Valley. With its golden central chedi said to enshrine a relic of the historical Buddha, the wat is a flamboyant example of Lanna architecture and considered one of the most sacred temples in Thailand.

Young Hmong girls walk up the great Naga stairs at Doi Suthep.

It is reached by a 306-step staircase guarded by a pair of imposing stone Nagas (or a funicular ride to the top for 20 TBH). A walk through the  buildings of the compound reveals a number well preserved murals that depict everyday life in the Lanna Kingdom.

 

 

 

Good to Know

  • Getting There – Chiang Mai is easily accessible from Bangkok via multiple airlines with flights scheduled throughout the day. The flight takes about 70 minutes.
  • Getting Around – Like the Old City, the downtown area is fairly compact and easily walkable. But if you don’t feel like walking or are loaded down with your purchases from the markets, rickshaws are for you. These traditional man-powered tricycles are everywhere and quite inexpensive. Short hops are between 10 and 20 TBH, or you can hire one to show you the sights around town, (100 to 150 TBH for a half day). If you prefer motorized transportation, three-wheel open-sided tuk-tuks are lined up near all the tourist areas. The cost varies with your destination and bargaining talent and can be anything within the 50 to 150 THB range. Lastly, the ubiquitous songthaews (two rows), canopied red pickup trucks with twin bench seating are Chiang Mai answer to a bus service. The price is 20 THB within the Old Town and downtown area. Then it increases the farther you go.
  • Getting to Doi Suthep – My preferred option to reach the famed wat on the hilltop is to hire a taxi for half a day to go to the site. Negotiate the price before the trip. It should be between 500 and 600 TBH. It will wait for you while you visit, and you do not pay until the end of the trip. Guidebooks give a number of public transport options that usually involve taking a songthaew bus to either Chiang Mail University or the zoo, then another one to Doi Suthep. These budget solutions may save up to 200 TBH (or five dollars U.S.), but considerably increase the complexity of the operation and the waiting time.
  • Where to stay – With tourism now a major economic growth factor for Chiang Mail, a vast array of lodging options have developed throughout the city, from traditional guesthouses to slick new hotels. My personal favorite in the downtown area ist he dusitD2 Chiang Mai, or simply D2as it is affectionately called by the hip local community and visitors alike. Located right across the street from the Night Bazaar, this ultra-modern property combines the highest standards of traditional hospitality with avant-garde East Asian décor to create a chic urban retreat in the midst of the city’s bustling downtown. The restaurant, Moxie, is nationally acclaimed for its eclectic fusion of western and Asian cuisines. dusit D2 Chiang Mai,100 Chang Klan Road, Amphur Muang, Chiang Mai, 50100, Thailand. Contact: e-mail e-mail, Tel: +66 (0) 5399 9999
  • Where to Eat – Moxie, of course, and the Kalare food court, and everywhere! Thailand is famous for it cuisine bursting with flavors and spices, but Chiang Mai is a foodies’ Nirvana. From street food, noodle and rice stands to the new extravagant fusion dishes from a new generation of chefs who add intriguing touches from the world over to traditional cooking, it’s easy to eat your way around Chiang Mai.
  • Visiting – Most wats are open from early morning to late afternoon. Whenever you pass a one that looks interesting, just take off your shoes, step over the threshold (not on it) and you are welcome to walk in. You may find that monks and novices are often glad to speak with foreigners. Make sure to dress appropriately (no tank tops or shorts). And don’t forget to leave a few coins in one of the offering bowls lined near the entrance.
  • Bargaining – You are expected to bargain for your purchases. Good-humored bargaining is practically a national sport in Thailand. Even though the prices may appear quite reasonable by your normal standards, you should always bargain and try to get at least another 20 to 25 percent off the asking price. It’s part of the fun.
  • What to avoid –There is a Hmong village located a short drive from Doi Suthep. Most packaged excursions and chartered cab drivers will offer to include it in your visit to the wat. While the scenery is lovely and worth the detour if time allows, it is now little more than a staged commercial attraction site with a nominal entrance fee. You may notice credit card logos in the stalls of the sprawling textile market at the entrance of the village (variety, quality and prices tend not to measure up to those of the downtown market). For an additional fee, you can visit the small museum perched in a “typical” garden where you can take selfies in full Hmong regalia in front of an opium poppy patch. The Kayan, or “Long Neck Karen” Village is arguably northern Thailand’s most contentious “tourist attraction.” The opportunity to visit the famed “giraffe women” presented me with a dilemma. After researching the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and other reputable displaced persons organization files, I concluded that the village was irreconcilable with any principles of responsible tourism and I did not visit. In a nutshell, the Kayans are one of the minority tribes from Burma (now known as Myanmar) displaced by the brutal conflict between the country’s ruling military junta and its ethnic minorities from 1962 until 2011. Because of their tourism value, ring-wearing “long neck” women and their families were granted “conflict refugee” status by Thailand. Today, approximately 500 Kayans live in guarded villages near the northern Thai border. The villages are managed by local businessmen and said to be sustained by the revenue brought by tourism. A second major area of controversy are the rings themselves. Traditionally, only girls born at certain auspicious times were required to wear the rings. Today, the tourist trade is encouraging all the girls to wear them, a practice that must start at the age of 5 or 6, and will severely limit their option to ever leave their current living conditions. For more information about plight of the long-neck women, see Epicure and Culture-Thailand Long Neck Women.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Chiang Mai Warorot Market

Thailand’s Lanna Past Comes Alive in Chiang Mai – The City within the Moat

Thailand’s Lanna Past Comes Alive in Chiang Mai – The City within the Moat

Landing on a sunny fall afternoon in Chiang Mai is a breath of fresh air after the overwhelming sensory overload of Bangkok. Spread across a valley framed by steep, verdant hills, Thailand’s third largest city is a mosaic of contemporary buildings and the elaborately gabled roofs of its some 300 Buddhist temples (or wats). At the heart of this panoramic vista, a 2000-meter (1.25-mile) square medieval moat surrounds what was once the capital of an ancient state that spread from eastern Burma (also known as Myanmar) to the western valleys of Laos, the Lanna Kingdom.

Thailaind - Chiang Mai fortifications

Si Phum Corner is one of the recently restored bastions in the Old City fortifications.

Founded in 1296 A.D., Chiang Mai (new town in Thai) quickly became an important cultural and religious center. It also prospered as the main trading hub between southern china and the seaports of Burma. Until successive military invasions by its neighbors set off its decline and ultimately caused its rulers to abandon the city in the eighteenth century. Far away and hard to reach from Bangkok 430 miles (700 kilometers) to the south, Chiang Mai became an overlooked provincial town in the foothills of the Himalayas. This helped preserve its cultural legacy and laidback charm until it was re-discovered by late-twentieth century tourists. Today, it is considered the cultural capital of Thailand.

A Major Center of Buddhism

Little remains of the walls that once rose behind the moat, other than the four entrance gates and corner bastions that were extensively restored a few decades ago. But within the ancient perimeter, the medieval heydays of the Lanna Kingdom endure, with over thirty wats and their adjoining monasteries, a reminder that Chiang was and remains an important center of Buddhism.

Chiang Mai - Wat Chiang Man.

The golden chedi of Wat Chiang Man is supported by 15 life-size elephant carvings.

Wander around the maze of narrow side streets of the Old City, lined with homes and every manner of small businesses. Between browsing for local crafts and sampling the offerings of the ubiquitous food stalls, you are sure to come across some of the most ancient and revered wats in the city. The most visited are Wat Chiang Man, the oldest in Chiang Mai, constructed in the early fourteenth century during the reign of King Mengrai, who lived in the temple while overseeing the construction of his capital, and Wat Phra Singh.

Heavily damaged in 1545, the monumental ruin of Chedi Luang remains the most iconic image of the Old City.

Built in the latter part of the fourteenth century, Wat Prah Singh houses Phra Chao Thong Tip, the most venerated Buddha statue in northern Thailand, made of an alloy of gold and copper, cast in 1477. Equally prestigious is the nearby Chedi Luang (royal chedi, or pagoda), once part of the official temple of the Lanna kings. Built as a reliquary to house royal ashes, Chedi Luang grew to be 144 feet wide and 282 feet tall before being heavily damaged by an earthquake or invaders (or both, depending on who you ask) in the mid-sixteen century. Its imposing ruin remains an iconic structure in Chiang Mai.

The front gable of Wat Pan Tao is an intricate  metal and glass plates mosaic evoking the zodiac sign of its original occupant.

My personal favorite, however, is the nearby mid-nineteenth century Wat Pan Tao, for its stark viham (main assembly hall) made of ancient teak. It was originally constructed and briefly used as a royal residence for the then local ruler, Chao Mahawong before being refurbished as a monastery in 1876. But traces of its previous purpose remained, especially the unusual front gable of the temple, decorated with the image of a peacock over a sleeping dog (the zodiac symbol of the king’s birth year).

Secular Arts and Culture

Chiang Mai - Three Kings Monument.

The monument of the Three Kings is a popular meeting point in the center of the Old City.

When you need a break from all this temple hopping, the Chiang Mai City Art and Cultural Center, located in the old town hall, features permanent exhibits that touch on all aspects of Chiang Mai’s history, people and culture. And right in front of the building you can’t miss the large bronze statue of the Three Kings. No, not those three kings. This monument pays homage to the founding fathers of Chiang Mai, King Mengrai and his two friends King Ramkamhaeng of Sukothai and King Ngam Muang of Payao who, according the city lore, worked together to create the city.

For those interested in the evolution of the unique northern style of building design, the Lanna Architecture Museum is located on Rajdamnoen Road, just a few minutes’ walk away from the Three Kings.

Sunday Walking Market

Sunday Walking Market merchants get ready for the onslaught of locals and tourists.

A colorful Chiang Mai tradition, the Walking Market unfolds every Sunday from late afternoon until midnight along the whole 1.2-kilometer (4,000 foot) length of Rajdamnoen Road, the Old City’s main east-west axis. The street is closed to traffic then and becomes a street bazaar that offers a vast range of local handicrafts, clothing and bric-a-brac. Food stalls set up shop in the courtyards of the temples, and with five of them along Rajdamnoen Road, including Wat Prah Singh, there are plenty of opportunities to sample real Northern Thai food. It’s a favorite spot for local people to browse and socialize as well as for tourists, and by early evening it becomes seriously crowded. As for the shopping? It takes a bit determined browsing and friendly bargaining, but some quality items can be found at very reasonable prices.

Good to Know

  • Getting There – Chiang Mai is easily accessible from Bangkok via multiple airlines, with departures throughout the day from both Suvarnabhumi Airport, also known as (New) Bangkok International Airport and Don Muang International. The latter is now used mainly by low cost airlines. The flight takes 60 to 70 minutes.
  • Getting Around – the Old City is a compact, near perfect square. Distances between two points are rarely more than a 30-minute walk. And with so much to see along the way, the best way to get around is by foot. But if you don’t feel like walking, tuk-tuks are for you. These three-wheel open-sided taxis are lined up near all the tourist areas. The cost varies with your destination and bargaining talent and can be anything within the 50 to 100 THB (one-twenty-five to three dollars U.S.) range. For the daring souls, there are songthaews, the red pickup trucks that are the standard means of travel for locals. You can wave one down anywhere, as long as it’s headed in your direction. The driver normally doesn’t speak English so you need to give him a reference point. When you see your destination, just ring the bell to stop the truck. The price is 20 THB (fifty cents U.S) within the Old Town and a few kilometers out. It then increases the farther you go.
  • Where to Stay – Tourism has become an important economic growth factor for Chiang Mai, which now welcomes millions of visitors annually. A vast array of hospitality options have developed throughout the city to accommodate every budget and preference, from traditional guesthouses to slick new luxury hotels (although the latter are mainly outside the moat.) My personal favorite Old City hotel is Tamarind Village, a charming contemporary version of a traditional Lanna mountain village. This intimate two-story property is laid out around a internal courtyards filled with fragrant tropical vegetation. Within the tranquil walled compound, every detail pays homage to the Lanna Thai cultural and artistic heritage. Tamarind Village, 50/1 Rajdamnoen Road, Sriphoom, Muang, Chiang Mai,50200 Thailand. Contact: e-mail reservation@tamarindvillage.com. Tel: + 66 53 418896-9
  • Where to Eat – Anywhere! Thailand is famous for it cuisine bursting with flavors and spices, but Chiang Mai is a foodies Nirvana. From sai ua (spiced lemongrass sausage), a Chiang Mai signature dish from a stall at the market, to the perfectly grilled mu ping (pork skewers) stand, and the ubiquitous bowl of khao soi, soft cooked egg noodles and minced chicken, served with a mild, coconut-based curry and topped with crisp fried noodles, it never tastes quite the same twice but it’s always wonderful. Then there are all the restaurants where a new generation of chefs blends traditional local flavors with touches from the world over for extravagantly delicious fusion dishes. The main dilemma is that you can only eat so much in one day.
  • Visiting – Most wats are open from early morning to late afternoon. Whenever you pass a one that looks interesting, just take off your shoes, step over the threshold (not on it) and walk in. You will be welcome and you may find that the monks and novices are often glad to speak with foreigners (and practice their English). However, make sure you are dressed appropriately. Tops should cover your shoulders and bottoms should reach your knees.
  • Shopping – Remember to bargain for your purchases, it is expected of you and it’s all part of the fun. Good-humored bargaining is practically a national sport in Thailand. Even though the prices may appear quite reasonable by your normal standards, you should always bargain and try to get at least another 20 to 25 percent off the asking price.

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Chiang Mai

In Marseille, France – New Landmarks for an Ancient City

In Marseille, France – New Landmarks for an Ancient City

Founded by the Phoenicians some 2600 years ago, Marseille has been a crossroad of immigration ever since. Throughout its long history, the city has received successive waves of populations of many nationalities, cast adrift by political and economical chaos. Over time, these strata upon strata of immigrants seeking to find a balance between new lives and old traditions shaped the city into a colorful, multi-ethnic threshold between France and the Southern Mediterranean shores.

Marseille-Gare St Charles

The nineteenth century Gare Saint Charles has received a complete makeover.

For many decades, however, and especially since the Second World War, Marseille had suffered an enduring image issue. Although one of the most important Mediterranean ports, the city was dismissed for its seedy reputation, urban decay and high crime figures. Not exactly a compelling pitch for tourism-minded visitors. But with the new century, things are turning around.

 

 

From Regional Reprobate to European Capital of Culture

Marseille-Vieux Port.

The original old harbor is now the city’s largest marina.

As part of a concerted transformation effort, Marseille prepared for, and won in 2009, the designation of European Capital of Culture 2013. It now had four years to get its act together. The city famous for its lethargic pace shifted into high gear. It was scrubbed clean and refurbished. Its waterfront got a radical facelift.

The Vieux Port (Old Harbor), the one-kilometer (over half a mile) long natural harbor that was the center of all maritime activities since antiquity had begun to decline in the mid-nineteenth century when its shallow six-meter (20 foot) depth made it unsuitable for the new steamships. Today, it is a large, sundrenched marina where sail and fishing boats bob alongside glitzy yachts and the occasional tall ship.

Marseille-L'Ombriere.

L’Ombrière transforms the waterfront into an upsidown theatre.

The entrance to the waterfront has become a vast plaza where British architect Norman Foster’s L’Ombrière (the sunshade) stretches atop slender steel stilts, six meters above the newly repaved water’s edge. The thin canopy, 46 by 22 meter (151 by 72 feet) of highly polished stainless steel, transforms the square into an astonishing inverted theatre that reflects the ever-changing space below. In the morning the fishermen selling the catch of the night right off their boats along the quay become a lively part of the show.

The Icon of Contemporary Marseille

The broad new pedestrian concourse to the right of the plaza is lined with sprawling, shaded terraces of restaurants that entice patrons with their fresh-of-the-boat menus. From there, they also get spectacular view of the south side of the Vieux Port, with the grand nineteenth century Neo-Byzantine basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde (literally Our Lady of Protection) soaring into the vivid azure sky,  high above the forest of masts.

Marseille-MuCEM.

The ancient Fort Saint Jean is now an integral part of the MuCEM..

Then, at the mouth of the harbor, the latest icon of contemporary Marseille, the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM for short) has become one of the city’s most popular destination. Open in 2013, this new museum devoted to European and Mediterranean civilizations, was allocated a spectacular location, a former port pier with sweeping westward views of the sea and the setting sun. The daring contemporary building is adjacent to the historic Fort Saint Jean that has been guarding the entrance of the Vieux Port since the seventeenth century, and is now an integral part of museum complex.

Marseille-MuCEM Exterior.

The new MuCEM is wrapped in a veil of latticed concrete .

From the top of the Fort a daring 135-meter (450 foot) long footbridge flies across the water to the roof terrace of the museum. The new MuCEM structure, designed by local architect Rudy Ricciotti, is a 72 by 72 meter (235 by 235 foot) square box of glass and steel wrapped in a veil of latticed concrete that also partially extends over the roof terrace. The fort grounds and gardens are free to explore, as are the museum terrace and the walkways that twist between the glass walls of the new exhibit space and its outer lacey shell.

Marseille-MuCEM Interior.

Interior walkways run between the glass walls of the exhibit space and the lacey outer shell

A second high footbridge connects the top of the fort’s Royal Gate to the twelfth century Provencal Romanesque church of Saint Laurent, at the edge of the historic hillside neighborhood of Le Panier (the Basket). The bridge thus opens the new site to the city and contributes its own stupendous views of the Vieux Port and the waterfront.

 

 

 

What of the Actual Museum?

Marseilie-MuCEM Waterwheel.

Thir waterwheel have been used in Egypt since times immemorial to irrigate fields.

My visit of the exhibit space leaves me with a sense that the complex is less about content than adding a striking new architectural chapter to the three-millennia history of the city. There is a disconnect between the magnificent shell and the building it is meant to serve. The core of the MuCEM is a boxy 52 by 52 by 18 meter volume that contains a basement auditorium and two floors of cramped galleries.
 
 
 

Marseille-MuCEM Picasso,

Torero à la résille III, (bullfighter with lattice III). Picasso, 1970.

Its main attraction is a lackluster retrospective of the history, genealogy and culture of the Mediterannean. It is supplemented by temporary exhibits that vary widely in theme. At the time my visit, it features an exposition tracing the influence of popular arts and traditions in the works of Picasso. It also includes an overview of the life and works of Jean Genet, a twentieth century French social outcast turned writer and political activist who, as a dramatist, became a leading figure in the avant-garde theatre.

While the museum is not without interest, it the site, with its unique blend of historic military architecture, contemporary structural creativity, pleasant terrace restaurant and stupendous views that I found to be most worthy of a visit.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Marseille is easily reached by train, with multiple direct TGV (high speed train) connections throughout the day from Paris (3.5 hours) and Lyon (1.5 hour), as well as Geneva (3.5 hours), Brussels (5.5 hours) and Frankfurt (7 hours). The trains take travelers to the Saint Charles station, right in the center of the city. For air travelers, the Marseille-Provence International Airport is 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) northwest of the city has numerous flights throughout the day from Paris, London and other major European cities. A shuttle bus runs every 15 minutes between the airport and the central bus terminal behind the Saint Charles station.
  • Getting around – The greater Marseille area is served by a public transport system, known at RTM (Régie des Transports de Marseille), which includes two Metro lines, M1 (the blue line, runs east-west) and M2 (the red line, runs north-south), two Tram lines, T1 and T2, also running east-west and north-south respectively, and over 70 Bus lines. Note: most bus routes do not operate after 9:00 pm and metro and tram services stops at 0:30 am
  • Boats Excursions The Vieux Port is the starting point for a number of boat tours of the shoreline calanques (fjords) as well as excursions to the nearby Frioul island and the Château d’If (of Comte de Monte Cristo fame). Spur-of-the-moment tickets can be purchased at their berthing point. However, to find the tour best suited to your interests and budget, see the Marseille Office de Tourisme site for a comprehensive list of tour companies and their offerings.
  • Visiting – MuCEM. Promenade Robert Laffont, Marseille (official address). Its main entrance, the Fort Saint-Jean Lower Entrance is located at 201 Quai du Port. Open Wednesday through Monday. Closed on Tuesday and December 25, as well as May 1. Open at 11:00 am year-round. Closing time varies with the seasons from 6:00 pm in winter to 8:00 pm in summer. For exact opening information, check their website or contact: tel. +33 (0) 4 84 35 13 13.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

MuCEM

Notable Museums of Lyon

Notable Museums of Lyon

First a major Gallo-Roman center of trade, then a financial and industrial powerhouse of the Renaissance Lyon has long been a fertile ground for museums. From fine arts to the history of silk, and from Gallo-Roman civilization to the invention of the cinema, there are over 20 museums in Lyon to satisfy the most diverse interests.

Musée des Beaux Arts

France- Lyon Fine Arts Veronese.

Bathsheba at her Bath, by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588)

Created in 1803 in a magnificent seventeenth century abbey in the heart of the central Presqu’Ile neighborhood, it is one of the premier regional museums of fine arts in France. Think of it as a human-size version of the Louvre without the crowds. With 70 galleries of exhibit space, it woos visitors with rich collections that offer an outstanding view of the evolution of art, from ancient Egypt to contemporary times. The paintings section alone section occupies 35 galleries where all the great European Schools from the Renaissance to the twentieth century are represented.

 

France-Lyon Fine Arts Chavannes.

The Sacred Forest Beloved by the Arts and Muses by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898).

While the museum is justifiably proud of its masterpieces by the likes of Tintoretto, Veronese, Rembrandt, Rubens and Poussin, the stairway murals by Lyon native Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, a forbearer of the Symbolism movement, are also well worth a second look. His murals, by the way, also grace the grand staircase of the Boston Public Library as well as the main amphitheatre of the Sorbonne in Paris.

 

Democritus meditating on the seat of the soul by Léon-Alexandre Delhomme (1841-1895).

Democritus Meditating on the Seat of the Soul by Léon-Alexandre Delhomme (1841-1895).

At the heart of the abbey, the former cloister is now a public garden with a central fountain created from an antique sarcophagus. This serene space shaded by ancient trees also serves as a sculpture garden, with works by nineteenth century French masters Rodin, Bourdelle, Maillol and Delhomme.

 

 

Musées des Tissus

France-Lyon Textile Museum.

Housed in a gracious eighteenth century mansion, the Musée des Tissus holds one of the richest textile collection in the world.

This unique Museum of Textiles has its genesis in the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, the first in a series Universal Exhibitions of culture and industry that would become popular in the nineteenth century. It inspired the visiting Lyonnais manufacturers to create a museum to showcase the superior technical and artistic capabilities of the city’s silk industry. Opened in 1864, it originally offered an encyclopedic view of samples and drawings, until the 1890’s when its scope broadened to cover the history of textiles.

 

Lyon-Textile Museum Fashion.

Entire galleries illustrate the synergy between Lyon silk and Paris fashion.

Today, the museum holds one of the most important collections of textiles in the world, with close to two-and-a-half million pieces covering four millennia of production, housed in the lovely eighteenth century Hôtel de Villeroy, in the center the Presqu’Ile. From rare third century Coptic caftans to magnificent twelfth century Sicilian silk tapestries woven with gold threads made from intestine membranes coated with gold leaf, each unique item has its own fascinating story.

 

 

Lyon-Pompadour fashion.

Mid-eighteenth century court gown in the “à la Pompadour” style.

There is a doublet worn by famous historic figure Charles de Blois, Duke of Brittany (1318-1364). Made of rare Persian silk, this ceremonial quilted jacket was intended to fit under a suit of armor, so the Duke could just shed the metal garment and go straight from battle to festivities.  Stunning Lyon silks especially created for Marie Antoinette’s gowns are here, along with the rose and green tapestries she left behind in her bedroom during her ill-fated escape attempt from Versailles. Entire rooms of gowns and other ceremonial attire spanning several centuries illustrate the synergy between the development of the silk and French fashion. I could lose myself for days in here!

 

Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Lyon - Applied Arts Regny.

Original period rooms are preserved intact at the Museum of Applied Arts.

Originally part of the Museum of Textiles, this applied arts institution was spun off as a distinct collection in the adjoining Hôtel de Lacroix-Lavalle in 1925. In addition to its wealth of decorative objects from the late Middle Ages and Renaissance to contemporary times, the museum also offers the opportunity to walk through a number of period rooms, mainly from the eighteenth century, donated with their entire contents, including wall paneling, with the provision that they remain intact. Here, it is possible to appreciate in situ the artistry of furniture and textile craftsmen of the period.

Musée Lumière

Lyon-Lumière Archive.

Archive frame from the first film: “La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon” (Workers leaving the Lumiere Factory)

For movie buffs, this is where is all began, the birthplace of le cinématographe, the nineteenth century ancestor of the camcorder invented by two brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumière. Here, on March 19,1895, they recorded a 46 second film of employees leaving their family’s photo-plate business. Next door, the grand Art Nouveau mansion where the family lived is now a museum that features their famous cinématographe, along with a number of early film-making devices, including Edison’s boxy wooden kinetoscope. In the garden, a hangar is all that remains of the factory. It is now a movie theater with a dynamic program of international film classics.

Musée Gallo-Romain de Lyon-Fourvière

Lyon-Fourviere Gallo-Roman Mosaics.

The permanent collections feature fine Roman mosaics.

Partially buried into the Fourvière hillside next to the Roman Theatre archeological site, the museum offers a journey back into ancient history with its concrete spiral ramp descending and branching out into display galleries. The permanent collections feature Roman, Celtic and pre-Roman artifacts, including fine mosaics, sculptures, jewelry, ceramics and everyday objects as well as an enigmatic Celtic calendar. There is also a relief map of the ancient town as well as scale models of its major monuments, including the Theatre and the Odeon.

Musée des Confluences

Lyon-Confluences

The futuristic Musée des Confluences is Lyon’s latest.

Built at the very southern tip of the Presqu’Ile, on a peninsula that was artificially extended a century ago at the confluence of the Saône and the Rhône rivers, the sprawling glass and steel structure brings to mind a spaceship that has just gone through a hard landing. Opened in December 2014 with the ambitious mission to “tell the story of man from its origins to modern days,” this new anthropology and science museum left me a bit dazed. Going from the skeleton of a 155 million year old Camarasaurus from Wyoming to the smart phone, and from the vision of after-life in indigenous cultures around the world to the exploration of Antarctica in a couple of hours can feel a tad disorienting.

Good to Know

  • Musée des Beaux Arts20 Place des Terreaux, Lyon, 69001. Open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Open until 10:00 on the first Friday of the month except August. Closed on Tuesday and national holidays. Contact: Tel. + 33 (0) 4 72 10 17 40.
  • Musée des Tissus et des Arts Décoratifs 34 Rue de la Charité, Lyon, 69002. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm. Closed on Monday and national holidays. Contact: +33 (0) 4 78 38 42 02
  • Musee Lumière – 25 rue du Premier-Film, place Ambroise Courtois, Lyon, 69008. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:30 pm. Closed Monday. Open all holidays except January 1, May 1 and December 25. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 4 78 78 18 95.
  • Musée Gallo-Romain de Lyon-Fourvière17 Rue Cléberg, Lyon, 69005. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed Monday and national holidays. Contact: Tel. + 33(0) 4 72 38 49 30
  • Musée des Confluences – 86 quai Perrache 69002 Lyon, 60002. Open every day and most national holidays – schedule varies throughout the week. For exact opening hours, check their website or contact: Tel. +33 (0) 4 28 38 11 90.

Location, location, location!

Musée des Beaux Arts