6.3.15

Bangkok : Wat Phra Kaew & Grand Palace「วัดพระแก้ว」

Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, Bangkok

If you have been following us for a little while, you have probably realized that I am a sucker for white, gold and all things bright. So you can imagine how I felt coming back to the main temple of Thailand and spiritual core of Thai Buddhism, Wat Phra Kaew (temple of Emerald Buddha) gleams and glitters with so much glory that I was not sure whether I was dreaming or about to faint. Pity Enrique was not here to shoot some wide angle glory out of such grandeur, but I think I managed to get pretty decent shots for you to get a feeling of what awaits there. As explained in our Bangkok Weekend guide, there's no problem coming in there dressed with anything sleeveless or short, it will just add some waiting time (at the borrowing clothes queue) and require 200 BAHT deposit, which you will get back upon returning the clothes.

Wat Phra Kaew is a huge complex built in 1782, that needs at least one hour to explore. The first thing that shocks as you come in are the spires of the three primary chedi built on different styles and housing relics and manuscripts (one is covered in tiles, another colorful glass and the last with ceramic) they salute you from the distance, as announcement of the magic awaiting within the temple walls.

Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, Bangkok

Once inside, it is a sensory overdose. I did not know where to go first, where to look, what to shoot. It is simply A-M-A-Z-I-N-G. The mixture of colors, the height of the structures, the colorful teeny weeny gem-like details anywhere you look. The statues. The sun. The blue sky.

Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, Bangkok
Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, Bangkok
Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, Bangkok
Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, Bangkok
Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, Bangkok
Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, Bangkok
Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, Bangkok
Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, Bangkok
Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, Bangkok
Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, Bangkok
Kinarees are half-sawm half-women creatures from Hindu-Buddhist mythology, that stand around Prasat Phra Thep Bidon hall.
Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, Bangkok

All this magic is there, just to surround the "photograph-not-allowed" Emerald Buddha. A statue of 66cm carved from nephrite (a type of jade) that sits inside the main building that, as you can see in the last image, is incredibly high.

Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, Bangkok

The walls surrounding the many temples are all covered with the murals of the Ramakian (i..e Thai version of the Indian Ramayana epic). This is a huge wall, completely covered by one mural after the other, telling the very long story of Rama and Sita, how he rescued her from the evil king (Ravana) with the help of monkey king (Hanuman).

Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, Bangkok

Each entrance is guarded by a pair of huge yaksha (here we can see his back). One with green and the other with white skin, that are also inherited from Hindu mythology. They remind me, to some extent of the guardians typically painted at the gates of both Shinto (Japan) and Taoist (China) temples.

Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, Bangkok
Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, Bangkok
Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, Bangkok
Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, Bangkok

People are covering "emerald buddha" copies on small leaves of gold, as offering to grant their prayers. Same go with incense sticks and the very Thai, flower crowns, which are seen in tiny temples all over the city too. Basically, each and every large company building has a mini-temple by the entrance, where people leave this kind of flowers everyday, as offering. It is something very unique of Bangkok's streets, that makes them unusually colorful and holy to a certain extent.

Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, Bangkok
Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, Bangkok

After a gold overdose, the eyes welcome the more subdued yet extremely intricate porcelain decorations. In pastel hues, these provide a more calm feeling and somewhat balance the overwhelming gold everywhere.

Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, Bangkok
Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, Bangkok
Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, Bangkok

Final complex of our visit, the former Royal Residence. Mixing Western and Thai architecture, it is so ridiculously huge that there was no human way to fit it in a decent shot. So I hope you get a feeling of Wat Phra Kaew magnitude, with this photographic tour.

4.3.15

Bangkok : Weekend Guide

Sightseeing guide for a weekend in Bangkok

Here's my weekend Bangkok guide for the busy business traveller or those who just spend a couple of days in town, before jumping onto one of the many awesome islands in Thailand.

Bangkok was the first city I ever visited in Asia, back in February 2010. Our vacation in Thailand at the time was both an amazing and terrible experience, as we were guilty of all the mistakes a traveller can make in this country (e.g. take a tuk-tuk, believe the driver who tells you that "the temple is closed today", get tricked into buying silk and jewels, attend a ping-pong show). 

The last night of the amazing holiday, while riding a tuk-tuk after the last dinner in Bangkok, I had my purse on my lap, seconds before it was got stolen. It felt like a movie or a nightmare, totally  surreal. A motorbike came on the side, a hand came out of nowhere, to grab my tiny vintage snakeskin bag and pull it away from me, as the motor accelerated. Time stopped. I recall the scene in slow motion. The black motorbike, the wind on my face, my hopeless hands pulling the metal chain, golden links jumping on the air, hope disappearing into the night. I lost my iPhone3GS (a very valuable factory unlocked item at the time, that had come to me straight from Hong Kong) and all the pictures from our vacation (elephant, cooking classes, SPA, buddhas, remain in my mind though). But, on the positive side, I learnt that nothing is as safe as it seems. I have not experienced further  incidents, despite traveling alone, ever since.

Thailand is a beautiful country that offers good value for the money, but still it has issues. Poverty, lack of public healthcare or education, prostitution and hunger. A society with issues has individuals who are willing to make the most out of "rich tourists" (at least compared to them) so you gotta watch out. This is not a place for violent crime, but pickpocketing and scam are extremely common. 

I was on my own this time, somewhat jet-lagged as it was just a week after having come back our New Year vacation in Aruba. But I left my brand-new 6Plus home, took just enough cash for the day and went out to explore. Bringing back nothing but good memories from my short-yet-intense sightseeing spree.

1. Bangkok main Temples : Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, Wat Pho, Wat Arun

I was staying at Aloft Hotel in Sukhumvit (soi 11), which is a very busy shopping and restaurant district well connected to both the Subway and the Skytrain. This made made transit and therefore sightseeing, a very efficient activity. My plane landed at 10AM on a Sunday. I took a cab, checked-in and showered. 1PM, and I was ready to hit the streets, with one clear goal in mind: visit all main temples of Bangkok before they were closed. Keep in mind that they close early and you may need more time than you would expect, given the masses, queues to rent (deposit) clothes and the heat, which combined with jet-lag, will likely slow you down. 

Sightseeing guide for a weekend in Bangkok


Start early if you can, but if you are late like me... Get drinks to hydrate on the go and make the most out of a limited timeframe, always keeping opening times in mind:
- Wat Phra Kaew : 8:30AM - 16:00 PM
- Wat Pho : 8:30AM - 18:30PM
- Wat Arun : 8:00 AM - 18:00PM

Also, remember to withdraw some CASH - there are ATMs all over the place, but I always feel safer at the airport. The first day you will need roughly 4000 BAHT:
- Taxi from Airport (1500 BAHT)
- BTS train (42 BAHT from Nana, one-way)
- Boat (40 BAHT, one-way)
- Rental Clothes (50-100 BAHT + 200 BAHT deposit)
- Temple Admission Fee (500 BAHT, 100 BAHT, 50 BAHT)
- Something to eat and drink (500 BAHT) - dinner excluded

The route is intense, but simple, when split in two phases:

1A) Reaching the Boat Terminal
- From Aloft, walk to the intersection of Sukhumvit soi 11 and Sukhumvit Road.
- Get on the BTS (sky train) green line at Nana station (towards National Stadium)
- Transit to the other BTS line at Siam Square (towards Wongwai Yai)
- Get off at Saphan Takshin and walk to the boat terminal
* Find MAP here

Sukhumvit to main temple area in Bangkok map

1B) Exploring the temple area
- At boat terminal of Saphan Takshin, buy one-way ticket to Tha Chang (Wat Phra Kaew and Royal Grand Palace)
- Get off, walk to the Palace entrance (ignore ANYONE who tells you that it is closed), rent some clothes in case you are wearing something short and/or sleveless & explore this amazing ground.
- Take a stroll to Wat Pho (next stop), rent some clothes (see above) and amaze at his mother of pearl soles.
- Time to get on the boat again (at Tha Tian Terminal) to cross the river, on the way to our last stop of today, Wat Arun.
- Rent clothes and get ready to climb as the sun sets. I am afraid of height. I was alone, wearing a scarf around the legs but still.. It was well worth it.
- Go back to Tha Tian terminal (the one besides Wat Pho) and wait for a boat returning to Saphan Takshin, where you can get on the BTS and come back to the hotel.
* Find MAP here

Bangkok temple visitor map

Then I went and had a cozy dinner at Crave, the superb rooftop restaurant of Aloft, but Sukhumvit Soi 11 is packed with cool restaurants (like OSKAR or Zanzibar) to check out if you are in good company and not alone like me. Another interesting spot to check out is the Food Court at the top of Terminal 21 shopping mall, which is not the most romantic place, but RIDICULOUSLY cheap (we went there one night after work and paid like 30 BAHT for a plate of curry plus another 30 BAHT for frozen coconut water, dinner for less than 2€!!).


2. Bangkok shopping spree and the largest Gold Buddha on Earth: From Wat Traimit to Siam

Sunday was over and a hard week of work ahead of me. Weekdays during business trip boil down to shower-breakfast-cab-office-cab-sandwhich-customer-cab-hotel-food-work-bed (restart) but Saturday eventually arrived, providing 5h of sightseeing before continuing on to the next leg of my trip. I had the super kind Candy from Darlin Jewelry deliver the coolest set of clutch and racelet at the hotel. This is a brand I have been following for years but I had never really bought anything from them because of the huge import taxes of EU (I had to pay A LOT the first time I bought clothes from Japan so I learnt a lesson there...). I have many weddings this year and well, as you already know, I am really into anything big, bold and bright.

Sightseeing guide for a weekend in Bangkok


Lacking much time or money left to spend shopping, I decided to kick off the day paying off tribute at the ultimate big, bold and bright thing: the Gold Buddha at Wat Traimit, which is the largest gold statue on Earth. Again, very easy to get to Wat Traimit from Aloft.
- Get on the MRT at Sukhumvit Station
- Get off the MRT at Hualamphong Station
- Walk from Hualamphong to Wat Traimit
- Rent clothes and admire the largest gold Buddha on Earth.
- Go back to Hualamphong Station
* Find MAP here

Sukhumvit to golden buddha map

Instead of going around Chinatown (honestly I did not see much of a point, given that I was travelling to Taipei that afternoon) I decided to explore the shopping malls along Siam Road. This is an impressive succession of consumption hubs, starting at National Stadium BTS center, you can walk via the elevated walkway through MBK Center, Siam Discovery Center, Siam Paragon, Siam Square & CentralWorld. To get there from Hualamphong is again a breeze:
- Get on MRT at Hualamphong
- Get off MRT at Silom
- Walk from MRT Silom station to BTS Sala Daeng station
- Get on BTS at Sala Daeng
- Get off BTS at National Stadium
- Then stroll around the stores for as long as you can... Knowing that you can always jump on BTS at either Siam or Chitlom, to return to the hotel on time.
* Find MAP here

Siam shopping spree map

On your way back to the airport, please budget 3-4h just in case. Traffic in Bangkok can sometimes be as nasty as in Jakarta, so you can be stuck on a jam for 1-2h which is not fun if you are boarding an international flight next.

3.3.15

Taipei : Garden Hotel「台北花園大酒店」

Taipei Garden Hotel 台北花園大酒店

When visiting a new city (specially for a short period) it is always hard to pick a good hotel. Our criteria is typically focused on the hotel location (close to the subway, so access to the key sightseeing areas is easy) as well as on the cost (no millionaire here). When travelling for work, I do not get to pick where I stay, but sometimes the choice opens up for a comfortable stay as well as some ad-hoc sightseeing that is always welcome, given you are alone, in a new place, during Sunday.

During my short time in Taipei, I was at Taipei Garden Hotel which is conveniently close from the sightseeing spots we went through (Longhan, Ximending, Chiang Kai-Shek) as well as to the subway stations of Ximen and Xianonanmen. The breakfast is great and if you are at the executive floor, you get access to the jacuzzi at the rooftop as well as the private breakfast salon, a complimentary drink everyday and enough fruit to double as dinner while you finish those last-minute-adjustments before tomorrow's meeting.

I have seen offers with double room rate of 80€ per night, which seem pretty reasonable to me, considering the value (big, new, clean, L'Occitane toiletries plus yummy breakfast) and the great location.

Taipei Garden Hotel 台北花園大酒店
Taipei Garden Hotel 台北花園大酒店
Taipei Garden Hotel 台北花園大酒店
Taipei Garden Hotel 台北花園大酒店
Taipei Garden Hotel 台北花園大酒店
Views from the rooftop jacuzzi, an awesome way to start your Sunday.

If you want to look as happy as I did in my instagram - make sure to book on time!

Taipei Garden Hotel 台北花園大酒店

2.3.15

Taipei : Shilin Night Market「士林夜市」

Shilin Night Market 士林夜市

Night markets are essential to any trip to Taipei as well as to Taiwanese culture. 
Today we take a stroll around Shilin Night Market

I discovered the concept while shopping high-fashion at wholesale price in Seoul but after visiting Hong Kong and Taipei, it is kind of obvious that they are something extremely Asian, probably originated in China. So they were popular already in 900, despite the attempts of Tang Dynasty to shut them down through sanctions. But then, economy expanded and so did the then-called Ghost Markets, which were the heart of Chinese nightlife. Some were open at night, some where open 24 hours - along with brothels and restaurants, that usually mushroom around the business districts. As my friend, currently based in Taipei, put it:

"I don't come here for shopping, I just come for the food."

Shilin Night Market 士林夜市
Food this way.

Let's sample a taste of Shilin & Taiwanese Cuisine:

Shilin Night Market 士林夜市
Little sausage into big sausage「大腸包小腸」is like a hot-dog where bread is a rice-filled-sausage.

The market streets are narrow, packed 8as Takeshita Dori in Tokyo) and surrounded by grills, teppanyaki and soup makers. It is smelly. But that's part of the experience.

Shilin Night Market 士林夜市
Shilin Night Market 士林夜市
Deep-fried everything.

Shilin Night Market 士林夜市
Japanese style chiken skewers aka yakitori 「焼き鳥」

Shilin Night Market 士林夜市
The star of the crown - stinky tofu「臭豆腐」which is so stinky that made us feel slightly nauseous.

Shilin Night Market 士林夜市
Beef noodle「牛肉麵」

Shilin Night Market 士林夜市
Oyster omelette 「蚵仔煎」- my friend's favourite

Shilin Night Market 士林夜市
Finally,  tones of tropical fresh fruit!

The market does not end up there, as there're plenty of knick-knacks for sale as well as a Taoist Temple where one can pray, after all these dietary sins.

Shilin Night Market 士林夜市
Shilin Night Market 士林夜市
Shilin Night Market 士林夜市
Shilin Night Market 士林夜市
Shilin Night Market 士林夜市
Shilin Night Market 士林夜市

I hope you get a feeling of the sensory overload of smoke, gold, plates, decorations, red - slightly overwhelming if you ask me, but just like a Barroque Church to foreigners, I suppose...

Shilin Night Market 士林夜市
Shilin Night Market 士林夜市
Shilin Night Market 士林夜市
While there are games and various souvenir stands, still food seems to be the best thing to focus on.

Eat, pray, love - everything is possible around Shilin night market, at the heart of Taipei.