Ayutthaya Thailand and its Temples

My companions, Deb, Daniel, Patcharin, and I had a great adventure visiting Ayutthaya (Eye-U-Tie-Yah) and its many active temples and ruins. We hired a long boat and took a picturesque ride on the Chao Phraya river passing houses on stilts (in varying degrees of condition), bridges, boats, restaurants, and lots of temples, ancient and modern. Ayutthaya, which was once the largest city in the world with over a million people in 1700, is now about 82,000. (Photos are under text)

As with any adventure, not everything goes according to plan. We ventured out for dinner about 9pm and couldn’t find much open so we flagged down a tuk-tuk vehicle (in place of taxis) and got a ride to a central hawkers’ market that had many food vendors. When we finished our ten dishes(!) we went out to the street around 11pm and they were empty except for a few people riding bikes and motorcycles, and a number of dogs wondering around.

After standing on the street for a half hour we figured that the tuk-tuks were done for the night and had no other options. We began walking back along a large boulevard that was poorly lit with big busses parked along it, and too many packs of dogs for Deb’s and my comfort; we could see some of them and others we could hear howling. We thought we were quite a bit farther from our hotel than we were, but after about 20 minutes we arrived safe and almost sound. (Daniel and Patcharin, who live in North Thailand, weren’t too concerned, and Deb has a fear of dogs).

Ayutthaya was first established as the capital of Thailand in 1350 and its rein lasted until 1767. It was an absolute monarchy and its official religion has always been Buddhism.

This place was chosen for the capital because, “Throughout the centuries, the ideal location between China, India and the Malay Archipelago (Malaysia) made Ayutthaya the trading capital of Asia and even the world.

“After a lengthy siege, the city capitulated and was burned in 1767.  Ayutthaya’s art treasures, the libraries containing its literature, and the archives housing its historic records were almost totally destroyed, and the city was left in ruins.”

Many of the active religious sites throughout Ayutthaya are along the river which we visited by long boat; some if not all have monks in residence. And, some of the ancient sites seemed to be unharmed, while others were irreparably damaged from the attacks by the Burmese over centuries. These are sadly apparent from the many hundreds of beheaded Buddhas at several of the sites we visited. This city’s ancient temples form a UNESCO site.

 

Bangkok Thailand: May’s Cooking Class

One of the many highlights for me on this trip to Thailand was our cool cooking class in Bangkok. Deb and I learned how to make nine Thai dishes and we hope this experience has a lasting impact on our cooking! I’m happy to learn a great way to cut and not mangle mangos, and discovered a cool tool that makes thin ribbons from vegetables. I am using these tips in Singapore with the many exotic fruits available year round.

Finding May Kaidee’s cooking school was its own adventure.  Our Thai host, Patcharin, Deb’s niece, made a valiant effort to make this place easy for us to find because there are so many small cooking schools in Bangkok.  She flagged a cab and went with us to the school which we weren’t expecting her to do. After the cab dropped us off at the school, we found out that we were at the wrong one. Fortunately, the owner was familiar with May’s school and gave us directions to it about 10 blocks away.  We did pretty well walking until we were about two blocks away. The major streets crossed with alleys that were packed with businesses and we weren’t sure where to go. After asking a couple of people, we found the school on an alley and never did see a street sign.  We were only 10 minutes late.  I always say that getting lost or taking detours are the best way to learn your way around. We certainly saw parts of Bangkok we wouldn’t have seen without this experience (so don’t fret Patcharin).

Click on the photos to scroll through.

 

Bangkok Thailand: Street Scenes

Bangkok Street Scenes

Picturing Bangkok, I think gritty. The city is colorful, chaotic, and culturally rich, a sea of motor bikes, tuk-tuks (3-wheeled open air taxis), and trucks, all that make negotiating the streets adventurous. There is a modern, fashionable downtown business district, but you can’t escape the signs of poverty, plenty of dilapidated housing scattered around. I shouldn’t have been, but was surprised to see the tangle of electric lines everywhere (I didn’t realize until I got back to Singapore that all of its power lines are underground).

We saw vibrant outdoor markets and vendors that line the streets and alleys selling food (including hanging dried squid, mango sticky rice, and an array of insects), clothing, souvenirs, and services like massages. And, on the bigger streets you see portraits of the royal family on buildings and as shrines and throughout all of Thailand.  We were told that every Thai house has at least one portrait of the royal family.

My friend, Deb, was visiting from my home of Madison, WI. We had the good fortune to have her nephew and his Thai wife who live in northern Thailand as our guides as they know Bangkok pretty well.  They were delightful, and their auntie came down to spend a day with us too.

Click on the first photo to scroll through all the photos.

 

Chinatown

There are many Chinatowns in the USA and other countries and, of course, they are quite different from each other, however, Singapore’s Chinatown is one of the oldest in the world.

In the early 1800’s, with only a small Maylay and nomadic population, Chinese started to settle on the east coast of Singapore and this area would evolve into Chinatown. With extensive land reclamation around the waterways beginning in the mid-late 60’s, soon after Singapore’s independence from Great Britain, Chinatown is now significantly inland. Currently, Singapore’s population is nearly 75% Chinese with the other major cultures being Malaysian 13.3%, Indian 9.2%, and other 3.3% (Phillipino, Indonesian and Westerners). While Chinatown has a higher concentration of Chinese there are also Indian and Maylay residents.

After living in Singapore for eight months, we’re getting a better understanding of the neighborhoods beyond the few things they are known for. Singapore’s Chinatown has its ubiquitous narrow, crowded and fun pedestrian shopping streets, two types of hawker’s markets/food vendor streets, and an upscale restaurant area, besides the shopping area more like State Street. It is one of the prominent gathering places for observing cultural celebrations each year.

Last weekend (early February) Gene and I went to see the decorations for Chinese New Year (first day of the lunar calendar is February 19 and it’s celebrated for 15 days) which is a very important holiday in Asia and preparations start very early. Each New Year is represented by the sign of the zodiac. This is the year of the goat; the appearance of hundreds of giant illuminated goats down the center of the main street in Chinatown and its image all over is the tip off. Every extra space in the markets are inhabited by vendors selling New Years decorations and items to bring good luck and prosperity for the upcoming year (see photos below).

It feels like a combination of Christmas and New Years Eve. Asians from different cultures tend to go back home to their parents’ home and feast. “Symbolically, new clothes are usually worn to signify the new year. It is also the tradition for every family to thoroughly clean their homes to “sweep away” any ill-fortune, making way for the arrival of good luck. Chinese New Year also brings people together, and is marked by visits to kin, relatives and friends, a practice known simply as “new-year visits”. The highlight for children and younger members of the family during these visits comes in little red packets, or “hong bao”, filled with money.

“Chinatown’s stunning streets are lit-up, night markets and decorations are the focal point for Chinese New Year celebrations in Singapore. This is when lion dancers, fire eaters and female dance troupes grace Kreta Ayer Square with their mesmerising performances. Armed with giant paper fans and intricately patterned umbrellas, they will provide you with street entertainment that you are unlikely to forget.

Folklore is very much at the heart of this festival. All across the city, you’ll notice dragon and lion dances everywhere – lending a cheery, festive atmosphere to the occasion. Dragons and lions are prominent characters in Chinese mythology; its roots originating in ancient China when Nien, a mythical beast which tormented villagers was discovered to be afraid of the colour red.”

 

 

Visiting Little India

A Culture within a City

With our new found enthusiasm for South Indian cooking that we learned in a great class the week before, Dani (a first friend who is from Australia) and I needed to find the ingredients that are essential to make these dishes. This means a trip to Little India, a place we’ve been hearing about since we both arrived. We met up at train station and went Little India’s wet market, Tekka Centre, first. We found a spice vendor who had much of what we needed to make the dishes we learned: fresh curry leaves, lime leaves, tamarind paste, ghee, chillis, cumin seed, fenugreek seed, mustard seed, cardamom pods, and a certain type of lentil. I picked up fresh grated coconut and cinnamon for Gene who likes to bake.

Then we went to the infamous Mustafa Centre. I have seen people on the train loaded down with bags from Mustafa’s, stuff to outfit a whole house. This place is enormous, like a trade show, 4-5 stories high and a catwalk across the street to the next block. It has everything, tons of jewelry, a pharmacy about a block long, mattresses… that is all I saw since we came upon the grocery store like just another department in this giant building. They had about 40 kinds of flour and grains, 5 aisles of honey, an aisle of dates… things that I didn’t know there was enough products in the world to have a dedicated aisle. Next time I need to do staples shop, I will need to go back there.

Later that week was Deepavali, a Hindu holiday lavishly celebrated in Little India. Indian Hindus make up about 10% or 500,000 people living in Singapore. Gene, her mom Merle, and I went to see Deepivali, Festival of Lights, which is a 5 day festival. It is an ancient Hindu festival celebrated in autumn every year that “spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair.”

The Little India neighborhood is covered with lights, colorful arches and garlands. It is the custom to visit the temple to offer prayers and towards the evening light sparklers especially the children. The streets were lit up with lovely decorations that strongly remind me of small town USA at Christmas time. This year there were peacocks that lined the light poles. We went to two of the Hindu Temples that are open to the public and were permitted to take photos. The statuary is spectacular and fascinating. The temples were crowded with worshippers.

“Today, Hindus pray to the Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of light and prosperity, and celebrate by wearing colourful clothes and decorating their bodies, particularly their hands and arms, with henna tattoos. Many areas of Singapore are decorated for Deepavali but Little India especially becomes more alive and alight than ever, particularly in Serangoon Road. celebrating this festival and the streets become decorated with colorful arches, lights and many bazaars. In the bazaars, the stalls are decorated with fragrant flowers, garlands, oil lamps and beautiful saris with gems and delicate patterns.Before Deepavali, homes are cleaned throughout and decorated inside and out with clay lamps called diyas, flowers, beautiful fabrics and colourful powders making designs called rangolis in and around the houses.

During the festival, prayers are offered in thanks and to request future blessings. Homes and streets become happy and colourful and full of the aromas of foods like Gajar Halwa made with carrots and milk, Dahi-bhalle – fried lentil balls served with yoghurt and chutneys – and desserts like Gulab Jamun made with cinnamon and cardamom, and Besan Ke Ladoo, which are dessert balls made from besan, ghee, sugar and nuts.”

Afterward, we went to eat at the only French Restaurant in Little India (…a French chef married a Singaporean woman). We ate there because there are lots of excellent Indian restaurants all over Singapore we have enjoyed and hardly any French ones!

Below is Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple is one of Singapore’s oldest Hindu temples.