Vassavasa – Thailand’s annual ‘rain-retreat’

This blog post looks at two connected religious holidays that have happened this last weekend. They mark the beginning of Vassavasa – a three-month annual retreat observed by Theravada Buddhists which in Thailand equates to over 93% of the population.

Our new home of Thailand certainly offers near-daily opportunities for experiencing and learning something new about life in the ‘Land of Smiles’. These new experiences could be related to history, culture, customs, language, food (Yum), and in this particular instance, the religious aspects of life.

Vassavasa – broadly translated means ‘rain-retreat’ and stipulated that during the rainy season monks and other ascetics remain in their monastery or temple grounds and refrain from travel for the 3 lunar month period of Vassavasa, usually from July to October.

Monks would spend this time meditating and developing their understanding of Buddha’s Dharma (doctrine or teachings). The retreat period is also popular time for Thai boys and men to become ordained as monks.

Asanha Bucha

Asanha Bucha Day, falling on the full moon is the first of the two days and observes Buddha’s first sermon in the Deer Park in Benares, India. In the sermon, which is known as ‘Setting the Wheel of Dharma in Motion’, the Buddha first spelled out the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. This event, which took place about 2,500 years ago, also signifies the founding of the Buddhist sangha (monkhood).

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Amphawa Floating Market @ dusk

Amphawa – Captivating Markets & Mighty Warriors

We love that there is always something new to do and experience here in our new adopted home in Thailand. Be it new foods to taste, cultural events to experience, natural attractions to visit, or new locations to tour and explore. Our latest outing had us visiting two very different and captivating markets and learning about some mighty warriors in the township of Amphawa in Samut Songkhram province just 145 km north of our home in Hua Hin and only 70 km south of Bangkok.

The area is characterised by a network of more than 300 canals (Klongs) jutting out from the adjacent Mae Khlong river.  The region is also naturally rich with an abundance of seafood, fruits, vegetables, salt fields and coconut palm sugar.

Amphawa has managed to retain its classic rural Thai charm. So much so, the town received an award from UNESCO in 2008 for its efforts to conserve the centuries-old teak wood homes and temples that line Amphawa’s central canals.

We decided to make it a weekend trip so we had a reasonable amount of time to explore Amphawa and surrounds. Our first stop was to the Mae Khlong (Railway) Market.

Mae Khlong (Railway) Market

The original Mae Klong Municipal Food (Wet) Market in Samut Songkhram town backs onto the Ban Laem Train Line which terminates just a few hundred meters away at Mae Klong Railway Station.

The market sits within a purpose built building and is said to be a great place, in particular, to shop for fresh local seafood. Somehow, over time, it seems that the market has grown out the rear of the building and onto the sides of the railway track immediately behind.

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Songkran – Thai New Year 2017

It’s our second year living in Thailand and second Songkran (Thai New Year) so I started wondering what Songkran is all about.  It has become know as The World’s Biggest Water Party and now attracts thousands of people who visit Thailand specifically to take part – but it must be more than this. Having more or less, hidden behind closed doors last year –  heard so many negative stories about the behaviour of people on Songkran. This year I decided to take much more of an interest – and most importantly try to understand what this festival is for Thai people.

Here’s what I found out!

Songkran traditions are a long way from the images shown in the world’s newspapers every year – powder smeared tourists armed with water pistols and wide grins.

The Thai New Year, in its purest form, is a religious festival steeped in Buddhist and Brahman traditions. Marking the end of a 12-month cycle when the sun moves into April and there was traditionally a gap between rice harvesting and planting a new rice crop. Acquiring its name from the Sanskrit word “Songkran”, meaning to move or pass into. The origins derive from the ancient Indian Festival of Makar Sankriti. The Indian version recognizes the sun’s celestial path and Thai translate the version recognizing the passing of an old year into a new one. Songkran is now held on fixed days, 13-15 April.

So what do Thai people do during Songkran?

Regarded as one of the most important traditions in Thailand because it encompasses three major values in the Thai way of life which are:Read more of this post

Andaman Islands – our cultural insights!

Andaman Islands – our Cultural Insights

Your have probably read our Andaman Islands cruising story here. There were so many highlights and bonuses that we did not expect. Port Blair and more broadly the Andaman Islands provided us with several cultural insights – and isn’t that what travel is all about – seeing new, unexpected, or just real life experiences and events that provide insight to local people’s lives.

Here is a selection of experiences that stuck with us!

Weddings

Our first cultural insight was accidental. Wandering the streets adjacent to Aberdeen Market one of our troop noticed stores that looked like they hired out catering equipment – massive pots 3 and 4 feet across and gas burners to sit underneath. On asking our driver he explained these are used in preparing the catering for weddings held at halls just up the street. After some encouragement he took us to one such hall where, coincidently for us, a wedding was in progress.  Our troop tentatively entered the courtyard of the hall and found ourselves being welcomed and encouraged to enter to see what was happening. The males in our troop were ushered into the male eating area and plates of food thrust forward. People were happy to pose for photos and parents even offered their children, dressed in their finery, as subjects for more photos. What a colourful, happy, friendly and joyous place!

Hindu Festival

The annual Hindu festival in celebration of Goddess Devi Muthu Mariamman was happening during our second visit to Port Blair. Devotees, mainly Tamil speaking Hindu, participate in 10 days of devotion and get blessings. We were lucky to see the gathering and procession of devotees who had chosen to participate in the sacred Fire Walk – a culminating event of the festival. The Fire Walk is perhaps something devotees do in thanks to God after making a wish and receiving the desired outcome. Read more of this post

Andaman Islands, India – a cruising adventure!

Andaman Islands, India – a cruising adventure!

A few months back Vivien’s brother Andy and his partner Kelli asked if we wanted to join them for a cruising adventure – a trip to the Andaman Islands, India!   Quintessa, their 47 foot motor cruiser was to be our means of travel and around 5 other cruising yachts would also be making the trip from Thailand to the Andamans and back. The overall trip was to be around 5 weeks as India only issues a 4 week Tourist Visa, plus our cruising travel time to and from.

Facing this decision, my practical mind started throwing up silly “But what about …..?” questions.

Questions like “But will we get seasick – its 50+ hours at sea before we see land again?”; “But will we cope living in the relatively close quarters of a boat with Andy & Keli (and them with us) for such a long period of time?”; “But what will the Andaman Islands be like – it is part of India?” And then thankfully, the words of American writer Mark Twain came to mind and I knew we just had to say Yes!

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.”

The journey begins

So off we set, Quintessa under the guidance of Andy and Kelli and Beachouse57 with Dave and Rita at the helm as our boating company for the trip across. Goodbye Phuket and hello the Andaman Sea and 600 or so nautical miles and 2+ days and nights of constant cruising. For us cruising novices that meant 4 hour watches being responsible for ensuring we did not hit anything – like little coastal fishing boats, or larger ocean going freighters on their way to their next port! Daytime was relatively easy to see what was around us and the Radar told us what was over the horizon but night time required a lot more diligence and attention.

Thankfully we were travelling on a full moon so night time visibility was good. The weather was coming from behind us (moderate NE winds) so we were kind of surfing and bumping our way along with the weather. Still bumpy and rolling around making it difficult to stand for any length of time or to walk around – sitting (either killing time or on watch) or sleeping were the best options. The great news was that although the trip was uncomfortable (for us landlubbers), Vivien or I were not sick!

Port Blair – days 1 to 4

The blue roofs of the buildings hugging the hills around the harbour, the multitude of palm trees covering the northern shore line, and Ross Island sitting guard at the harbour entrance were all first impressions of Port Blair on our arrival.

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Ayutthaya – ancient cities of Thailand!

Mid January we took a road trip from our home in Hua Hin on east coast Thailand to Chiang Mai in the far north west – some 900 km one way. Overall a 2000 km round trip! We had set aside 2 weeks for the trip with a week in Chiang Mai and the remainder exploring places along the way. Two ‘must visit’ places for us were Ayutthaya & Sukhothai. This Blog post focuses on Ayutthaya – on of the ancient cities of Thailand which we found fascinating!

You can read about our exploration of the ancient cities of Sukhothai here!

Now World Heritage sites, Ayutthaya & Sukhothai tell the story of the original Kingdom of Siam. And as we have made Thailand our home in this new life as Retired Aussies In Asia, it seemed essential for our own cultural knowledge and understanding that we visit and explore these sites.

Ayutthaya

On our route north and only 80 km above Bangkok is the thriving town of Ayutthaya and within is the Historic City of Ayutthaya.

Founded in 1350, Ayutthaya was the second capital of the Siamese Kingdom.  It flourished from the 14th to the 18th centuries, during which time it grew to be one of the world’s largest and most cosmopolitan urban areas and a centre of global diplomacy and commerce.

Ayutthaya was strategically located on an island surrounded by three rivers connecting the city to the sea. This site was chosen because it was located above the tidal bore of the Gulf of Siam as it existed at that time, thus preventing attack of the city by the sea-going warships of other nations. The location also helped to protect the city from seasonal flooding.

The central and strategic heart of Historical Ayutthaya is where most travellers (including us) spend their time. “The island” stretches between the Prasak River in the east, the Chao Phraya River to the south and west, and the Mueang Canal and The Lopburi River from the north. The roughly oval-shaped island comes in at roughly five kilometres long from east to west and three kilometres wide from north to south.

This excerpt from one of our favourite independant travel guides Travelfish paints a picture of Ancient Ayutthaya:

By all reports, Ayutthaya was magnificent! Set on a riverine island the inner city was fortified by a 12-kilometre-long and five-metre-thick brick wall. Nearly a hundred gates opened to roads and canals reaching into some of the most fertile land in the region. Gilded chedis and Khmer-style spires topped temples and palaces amid a glittering skyline. According to Cambridge University’s A History of Thailand, a French Jesuit remarked in 1687 that “a single Idol” in Wat Phra Si Sanphet was “richer than all the Tabernacles of the Churches of Europe”.

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Sukhothai – ancient cities of Thailand!

As part of a 2 week road trip from our home in Hua Hin on east coast Thailand to Chiang Mai in the far north west we decided on a few ‘must visit’ places to break-up our trip.  Two of which were historical Ayutthaya & Sukhothai. This Blog post focuses on Sukhothai – one of Thailand’s ancient cities.

You can read about our time in the ancient city of Ayutthaya here!

Sukhothai

On our way north to Chiang Mai we spent a day exploring the preserved archaeological sites around Kamphaeng Phet and during the return leg we spent 2 days exploring preserved sites in and around Sukhothai.

We feel that even if the history doesn’t interest you, Sukhothai’s ruins do not fail to impress.

Located 12 kilometres east of the historical park along the Yom River is the small capital city of modern Sukhothai province –  “New Sukhothai” as it’s commonly referred to. The much smaller “Old City” stretching east from the Sukhothai Historical Park and is where we stayed so we could be close to the Historical Park. Everything we needed was there including a fantastic “Sukhothai style” Khao Soi! 🙂

Opened to the public in 1988, the Historical Park contains 193 archeological sites, including the remains of 26 monasteries, spread over 70 square kilometres altogether. While most of these consist of little more than a crumbling base or lopsided chedi, around a dozen key sites rank Sukhothai among Southeast Asia’s top historical destinations.

The UNESCO World Heritage website helps to put some context around these historic towns.

Situated in the lower northern region of present-day Thailand, the Historic Town of Sukhothai and Associated Historic Towns is a serial property consisting of three physically closely related ancient towns. Sukhothai was the political and administrative capital of the first Kingdom of Siam in the 13th and 15th centuries. Si Satchanalai was the spiritual center of the kingdom and the site of numerous temples and Buddhist monasteries. Si Satchanalai was also the centre of the all-important ceramic export industry. The third town, Kamphaeng Phet, was located at the kingdom’s southern frontier and had important military functions in protecting the kingdom from foreign intruders as well as providing security for the kingdom’s extensive trading network. All three towns shared a common infrastructure to control water resources, and were linked by a major highway known as the Thanon Phra Ruang after the king who constructed it.

Sukhothai, Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet all shared a common language and alphabet, a common administrative and legal system, and other features which leave no doubt as to their unity as a single political entity. All three towns also boasted a number of fine monuments and works of monumental sculpture, illustrating the beginning of Thai architecture and art known as the “Sukhothai style.”

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Phraya Nakhon Cave – Well worth the effort!

With visitors in tow, we visited what is said to be one of Thailand’s most beautiful and certainly most photographed caves. First impressions when we finally entered the enormous main chamber and saw the Kuha Karuhas (Royal) pavilion bathed in sunlight in the middle of Phraya Nakhon Cave – well worth the effort!

Our adventure started in Sam Roi Yot National Park, about a 45 minutes drive South of Hua Hin. We’d read that it’s best to be actually inside the cave around 10:00am as the pavilion and central chamber is swathed in sunlight from approximately 10:30 to 11:30am creating a magical view – so we’d set off early.

The trip in

Arriving at Bang Pu village, the friendly National Park staff pointed to the beginning of the track telling us it’s only 2km to the cave. What they omitted to mention was that we actually had to make the steep climb up and down Tian Mountain to reach the very appealing Laem Sala beach. And having crossed the beach the track follows another rather steep and rocky path up for another 430 meters to the cave entrance. This second leg up to the cave entrance takes around 30 minutes. About half way up the hill is a viewpoint where you can take a break and enjoy great views of Laem Sala beach, and a number of small nearby islands.

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Thai Food Tour surprise – Hua Hin

Reflecting as we do, after experiencing something new, we both said WOW – what a fantastic adventure we have just had! We had taken part in a new Thai Food Tour here in Hua Hin. It’s called “Eat Like a Local” and promises to introduce participants to eateries that Thai locals love to frequent. No Green Curry or Pad Thai here! Each business focuses on their particular Thai Food speciality and delivers – in authenticity, taste, quality – and at prices locals are happy to pay!

This an experience we will be recommending to our friends here in Hua Hin and to every one of our friends and family who comes to town!

Feast Thailand is the company running the tours and according to their website, promises to……

Show travellers to Hua Hin the true nature of Thai Street Food, in all it’s glory.
By showcasing how Thai Street Food truly is on a day-to-day basis, tour participants experience and appreciation of Thai Street Food will run much deeper!

These are not glib word, atleast from our experience. These are get down and get eating tours. You truly have to come hungry as you will be tasting from beginning to the tour’s end!

In the 3.5 hours “Eat Like a Local” tour we actually stopped at 6 different eateries and sat down to eat our way through each establishments speciality dishes – from bowls of Tom Yum noodles, light and refreshing Som Tam salads, spicy southern Thai cuisine, and Isaan delights amongst others. We also stopped at 2 street stall to sample their particular offerings. It was a full-on taste sensation and a delight to experience.

Here’s an overview of our Thai Food Tour to help tempt you!

Stop 1 – the “Under the House” eatery or Guay Tiaw Tia Thun  in Thai. Run by 3 generations of one family and specialising in Tom Yum noodles. Morning tea Thai style! 🙂

Stop 2Baan Rak Gui Chai, a business run by 2 sisters who have taken Steamed Chinese Chive Dumplings (Kanom Gui Chai) and transformed them. All prepared  and sold out of their family home but they are in the process of adding a bright new ‘shop’ out the front of their property to open soon.

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8 Bangkok discoveries

Bangkok discoveries

Needing to visit Bangkok recently to fix some administrative ‘stuff’ we thought why not spend a few extra days there and explore! Previous visits had us do several of the usual ‘must do’ tourist sites. This time we wanted to experience the more, in our mind at least, quirky and unusual places as well as a few more of the ‘must do’ sights we had not gotten to before. So here are our 8 Bangkok discoveries. Not all could be described as quirky yet all delivered in unexpected ways.

 Jim Thompson enterprises

We had read that ‘Jim Thompson House’ in central Bangkok was worth the visit. We had researched a little to learn about the man Jim Thompson, his intriguing disappearance, and what made his house worth visiting. And having been there now, we can say, for us at least, it was worth the effort.

The 40 minute tour of his teak Thai style house and gardens sitting on the Saen Saeb Klong certainly offer some simple insights to his life. As well as physically walking through the environment you learn of his dedication to Asian history, culture and ancient artifacts, as well as his beloved Thai silk industry. Jim Thompson is credited with the revival of the Thai silk industry and recognised so by Thai Royal and Government authorities.

Jim Thompson retail stores (in Bangkok & other tourist locations in Thailand) are where you can see their silk products first hand. Alternately, we recommend making the effort to visit the Jim Thompson Factory Outlet at Prakanong (Bangkok). Here you will have 3 floors neatly laden with fabrics and 2 floors of clothing, accessories and homewares. The range of materials and related products is impressive and at prices more appealing than in the retail outlets! A great Bangkok Discovery!

Khlong Saen Saeb

Bangkok is infamous for its road traffic congestion and the madness it creates. But go back to the 19th century and Bangkok was known as the “Venice of the East”. Today, many of the khlongs (canals) are filled in and paved over to make room for roads, but a massive network of waterways still criss-cross Bangkok. Each day, thousands of commuters travel by motorized boats on the Chao Praya River and on the canals that feed into it.

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