Vientiane’s smaller, older version of the Nong Khai Sala Keoku.
Vientiane’s smaller, older version of the Nong Khai Sala Keoku.
Nong Khai’s biggest attraction, well other than Laos, is the Sala Keoku, also known as the Wat Khaek (or “Indian temple.”) Its actually a park covered in huge concrete statues of yakshas and demons submitting to Buddha, towering Hindhu deities and representations of the fantastical creatures of Himmapan mythology.
The park was built by a charismatic and eccentric local mystic, Bunleua Sulilat, who was said to have fallen into a sacred cave as a child and returned with his own brand of Buddhist, Hindu and folk belief. The movement he founded quickly amassed followers on both sides of the Mekong and he set out to build his first “Buddha Park” in Vientiane (which is still the biggest sightseeing ticket there) before fleeing the Lao Communists across the river in 1975, to found this larger and more complex version of the same concept.
He died, it is said, after falling off one of the statues under construction.
Even having read about the park in advance, I wasn’t expecting its scale. I gasped as the first goddess appeared, towering over a suburban streets as we approached by tuktuk.
It was a grey, rainy morning and the park was empty and softly dripping, casting the strange and sombre sculpture in a contemplative mood. In one section, thick orange centipedes slithered in the mouth-like door of a circular compound, representing the circle of life – from a newborn baby, to courtship, marriage and death (all presented, as an aside, from a heterosexual point of view, I couldn’t help thinking.)
Mossy faces grimaced, and all manner of creatures prostrated themselves before Buddhas- monkeys, dogs, giants.
But there was also that wonderful sense of Thai whimsy, for example in the army of sculpted dogs following (or attacking?) an elephant, all in different poses, one riding a motorscooter.
A wonderful, weird place.
Ratchaburi’s most compelling attraction, although still surprisingly little known outside the city, is its astonishing batcave. In one of the karst outcrops that erupt suddenly from the fields a short drive outside the city, six million bats nest in a cave system, emerging each night in a continuous stream for some forty minutes, wave after wave forming intricate rippling patterns as they emerge into the sky.
It is truly awe-inducing.
The bats can be viewed at Wat Khao Chong Pran, a “bat temple’ decorated with effigies of the creatures, where locals comes to lie on the grass, some wearing Batman T-shirts, to enjoy the free show.
Sadly one of Ratchaburi’s quirkiest attractions is no more…
An hour out of Ratchaburi, past the prosperous university town of Chom Bueng, with its marauding roadside troops of monkeys, lie the rolling green meadows of Suen Pheung. Once considered a slightly dodgy border area, ( across in neighbouring Myanmar ethnic Karen rebels had been fighting a longstanding war with centralist forces), the region has recently recast itself as a bucolic weekend retreat. Its still little-promoted to foreigners, but Bangkokians flock to the area for its cooler weather, greenery and profusion of countryside resort hotels and attractions like bee farms, sheep farms, a meditation centre and what might just be Thailand’s only natural hot spring.
In other words, its “touristy” – much more so than Ratchaburi itself – but not nasty. The brightly painted chalets and coffee shops are kind of charming.
The area’s biggest attraction until recently was thje Suen Pheung resort hotel, where visitors could stay in hollow statues of giant Flinstones characters. On my visit, I was told that this had now been demolished, having been built without planning permission. The Easter island themed moai cafe is still doing great business though.
Of Bangkok’s many surprises, its various palaces, scattered through the city (there is one right behind Siam Paragon, few realise) come near the top of the list. Who knew for example that there is one in Thonglor – and that is is open to the public? While walking from Thonglor to Ekkamai I passed an intriguing sign for the “Palace gardens” and investigated: it turns out that tucked away between Soi 59 and 61 is the Dinsor Palace, really an art deco mansion built in the 1930s for a princess, and now home to a cafe and restaurant in a garden with white swans and peacocks. Who knew?
A short hop away, next to the Pridi Banomyong Institute on Thonglor proper, is another surprising piece of green space – an organic farm set up on a prime piece of real estate in the city’s priciest suburb. Its mission is to educate the public about agriculture. The “Roots garden” contains a cornfield, chickens and goats, but also (of course) a vogueish rustic cafe in an open-sided shed, selling kombucha. It is still Thonglor after all ;)
If Hong Kongers joke about Kowloon being the “dark side” then Thonburi, on the “wrong side” of the Chao Phraya is Bangkok’s own version. Since the Skytrain finally crossed the river a few years ago though, the area has been developing fast with a forest of new condo developments and a game-changing luxury megamall, to be called Siam Icon, on the way. But vast swathes of the district are still made up of canals lined by wooden villages, lower middle income housing, old fashioned shopping districts and Thai-style apartments and townhouses, places where few tourists ever go.
And that is a shame, because this being Bangkok, the area has some worthwhile surprises tucked away for the adventurous.
One of these, down a meandering soi in a suburban neighbourhood, is Shanghai Free Trade zone, a bizarre mini-department store that found fame of a sort last year on Thailand’s Pantip web forum. A bemused user posted pictures of what she dubbed “the zombie store” complete with its bizarre assortment of scattered books, powertools, knives, kitchenware and fake moisturisers, spread over six gloomy, cobwebbed floors in an obscure deadend soi.
Elsewhere, near the Centralworld department store on Rama II, is a shrine to a local deity known as the “Cobra Mother”. She first appeared to local construction workers in a dream after the killing of a snake, said to be her child. To appease the angry goddess a shrine was built, and here devotees come to offer eggs outside the window, which looks on to a scrubby patch of swampland. Local cobras feast on the eggs, at night time drawn by a dangling lightbulb which is illuminated to draw their attention. I had not expected to see any snakes there during the day, but sure enough, as I stood by the window there was a sinister rustling in the undergrowth and a two-metre long cobra emerged, before sliding away under the temple itself.
And the best bit? The baited cobra-swamp is just metres from the local bus stop!
I am much indebted to fellow blogger ChrisianPFC who provides detailed directions to both places here.