Tropical Gothic

3 08 2015

Chulalongkorn, usually called “Chula” for short, is Thailand’s most prestigious university and its green, manicured grounds stand just back from Siam Square and MBK, stretching to Silom. In fact, Chula is the landlord of the shops in Siam Square, which is partly why the area was targetted by anti-establishment rioters in 2010 – it doesn’t get much more “establishment” than Chula.

Politics aside though the campus is a nice place to wander, and a decided change of pace from the commercial frenzy around Siam Square. In addition to sometimes screening interesting free movies, the university also has some other hidden attractions.

Tucked away in a the quiet Biology 1 building, behind trees alive with bushy tailed squirrels, sits the dark and dusty Natural History Museum, virtually unvisited.

The museum contains quite an interesting collection of dead animals – pythons and turtles in tanks of formaldehyde, skeletons of crocodiles, humans and horses, deer and antelope skulls with strange antlers, shells and stuffed parrots and armadillos, as well as a (dead) specimen of the giant Chao Phraya stingray.

When I went there was not even a staff member to be seen, I had the whole slightly creepy collection to myself.

The “neon temple”

3 08 2015

Wat Sirindhorn Wararam Phu Phrao in Ubon (not “Udon!”) Ratchathani.

The Buddha Park

31 07 2015

Vientiane’s smaller, older version of the Nong Khai Sala Keoku.

The concrete garden

26 07 2015

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.

The bats

20 07 2015

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.

CLOSED: The Human Bakery

20 07 2015

Sadly one of Ratchaburi’s quirkiest attractions is no more…

Suen Pheung

20 07 2015

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.


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