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The long walk of the white elephant

The white elephant had been released into the jungle. Yes, a white elephant – with a relic of the Buddha attached to its back. We’re in the 1370s of this era, times when Islam reached Malaysia, the Ming dynasty just started in China and Scotland won back its independence after two long wars against England. King Nu Naome of the Lanna Kingdom, of what is part of Thailand today, was looking for a sign, some kind of revelation.

The elephant marched on for weeks, in the jungle, before it slowly climbed up a mountain west of Chiang Mai. I gather the long and winding road that was first built half a millenium later probably wasn’t too far off from the elephant’s own path. I wasn’t on an elephant when I went up that same mountain, but on a scooter, so elephant jokes (http://goo.gl/hH0mvZ) naturally come to (my twisted) mind, such as “how do you put five elephants on a motorcycle?”.

Back to my white elephant. When it reached the peak of the granite mountain, perched at 1,676 metres, it trumpeted three times, laid down slowly, closed its eyes – and expired its last breath. “Eureka!”, exclaimed the King, “this is where I shall build a temple”. And that’s how the Doi Suthep temple was born, bearing the name of the mountain it was constructed upon, becoming one of northern Thailand’s most sacred temples.

In July every year, ten thousand students retrace the elephant’s footsteps and its long walk on foot so they can embrace the spirit of the city, believed to reside in the mountain, pay their respects to the Buddhist relic, and on the way introduce themselves to each other.

On that new year’s eve when I was there, the sound of music could be heard from the entrance of the temple grounds – an entrance that is reached after climbing the 300 steps of a naga-balustrade staircase. Costumed children were dancing (check out a previous post http://goo.gl/3eYkH), temporary monks (see http://goo.gl/Gvdnm on that “temporary” notion) were playing with big bells, and pilgrims continued their way towards the main cloisters, attracted to the gold-plated chedi (or stupa) in which the Buddhist relic is enshrined. Can you notice the five-tiered cylinders at the top of the chedi? They were erected to honour Chiang Mai’s independence from Burma and its union with Thailand. And what about those delightful tinkling bells with heart-shaped metal inscriptions? Fair enough, those little statues of laughing monks are terribly kitsch...

I tried to find a spot where I could stand and discreetly photograph the pilgrims, disciplined in how they entered and exited the loop of other pilgrims walking around the chedi, flower in one hand and sometimes the lyrics of their prayers in another. Seeing them going around wasn’t without reminding me of the circumambulation of Muslims around the Kaaba in Mecca (which is unfortunately not open to non-worshippers). It’s interesting to note that the act of moving around a sacred object is somewhat common to most religions.

I however didn’t get to verify the relic’s magical powers, being apparently able to glow, vanish, move itself or even replicate itself – in fact, the relic at Doi Suthep is supposed to be the smaller duplicate of the original. What? Of course this is true! Okay, I’ll admit another king back in the days wasn’t convinced either and let the monk, who claimed the relic came from the Buddha’s shoulder bone, bring it to the aforementioned king. And the elephant being white? Come on, there’s even a statue to prove it! Tsk tsk.

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Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand
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Plato's cave?

We set foot on a flimsy bamboo raft where equally-distant wooden stools were waiting for their passengers. An oil lamp would be our only source of light in the almost two-kilometre long cave filled with stalactites and stalagmites.

The Tham Lod cave is only one of almost two hundred found in this mountainous area of northern Thailand. It's on the way from Chiang Mai to the villages of long-necked women (see a previous post: http://goo.gl/hWhvU) and while it's off the main road, the cave was bustling with Thai tourists.

Our guide gently paddled along the subterranean river. All was quiet apart from the indistinguishable chatter of fellow tourists strangely resonating on the walls of the cave and the sound of the water sliding under the raft. Some cave chambers could only be reached by ladders delicately blanketed with dung which reminded me of the presence of thousands of bats above my head... and also forced me to keep my mouth shut (not an easy feat, I know). I therefore had to contain my awe at the animal-like shapes of the stalactite structures, but also at the few teakwood coffins bizarrely present: it's not exactly known which tribes carved them and why they were placed in caves.

After two hours in that dark and cold environment, it felt good to be freed like the prisoner in Plato's allegory of the cave, back in the warm and luminous atmosphere of the surrounding forest, perceiving again the true form of reality and not its mere shadows. I just had to add a litre of fuel in my scooter from a makeshift pump station which consisted of two big cylinders of yellow and red liquid – and off I went to carry on with my journey.
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Tham Lod Cave, Pang Mapha, Thailand
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Don’t feed the monkeys

Leaving food unattended can have unforeseen consequences – consequences that can last for more than 500 years, including having your city overtaken by hordes of monkeys. This is what happened to the town of Lopburi, in central Thailand. Its inhabitants, worshipping at local temples, gave offerings of flowers, incense... and food, which attracted monkeys from the nearby forests. 500 years later, thousands of monkeys are all over town. Can you spot the one climbing on the temple, its colour matching perfectly the colour of the stones?

It turns out that Hanuman, a popular Hindu deity that’s also present in Thai culture through Hinduism’s influence, is the god-king of monkeys... so providing food for the monkeys brings about good fortune (you don’t even want to know what would happen if you tried to cause harm to them). Not sure this additional feeding helps in solving anything though!

Monkeys have become aggressive to the point that signs have been placed to warn of possible attacks (such as in Petchaburi, see a picture of it here: http://goo.gl/RYBrC), which is also a reason why I stayed within safe distance from the ones I saw on the beautiful islands of Ko Tarutao, desperate to grab watermelon scraps... and obviously much more successful at it than the poor little but oh-so-cute hermit crabs (see http://goo.gl/7Wwyn).
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Monkeys in Thailand
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The Thai Spiderman

He was not bouncing off buildings but merely – if not usefully – watering plants and flowers during that quiet yet already warm morning in Chiang Mai, Thailand's major city in the North West.

In that alley behind the temple of Phan Tao, he glanced at me for a brief moment – and precisely at that moment, his blue helmet was captured by my camera, as I was patiently waiting, with my finger on the shutter release button.

Even a Thai Spiderman is powerless against a ready-to-shoot photographer (and a ready-to-run-away one too – for who knows what tricks he had up his sleeve; or rather, under his outfit).
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Warriors and lovers

“Love and war are the same thing, and stratagems and policy are as allowable in the one as in the other.”
– Miguel de Cervantes, in Don Quixote, Part II, Book III, Chapter 21 (full text in English: http://goo.gl/FIYvj)

Yakshas. They stand, tall – very tall, they are more than eight metres high –, massive, terrifying with their protruding fangs – those long upward external teeth –, imposing with their clubs as they guard the gates of the temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok. But, after closer inspection, those ogres, also called yaks in Thai, tend to resemble multi-coloured clowns, as if coming straight out of an anachronistic theme park. Sure enough, I’d tremble if they started to move so I won’t mock them too much.

The temple of the Emerald Buddha, also known as Wat Phra Kaew, also hosts more friendly gilded creatures, half-human half-bird, symbols of love and feminine beauty. Kinnari, for they are thus called, can therefore fly between human and mystical worlds.

As mentioned previously (http://goo.gl/Cu4Dw), Hindu influence is vividly felt as yakshas and kinnari are also present in Hindu mythology. Surprisingly enough, for one would perhaps naturally associate war with males and beauty with females, both creatures have their opposite-gender counterparts: female Yakshini, which are beautiful and voluptuous fairies, and Kinnon, also half-bird half-human although not always gilded – but I wasn’t fortunate enough to see the wide-hipped, narrow-waisted and excessively-breasted Yakshini during my Thai peregrinations. Alas.
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Warriors and lovers in Thailand
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Dancing to make dreams come true

The Thai female dancers were moving symmetrically, meticulously placing their feet and precisely drawing gestures with their hands – what a contrast to the buoyant and twirling atmosphere I had encountered in Peru (http://goo.gl/JKRLz) but very much similar to the dances of neighbouring Cambodia (http://goo.gl/Kf10C). Colours were sparkling on their garments and make-up was embellishing their young and already pretty faces. Yet they were repeating the same dance, on a tune played over and over by the musicians, for they had been paid by worshippers who hoped their prayers would thus be answered. The more one paid, the more dancers would partake in this transactional ritual... assumingly aggrandising the chances of prayers realising themselves. The small Erawan shrine, in the centre of Bangkok, has in fact become so popular that it’s always full, dancers relieving themselves so the service could go uninterrupted as worshippers keep paying for it.

Sitting in a forest of skyscrapers, the Hindu shrine was built half a century ago to get rid of the supposed bad karma caused by having built the Erawan hotel on the “wrong” date. Oh, the joys of superstition... Hinduism, in a country where 95% of the population is Buddhist? Hindu beliefs came from Cambodia, in particular under Khmer rule, and still continue to exert their influence on Buddhist practices.

My desire to see more dances would be satisfied that night by unexpectedly bumping into a military ceremony taking place in front of the National Theatre and which started off by traditional rhythms on which couples gracefully moved. Posting myself against a tree, stepping delicately on a horde of electrical wires feeding into the sound system, armed with my telephoto lens, I could almost “peacefully” enjoy the show – until it was the turn of a couple of military musicians whose instrumental performance with weird flutes rapidly became unbearable to listen to.

Even if it makes for great pictures, I am always uneasy when I cannot tell for sure if paid-for dancers are truly enjoying themselves. This is in particular true when children are involved: take for instance those little girls, perhaps 8 years old or thereabout, groomed like adults, who delighted tourists with their harmonious dance, right at the entrance of Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, a famous Buddhist temple sitting on top of a hill overlooking Chiang Mai, Thailand’s major northwestern city. During their break, a 3-year old, probably the younger sister from one of the dancers, equally groomed and costumed, shyly danced alone, rotating her blue umbrella – it was such a funny sight as she was a bit clumsy in her moves and regularly interrupted herself to stare at the broad-smiling audience.

Clumsiness was probably not what led a mentally-ill man to destroy – with a large hammer – the statue of the Erawan shrine exactly seven years ago... but whatever the cause, the unfortunate man was immediately killed by bystanders (you don’t mess with a statue of the god of creation, right?!) while the leader of the right-wing party claimed all this was a plot by the prime minister to maintain power through black magic...
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Dancers of Thailand
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The Darth Vader tuk-tuks of Thailand

Remember my pictures of Peruvian tricycles (read http://goo.gl/L8Luk)? Well, I couldn't resist taking shots of their Thai version. Peru has its formula-1 type, India its distinctive green and yellow tuk-tuks (in some cities at least), Thailand has the fairly classic-design tricycles – except in a couple of towns, in Ayutthaya in particular: in that city, they come in a variety of colours but most specifically, the front of the tuk-tuks are dome-shaped, looking like the mask of a samurai or the mask of Darth Vader.

The (dark) Japanese empire may actually be the reason behind for those curved fronts, since the tuk-tuks may have originally been made in Japan and have been around for more than half a century in Thailand... which coincides with Japan's brutal invasion of the country during World War II. Speaking of surprising remaining signs of Japanese presence, the Death Railway (and its famous bridge over the Kwai river) is only a couple of hours away (read my post on the topic http://goo.gl/7Jm8l). I guess one should not "underestimate the power of the dark side"...
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Tuk-tuks, Thailand
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“When you look deep into my light blue eyes,
You will see your reflection and the skies.
Wink once, you will realise that time flies:
Why do you wait to live and be more wise?”
– Hakyma Omyra

The monk’s beady eyes were looking straight at me – I was captivated by them in the soft-lit atmosphere of the 700-year old temple. The numerous, parallel wrinkles on his forehead were the witness of his infinite and ancient wisdom. He was watching me in silence. I dared not speak. I couldn’t tell his age, but his golden skin had been gradually eaten away. Golden? It was gilded actually – that’s when I realised the monk was not alive but a mere life-size statue. The gold leaves had been scraped off his skin, although not completely, so Buddhists could buy new, small squares of gilded paper to be applied on the statue.

I had thought the visit of Wat Phanan Choeng, a temple in the Thai city of Ayutthaya, would take me an hour at most, thus allowing me to cycle to some other temples before the sunset. Even if I try to force myself to enjoy life more slowly, I can’t stop optimising, my itinerary in particular. But there was too much to admire in this temple, from the abundance of colours to the tangle of beams and the vibrant life of the temple: people receiving blessings from monks, monks (perhaps not temporary ones? read http://goo.gl/Gvdnm) themselves receiving blessings for the saffron orange robes they presented on a platter, the minute details of the ritual objects that I loved to capture in front of a blurred background, the little statues covered with too many pearl necklaces, or even those two simple frangipani flowers – one of which had its edges already brown – resting next to a funerary stele.

You’ll notice the swastika symbol on the chest of one of the statues. In case you didn't know, this equilateral cross with four arms is widely used in Buddhism (in Hinduism and Jainism too), symbolising eternity and good fortune. I learned that swastikas have also been used in various other ancient civilisations, even dating back to more than ten thousand years ago. I guess we’ll have to wait the same amount of time before people inexorably forget about the slightly rotated version of the symbol...
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Wat Phanan Choeng, Ayutthaya, Thailand
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"When I am hurt, heal my wounds, hide their seams,
Paint my life with the colours of your dreams”
– Hakyma Omyra

A cosy warmth settles down when the heat of the afternoon has gone. A light breeze, or even the air simply becoming more breathable again, makes me feel alive. I particularly enjoy those long Summer evenings in Western Europe when the day seems to ever prolong itself, a stark contrast to most other places I visited, including Thailand where the sun sets between 6 and 7pm. The urge to savour the last few rays of sunlight becomes even more pressing there – the photo album displays some of those sunsets observed across Thailand.

It's as if I had to catch those last few rays coming from the sun (my rational mind knows that they don't actually disappear, it's just that the surface on which I am on has rotated), as if I had to force myself to realise that this day, attached to this date, would soon be gone, for ever. And it's therefore as if I had to capture the uniqueness of the day, and the scarcity of the time we spend alive, through the beauty of a sunset and the tingle of the approaching night – capturing them into the box of my camera, stealing them from the darkness. Is that why there are so many pictures taken of sunsets? I don't know.

Whenever the sunset approaches, I would frantically switch the settings of my camera to manual mode, playing with different ISO speeds and apertures, usually measuring the light by focusing on the border between the sky and the shadows. How tough it is to be satisfied with the outcome though. Well, I certainly never managed to capture that almost-magical green flash that occurs shortly after sunset (http://goo.gl/7y4h) but the spectrum of colours, from flamboyant reds to soothing blues, still remains a sight I can’t help but admire every time.

PS: check http://goo.gl/JNtMr for a previous post with 3 sunset pictures taken in Peru.
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Sunsets in Thailand
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Thailand’s floating markets

The old, almost toothless face was only one witnessing sign of a tradition of floating markets that had not completely disappeared, displaying some genuine remnants of a lively past. The old lady – or was it a man, I could not tell, for the sun had wrinkled her face so much – was smiling all ears, to no one in particular, seemingly happy to slowly paddle her wooden canoe on the calm canal, simultaneously cooking what looked like Thai dumplings (see the pictures towards the middle of the album – it's not the cover picture I'm talking about :-). Other canoes would be laden with an array of fruits and vegetables, sometimes sold by extending a long pole from the boat to the shore – notice how women protect themselves from the sun with wide-brimmed straw hats niftily attached to their heads.

Most products are today sold from stalls on the roads adjacent to the canals. But the appeal of those floating markets can still be vividly felt as throngs of Thai people – and tourists – rush there on the weekend, tasting (weird-looking but delectable) fruits, eating (sometimes over-priced) homemade biscuits, or savouring originally-made ice-creams (those metal cylinders in the picture).
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Floating markets, Thailand
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