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Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang was formerly the capital of Laos and is situated at the meeting point of the Mekong and Mae Kok rivers in northern Laos. Most travellers in Laos make it to this large and inviting city at some point during their journey and this is a great place to spend a few days.

Luang Prabang Province is considered by many to be Laos’ cultural and heritage centre and here you will find a large collection of Buddhist monasteries, temples and monuments. The town itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site and offers some stunning examples of French architecture and traditional temple art.

Surrounded by dense jungle and sparkling rivers, Luang Prabang Province is extremely beautiful. The earth is a rich brown colour and to the north rocky mountains make an impressive backdrop. Trekking is popular here and there are a good range of activities available such as rock climbing and boat trips.

Among the largest and most impressive of Luang Prabang’s temples are Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Visoun and Wat Ou Tay, while the 24-metre high stupa of That Chomsi is an impressive sight. For spectacular views over the city climb to the top of Phu Si, which is also one of the best places to watch the sun set over the city.

There are plenty to see and do around the province. 30 miles north of Luang Prabang city is the cave of Tham Ting, which is filled with large Buddha images and is a prominent place of worship for the local people. The cave is situated right on the river and combined with the two hour boat trip to get there this is a great way to spend a day.

Another good day trip destination pretty the Tad Sae waterfall and Kuang Si waterfall, while the National Museum is a good place to learn more about the local culture and history. Topped by an impressive golden-spired stupa, Luang Prabang’s former royal palace has been transformed into the Palace Museum, and here you will find an impressive collection of regal artefacts and royal portraits

There are a large number of cheap guesthouses available in Luang Prabang and plenty of restaurants serving international food. A great time to visit is during one of the country’s festivals, when the streets are filled with colourful and noisy processions.   

Getting around Luang Prabang is easy and this is a great place to take it easy before venturing into the more remote areas of Laos.

Bago, Burma

Bago, Burma
Bago, Burma
Bago, Burma

Situated some 50 miles to the north of Yangon, the pretty town of Bago is one of Myanmar’s leading attractions and a great place to spend a little time. Also known as Pegu, the town is home to a large collection of sacred Buddha images, making it one of the country’s holiest sites.

Many people simply pass by Bago on their way to Mandalay, but those who take the time to stop and look around will come across many unique features. Here you will find literally thousands of Buddha images in carved niches in a rocky cavern and an interesting array of pagodas, temples and other buildings.

The site of Bago was founded in 573 AD by two Mon princes and paid an important role in the history of both Mon land and Myanmar before being destroyed by the Burmese King Alaungpaya in 1757. Although only a few buildings remain as testimony to this interesting period of history, those that do are worth taking the time to investigate.

Bago has a number of large pagodas, of which the Shwemawdaw or Golden Shrine is the most sacred as it is believed to contain a couple of hairs belonging to the Gautama Buddha. As you explore the town you will discover the Shwethalyaung reclining Buddha statue and the impressive Kalyani Sima or Hall of Ordination.

There are a number of interesting places to explore on the outskirts of Bago. Just 40 miles to the east is one of Myanmar’s most prominent landmarks. Also know as Golden Rock, the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda is a 5.5 meter high pagoda atop a large bolder covered with gold leaf. What makes this site so unusual is that the bolder is balanced on the very edge of a precipice and looks as though it will topple over the edge at any moment.

Bago is situated between the forested Pegu Mountains to the west and the Sittang River to the east. Surrounded by picturesque paddy fields, this is a good area to explore to get a real feel for Myanmar. There are number of places to get a bite to eat around Bagan and a couple of cosy places to stay.

Bagan, Burma

Bagan, Laos
Bagan, Laos
Bagan, Laos
Bagan, Laos

Also sometimes spelt Pagan, the Bagan plain contains a collection of more than 4,000 ancient temples and is an impressive sight, even if you’re not particularly interested in old buildings or have already feeling ‘templed out’. One of Myanmar’s most significant historical sites, the best time to visit Bagan is around sunrise or sunset.

Although the collection of pagodas and temples at Bagan is still very impressive, their number once totaled around 13,000, and they were built in the years between 1044-1287 before finally being abandoned when Kublai Khan invaded the area from China and people literally ran to the hills.

Although the detailed carvings on each pagoda and temple make them all special in their own way, the most highly revered temple is considered to be Ananda, which was built by King Kyan-zit-tha in 1091. The main feature of the temple is the four large Buddhas, which represent the first four holy men to have achieved enlightenment.

Another great temple to visit is the Thatbyinnyu Temple, which is Bagan’s highest point and provides spectacular views of the entire area, while the Shwegugyi Temple was built in 1311 and is decorated with especially attractive carvings. Also worth looking out for is the Gawdawpalin Temple, which despite some damage during the 1975 earthquake is still very impressive.

There are quite a few decent places to stay in Bagan as well as restaurants, markets and surrounding beauty, making this a great place to spend a day or two while you explore slowly. While you’re here, check out Bagan’s interesting museum and lacquerware workshops.

For a fresh perspective and excellent views, take a hot air balloon ride over the Bagan Plain at sunset. This is a truly memorable experience and provides the opportunity to take some fantastic photographs.

Bagan is situated on the banks of the Ayerwaddy River, and sunset cruise on the river is a relaxing experience, while you can also be driven around the area in a horse cart or hire a bicycle and peddle around.

Ayutthaya, Thailand

Ayutthaya, Thailand
Ayutthaya, Thailand
Ayutthaya, Thailand
Ayutthaya, Thailand

Just one hour from Bangkok, the ancient city of Ayutthaya is a key destination for anyone interested in history, culture and architecture. This former capital of Thailand is steeped in history and is a great place to spend a couple of days.

Formerly known as Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, the city was founded by King U-Thong in 1350 and kept its status as the nation’s capital until it was sacked by the Burmese in 1767. Ayutthaya was once one of the richest cities in Asia by the 1600s, as its vast array of temples still testifies.

Most visitors come to explore The Ayutthaya historical park, which contains most of the magnificent ruins of the ancient city and was declared a UNESCO World heritage site in 1981. Over 400 hundred temples were originally built in Ayutthaya, and the fact that they were built by various rules means that they comprise an interesting range of designs and styles.

Many of the temples from Ayutthaya’s glory period still exist today, although in various states of preservation. Wat Mahathat is by far Ayutthaya’s most photographed temple, made famous by the head of a large Buddha statue which has become entangled in the roots of a giant banyan tree.

Other temples of note include Wat Lokayasutharam (also known as the temple of the Reclining Buddha), Wat Chaiwatthanaram, Wat Mongkhon Bophit and Wat Naphrameru.

Ayutthaya’s temples cover an area of several kilometres, and many people choose to explore the area by hiring a bicycle or a tuk-tuk for the day. You can learn more about Ayutthaya’s rich and interesting history at the Chantharakasem National Museum.

But there is much more to Ayutthaya than simply temples. The Ayutthaya Elephant Camp provides visitors with the perfect opportunity to find out more about these mighty beasts and rides can be arranged around the scenic area.

The nearby town of Bang Pa In, with its glorious Summer Palace provides an excellent site for a day trip. Another great day trip is the Bang Sai Royal Arts and Crafts Center, which aims is to train people with poor backgrounds and to try provide them with the skills to earn a descent income. The arts and crafts here are of a very high quality and make excellent souvenirs.

Taking it Easy in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos

Tourists arriving off a 2-day slowboat bustle around the town, eager to stretch their stiff legs. Trekking enthusiasts use the town as a base point for their ventures north into the dense jungles and tribal villages. Buddhists and curious scholars flock to Phou Si, a sacred hilltop site where Buddha’s footprint is still pressed into the side of the mountain. Luang Prabang may be a mere stopover point on your trip through Laos, but this town merits a few days for exploring. Veteran travellers praise it as a place they’d visit again and again, UNESCO named it a heritage site, and KhaoSanRoad.com applauds it as one of Southeast Asia’s most charming sites.

The remnants of French colonization are still visible on Luang Prabang’s main streets, where colonial architecture coexists with the gilded or teak points of traditional Laotian buildings. Old churches stand beside older wats, and the result is a picturesque mix of architectural styles. While the city is in rapid development thanks to tourist exposure and foreign business, it still maintains a picturesque, European feeling. On a clear day, the city’s winding streets and pretty rivers make it a photographer’s dream.
 
For accommodation, Luang Prabang has a competitive guesthouse market, and touts will greet you no matter where your arrival point may be. The Merry Guesthouses (1 and 2), on the northern end of the downtown, are fantastically clean, spacious and quiet, with kind and helpful staff. Those looking for a view of the Mekong should try Vong Champa Guesthouse, which is clean, cosy, and impressively cheap.
 
By day, the Phou Si mountain offers beautiful views of the surrounding landscape, as well as ornate Buddha statues, a Buddha footprint, and a solemn cave shrine. Near the main street, the former royal palace of Haw Kham is the stuff of postcards; opulent shrines, murals and furnishings, showing many different traditional styles of Laotian art and decoration.
 
For a bit of downtime, L’Etranger is a two-storey gem with a used bookshop/book exchange on the bottom floor and a comfortable teahouse on the top, which plays smart artsy films on weeknights at 7pm. Located on the north side of Phou Si mountain, the great selection of books, teas and snacks make it well worth a visit.
 
Those looking to get out of the city should book a taxi or rent bikes to get to Kuang Si Falls, 30km outside the city. These perfectly blue, multi-layered falls are set amidst lush jungle, and tourists may find themselves lounging all day in these pools. At the entrance, by the odd yet heartwarming bear zoo, stalls of food and drinks ensure that visitors will not go hungry.
 
Come nightfall, restaurants illuminate their patios, inviting travellers to eat and drink while people watching on Xiang Thong, the main street which hosts a vibrant night market. Here, tourists stock up on anything from handmade quilts to ubiquitous Beerlao T-shirts. Foodwise, baguette is a local specialty, and many restaurants go the mile in western offerings by boasting full French menus, with wine and cheeses among its fare. While the food is indulgently delicious, cheaper and fresher fare is available at the many night markets in alleys branching off Xiang Thong. Here, a vegetarian buffet of fresh produce from the Laotian countryside will cost a mere 5000 kip. These markets host a more local nightlife, where Laotian families gather to eat at tiny plastic tables.
 
Though the city is relatively quiet at night, there are still a handful of good bars. Young and thirsty tourists flock to the funky Hive Bar, beside L’Etranger, or the breezier Laos Beer Garden. When the bars close at midnight, tuk-tuk drivers are ever-available to take tourists to Vietnam Bar, an after-hours speakeasy of sorts with good music, plenty of seating, and the liveliest crowd in town.
 
Though Luang Prabang serves as a stopover point for many, its languid pace and compact downtown make it an easy spot to relax. In the midst of the eco-tourism that makes Laos so famous, this city is a great place to spend a few days sipping good coffee, exploring old buildings, and feeling immediately at home in Laos’ most welcoming town.

Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.

Puttamonthon Park – Lizard Safari


Puttamonthon Park
Puttamonthon Park - Lizard Safari
Puttamonthon Park - Lizard Safari
Puttamonthon Park - Lizard Safari
Puttamonthon Park - Lizard Safari
Puttamonthon Park - Lizard Safari

We creep slowly through the forest, taking care to tred lightly and not to make even the slightest sound. All is still; the only sounds the faint rustling of the leaves in the trees.

Suddenly, my friend stops and motions for me to stand still. “There!” he hisses, pointing to the river bank. “Can you see it?”

All I can make out is an empty patch of grassy bank splashed with shadows. Suddenly, one of the ‘shadows’ moves slightly and I can make out the long, scaly tail of a large monitor lizard. I want to rush forwards for a better look, but my friend holds me back and we watch in silence as the mighty beast suns itself on the bank.

We remain that way for several minutes, the three of us, one oblivious to the rapt attention of the other two. Then suddenly the monitor lizard sees a fish splashing in the river and slides off the bank to retrieve it. There is a short struggle, then both fish and lizard disappear from sight.

Stopping frequently to spy on the huge reptiles, my friend and I walk quietly and carefully through a large bamboo forest. It is hard to believe that we are just a short bus ride from Bangkok.

The intensely beautiful park of Buddhamonthon is located in Tambon Salaya, part of Nakhon Pathom Province. The park covers an area of about 1,000 acres and is an important religious site.

The park was built by the government in 1957 or B.E 2500 by the Thai calendar to commemorate the 2500th year of the existence of Buddhism. One of the main focal points is a bronze-gold standing Buddha image, which measures a colossal 15.8 metres. The Buddha image was named “Phra Sri Sakkaya Thosapol Yan Phratan Buddhamonthon Suta” by the current King, His Majesty King Bhumibhol Adulyadej.

Around the magnificent statue are four commemorative sites concerning Lord Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, the first preaching sermon and his death. There is also a Buddhist museum nearby, meditation halls, a university and a large library.

The park is highly revered and popular during religious festivals such as Visaka Bucha Day, Makabuscha Day, Ananhabucha Day and the Loy Krathong festival, when tiny candle filled vessels are set onto the river.

In addition to being a sacred site, Buddhamonthon is also a place of extreme natural beauty. Filled with pretty ornamental gardens, bamboo forests and sparkling streams and rivers spanned by stepping stones and cable bridges, this is a great place to go for a walk or meditate in the shade of one of the mighty trees.

Because this is a sacred area, the wildlife is protected and the rivers and streams are teeming with fish. A peaceful pastime is to buy a bag of food from one of the vendors who wander around the park. As soon as the food touches the water the stream comes alive, the fish writhing so closely together that it seems as though the stream were made of fish rather than water.

You can buy almost anything to feed the fish with; from pungent fish pellets to brightly coloured corn snacks. My favourite fish treat is a huge bag of popcorn, which not only smells better than some of the alternatives but also seems to be very popular with the fish.

Among the other wildlife in the park are turtles, which splash happily in the streams and small canals and you will also see a range of brightly coloured bird in amongst the trees.

It can be quite hot and humid in the park, especially in the bamboo forest. Luckily, there are public showers next to the toilets and this is a great opportunity to cool off before getting the bus back to Bangkok.

Information:

Kirsty Turner (Kay) is a freelance writer currently living in Bangkok. She has kindly agreed to write for KhaoSanRoad.com and share her love of all things Thai and, especially, all things Khao San Road!