Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Vihara Sien Temple & Buddha Mountain

 Located about 30km outside of Pattaya is Vihara Sien (a.k.a. Anek Kusala Sala), a rather psychedelic and kitschy Chinese-style temple housing Tang dynasty bronze statues. In the forecourt the giant statues look like enormous chess set pieces. Who built it, when and why is a bit of a mystery; but regardless it’s a nice place to visit for an hour.
After purchasing, Bht 50, an entry ticket one is free to wander the fairly extensive grounds, comprising and outdoor garden/patio and the main building with three floors; filled to the brim with Chinese statues, curios and artefacts. The view from the top floor is really stunning; you can scan the whole surrounding rural neighbourhood.
There are probably as many Buddha images in Thailand as there are people. Unlike most Buddha images, the largest is not a statue, but a cliff face inlaid with gold leaf in the outline of a sitting, Sukhothai-era Buddha. It is 130 meters tall, 70 meters wide, and can be seen from miles away. The image and mountain are alternately referred to as "Buddha Mountain", Khao Chee Chan, or "Phra Phuttha Maha Vachira Utta Mopas Sasada". The mountain is a good place to stop on your way to or coming from Nong Nooch Gardens as it is only 7 kilometers away and just down the road from Vihara Sien. It makes for a great day trip.
Buddha Mountain has a compelling history. During the Vietnam War, the Thai navy was permitted to mine the mountain for stone to be used at nearby U-Tapao Airfield, then an American base. The stone was also used to build a road from Sattahip to Chachoengsao. After the war, the mountain was illegally mined for stone to be sold to construction companies.
In 1976, His Majesty King Bhumibol put a stop to the mining. At his suggestion, his children created the Buddha image to commemorate his 1996 Golden Jubilee, the 50th anniversary of his accession. Experts from the Department of Geological Resources and the nearby Asian Institute of Technology headed up the construction. Using American laser technology, the carving was completed in two days, but months were required to fill the resulting grooves with gold. The cost of the entire project was about 150 million baht (over $US3 million).
Signs point you graciously to the most scenic viewpoint of the image and to the "homage paying area". Directly in front of the cliff face are shrines, elaborate gardens, and a number of terraced pools stocked with lotus flowers. Pains have been taken to make Buddha Mountain a quiet, contemplative place. Entry is free but you may have to battle with some large tour groups for your prime photo-taking spot and serenity!
Next to here is the Silver Lakes Vineyard, with loads of fields full of grapevines, they have an area where you can buy wines, jams, biscuits, cakes and more feature grapes. If you actually wanted to stay in this area or chill out, next door are some quaint guest houses called ‘The Movie Houses @ Silverlake’ where you can kick back and relax on a bed or sofa with your mates, a good DVD and a bottle or two wine.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Fire Dancing on Koh Samed

Just two hours’ drive from Bangkok can be found the sleepy and idyllic island of Samed (or Samet). Here visitors can relax in the sun whilst staying in quaint bungalows ranging from 1 to 5 stars. Some are no frills, cold water and fan, others have 24hr hot showers and air-con; with most including some sort of spartan breakfast. Most beaches have clear blue water, white sand and plenty of touts (sarongs, ice-cream, fruit, etc). You can also get active with a plethora of water sports like jet-skiing, kayaking, surfing, snorkelling and hiking. Or, just sit back, relax and soak up the rays.
One of the highlights of any visit to the island is catching an evening fire dancing show, prominent at many of the larger bars on the east side of the island (e.g. Sai Kaew Beach). These shows are free and absolutely amazing! This spectacle has become almost synonymous with partying in Thailand, especially down south on islands like Samui. Up north Samed (and nearby Koh Chang) is one of the few places you can catch a performance as well.
But what exactly is this thing I hear you asking. Well, fire dancing, also known as "fire twirling", "fire spinning", "fire performance" and "fire manipulation", is a group of performance arts or disciplines that involve manipulation of objects on fire. Typically these objects have one or more bundles of wicking, which are soaked in fuel and ignited. Some of these disciplines are related to juggling or baton twirling (both forms of object manipulation), and there is also an affinity between fire dancing and rhythmic gymnastics.
It most certainly should not be forgotten that this is a very dangerous performance art. Which kinda makes it all the more spectacular to watch in truth. You sure as hell don’t want to get your hands, arms, face, legs or any other part of your delicate body in the way of those twirling and spinning fire bombs! In fact, if you stroll past the bars during the day you can quite often catch “novice” devotees practicing the art. We hear they will even give you a lesson for a beer or two. So, if you planning an up-coming trip to Pattaya or Bangkok, consider spending a night or two on Samed to catch a show and see for yourself. Our hotel travel agents can easily help arrange transport to/from.
Getting there: From Bangkok the easiest way to reach Koh Samed is to take an air-conditioned mini-van from Victory Monument. These leave every half hour and are quick ‘n’ easy, costing only Bht 200 and dropping you direct at Ban Phe Pier (Rayong). From here you can take a local ferry, Bht 40/40 min, or speedboat, Bht 200/10min, direct to whichever beach you like. Travel “packages” including return speedboat ticket are also possible for Bht 400 if you haggle hard. This is actually a good option as it includes your National Park entrance fee (Bht 200) anyway; if you take the ferry you’ll be forced to pay this amount by the guards who’ll pounce on you as soon as you set foot on the dock.