Sunday, 17 March 2013

International Horticultural Exhibition

The International Horticultural Exhibition near Chiang Mai is well worth a visit if you have an interest in tropical gardens and landscape design.

The exhibition site is about 30 minutes drive from Chiang Mai. The best way to get there is to either rent a car or bike or take a songthaew or taxi. If you do get a taxi then agree a price for the return journey and only pay after the return leg. As of March 2013 the taxi fare is 400 to 500 Thai Baht. To arrange the driver to pick you up when you are ready to go back to Chiang Mai take the driver’s telephone number.

The horticultural centre is one of Thailand's premier attractions, although hardly any one goes now that the 2011 event is over. The actual expo is held in a different international location every year. Despite this the Thai authorities have chosen to maintain the gardens and infrastructure. And it is great that they have.

Entry is 200 Thai Baht for foreigners, 100 Thai Baht for Thais, with 50% discount for over 60s, under 16s and students. ID proof is required for discounts.

The area is vast and being Thailand, it is hot. The best way to see the exhibition is to travel around by small trains on wheels. Trains ply the routes around the exhibition all day long. You don’t have to wait more than 10 minutes for a train. It is a very good set-up especially convenient for disabled and elderly people.

A major part of the exhibition was a display of gardens from around the world. These have been lovingly maintained and form the main attraction in the park. It is an impressively large area to explore – and the landscaping is not just inside the park area, but around it and on the approach road.

The main attraction is a Thai Temple that was built with an ornamental garden. Also of interest are several greenhouses. The collection of South East Asian plants is extensive and probably the best in the world. The variety of jungle plants runs into tens of thousands.

If you are after ideas for tropical gardens this is the place to come. Sculpture and ornaments are mixed with the landscaping. The topiary (hedge and shrub trimming) is particularly impressive – there is a wide range of trees, bushes and shrubs shaped into animals and geometric shapes. The bougainvillea plants are particularly spectacular.

If you have any interest in gardening and you are in the Chiang Mai area it is well worth paying a visit to the International Horticultural Exhibition.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Wat Doi Suthep

Wat Doi Suthep means Temple of Suthep Mountain. Doi Suthep (Suthep Mountain) is a designated national park which starts about 2km north of Chiang Mai by the zoo and the university.

Wat Doi Suthep is located near the top of the mountain. It is a 30 to 35 minute drive. To get there you can either hire a private taxi (it costs between 400 to 500 Thai Baht for a return journey) or jump on a shared red songthaew. It is normal to hire a taxi or catch a songthaew for the return journey.

If you are travelling alone, and you want to try and save money, walk or take a red songthaew to Pratu Chang Phuak, this means White Elephant Gate. Chiang Mai old city has four gates (North, South, East and West). Pratu Chang Phuak is the east gate. From Pratu Chang Phuak if you wait for a while you can join a shared taxi. As a foreigner expect to pay around 100 - 150 baht per person in a shared taxi. On a Sunday there are lots of Thai people going there to worship and this is the easiest day to get a shared taxi.

Wat Doi Suthep is one of the most important temples in the Chiang Mai region, and arguably the most interesting.

The view from the temple is the biggest draw. There are some great view points on the way up to the temple. On the south side of the temple visitors can see the entire plain where Chiang Mai city is located. On a clear day the view is stunning.

When you arrive at the temple you have two options: climb a magnificent 400 step staircase, or take the funicular railway. Able bodied visitors can, and should, climb the staircase. The funicular railway is the best option for the elderly and those with restricted mobility.

On each side of the staircase there are tiled Naga statues forming the baluster rail. At the bottom of the staircase, there is a popular place to take group photographs between the heads of these two Nagas.

Foreigners are required to purchase an entrance ticket at the booth at the top of the stairs.

You enter into a courtyard where shoes must be removed before entering the inner part of the temple.

The inner temple is a walled courtyard with a golden shrine at the centre.

The shrine is similar to the Golden Temple in Bangkok, although smaller. The main part of the shrine consists of a golden stupa. If you wish, join the Thais in walking around the shrine clockwise 7 times. Purchase a lotus flower and incense (20 Baht each) to hold between hands held in prayer to get the full experience, and observe the correct custom.

Around the walls of the inner temple you will find a mural depicting the story of Hanuman, the monkey god. The story has been adapted from the Hindu holy book called the Ramayana. In the Thai version of the story the monkey god is responsible for the creation of the Thai nation.

There are also a number of rooms with shrines and monks ready to give a blessing. For a small donation a monk will bless you and tie a white piece of string around your wrist.

Once you leave the inner temple take time to visit the outer courtyard to take in the views. You can also participate in Thai Buddhist customs by ringing the 108 bells lining the outer courtyard.

Near the entrance, on your way out, you will see a large gong (it is pictured). The challenge is to make a sound from the gong by rubbing the nipple shaped protrusion in the centre in a circular motion. Don't bang the gong, this is cheating and damages the gong. The part of the gong where you rub is very shiny and testament to millions of failed attempted to make it 'sing'.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Chiang Mai Zoo

Chiang Mai Zoo is located 2km north of the old walled city, near the University, on the Huay Kaew Road. It is on the way to Doi Suthep, and visitors often combine a visit to the zoo with a visit to Doi Suthep Temple.

The zoo covers a large area. There is a bus that goes around the zoo that you can hop on and off as you like. If you walk around the zoo it will take about 2 hours to visit. The route includes some steep concrete roads.

There is also an 'on and off' monorail service. However, it seems to be broken down for at least 50% of the year. Good idea, but poorly executed. The elevation does not give good views - the project was badly thought out. In truth the monorail is a waste of time, and its appeal is only found in the fact that it is a novelty.

The animals in Chiang Mai Zoo seem well looked after. Most of the enclosures are humane in the sense that the animals have enough room and suitable habitat recreation. As I write the zoo is in the process of renovating the smaller concrete pit style enclosures. This is good news as at present the bears and some of the large rodents could be kept in better enclosures. But to give credit where credit is due the zoo is constructing new accommodation to deal with this problem.

The main animal attractions are the pandas, with a separate enclosure you must pay extra to visit, and the rare white tigers. Both are near the main entrance. The gibbon enclosure is good, with a large tree house structure to allow them to perform aerial acrobatics.

If you are interested in the animals of Thailand search around a bit at the back of the zoo. You will find some of the peculiar South East Asian animals that you never see in Western zoos. Some of these animals are lurking in the Jungle in major tourist destinations like Koh Phangan. Some of the animals I have seen staying at Sunrise Villa, such as the Palm Civet and the slow Loris, I was only able to identify them thanks to my visit to Chiang Mai Zoo.

Some of the attractions at the zoo, like Ice World may appeal less to European visitors.

Snacks are available, and there is a bar selling alcohol and a small range of more substantial dishes near the lake.

The entire zoo is non-smoking.