Monthly Archives: February 2009

Giant Dragon Temple at Wat Samphran

When you are travelling around Thailand and you use guidebooks such as Lonely Planet, you should never make the mistake of using it as a bible. Just because the guidebook lists five temples for a city, it doesn’t mean that other temples are not worth visiting. Sometimes you can find hidden gems that turn out to be the highlight. This temple called Wat Samphran that I discovered by accident is a classic example. You won’t find it in any guidebooks but the sight of this massive dragon wrapped around a building that is something like 17 storeys high is really mind blowing.

The other week I was driving along a familiar route to Nakhon Pathom. At Samphran, not long after the entrance to the Rose Garden, there is a statue for the Thai Police Force. A sign on the left said that this road leads down to the Police Academy close to the Nakhon Chaisi River. So, I thought I would go and do something different. I didn’t notice this dragon temple on the way down. I ended up at the Samphran District Office alongside the river. I made a note of the floating restaurants here. There weren’t many people there when I visited, but I thought it would be a nice place to eat towards the end of the day. Other than that, not much going on. So, I drove back up towards Highway 4. That was when I spotted this large building with a giant dragon wrapped around the outside.

I was compelled to go and take a look. However, if you want to take a picture like the first one, then you need to do so from afar. When I arrived I was greeted by some friendly nuns who excitedly gestured for me to go and take a closer look at the building. Inside there was a lift which was closed but I decided it would be worth climbing the stairs to the top. About a few floors up there was an entrance way which took us into the actual body of the dragon. I was tempted to climb to the top this way but it was dark and there were no signs of any lights. So, I continued climbing up the stairs. I think I got as far as the tenth floor when my way was blocked by a padlocked door. The place was pretty dirty on the inside and so I am not sure if many people actually use the inside of this building. On a couple of floors though it looked like some monks were living there. But there was an odour of something that smelled like bat droppings.

If you go to visit this temple then make sure that you also explore the grounds. There are also many other giant sculptures of various animals like an elephant, rabbit, dolphins and another large building in the shape of a tortoise! There are many hidden treasure here so explore the place thoroughly both upstairs and downstairs! To find the temple, take Highway 4 from Bangkok. Go past the Samphran Elephant Ground and the Rose Garden. You will soon go over a large bridge that crosses the river. A short while later you need to turn left where you will see a sign that says Police Academy. There is a statue here too. The small entrance to Wat Samphran is less than halfway down this road on the right. I have marked it for you on google maps. The next time you are exploring in Thailand, throw away the guidebook and get off the beaten track!

Phanom Rung: A Khmer Classic

When most expats in Bangkok read the place name of Buriram, the first things that spring to mind are images of the capital’s ever hard-working taxi drivers, waitresses, construction workers and even their very own housekeepers.

Buriram province, located approximately 400km from Bangkok and nestled along the Cambodian border between the provinces of Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat) and Surin, is in fact home to arguably the most magnificent Khmer monument in Thailand (2nd only to Khao Phra Viharn, but now that place is officially in Cambodia!)

Over 1,000 years old, Prasat Hin Phanom Rung is situated on top of one of Buriram’s numerous extinct volcanoes. This Hindu sandstone monastery, built 400 metres above sea level facing Angkor Wat in the east, is dedicated to Shiva and his heavenly abode, the holy mountain of Kailash.

Before entering the main sanctuary of Phanom Rung, you will have to go across the main Naga Bridge, which mythically links earthly hell and Hindu heaven. Then, at the top of the hill, you will not only be impressed by the Khmer architecture but also by the breathtaking views of the countryside below.

Prasat Hin Phanom Rung once made international news, when it was found that its priceless Narai Lintel, stolen in 1960, had somehow turned up at an art institute in Chicago. Apparently, a Thai expert had personally pinched and sold it to the Chicago Art Institute who didn’t even bother researching the origins. Even Carabao, in one of their best known folk songs “Thap Lang”, protested at the theft and sang to the Americans: “Take back your Michael Jackson and give us back our Phra Narai.” That wish, after endless controversy and paperwork, was fulfilled in 1988.

Phanom Rung lies around 65km south of Buriram Town, just 12km off the main Highway 24. If you are coming by local transport, there are plenty of buses passing the Phanom Rung intersection at Ban Tako.
To get up the hill from there, you can either take a motorbike taxi or simply stick out your thumb and get a lift on the back of a pickup – that’s what I’ve done personally on two occasions.

Mermaid in Songkhla

The most well-known symbol of Songkhla Province is this image of the Golden Mermaid at Laem Samila. It is similar to The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, however, this Thai one is not a character from the book of the same name by Hans Christian Andersen. The Golden Mermaid is in fact a character from Phra Aphai Mani, a popular book in Thai literature by Sunthon Phu. In this folk tale, a mermaid sat and combed her hair on a beautiful beach on a stary night. A young fisherman met and frightened her and she fled into the sea. The fisherman waited for her but she disappeared forever. This bronze statue was sculpted in 1966 by Jitr Buabus and has since become the symbol of this beach. When we were there the other day, there were many tourists lining up to have their picture taken with the mermaid. Many of the men sat on her lap and stole a kiss.

Samila Beach has white sand and clear blue water. It is one of those rare beaches which also has green grass and you can lie down in the shade of pine groves. It isn’t really a busy beach and I think it is a nice place for families to come and relax on the beach and to eat seafood in the nearby restaurants. Out in the bay are the two islands of Koh Nu and Koh Maeo. These translate as “Mouse Island” and “Cat Island”. You can see Mouse Island in the background of this picture.

A legend says that a dog, a cat, and a mouse, on a Chinese sampan stole the merchant’s magic crystal and tried to swim ashore but drowned and lost their lives. The mice and cats became islands while the dog died on shore and became the hill called Hin Khao Tang Kuan near the bay. The crystal was totally destroyed and became the white sandy beach called Hat Sai Kaeo. This giant bronze statue was sculpted by Montri Sungmusikanon in 2000. Unlike the mermaid that cost a mere 60,000 baht, local people donated 1.2 million baht for this statue.

Many thanks to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) for flying us down to Songkhla for the weekend and also for showing us around the city. Visit our website for more tourist information.

How to cook… Stir Fried Kale and Carrots

This is another one of those simple stir fried dishes. This one is based around kale which is a green leafy vegetable. It is believed to have anti-cancer properties so a good idea to have it in your diet. In the ingredients photo below, you can see carrots, garlic, kale stalks, kale leaves and chicken in the middle. You can use mushrooms instead of carrots. You can also make this a vegetarian dish. The kale is separated like this because the stalks will need to be cooked for slightly longer. You might like to use baby kale if the stalks of this one is too tough.

Heat some oil in a wok and add the chopped garlic. Cook until golden brown. Next add the chicken that has already been cut into bite size pieces. A few minutes later add the kale stalks first and the carrots. Follow this with the leaves. Season with soy sauce, oyster sauce and sugar. Add stock if it starts to dry out. Don’t fry for too long if you like crispy vegetables like me. Come back next week to for another Thai food dish.

Thailand’s Victory Monument

Affording some of the best views and photography opportunities in the city, Bangkok’s Victory Monument had always been a mystery to me. Victory! In what war? Thailand hasn’t fought any wars this century other than a few pot shots at Japan in the Second World War and some nurses in the trenches in World War One, the Thai army just isn’t really designed for war, it’s a well known fact the Thai army is painfully inefficient at killing foreigners. So this time round I was determined to find out a little about it.

The monument was built in 1941 by the Fascist dictator Field Marshal Plaek Phiboonsongram to celebrate a bit of barney Thailand had with some French colonies left undefended by the Fall of France. The monument itself has statues of a soldier, a sailor, an airman, a government officer and a policeman, representing the five heroic roles in the war, forgetting the contribution of medics and undertakers. Now Plaek and his wife who ruled Thailand between 1938 and 1957 were pretty remarkable people and virtually invented modern Thailand. Apart from famously changing the name from Siam to Thailand they made up much of what is sold to tourists as ancient Thai culture these days, they encouraged western dress, swapped the nation from chopsticks to spoon and fork and planted Thai flags and speakers blasting the national anthem everywhere.

The monument itself commands the sky in the area and even makes the Skytrain take an expensive detour, though it is probably not the prettiest object on any horizon as was pointed out by one of its disappointed builders. Around it is the bus hub of the northern part of the city, this most useful place for easy transport to anywhere in the city is noticeably devoid of tourists, thanks largely to the unspeakably difficult “Unusawreechaisamorapoom” you would need to say to the bus conductor to get there.

Victory monument is one of my favourite places in the city, it is well worth a visit for the views from the bridges spanning the roads around it. For anyone bored of the artificial environments of the World Trade Centre or Siam Paragon yearning to see how the locals shop, the hustle and bustle of the shops and stalls around provide a great opportunity for exploration. It is easily reached from Silom and Sukhumwit by Skytrain, from Khao San it is also an excellent staging post for anyone going to the Northern Bus Station, with plenty of buses heading there from Ratchadamnoen Road.