Myanmar travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Bagan photo roundup 2

Because we all can’t get enough of Bagan, here’s a second photo roundup post of its myriad ancient temples.

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These boxy buildings were storehouses, according to someone I asked.
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Dirt road that got increasingly muddier and narrow

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Myanmar travel · Travel

Myanmar travel- Bagan

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One of Myanmar’s most impressive sights is the thousands of ancient pyramidal temples studded across a wide plain next to the Irrawady river. These are the ruins of Bagan, the country’s answer to Angkor in Cambodia. But whereas Angkor lies amongst forests and many of its structures are in a state of destruction, Bagan’s temples and pagodas are all in plain sight and many are relatively intact, thanks to intensive recent renovations. Built between the 11th and 13th centuries when Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, the first to rule over most of what would become Myanmar, the temples initially numbered over 10,000, but “only” 2,000 remain today.

Besides the sheer number of temples, what might strike you is the different sizes and styles, ranging from massive multi-level domed “fortresses” to spire-topped pyramids to garden-shed-sized pagodas. Apparently the larger ones were built or financed by royalty and noblemen, while wealthy people and commoners built the smaller ones. Many resemble pyramids, but with outer levels you can walk around on, while some are square shaped and look like formidable fortresses. Also, most of the temples are clay-colored, but some are white, which I found to be more attractive, even and especially with the very apparent black stains of weather damage.

The weird thing about Bagan is that after its heyday, it quickly declined and became largely abandoned (similar with Angkor in Cambodia), with different theories put forward such as the invasion of Mongols. Whatever the case, it stopped being a city and gradually became a village. If you stay in Bagan, there are actually 3 settlements – New Bagan, old Bagan, and Nguang U, with old Bagan, where the original village used to be, the most expensive and the nearest to the actual temples. However, the other two settlements are close by and are just minutes’ away by car or bike. I stayed in New Bagan and hired a car and driver for the first full day there. You can also hire a horse and carriage and I was tempted to do that for the second day.

Instead, I decided to try an e-bike, an electric bicycle that requires no pedaling and is like a slower scooter. These are very common in China but I’d never ever ridden one before during my time in Beijing. Anyways, I managed ok, despite almost getting lost and almost toppling into a huge muddy puddle when I decided to cut across on a dirt path. Hence I decided to do the same thing for my third day. Riding the e-bike was quite fun, especially as the streets did not have much traffic, and it was much cheaper than hiring a driver. To be honest, two full days is enough to appreciate Bagan’s temples.

How I got to Bagan was quite interesting too. I flew from Yangon on a domestic flight on a small turboprop plane. However, it wasn’t a direct flight. Instead, it flew to Mandalay first, where some people got off and others got on, then it flew to Heho (where you can go to Inle Lake, another of the country’s most popular destinations), where the same process repeated itself, before then flying to another town and people got off and on again, and finally Bagon, my stop. Basically, it was like an air bus.
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Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel- Tokyo’s Asakusa district

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Tokyo is one of the great world cities that everybody has heard about. But to be honest, I liked Osaka better. Perhaps it’s because Tokyo is so big and multifaceted, so modern and such a mega-metropolis, that I wasn’t able to feel that much affection for it. I only spent three days there and maybe that wasn’t enough. It was the last stop of my Japan trip in 2013, with a trip to Mt Fuji bracketed in between, following Matsumoto.

I stayed in a rather old and cramped but passable hotel in a neighborhood between Ueno and Asakusa, two districts with a lot of history. Asakusa features Tokyo’s oldest and most well-known temple, Sensoji Temple, with over 1,300 years of history. It’s a pleasant white-and-red Buddhist temple, that has a front gate, the Kaminarimon or Thunder Gate, with a giant paper lantern hung in between and a small shopping street, Nakamise-dori, leading up to it, with stores selling snacks and souvenirs. Passing that street brings you to another gate, a large two-story one, with three giant paper lanterns, that you pass through before entering the temple proper. The main temple hall also features a giant paper lantern. The temple grounds is a nice place to walk around, with a pagoda, smaller halls, a 300-year-old bell and two rather stylish sitting Buddhas. The temple was busy with worshippers and tourists when I went there on a drizzling afternoon, and the shopping street was packed.

Weirdly enough, there is also a street near Sensoji that is well-known for … kitchen utensils. I passed by it and I saw a few stores, some of which had very large colorful kitchen cups as decorations, but passed up the chance to browse.

Asakusa has Tokyo’s oldest temple and its tallest tower. Tokyo Skytree is further east of Sensoji on the bank of the Sumida river. Standing 634 meters tall, the Skytree is the second-tallest structure in the world after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. However, I didn’t bother to go up the Skytree, mainly because I planned to go up a skyscraper in downtown Tokyo that was free. I did walk up to it and appreciate how tall it was. It doesn’t have a fancy design as it is a fully functioning TV tower and only a small part of it is used for regular human activity, which is the observation deck.


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Main temple hall
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Looking back at the second entrance gate to Sensoji
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Shopping street that leads up to the temple
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Stylish Buddhas on the temple grounds
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A statue of a mother and children in the temple ground. I also saw little statues with bibs in Kyoto. These are called jizo and usually have something to do with children. This statue was erected to comfort the spirits of mothers and children who died during World War II.

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Tokyo Skytree. I don’t know what the hell is that golden “horn” perched on the black box on the left.
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Oldish wooden houses on a side street in Asakusa

Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel- farewell to Kyoto

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On my final day in Kyoto, I took a trip to Fushimi Inari Taisha, the hillside shrine that features paths lined with a lot of orange torii gates. The famous Shinto shrine is in a quiet area to the east and I had to cross a train track and passing some old-style stores to get there.

After the entrance lie the main shrine and small pavilions, each red and white. Behind the shrine are concrete footpaths behind it that lead up a hill Mt Inari framed by hundreds of torii gates and surrounded by forest. There is even a small lake with fish. The gates are paid for by donations from individuals and companies; the larger the gate the more expensive it was.

Going higher up, there are concrete “altars” with mini torii gates and statues of gates and foxes. This is because Inari is the god of rice and foxes are his messengers. The top gives you a good view of Kyoto, but it was hazy that day so the view wasn’t that nice. It was a nice walk though I got tired of the torii gates after passing so many of them. However, the gates make the place a favorite for some Taiwanese who visit Kyoto.

The Inari shrine wasn’t the last site I visited in Kyoto. Kyoto Station was, and the reason I mention it is because it was a very attractive station with a massive arched glass roof atop a metal grid and a spacious interior. The station overlooks the Kyoto Tower, an observation tower on top of a 9-story building and the only tall structure in the entire city. I took a bus to the station, bought a ticket to my next stop Matsumoto, with a transfer at Nagoya, and then that was it for Kyoto.
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One of the numerous altars along the trail
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Trailside restaurant
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Main shrine at the base of the hill
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Torii gate prices, starting at 175,000 yen or $1,412.25 
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Crossed this to get to the shrine
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I couldn’t help noticing a “battle” between wasps and beetles on this tree. The beetles had this really nice color scheme on their shells of green alternating with red.
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View from the hill
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Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel- Kyoto’s Nanzenji and Heian Temples

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So continuing on from my previous Kyoto post, after Chionin Temple, I reached Nanzenji Temple, a large Zen Buddhist complex nestled at the foot of a hill. As the head temple of a Zen Buddhism sect school, it features several different buildings that require separate admissions tickets. The main hall, the Hojo and former head priest’s residence, featured squeaking floors similar to Nijo Castle which were meant to detect intruders, and a rock garden with rocks that are said to resemble tigers and cubs crossing water. The rock gardens are meant for quiet contemplation which seems like a very Japanese thing.

There’s also a large brick aquaduct that was part of a canal system that carried water from Lake Biwa to Kyoto.
I also went inside the grounds of one of the temples inside, which consisted of a wooden building that you could not enter and a pleasant garden with a large pond and forested grounds. This was the retirement villa built by Grand Emperor Kameyama in the 13th century.

Nanzenji also has a massive Sanmon gate of its own, and it’s said that legendary bandit Ishikawa Goemon sheltered there while running from the law (a 2009 movie about him is one of the few Japanese movies I’ve ever seen). The Sanmon Gate has a chamber on top with stairs on the side. To go up required an entrance fee so I didn’t bother. The Sanmon Gate here is similar to Chionin Temple’s own, though that one is bigger. When looking back at my photos, it’s a little hard to differentiate as I went to Nanzenji right after Chionin (the walk took about 40 minutes).
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Entrance to the Hojo
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Nanzenji’s massive Sanmon gate
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Grand Emperor Kameyama’s retirement villa
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Rock garden inside the Hojo
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Aquaduct that carried water from Lake Biwa to Kyoto

After I went to Heian Shrine, a Shinto Temple which I read somewhere was a favorite of Chinese tourists due to its design being based on Chinese temples. This is apparent in the green-tiled roofs on the red and white buildings arranged around a large open ground. The shrine is a replica of the Imperial Palace that existed in the Heian era (794-1185) in which Chinese influence was at its strongest, hence the architectural similarity.
The temple buildings looked kind of gaudy which I didn’t exactly find so attractive. The reason it looks so new is because it’s not that old, having been built in 1895 but the current buildings were reconstructed in 1976 after being burnt down by fire. The way to the shrine passes through a park with museums and a zoo, and a massive red torii gate.

On the way back, I passed Shorenin Temple, but I was tired of temples by then so I didn’t go inside. I did see the 5 giant camphor trees in front of the temple that are a “natural monument” and were planted by a famous monk.

Besides the temples, even the city streets were attractive since there were a lot of traditional wooden houses and buildings that people still lived in. It’s easy to see why a lot of people are charmed by the city.

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Heian Shrine
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Wacky store or home on a random street

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Aquaduct from on top
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Garden inside Grand Emperor Kameyama’s retirement villa
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Below the aquaduct
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Side view of the Sanmon gate
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Inside the Hojo
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I think this is the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu and his lover
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Shorenin Temple’s massive trees, above and below
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Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel- Kyoto’s hillside Kiyomizu Temple and old district

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My second full day in Kyoto was temples, giant temple gates, old neighborhoods and a shrine to a dead warlord. I started with Kiyomizu Temple, located on a hill in the east, then stopped by Chionin Temple, went on to Nanenji Temple and finally Heian temple, which is based on Chinese Tang Dynasty temples. It was a long walk that took up half a day and required lots of sweat, but no tears, as well a little sunburn (really).

Kiyomizu or Pure Water Temple is an attractive Buddhist temple complex views overlooking the hill and the city. I could see it from my hotel on the hill and it was a relatively straightforward 20-minute walk.

The front features two tall pagodas, then you enter the main complex. After that, there are a few small shrines including one devoted to Okuninushi, the god of love, and a small waterfall (which is basically just a trickle) with supposedly pure water, which the temple was named after, that people lined up to drink from. Right below the temple is a neighborhood of traditional shops and teahouses, part of the Higashiyama District. It’s said to be old Kyoto, with wooden buildings and independent shops, cafes and restaurants, and I don’t doubt it. It’s a pleasant atmosphere and there are no cars so you’re free to walk right on the streets and lanes.
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Kiyomizu Temple’s main building
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Kiyomizu Temple’s front towers
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Okuninushi, the god of love and “good matches” and his rabbit messenger, at Kiyomizu Temple
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Walking down a street in Higashiyama District

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Higashiyama District again

Walking west from Higashiyama District, I briefly visited Chionin Temple, which is Buddhist. Chionin’s entrance features a giant wooden gate, the 24-meter-tall Sanmon Gate which is Japan’s largest such gate. The actual temple was undergoing renovation and was completely covered by a facade that made it seem like a wooden building. I’d seen the structure when I came in but walked around trying to find the temple before realizing that that wooden building was it. The fact they’d covered the entire temple so thoroughly was because the renovation was going to go on for 7 years (2012-2019)! The Japanese don’t mess around when it comes to doing things carefully and thoroughly, unlike a certain giant Asian neighbor.
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Chionin Temple’s massive Sanmon gate
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I walked by this and kept on looking for Chionin Temple’s main building until I found out this was it.

Here are more photos of Kiyomizu Temple and Higashiyama District:
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The “waterfall” which Kiyomizu Temple is named after

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View of Kyoto; the lone tower is the city’s only highrise
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Small stone deities adorned with frocks on the Kiyomizu Temple grounds
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These were a bunch of tourists, possibly mainland Chinese.
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Geishas or dress-up tourists? If the latter, then the make-up and dress were done very well.
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Random houses on a random street 

 

Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel- Kyoto’s golden shrine, rock garden and shogunate castle

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Kyoto is famous for temples and that is what this post is full of. Plus a castle, since Kyoto was also the capital of Japan for over 1,000 years.
The most famous of the city’s temples is probably the Golden Pavilion or Kinkaku-ji, likely its most beautiful one too. However, it is actually a rebuilt version since it was actually burnt down in 1950 by a deranged monk.
Besides the pavilion, there’s a nice lake and garden in the complex.
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After Kinkaku-ji, I walked about 15 minutes to nearby Ryoan-ji, which is a Zen temple with one of Japan’s most famous rock gardens. Specifically, it’s an arrangement of giant rocks placed in a rectangular pebble-filled area which are swept into a pattern. The rock garden is for meditation which one does by viewing it seated from a nearby veranda.

I took the bus from Ryoan-ji to the subway, where I discovered one of the nifty things that makes Japanese society so high-tech. The bus had an electronic fare machine that took your money and actually gave you change. Mightily convenient and great for tourists like me who don’t have local transport cards.
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Room in the building overlooking the rock garden with a painting of mountains on the rear panels

Nijo Castle is a castle that served as the shogun’s residence. It’s not as imposing as Osaka Castle but it has an attractive main building, the one-storey Ninomaru Palace, with nice sweeping dark-brown roofs. The main building features squeaking “nightingale” floors which make noises as you walk on them. This was to detect any assassins who sneaked into the castle. Outside, there is a nice Japanese landscape garden and you can go onto the walls to view the entire complex.
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More photos below:
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Pull the rope for luck, a feature of some shrines
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Forested pathway at Ryoan-ji
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Pond at Ryoan-ji
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Landscape garden in Nijo Castle’s grounds
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Nijo Castle buildings
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Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel – Osaka’s sky observatory and 1400-year temple

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As Japan’s second city in terms of business and culture, Osaka has a booming downtown district, Umeda. The main train station is here, as are a range of office and shopping buildings. I went to the Umeda Sky Tower, which is actually two 40-storey towers that are joined at the top by an open-air observatory “Floating Garden Observatory.” It’s not that high, but it has an interesting design in that the escalator to the top is in the open, in other words, the only thing between the escalator and the ground below is air.

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Escalator to the top – nothing below this escalator and the ground over 40-stories below!
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The V-shaped thing below the circular hole on top is the escalator
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I actually went here twice, because the first time, I went in the afternoon and bought a ticket, then as I was about to go up to the rooftop, the staff closed it because of a storm. The storm eventually didn’t materialize but they didn’t reopen the roof (people take precautions seriously in Japan, at least a lot more than China, I’d think). They offered me a free half-ticket so I came back the next day at noon.  The view over Osaka is pleasant with downtown Umeda on one side and the Yodo river on the other, which leads to Osaka Bay. I was also able to see Osaka Castle in the distance using my superzoom camera. The skyline is not spectacular as the towers are not as tall as say, Hong Kong, but they are attractive and signified the prosperity of the city.

I only went to one temple Shittenoji, which was walking distance from my hotel. Founded in 593, it is one of Japan’s oldest temples though it has a very new look probably due to recent renovation. The temple is a very open complex, and the main part consists of an attractive five-story pagoda in the middle of a plot of ground, surrounded by a shaded wall and gateways. This structure is kind of sterile but behind this are other shrines that have a more historic feel. There are even giant turtle ponds and a small cemetery.
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Entrance to Shittenoji
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Main part of temple – 5-story pagoda
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Temple at the back
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Another shrine at the back

Along the way to Shittenoji, which I went on my last morning, I also encountered this other temple, Isshinji, which was founded in 1185 in a modern compound with weird sculptures with a cemetery nearby. However, its main draw is rather creepy – Okotubutu, a Buddha status made up of the ashes of dead people.

Also, during the Siege of Osaka Castle in 1614-1615, this was the site of the base of warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu, who went on to become the virtual ruler of Japan.
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The Yodo river which leads into Osaka Bay
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Can you spot Osaka Castle?

Southeast Asia travel · Thailand travel · Travel

Bangkok travel – Grand Palace

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The final full day in Bangkok was reserved for the most famous attraction – the Grand Palace. A large complex full of impressive stately buildings built with a blend of traditional and European styles, it does live up to its name.

The complex features several temples, pavilions, buildings and a museum. However, when you look at the complex from a distance on the north side, you can’t miss a massive golden dome looming over the walls.

This is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha or Wat Phra Kaew. The Emerald Buddha is a seated Buddha indeed made from green jasper and cloaked in gold. It was actually taken from the Cambodians when Thailand captured Angkor Wat in 1432. However it was made long before that, supposedly having been created in India in 43 BC!
The temple has very beautiful buildings as well, with fine towering domes and spires and exquisite figures and wall decor, as well as the massive gold stupa that can be seen from outside.
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Emerald Buddha
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Though inside the palace complex, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha is separated from the other palace buildings so you only enter the palace proper after leaving the temple. There are a lot of traditional Thai-style buildings, pavilions and shrines, as well as a large outdoor model of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, which was occupied by Thailand for a time in the past (this sense of ownership from the Thais over such a famous historical site that is clearly another country’s shocked me a little). The palace was built in the late 18th century but there are also some European-style buildings that were constructed during the 19th century and later.

The centerpiece of the complex is the Chakri Maha Prasat, a large stately hall that combines a European facade with Thai-style roofs. Besides the fact it looks impressive (see the photo at the top of this post), it was surprising to come upon such a large European-style structure, which kind of gives off the effect of suddenly being somewhere in Europe. The open space and landscaped garden in front of it adds to the feeling. As magnificent as it is, it’s too bad tourists cannot go inside. The place is walled off and guarded by stern sentries.

As the royal family doesn’t actually live here anymore (they moved out in 1925 to another palace in Bangkok), the Grand Palace is actually a symbolic site that may sometimes receive foreign dignitaries.

This is one touristy place that is definitely worth enduring the crowds for. The palace is located near the Chao Phraya riverbank and across from Wat Pho.
After leaving the Grand Palace, I took a river-taxi, then transferred to a subway and to a mall, my one and only mall visit in Southeast Asia. Later that evening, I went to check out one of the city’s “notorious” areas which was indeed eye-opening (though not the extreme kind).
And that was it for me in Thailand and Southeast Asia as I left the next day to go back to Taiwan.

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Main hall that houses the Emerald Buddha 
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A kinnara, half-bird, half man figures who are lovers and musicians and are featured in both Buddhism and Hindu mythology. I’d seen this in Cambodia as well.
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Large model of Angkor Wat, which is in Cambodia but was occupied by Thailand in the past
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Chakri Maha Prasat
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Museums, above and below
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Exit of the palace