19 January 2017

Chiang Rai (Thailand) - Wat Rong Khun (White Temple)

Date of Exploration : 30 Dec 2016

There's a saying that if you've never been to Wat Rong Khun (White Temple), you've never been to Chiang Rai. So... 

... the best way to 'prove' a visit is to selfie with the temple. As if I needed an excuse to have a selfie. LOL

Planning a Visit to Wat Rong Khun (White Temple)

The famous attraction is located about a 30-minute drive from Chiang Rai city centre (where the Night Bazaar and Bus Station are) and it's easy to find a day tour package that includes a visit to this temple as every one of them have it in their packaged itinerary.

If you don't want to follow a packaged tour and want to come on your own, I read online that you can hire a tuk-tuk (local motorised tricycle) for about 300-400bht for a return trip. The driver will wait an hour or two for you. A tuk-tuk will comfortably sit about 2-3 persons.

Roadside view of Wat Rong Khun. The temple is not hidden in some secluded spot but is highly visible by the side of the road it sits along. These photos were taken on a pavement next to the road before even entering the temple.

A water demon guards the shallow canal that runs next to Wat Rong Khun, offering a prelude to the bizarre and macabre sculptures within the temple grounds.

As I wanted more time to explore this icon of Chiang Rai at my own pace instead of following a tour, I decided to hire a car for a day and customise my own tour itinerary.

There are 3 of us (my parents and I) and it costs 750bht per person to go 4 places - Wat Rong Khun, Singha Park, Khun Korn Waterfall, and Wat Huay Pla Kang. It is good to group these 4 attractions together as they are within the southern cluster of attractions (using Chiang Rai city centre as a point of reference) so travelling time from one to the other can be cut down.

To me, the northern cluster of attractions would be Baan Dam (Black House), 5 Tribes Villages, Mae Sai, and Golden Triangle, which are offered by most tour packages and they usually include Wat Rong Khun as well so you can imagine how rushed the day tour would be. If you join a tour, you'll get about 45 minutes at Wat Rong Khun. I prefer to take my time to take photos and take in the ambience of the place. My visit lasted slightly over 2 hours here.

With my folks at Wat Rong Khun. They were wearing matchy-matchy t-shirts. How cute!

We booked our tour through an agency (called "So Good") near the Night Bazaar. We've asked a few agencies and So Good offered the best rate. So good indeed!

Our driver picked us up at our hotel (Wangcome Hotel) at 8:30am and our tour ended at almost 7:00pm. We tipped the driver who didn't speak much English 200bht. So our total cost for the day's tour was 2,450bht, not inclusive of meals and entrance fees.

Beauty and Her Necessary Beasts

From far, Wat Rong Khun looks like an immaculately pristine embodiment of purity. But on closer look, you will find frightening and grotesque sculptures that seem out of place in this vision of great divine beauty.

This coexistence of gods and demons, heaven and hell, is deeply rooted in the Hinduism percept of duality where good and evil are complementary. One cannot exist without the other. Without darkness, we wouldn't understand light. The ying goes hand-in-hand with the yang. As Buddhism has profound connections to Hinduism, Wat Rong Khun expresses this fundamentally Hindu philosophical principle in the context of Thai Buddhist architecture.

Personally, whenever I encounter a skull or 'ugly blemish' to the overall beauty of Wat Rong Khun during my visit, it is a reminder that nobody is perfect. We all have skeletons in our closets. Me included :)

I can't read Thai but it looks like this is a health warning for alcoholics against the golden gate of spiritual nirvana. Wouldn't this send a message to booze more so as to get there faster? Hmm...

What is Predator doing at Wat Rong Khun? Is it a nod to the ancient alien theory of life on earth?

Hanging heads of folklores and superheroes greeted us.

Hellraiser, Ironman and Hellboy... Hollywood comes to Chiang Rai.

My pre-cious...

Before even entering Wat Rong Khun, my curiousity was piqued by the assortment of loathsome looking heads dangling from branches. Entrance to Wat Rong Khun is free for Thais while foreigners pay a 50bht entrance fee, which is rather nominal.

I thought I've left the scary stuff behind but I'm greeted by entrance gates topped with 4-faced skulls upon entering Wat Rong Khun. Is this a temple or horror house?!

Not a Typical Thai Temple

Wat Rong Khun is not actually a temple but a privately owned art-chitecture gallery conceived by Chiang Rai's resident artist, Chalermchai Kosipipat.

Wat Rong Khun was a temple that degenerated into disrepair and restoration works had to be stopped due to insufficient funds. A deeply devout Buddhist, Chalermchai decided to fund and rebuild the temple with a vision to blend tradition with contemporary art. Wat Rong Khun would serve as a centre for Buddhist teachings and meditation in Chiang Rai and is the artist's way of contributing merit to gain immortality.

The reconstruction of Wat Rong Khun began in 1997 with new buildings and extensions added. The entire architectural project is expected to be completed in 2070. This is kinda like the Asian answer to the Spanish Sagrada Familia.

The must-get shot with the White Temple in the background. Still can't get over my parents' matchy-matchy t-shirts. LOL... And I thought romance was dead.

Money-maker shot of Wat Rong Khun (I'll use Wat Rong Khun and White Temple interchangeably). While there are many tourists around, it is not difficult to get a clear shot of the temple as this angle is by the water's edge so no one will be in front of the camera.

Pass the surrounding pond with white kois (yes, even the fish is white!) we arrived at the entrance to the ubosot, which is the main prayer hall.

To get to the ubosot, we must first cross hell, be judged by the guardian deities before crossing the bridge of the cycle of rebirth to heaven represented by the ubosot building.

A beautifully ugly face... No matter how good we looked, it will one day decay away.

So very Pan's Labyrinth-y.

Outstretched hands fill the pits that the bridge crosses.

The outstretched hands in a pit represents incessant needs, where human aspirations and desires are unending and never satisfied.

When you cross the bridge, there's no turning back. Literally. If you turn back for a quick photo with the pit of hands as foreground and ubosot as background, a staff will chide you over a loud speaker for stopping, even if just for a split second, and hurry you to move quickly along.

Guardians 'judge' those who cross the heavenly bridge at the entrance.

Approaching the very busily decorated gable of Wat Rong Khun's ubosot (main prayer hall). No photography allowed inside the ubosot which has paintings on its interior wall depicting the four stages of life - birth, vigour, illness and death.

White represents the purity of Buddha while silver embellishments represent his wisdom.

An aspara making a floral offering.

Entrance of the ubosot. Shoes must be removed before entering and no photography allowed inside.
Looking back towards the gate from a corridor surrounding the ubosot.

Corridor next to the ubosot.

No inch left undecorated.

An vision of calmness and serenity... the simplicity of the monk is a visual pause button.

The 'clean' white pagodas in the back garden provide a stark contrast to the highly ornate decorations all around Wat Rong Khun.

Exit gate of Wat Rong Khun's ubosot area.

While I've seen many photos of the White Temple, nothing beats the thrill of finding a personal angle to frame the temple, an angle that I have not seen before.

Close to the exit from the ubosot area is a pavilion guarded by what looks like town cone-shaped Christmas tree.

The 'trees' are adorned with countless bells with hanging medallions in the shape of stylised bodhi leaves.

The 12 Chinese zodiac animals rim the cap of the pavilion which houses a wishing well.

You can try to toss a coin and land it within the lotus sculpture at the bottom of the well or just anywhere in it and make a wish... Hope your wishes will come true :)

Another ornately decorated pavilion I came across within the compounds of Wat Rong Khun.

At the base of the pavilion, look out for grotesque faces that would hopefully not cause a nightmare.

Face your demons... The artist's controversial depiction of Buddhism with popular culture and the unholy has provoked ire and attempts were even made to have him banned from the Buddhist community.
Gold Where No One has Gone Before

White isn't the only colour to be found at Wat Rong Khun as a grand building in gold commands an equal measure of admiration. But the building is not a temple, prayer hall, or any religious structure. It is in fact, the toilet!

Gold at such massive scale is quite a sight to behold!

A good release feels even more heavenly in this gold lavatory fit for royalty!

Exterior of the gold toilet at the White Temple.

Interior of the male toilet... Makes pooping here a glam dunk! Heh heh

Pano view of Wat Rong Khun's site. As I took my leave at about 11:30am, more crowd streamed in. So come earlier, best by 8am when the temple opens.

I've long wanted to visit Wat Rong Khun and finally I'm here to put a tick off the bucketlist!

Address : San Sai, Mueang Chiang Rai District, Chiang Rai 57000, Thailand
Opening Hours : 8:00am - 6:00pm
Entrance Fee : 50bht (for foreigners), Free for Thai

31 October 2016

Johor Bahru (Malaysia) - Zoo Johor

Date of Exploration : 15 Oct 2016

Taking a bite into the fringe of Johor Bahru's Taman Istana (Palace Park), Zoo Johor is that quick scratch to ease a hakuna matata itch with a collection of over 100 animal species native to Asia and as far flung as South America.

And the best part is, heeding the call of the wild at this zoo costs only RM2.00 per adult!

The new entrance facade of Zoo Johor. The zoo has undergone some renovation works in recent years and enhancements were still being carried out during the time of my visit.
Getting to Zoo Johor

The easiest way to get here is to take a cab. I took a cab here from Johor Bahru City Square shopping mall that is opposite the Johor Bahru immigration checkpoint. The cab ride took under 10 minutes (smooth traffic day) with a metered fare of RM6.00.

Con Cab...

The Indian cab driver that drove me was friendly but he tried to tell me some sob story so that I would pay him RM10.00, which according to him is the standard rate for short distance rides as taxis in JB don't use meters (that's not true as I've taken numerous cabs before and the drivers turned on their meters). The thing is, I've heard similar sob stories before... claims of being born with birth defect, having major diseases, have sick family members, etc, so that passengers would give more money to the driver out of sympathy. 

I gave more than what was on the meter a couple of times before but after hearing these stories repeatedly, I now doubt the truth in them. It seems like the cab drivers in JB are mostly sick and at the brink of death. Should they even be driving when considering the safety of passengers? Anyway, I told the driver I've heard similar stories previously and he fell into an awkward silence before asking what have I heard. So I related how one told me he had lung disease and seeking treatment while another has a very sick son and yet another had heart surgery. This driver told me he had heart surgery too and was born with defects in his left leg. What defect, he didn't specify. I think dishonesty is the disease.

Zoo Johor is located along Jalan Gertak Merah opposite the grand looking Masjib Jamek Sultan Abu Bakar mosque. Ticket is purchased at a booth behind the main gate at RM2.00 (adult) and RM1.00 (child below 12yo).

For the way back, I walked from Johor Zoo to Johor Bahru City Square and it took me about 35 minutes at a regular walking pace. So the zoo is pretty accessible and easy to get to in my opinion.

One of the Oldest Zoo in Malaysia

Zoo Johor started out as a private wildlife menagerie of the royal family when it was established in 1928 before being handed over to the Johor government. The zoo began receiving public visitors in 1962 and the once royal 'animal garden' is today the state zoo and one of the oldest in Malaysia. And the age shows. Not in a flattering way.

Rejuvenation works to Zoo Johor are evident especially for its entrance but beyond that, most of the zoo looks in need of a makeover to update its design, create more photo-worthy opportunities, and install proper information boards to enable learning and better appreciation of the animals.

This is the enclosure for the White-Handed Gibbon, which is a palace compared to disheveled enclosures some of the other animals are kept in.

For such a petite zoo, I'm surprised at the number of F&B outlets available here. So don't worry about being hungry or thirsty.

Top left photo shows a series of monkey enclosures. I think they've just been installed as they look new and closed to public during my visit. Contrast that with the ageing directional pole and that pretty much sums up the tug-of-war between the old and the new at JB Zoo.

Hippopotamus enclosure... will the wire fence hold if the two hippos in it decide to go full throttle and hurl themselves towards the gate?
I am not nitpicking, but conditions at Zoo Johor are rather abysmal. It looks more like a backyard animal shelter than a state-level zoo. Then again, entrance fee is only RM2.00 so can't ask for too much lah. At least the animals look well-fed and not begging to be put out of their misery.

Leather, Feather, Beak and Fur

Zoo Johor is not much of a looker, but the variety of animals found here is pretty commendable for its sparrow size. What I really liked is how close I can get to the animals because of the zoo's casual attitude towards safety. Most zoos have such a vast safety distance between people and animals that it is better to stay home and watch National Geographic.

That's why I heart Zoo Johor for the very rare opportunity to see the animals, some of them formidable, at close range with just a mere fence between us.

A wire fence separated me from the hippopotamus but no luck to see the river horse up close as they were content being submerged in their private pool.

White-Handed Gibbon... this fella was quite the acrobat during my visit. It hung and swung on tree branches like no tomorrow. Such a wonderful treat watching the care-free primate defy gravity. See video below...

If you know anything about this bird, the cassowary, this photo should shock you. Yes, I was THAT close to this prehistoric-looking bird! The cassowary is ranked the most dangerous bird in the world with the ability to slice and disembowel a human with its sharp, dagger-like nail on its middle toe.

Most cassowary enclosures would put a huge gap between animal and visitors but at Zoo Johor, I got face time with this magnificent bird that came right up to the fence. It has such beautiful eyes with perfect lashes that would make Maybelline cry. I was so thrilled to finally see the cassowary eye-to-eye... and survived!

Neighbours of the cassowary included an emu, a close relative in the same ratite family, and a couple of crocodiles (buaya in Malay).

Some see them as parent and child, others look upon them as wallet and handbag.

Open field zone for the watching and feeding of deers and ostriches...

... but first, a steak stake out at the gaur enclosure. This beefy bull is also known as the Indian bison.

Let's do the Macarena!

This is the ostrich and deer's version of conveyor belt "sushi" with visitors moving back and forth along the raised boardwalk to feed the animals raw kangkong (swamp spinach). A bunch of the vegetables cost RM2.00 and payment is by trust. You can drop the money into a collection box next to the basket if you took a bunch of the leafy feed.

Saw quite a few kids just grabbed the kangkong and fed the animals without paying so I dropped a couple of ringgits into the box to help keep the food coming.

Would've been more fun if the deers can be fed on ground level.

I fawn you! Now it's your turn to pah-sahng. I go hide and you come find me okay? :)

Spotted a Great Hornbill by itself and thought it is unusual as hornbills in captivity are usually kept in pairs because the birds are monogamous and mate for life. I thought this lonely one is either single or its partner had died...

... then I realised the partner is right up against the cage. Both birds are female. Female Great Hornbills have white eyes while the eyes of the males are red. Should they wave a rainbow flag?

The crowd puller at Zoo Johor is the White Ear Marmoset. Everyone wants to get a photo of it and every kid (and adult) wants to tickle them through the cage. They are fearless of humans and seem to like the colour red. A guy held a cold bottle of red 100 Plus close to the cage and the tiny monkeys stuck out their tiny tongues to lick the condensation off the bottles. Their cuteness is highly addictive!

Go nuts, no pun intended, over this Grelim-looking critter that is the White Ear Marmoset (a.k.a. Common Marmoset). Meeting this cutie made coming to Zoo Johor totally worth it.

Barking Deer (a.k.a. Indian muntjac or red muntjac)... it is considered the oldest deer species. I love its very tribal facial markings.

Is the fabled Madam White Snake really the Albino Python?

I've seen the fearsome King Cobra on documentaries but didn't realise just how big and long this nightmare is. Truly majestic.

"Need a hug?" asked the Reticulated Python.

Christmas is in the air.

Camel pretending to be a giraffe.

Another opportunity for a close encounter :)

My Chinese zodiac! From the missing face paint, it is obvious which tiger gets lots of heavy petting.

The tiger was pacing up and down the enclosure non-stop as if it was doing yard time in a jail.

The tiger enclosure looks like a gladiator arena doesn't it?

Finally the beast took a short rest after a failed attempt to mount the missus.

Around the lower wall of the enclosure are narrow slits through the concrete where you can peep in for a close-up of the tiger. I was really lucky to get this shot of it looking through the hole into my camera!

A rather interesting feature of Zoo Johor is a roof-top zone that links up the tiger, lion, cow, chimpanzee and bear enclosures. The big cats were napping away from the tropical heat. Definitely bring an umbrella when visiting the zoo.

Moo... They look so dorky cute.

Sun bear begging for a treat. Refrain from feeding the animals and if you're going with kids, ensure that they don't throw things into the animal pens. Saw a number a kids throw tissues and carton drink boxes at the animals and littering the place they live.

This chimp has the filthy habit of poking his finger into his nostril, dig around a bit, and then sticking the same finger into his mouth... *gag*

They may not be free, but they are worry-free.

What species is this behind a cage?

Although Zoo Johor is rather compact, I spent almost 3 hours here getting face time with the residents. I didn't think much about the zoo at first because of the rundown conditions but after I looked past the lack of aesthetics and focused on the animals, I began to enjoy the opportunities for close observations and encounters.

Besides, the zoo is located not too far from the JB checkpoint and easily accessible. Plus, may I mention again, it's only RM2.00 to visit!
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