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Blog

Welcome to Opium Teahouse. Stories are organized by date, the top ones are the most recent. 

Details: Floor tiles of Myanmar

Diana Costa

A sharp pain jolted from the sole of my foot all the way to the top of my head and I cursed. I cursed in my head, that is, wanting to avoid a faux-pas in the presence of Lord Buddha. 

All religious buildings in Myanmar ask for shoes to be removed well before visitors enter the sacred shrine. A stark contrast from other countries in the region, like Thailand, that are more lenient to people wandering the complex with shoes on. This creates an array of problems to people used to have their sensitive feet secured on a cocoon of rubber and cloth, and that pay little attention to where they step.

In my case, the cause of pain was a metal door stopper at the entrance of Bagan’s Manuha Paya. But as I looked down in anger, I was confronted with an intricate piece of floor tiling. A row of bas-relief peacocks, in light hues, on top of letters forming the word “Welcome”. My annoyance gave way to surprise and fascination. 

Most temples in Myanmar, from north to south, make use of big ceramic tiles to cover large portions of the buildings. Simple, one tone, pastel ceramic squares adorn floors, walls or pillars, but on occasion, surfaces are covered in a kaleidoscope of colours and kitsch patterns. 

Walking on the uneven surface of the peacock tiles felt strange. And while drawing the figure’s outlines with my feet, slowly and carefully feeling each dip and edge, I caught the temple’s caretaker’s gaze across the hall. From the look on his face, I wasn’t the first one to marvel at the floor.

So, when you find yourself at a temple in Myanmar, I urge you, look down.


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Best temples for tile spotting
 

Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda — Sagaing, Mandalay

Su Taung Pyae Pagoda — Mandalay

Shwezigon Pagoda — Bagan

Manuha Temple — Bagan


Details: Chiang Rai's White Temple

Diana Costa

“Wat Rong Khun, that’s what is written there. The true name of the temple” said a grave voice behind me. As I turn, a saffron clad monk stands with a bleary-eyed tourist in front of a baroque white sign with curvy Thai characters. 

While Thais might call Chalermchai Kositpipat’s creation by its name, foreigners know it simply as “White Temple”. The contemporary and unconventional Buddhist wat attracting visitors from all corners of the globe to the sleepy northern town of Chiang Rai. 

From afar, Kositpipat’s creation appears radiant under the morning sun, the white stucco and shards of glass glimmering in the distance. But as I step into the courtyard, the pristine veneer of a peaceful temple shatters. To my right, moulds of shrunken heads with tusks hang from a tree, a few feet in front red and white construction cones (the temple is still under construction) are topped with white skulls and to my left, a life-size statue of Predator emerges from the manicured lawn. 

But the initial surprise is only a bridge crossing away from another. The interior of the ubsot (main temple), hand-painted by the artist, resembles a Roman cathedral. While the use of vivid ochres and warm tones differ much from the renaissance hues, each wall is impregnated with meaning. Decoding it is expected from the visitor, however, from the excited murmurs I hear, people are far too overwhelmed to be able to do that straight away.

According to the artist, the serene white building paired with skulls, monsters and demons, symbolises the path of life before attaining inner peace. The unconventional white colour was a deliberate break from tradition. Gold is suitable for people that lust for evil deeds.

Is that why the only building on the complex houses the toilets?


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How to get there

Wat Rong Khun, located 13 km outside of Chiang Rai, is a four-hour drive from Chiang Mai, making it possible to do as a day visit. Tours from Chiang Mai are the most straightforward way to get there. However, they often include more stops along the way, making the temple visit feel rushed.

If you want to explore and enjoy the temple at a leisurely pace, take a public bus to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai Old Station, and spend a couple of days in town. It's not only a good base to explore Wat Rong Khun but also the Golden Triangle and the hill tribes. Continue onwards to Laos by slow boat or return to Chiang Mai.


Details: Wat Suan Dok

Diana Costa

Before I even tried to pronounce where I was going, the young Tuk Tuk driver looked at my map and quoted the price. It seemed excessive for a 10-minute ride outside of Old Town, but he wouldn't budge. 

Located one kilometre west of Chiang Mai's old city, Wat Suan Dok was built during Lanna rule. And part of its importance derives from housing one-half of a Buddha relic on its chedi. The complex houses the usual religious buildings — Chedi, prayer hall and inner shrine — as well has the royal cemetery, a Buddhist University and a vegetarian restaurant. 

As I entered the renovated main building, a 4m gold Buddha, that almost reached the ceiling, stood in front of me. The hall's profuse decoration irradiated from the consecutive pillars, extending to the beams and ceiling. And whenever the light caught the stained glass fragments on the pillars, a kaleidoscopic effect danced through the hall giving it an outer-worldly atmosphere. 

But, it was the sea of white memorial chedi, housing the ashes of the Thai royal family, that impressed the most. As the sun shone through the immaculate bell-shaped structures, the central golden chedi rose dramatically above the cemetery, like a mother looking after her children. With the misty Doi Suthep soaring in the distance, I could only imagine how magical it is to watch the sunset at Wat Suan Dok.


A week in Chiang Mai

Diana Costa

As I kneeled down in front of the Buddha of Wat Phan Tao, the only other sound present was the ambience music. Yet, suddenly, a continuous metallic sound started – "plim, plim, plim" – disturbing the atmosphere and turning the heads of the few tourists present.

Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand, offers a change of gears from the bustling southern capital. The former epicentre of the Lanna Kingdom exudes a calm and laid-back atmosphere, surrounded by luscious foothills with unique waterfalls and bubbling hot springs. Yet, it’s by no means a sleepy country town! With a contemporary art scene, myriad of design cafés hidden in backstreets and scrumptious, cheap restaurants, it is one of those places where you’ll keep postponing your departure.


Stay

Top Garden boutique guesthouse
Chaiyapoom Soi 1 • £

"To Doi Suthep? The best way is to get a Songthaew and split the cost with others" said Victor one morning in reception. Together with his wife Thunaya, Victor manages their adorable guesthouse a stone throw away from the moat that encompasses the Old Town of Chiang Mai.

The three-story guesthouse offers three types of private rooms — differing in size and type of acclimatisation — an inner garden with plenty of reading material at hand and a rooftop area to escape the heat of the day. The bookings are made through their website directly, which benefits the homely ambience the guesthouse has; a refreshing option to all the backpacker hostels in the neighbourhood. As hosts, Victor and Thunaya, are some of the most considerate and friendly we've ever encountered. Always ready to help, give advice and book activities for us.


DO

Asian Scenic Cooking class
http://www.asiascenic.com/

"Thai people cook with emotion. I have no tea spoons for you to measure oil, so you'll have to cook with emotion" said Pui, as we were about to fire up the gas stove for the first time that day.

A cooking school is one of the most popular activities in Chiang Mai, but it's also one of the most rewarding. Earlier that day, after being picked up from the guest house, we stopped at the local Mae Jo market for an insight into the ingredients, before reaching the farm where we'd been doing the cooking class. With seven categories to cook, it's an intense day. But Pui guided us through the chopping process, teased us about bad curry paste when we slacked with the mortar, and taught us how to proper stir fry.

Catering to dietary restrictions, vegans and vegetarians swap the fish and oyster sauces for soy and mushroom sauces, and the meat for turmeric infused tofu. Being able to choose a dish of each category also helps to create a menu to your liking.

If you only have the chance to do one activity, then chose a cooking class, not only you'll get a wealth of information, but also some very good moments.

Also worth a visit

Wat Suan Dok
139 Suthep Rd • 20 THB entry fee

Roughly translated as Flower garden Temple, Wat Suan Dok lies outside of the Old Town of Chiang Mai. The complex houses the traditional temple sights — chedi and prayer hall — as well as Pun Pun Vegetarian Restaurant and the Buddhist Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University. It’s one of the few temples offering meditation courses and meetings with monks. 

The recently renovated prayer hall — ubsot — is profusely decorated, with its tall pillars covered in intricate plaster work in gold and red. Its other particularly, is the Royal Cemetery of white washed mausoleums, contrasting with the gold buildings and making it one of our favourite temples in Chiang Mai. 

 

Old town temple trail
(Wat Chiang Mun, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phan Tao, Wat Phra Singh)

With some many temples in Chiang Mai, is sometimes difficult to choose what to see. Apart from What Phra Singh, the other three temples are close together in the eastern part of Old town. 

Although all temples follow traditional Thai architecture, each temple has its own particularly. Either they house an important Buddha statue — Was Phra Singh — have the main building built out of teak panels — Wat Phan Tao — or were the first temple constructed in Chiang Mai — Wat Chiang Mun. 

  

Lila Thai Massage
Several locations • £

There nothing better than having the tension massaged out of the body after days of temple hopping. Lila Massage, with parlours through out Old Town, offers good and intense massages at reasonable prices. With complementary tea before and after the session, english speaking masseuses and clean beds. 

Lila’s social responsibility is also deserves praise, as the parlour offers post-release employment to graduates from the Chiang Mai women’s prison massage training program. 


EAT

Aum Vegetarian
319 Mun Mueang Road • ££

Kaew brought the heavy tray full of small plates up to the second floor and kneeled to serve them. She was still in her school uniform but there was no time to change, the restaurant was busy with famished patrons. 

A stone throw away from Thaphae Gate, Aum is easy to miss. The wooden porch makes it look more like somebody’s house than a restaurant and that’s part of its charm. While serving the vegetarian version of Thai classics — papaya salad, pad thai and different curries — the menu also features celebrated northern dishes, like the scrumptious Khao Soi. The food is so well made, that this became our go-to restaurant in Chiang Mai.

The service can be a bit slow during peak times, so quench your thirst with fresh juices and smoothies while you wait. 

Also worth a visit

Green Tiger House
4, Sri Poom Lane 7 Alley • ££

On a residential alley, Green Tiger House is, in fact, a boutique hostel that has a vegetarian/vegan cafe. The spacious lounge, whitewashed concrete floors and benches and wooden tables contrast with the colourful fabrics and pillows.

The menu offers the classic Thai and some Western options — vegan options marked — and although it can be considered pricier than normal, the portions are generous. After lunch, with good internet service and a relaxed ambience, we ended up staying and getting some work done.

 

Pun Pun Vegetarian Restaurant
139 Suthep Road (Behind Wat Suan Dok) • ££

Sharing the grounds of Wat Suan Dok, Pun Pun is a great option when exploring Chiang Mai beyond the Old Town. Offering Thai dishes at reasonable prices, the place attracts the temple's meditation students, expats and tourists alike.

Pun Pun calls itself as a "slow vegetarian food restaurant" and during the busiest hours, they do take their time. Go early, around noon, or after 2 pm.

 

Suan Dok Vegetarian Food
Suthep Road • £

On the occasion of Pun Pun being closed, this bare bones local joint is a good alternative. Located just outside of the Wat that gives the restaurant its name, the difference between Suan Dok and a food stall is that it has a roof.

Popular with students from the nearby universities, the eatery offers a good and diverse range of Thai vegan dishes at low prices. 


Coffee & Cake

The Barn - Eatery and Design
Srivichai Soi 5 • ££

On a street behind Wat Suan Dok, The Barn is the brainchild of a few CMU students. The bright glass building, with modernist details, feels out of place in the typically Thai neighbourhood, but that was the goal.  

Full of quirky details — crochet placemats, small porcelain knick-knacks and hand made saucers and coasters — it’s an enjoyable space for a cup of coffee and getting some work done. No wonder it mainly attracts students and expats.

Also worth a visit

Cat House
8/5 Chayapoom, Soi 1, Chiang Mai • £

Conveniently located in front of Top Garden Guesthouse, Cat House is a no-brainer when it comes to breakfast, lunch or just to get some work done. 

This vegan friendly restaurant offers much Thai cuisine with a twist. Inspired by the cuisine of world, cooking is done with what’s available, the fresh and seasonal ingredients. The social aspect of Cat House is also a strong selling point; all the staff comes from Myanmar and the owner, Jacky, believes that mentoring them will provide them with the tools to accomplish their dreams. 

 

Bird's Nest Cafe
Singharaj Road Soi 3 • ££

Near Suan Dok Gate, on a sleepy back street, Bird’s Nest serves vegan friendly organic food and offers a space to escape the afternoon heat.  

The two story spacious townhouse, feels more like the owner’s living room than an eatery, and that’s part of its charm. The menu features all the Thai classics with ingredients sources from the local farms.


HOW TO GET THERE

 

From London, you can fly to Chiang Mai through in Bangkok. Or, fly to Thailand's capital, explore the city for a couple of days and then take a night train north, to Chiang Mai. 

We found our flights through Skyscanner, flying directly to Bangkok with EVA Airways.

 

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Two days in Mandalay

Diana Costa

"Mingalaba!" he said waving and pointing the empty seat in front of him. Being invited to join two strangers for a beer and snacks only two hours after stepping foot in the city, was a quick introduction to the friendliness of the locals. 

Wandering through the streets of the last royal capital of Myanmar is an assault on the senses. Bikes speed through, leaving a trail of dust in the air, honking to greet friends or warn other commuters that they are passing through. Yet, it’s the politeness and curiosity of its people towards foreigners that makes it special. Greetings are shouted from across the street, off-duty drivers strike up a conversation, shop workers stare and shyly smile when eyes meet.

The city’s raw energy was so mesmerising that we ended up staying longer than expected in order to explore and experience the everyday things. However, if time constrained, two days are enough to see much of what the city has to offer.


Day 1

Hop on a trishaw and catch the 9 am jetty to Mingun at the end of 26th Street. Dodge the eager tuk-tuk and bull cart drivers at the pier and spend the morning exploring the three major sights on the archeologic complex: the massive Pa Hto Taw Gyin, the Mingun Bell and the wavy Hsinbyume Pagoda

Return to Mandalay in time for lunch at Lashio Lay, a local joint serving Shan cuisine. In the afternoon head to the temples north of the Palace grounds: Khuto Daw and Sandamuni Pagoda — housing the largest stone book in the world — Kyauk Taw Gyi Temple and Bo Bo Gyi Nat Shrine

End the day at Mandalay Hill, wandering through the shimmering corridors of Su Taung Pyae Pagoda at the sunset. 



Day 2

Hire a taxi for the day and check the ancient capitals of Myanmar. Start with sunrise at the iconic U Bein Bridge in Amurapura. Not only a great way to experience the local communities early morning routines but also to avoid the hordes of sunset-seeking tourists. 

Drive to Sagaing and visit Oo Hmin Thone Sel Pagoda and the opulent Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda at the top of Nga-Pha Hill. When heading back down, stop at one of the schools of monastic education, like Aung Myae Oo, to know more about the program, the kids and help a good cause.

Explore the archaeologic complex of Inwa on horse cart and wander through Maha Aungmye Pagoda. Feast with the monied locals at Aye Myittar Restaurant back in Mandalay before checking the lavish Mahamuni Buddha in the afternoon. 


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Good to know

  • In Myanmar, shoes are strictly forbidden inside the temple grounds, unlike other places in Southeast Asia where shoes only come off when entering the main prayer hall.
     
  • Start the day as early as possible, not only to avoid the intense midday heat but to eschew tourist groups.
     
  • Try hiring a trishaw, taxi or moto-taxi for a day tour of the city while walking around. Most drivers speak excellent English and are extremely nice and helpful — even if you end up not taking on their offer.
     
  • Mandalay Palace and a couple of other buildings require a 7$ combo ticket (profits revert to the government and military). Most of Mandalay Palace is also under military control and with restricted areas.
     
  • The famed Mahagandhayon monastery where you can witness monks lining up for lunch is not far from U Bein Bridge but before you go, think if you feel that it’s ethical to intrude in a private moment only to get a couple of photographs. If you do go, please donate to the monastery before leaving. Read more about this here.

Mandalay on a trishaw

Diana Costa

Cars and motorcycles honk and speed past me, inches away from my body, leaving behind a trail of dust. At the front, Challu, unfazed by incoming traffic, disregard for road rules and the cacophony of engines, keeps pedalling. Driving a trishaw, after all, has been his breadwinner for more than 20 years.

Indigenous to Mandalay, trishaws are a dying mode of transportation, and Challu reckons that only 2000 are in use today. Yet, he's adamant about upgrading to a taxi, like his brother. His battered three-seat bicycle is a memento to a different era and a triumph of Myanmar entrepreneurship against the British.

According to Dr Tin Muang Kyi, a studious of Myanmar history, the trishaw came around during a period of political upheaval against the British colonisers. At a time when public transportation was scarce, a boycott of British products saw colonialist tram cars without passengers. Introduced by entrepreneurial locals, the trishaw became the preferred means of transportation. 



Sitting for lunch, at a local joint, with a traditional Shan feast between us, we talked about ourselves and Myanmar. His story doesn't different from many other kids; receiving his education at a monastery, studying The Dhamma and learning English, choosing to leave after completing High school to work the family trade. As the conversation progressed, and we got to know each other better, it was clear the Challu wanted to say more about Myanmar than the common, textbook facts. His speech became bolder, with biting remarks about the way things are, and trying his best to explain the complex ethnic issues that have created instability and headaches to the newly elected democratic government.

"Do you want to give money to the people or the government?" The answer would determine which temples he would take us — and possibly his opinion of us. But it wasn't a hard choice, we were happy to promote local economy. Dodging the 10.000K Mandalay temple pass, that has most tourists strategising their days to take maximum profit of, also appealed. Kuthodaw Paya — displaying the largest stone book in the world — Sandamuni Paya, Bo Bo Gyi Nat Shrine and Kyauk Taw Gyi Phayar, all in close proximity, were an appetiser for the sunset at the shimmering Sutaungpyae Paya, on top of Mandalay Hill.



Riding in the back seat of a trishaw can be discombobulating to western sensibilities, yet, it provides invaluable insights into the city's costumes: honking, on one hand, is not only to warn other drivers but to say hello and goodbye. It should be used liberally, at any time of the day and night. Foreigners, on the other, are still a rarity. And walking down the street or riding anything else besides an air conditioned, smoked window car, is carte blanche for locals to stare, wave and giggle at.

As I'm driven down the bumpy roads, for the last time, I can't help to smile continuously to the locals that drive by. The raw energy that Mandalay exudes might be off-putting to most visitors, but see past the noisy facade and you will find some of kindest, most curious people ever encountered.

 

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Details: Phuket Old Town

Diana Costa

It was meant to be just a short stop on the way to somewhere else, a restful sleep after spending a night anchored at Maya Bay. But as the sun shone through the low, crumbling colonial style buildings, I realised that Phuket's Old Town was much more than that.

Home to some of Thailand's famous beaches, Phuket is known either for its luxury resorts or the hedonistic excesses of the backpacker trail. This grime and glitz was enough to bump Phuket out of our list of interests.

So when we checked in at Rommanee Classic, in the middle of old town, we were mesmerised by the shophouses an their Sino–Portuguese architecture. A major trading route for the Portuguese, between China and India in the 16th Century, Phuket became a melting pot of cultures. The tiles, pastel-painted louvred windows and Neoclassical pilasters blend with gold leaf fretwork and lacquered wooden doors, making Old Town so charismatic and charming that it's easy to forget you're in Thailand.


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SLEEP, EAT, DRINK

Rommanee Classic Guesthouse
4 Krabi Road Muang • ££

Kopitiam by Wilai restaurant
 
16 & 18 Thalang Road • £

Bookhemian  Cafe and Art Space
 
61 Thalang Road • £


On travel: The virtue of waiting

Diana Costa

Picture a white sandy beach with a palm tree, with a swing, leaning towards the shore. As the swing gently sways in the breeze and the sunsets, streaks of colours fill the sky echoing Van Gogh's Stary Night. This is our bedroom view, but we're not there yet.

The process of waiting, in western society, has become something to avoid at all costs. It's regarded as such a nuisance that a single delay during your holiday can be a catastrophic and anxiety-inducing experience. But no matter how people try to play it down, travelling – particularly long term — involves a great deal of waiting. First, the eagerly awaited departure, then the flight time, and, once you're there, it's the transport to other destinations, the pickups to the tours, activities and day trips.

In Asia, like in many parts of the world, points of interest are not just around the corner. Timetable might be more of a suggestion than a fact, and the lack of infrastructure — or even difficult terrain — can make a simple journey of 135km take more than 3 hours. Yet, these moments in between can present unique experiences; being given Lam-Yai (a fruit similar to Lychee) by a lovely Thai granny at a mini mart by the side of the road, while waiting for the bus to resume the journey, was one of them. 

And as I'm writing these words, awaiting the ferry transfer to take us to that sunset view, I relish on that knowledge.


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