A walk through the polders of Zaanse Schans

Viewed from the bridge across the Zaan river the wonderful working windmills of Zaanse Schans are a memorable sight. Perched on the banks of the river, on a late winter morning they were almost silhouettes against the yellow reeds that form the landscape behind them. Walking along the dyke upon which the windmills sit, the slight elevation provides views across the typical Dutch landscape of polders criss-crossed with thin strips of water.

There is no more typical or traditional landscape anywhere in The Netherlands. It is strangely beautiful. After visiting De Kat, The Cat windmill, I walked along the dyke past a number of other windmills to find the start of a 1.5 kilometre walk that loops from the river into the polder and back to the village of Zaanse Schans. Only a short walk, but enough to acquaint myself with the way polders work. It also takes you away from the bustle of the village which, even in March, was busy.

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

It’s a fairly muddy walk at this time of year, but that is compensated for by the fantastic colours of the reeds and the peace and quite that surrounds you. I saw a couple of other walkers and a young family, but other than that I wandered alone. Walking here it’s easy to forget that all this land has been reclaimed from the water, and only continuous efforts to maintain the polders prevent the water claiming it back.

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The soil of the polder sinks over time, and water levels from rain or ground water rise, until it eventually finds itself below the water level. Only through a series of pumps and sluices is the water drained away to make the land useable. Even then you have to be careful. Lots of these areas were peat marsh and peat needs to be kept wet or it decays. Drain too much water from the polder and the peat collapses. Keeping The Netherlands afloat is technical stuff.

Although the Romans built dykes in this area, the first Dutch polders were constructed in the 11th Century. Today more than half of Europe’s polders are found in one of its smallest countries. Without the polders and dykes it is no exaggeration to say that half of The Netherlands would disappear under water.

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

To that end Dutch authorities have an elaborate and highly effective way of managing water defences. Regional Water Boards, or Waterschappen, manage just about every aspect of water in the country: water barriers, waterways, water levels, water quality and sewage treatment all fall under their jurisdiction. I know this because I receive a tax bill every year for their services. This buys me a vote in electing members to the board. The function of the Waterschappen is little changed from Medieval times, although the central government takes responsibility for big flood defence projects.

The oldest of the Waterschappen is the Hoogheemraadschap van Rijnland, which was founded in 1248, and they have been busily moving water from one place to another ever since. These days pumping stations do most of the heavy work, but the humble windmill was the driving force behind most of the land reclamation across the country. Not the windmills of Zaanse Schans, they were industrial windmills, but there would have been plenty of others around this area 200 years ago keeping everyone’s feet dry.

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

At the end of the walk in the polders there was a raised platform, perhaps 20 metres high, offering tremendous views over the surrounding landscape. It was a windy day and the whole thing shook quite alarmingly. I gingerly made my way back down and headed into the lovely village of Zaanse Schans. It’s a beautiful place to stroll, full of old wooden houses and waterways – with the ever present windmills in the background.

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

It was only now that I came across a sign telling me that the building in front of me was the first Albert Heijn grocery store. Irrelevant to anyone who doesn’t live here, but Albert Heijn stores are ubiquitous these days – interesting to see where it all started.

Albert Heijn's first store, Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Albert Heijn’s first store, Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans, where windmills turn back time

The River Zaan is home to some strange beasts, their names evoking a bygone time: The Cat, The Ox, The Young Lamb and The Spotted Hen. They stand majestic, lining the bank and towering over the lazy waters of the river, where they are joined by The Cloverleaf, The Houseman, The Crowned Poelenburg and The Seeker. These are the magnificent working industrial windmills of the Zaanse Schans, a piece of Dutch history set amidst a dramatic Dutch landscape.

The Zaanse Schans is a living, breathing, open air museum; one that was created in 1961 by bringing dozens of historic old buildings from across the Zaan region and creating a village on the river. A replica of the many typical villages of this area it may be, but its authenticity isn’t in doubt and all the glorious wooden buildings are originals. It lends itself to tourism and even on a coldish March day, albeit a sunny weekend day, there were plenty of people visiting. I’d imagine in the height of summer it can be pretty unbearable for both visitors and residents.

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

The region was at its peak during the 17th and 18th Centuries, when it boasted over one thousand working windmills. Amsterdam is just a short distance away – 20 minutes by train today, a little longer by boat in the 17th Century – and its thriving port and massive city expansion was the engine for the industrialisation of the Zaan region. This industrial heritage goes back further to the 16th Century, making this one of the world’s earliest industrialised regions. People will tell you it is the oldest industrial area in the world, but that’s a hard claim to substantiate.

Exploring the windmills of Zaanse Schans gives a clue to what people in Amsterdam needed. The Spotted Hen and The Seeker are oil mills, The Cloverleaf and The Young Sheep are sawmills, The Houseman a mustard mill and The Cat is a paint and dye pigment mill. These are just some of the many commodities milled in the region: paper, barley, rice, tobacco and hemp were a few of the others. It must have been an extraordinary sight it’s peak of industrial activity: raw materials arriving in shiploads from around the world, in particular from the East Indies where the Dutch were building an Empire. Raw goods need processing and windmills provided the power to do just that.

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

It’s easy to view windmills as just a prosaic extension of the modern rural landscape; but these were self contained factories that wrought huge change and led to enormous economic and social upheaval. Their appearance in the landscape was every bit as revolutionary and shocking as the urban factories of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. At least windmills run on renewable energy. At one time there were over one thousand windmills in this region, but the introduction of the coal powered steam engine not only brought pollution, it also liberated industry from the vagaries of the wind. By 1850 only a handful of windmills survived.

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The Cat, working windmill of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The Cat, working windmill of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The day I was there most of the windmills were turning their sails, but only The Cat was open. Stepping inside (€4 entrance fee), I was immediately confronted by giant 5000 kilogram granite stones grinding limestone for use in paint pigments. There was a strong wind and the noise was tremendous, the interior wheels and drive shaft mechanism were moving at alarming speeds. Going up the narrow steep ladders, noise levels don’t get much better and the whole building seems to vibrate as the sails turn. They may look picturesque from the outside, but working inside one of these early factories can’t have been easy on the ears.

The Cat, working windmill of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The Cat, working windmill of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The Cat, working windmill of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The Cat, working windmill of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The Cat, working windmill of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The Cat, working windmill of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The Cat is a Smock windmill, where only the cap on top of the structure needs to be rotated to take advantage of the wind when it changes direction. You’d never guess it today, but The Cat is actually two windmills grafted together. The base was part of an oil mill known as The Cat, the top, however, comes from a dye mill called De Duinjager, The Dune Hunter. After exploring the interior of The Cat, I was chatting to the woman selling the tickets and she told me there was a nice walk through the nearby polders, the drained agricultural areas that form much of the Dutch landscape.

I wandered past the other mills and found the entrance to the 1.5 kilometre walking route and headed across country…

The Cat, working windmill of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The Cat, working windmill of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The Cat, working windmill of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The Cat, working windmill of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The NetherlandsWorking windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Polders near Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Polders near Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Underrated Utrecht, a city to explore

Utrecht is a city of surprises. Its compact Medieval centre is beautiful and can be walked in a morning, its large student population gives it the energy of a city twice the size, and it has a bohemian cosmopolitanism that is rare in other cities. Despite this, but not surprisingly, there is a whiff of ‘chip on the shoulder’ when you mention Amsterdam to a Utrechter. Utrecht’s bigger and far better known cousin is only a short distance away, yet relatively few of the 7 million or so people who visit Amsterdam each year bother to make the journey to Utrecht.

Why more don’t visit is strange. The centre of the city is as picture-postcard-perfect as any in The Netherlands, people are friendly, it has unique canals, good restaurants and a thriving bar scene. People watching possibilities are endless. If nothing else the bar scene should appeal to some of my countryfolk who flock to Amsterdam for that reason. Perhaps the fact that Utrechters keep their red light district several kilometres outside the city centre is deterring people? It probably accounts for the lack of drunken stag parties, which can only be a good thing.

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Mention of the disparity between the two cities brings one of two responses: ‘they don’t know what they’re missing’ or ‘we don’t want all those tourists anyway’. The first is true, the latter rings a little hollow. In a random sample of three barmen and one barwoman, I got a strong impression that Utrecht craves recognition but is too cool to say so. It deserves recognition, after all it was in Utrecht that the Dutch Republic was established in 1579 with the signing of the Union of Utrecht. Nowhere else can claim that honour.

Perhaps because of all the students who never managed to leave, the city has a distinctive artistic twist and plenty of alternative shopping, from high class boutiques to comic book shops. There’s at least one world class cheese shop. There’s also a thriving microbrewery scene, at least if my preliminary investigations are anything to go by.

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

The city has a number of good museums, including the Dick Bruna Huis. Author, artist, illustrator and graphic artist, Bruna is a legend in The Netherlands thanks to his children’s books, most famous of which is Miffy, a small female rabbit. Miffy and Bruna seem to have a special place in Dutch hearts, and 2015 is the 60th anniversary of Miffy’s first appearance. I popped into the Museum Catharijneconvent, retelling the history of Christianity in The Netherlands. Utrecht was home to the only Pope who has come from the country, but the museum covers pre- and post-Reformation history and has artworks by Dutch Masters.

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Wandering the maze of streets in the city centre is a real pleasure on a warm and sunny late winter’s day. It hasn’t been a particularly cold or hard winter, but emerging from months of dreary short dark days into the sunlight gives everyone a boost, at least that’s what it felt like in Utrecht. It boosted me to a canal-side cafe to watch the world go by with a delicious locally brewed beer. I reflected for a moment on what the scene would look like with tour groups and stag parties. An involuntary shiver went down my spine and I spiritually joined those Utrechers of the “we don’t want tourists” persuasion.

Beer in Utrecht, The Netherlands

Beer in Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht by night, The Netherlands

Utrecht by night, The Netherlands

Utrecht by night, The Netherlands

Utrecht by night, The Netherlands

Utrecht by night, The Netherlands

Utrecht by night, The Netherlands

Utrecht by night, The Netherlands

Utrecht by night, The Netherlands

Utrecht, one of Europe’s happiest cities*

I’ve visited Utrecht twice recently. The first time it had snowed, was freezing cold and there seemed to be a serious disconnect between the glowing endorsements I’d heard from my colleagues and what I was seeing. It didn’t seem like one of Europe’s happiest cities*, I took an instant and entirely unreasonable dislike to the city. Visit number two and the city was bathed in warm sunlight. Wandering the streets aimlessly was much more satisfying and the atmosphere was fun-filled. It was so warm that people crowded outside bars and lounged in public spaces, an energetic and friendly vibe prevailed. I quickly concluded I was an idiot, revised my earlier impression and dived into Utrecht’s Medieval centre.

The Domtoren and canals with snow on the ground, Utrecht, The Netherlands

The Domtoren and canals with snow on the ground, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Canals with snow on the ground, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Canals with snow on the ground, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Canals with snow on the ground, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Canals with snow on the ground, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Still, it’s a shame that for anyone visiting Utrecht by train their first impression of the city is walking through a soulless and unnecessarily ugly shopping mall-type thing. Not that it isn’t popular with locals, the place was packed, but there isn’t any sense of how beautiful the city is beyond this modern monstrosity. Like airports, there is a relentless march towards train stations being converted to retail opportunities first and transport hubs second. Less ‘exit through the gift shop’ and more ‘fight your way through the retail therapy’.

Once you escape the mall’s clutches, the city transforms into a relaxed and attractive place with an historic centre second to none. The centre is physically dominated by the Domtoren, a 112.5 metre high tower that sits at the geographic centre of the city and can be seen from just about everywhere. Get close to it and you realise the Domtoren stands isolated from the town’s cathedral, like a giant exclamation mark. There was a time when it was attached to St. Martin’s Cathedral but the money to complete the work ran out.

The Domtoren and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

The Domtoren and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

The partially constructed nave that once connected the cathedral to the tower collapsed in 1674 during a massive storm. The cathedral, still only partially constructed, fell into a state of disrepair until it was renovated in the early 20th Century. This seems a shame, after all this was one of only two pre-Reformation cathedrals in the country, and its roots date back to the 13th Century.

I planned to go up the Domtoren to get the views, but access was by tour only and took between 60 – 90 minutes according to the tourist information people. That seemed excessive for a tower, even a tower that took 60 years to build and was only completed in 1382. I decide my time could be better used elsewhere and headed to the nearest canal to see what was occurring. This is a big student town and the weather had brought people out to the street-side bars and cafes, and Utrecht is blessed with excellent bars and cafes. I pulled up a seat and did some people watching while basking in the unseasonably hot weather.

Houses and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Houses and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Houses and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Houses and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Houses and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Houses and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Statue outside Utrecht Cathedral, The Netherlands

Statue outside Utrecht Cathedral, The Netherlands

Back on the streets you can’t help but notice a distinctive feature of Utrecht not found elsewhere in The Netherlands: two-tier canals. They have a lower wharf backed by subterranean entrances into warehouses that were constructed in the 14th Century. The warehouses run underneath the road above and connect to three or four story buildings on the other side of the road. This split-level canal system is unique to Utrecht and allowed boats direct access to the wharf at water level. Today parts of the lower level have been converted into restaurants and bars; others are offices and apartments.

Narrowest house in Utrecht? The Netherlands

Narrowest house in Utrecht? The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

The Domtoren and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

The Domtoren and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht as we know it today was founded as a Roman fort around 46AD, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in The Netherlands. Some of that vast history seems to seep out of the walls as you walk around, and away from the two main canals you can easily find yourself alone in the narrow streets. As day turned into evening, I sat in an outdoor cafe enjoying a locally brewed beer feeling relieved that first impressions hadn’t lasted.

Canalside cafe, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Canalside cafe, Utrecht, The Netherlands

The Domtoren and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

The Domtoren and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

* So claims the BBC Travel website…apparently. I’ve read this claim in several places, and I have no doubt Utrecht is a very happy place, but upon further investigation this wasn’t what the BBC said.

12 highlights from 12 months in The Netherlands

It’s difficult to imagine but today marks 12 months of going Dutch. Time’s passed quickly, but I also feel like we’ve been here for longer than a year – maybe that’s just the long winter. I didn’t know what to expect moving here, but living in The Netherlands has been an enriching experience. It’s only a small country but it punches well above its weight.

Looking back at the year made me realise how much is still to explore: Texel, Maastricht, tulip fields, the north and I’ve got to get to grips with Amsterdam. Those are the next 12 months, but these are my favourites from our first 365 days.

North Sea beaches

On my first weekend here I walked on the beach north of Scheveningen, a suburb of The Hague. On a sunny day the beauty of the beach and dunes came as a complete surprise. I walked past World War II Atlantic Wall defences on sand that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Caribbean. ‘Pop up’ summer beach bars were being built, and the beach stretched for miles. It’s a moody coastline, the weather changes in the blink of an eye, but the beach is one of the great things about living in The Hague.

The Hague

Den Haag, my adopted home, is an underrated city. Rarely found in the ‘don’t miss’ section of travel guides, The Hague has a lot to recommend it. It lacks the architecture and cultural scene of Amsterdam, but this is a very liveable town. You don’t have to look far for history (the Royal Family is here), culture (music, literature and film festivals, plus a couple of world class museums), outdoor activities (the Haagse Bos is a vast urban woodland), the dunes and beach (see above) or nightlife (good restaurants and bars abound). What’s not to love?

Windmills of Kinderdijk

There are other contestants for great windmills in The Netherlands, Zaanse Schans for instance, but the beauty of the landscape and variety of windmill types at Kinderdijk can’t be rivalled. Plus the rural setting, and large path network, allow you to explore further to fully appreciate the landscape created by Kinderdijk’s windmills.

 Hidden charms of Rotterdam

So often the neglected modernist twin of Amsterdam, Rotterdam is a city of surprises – generally good ones. Whether you come for the architecture, the artistic and cultural scene, the wonderful food, to drink in the panorama from the Euromast or to visit some of the historic quarters, like Delfshaven, that survived the destruction of World War II, Rotterdam doesn’t disappoint.

Historic Hoorn

Less well known than other historic port towns on the inland sea that is today known as the IJsselmeer, Hoorn is a beautiful and relaxed place. Packed with historic houses, it exudes its fabulous history as a major trading centre and birthplace of the Dutch East India Company. Herring made Hoorn rich, but trade with Indonesia made it fabulously wealthy.

Delightful Delft

Quintessentially Dutch, and not just Amsterdam in miniature. Delft’s a glorious place to stroll around, almost every street reveals yet more wonderful architecture, another small canal with quaint bridges or a site of historical significance. It also has some top notch cafes, restaurants and bars.

Cycling the North Sea Coast

Cheese, tulips, windmills and cycling. Possibly the top four things the Dutch are known for globally and, while they are all true, the way The Netherlands approaches cycling is truly world beating. Amongst a multitude of cycle routes, the North Sea Coast route stands out: rolling sand dunes, vast stretches of golden beach and dramatic vistas over the sea on a route that links coastal communities large and small. Brilliant.

Deventer’s Dickensian Christmas

Deventer is an atmospheric old town worth a visit at any time of year, but at Christmas Deventer does something truly extraordinary. Extraordinary in the sense that the inhabitants of a Dutch town collectively dress up as characters from the novels of Charles Dickens, and then play out scenes from the books over an entire weekend. If you’re here near Christmas, go.

Bohemian Utrecht

Utrecht, like almost everywhere else in The Netherlands, often gets compared unfavourably to Amsterdam. I guess it all depends upon what you’re looking for, but if you want a vibrant, bohemian city with good food, great cafe-bars, excellent museums and a compact Medieval centre without hoards of tourists, Utrecht is the place.

Naarden

Naarden is not a place that readily springs to mind, but its stunning setting and long history deserve greater recognition. A smart and prosperous village, Naarden was a textile centre but suffered waves of destruction at the hands of invading armies. Eventually the town built some of the most elaborate fortifications imaginable. A beautiful 3.5km walk around the old defences earns you the right to a good lunch in one of the village restaurants.

Up the Noord to Dordrecht

You can drive or take the train to Dordrecht, but a more interesting route is the Noord river from Rotterdam, arriving at the city the way people have done for hundreds of years – by boat. Dordrecht, a place where two men once disguised a sheep as a human and walked arm-in-arm with it through the city gate to avoid a tax on animals, is definitely worth a visit.

Beers of the Lowlands

It would be unfair to make this a Dutch-only thing, many of the finest beers in The Netherlands are from Belgium. The other week in Utrecht I sampled a Belgium red beer. Matured for 12 months in oak casks, its sour flavour like nothing I’ve tasted before. It’s not just the variety of beers, beer culture is critical. Culture is probably a contentious word to use, but there is something wonderful about having beer served in the correct, and often beautiful, glass.

Here’s to the next 12 months…cheers.

Wandering Wat Pho

Emerging from the interior of the building where Wat Pho’s glorious Reclining Buddha resides, I was confronted by a long line of people waiting to get in. One of the criticisms of Bangkok’s main tourist sites is how crowded they become, although Wat Pho doesn’t receive as many visitors as the Royal Palace just up the road. The Reclining Buddha building hadn’t been open long, and early morning may seem like rush hour, but things really hot up later in the day as more and more people arrive. Not so the rest of this large and intriguing temple complex.

Away from the Reclining Buddha it felt quite low key, there were plenty of people wandering around but I often found myself alone – well as alone as anyone can be in a place with so many Buddha status staring at you from every direction. It is a fascinating place to explore, although even at a very sedate pace the heat and humidity were crushing the life out of me as I walked around. Luckily the authorities have the foresight to give out a bottle of water to everyone, and there are juice carts dotted around offering only slightly overpriced juices.

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

A downside of visiting Wat Pho and Royal Palace area, is that the mass of tourists attracts a host of scammers and extremely persistent touts. Inside the temple complex it’s fine, only the heat and the other tourists make life uncomfortable; outside it can be a different story and I heard a number of tales of people getting hassled or scammed.

This ranges from the irritating (actually infuriating) tuk-tuk drivers who refuse to take you because you won’t pay massively over the odds for a fare, or agree to stop at a ‘friends’ shop en route; to the out-and-out rip off where scammers will intercept you and tell you that the temple is closed and wouldn’t you prefer to see some semi-precious gems instead? Others will direct you to ‘ticket booths’ that aren’t legitimate, or try to get you on a private boat tour instead of a cheap ferry. Nothing sinister perhaps, but to the unwary it can be costly and under a hot sun the street hassle can be exhausting.

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

I spent most of the morning wandering Wat Pho. It is endlessly fascinating but the heat had gotten the better of me. Leaving the golden glories of Wat Pho behind, I spent a fruitless 20 minutes trying to get a tuk-tuk driver to accept a reasonable fare. There are so many tourists the odds are that someone else will come along and pay the inflated price they are demanding. Negotiating is a one-sided affair in this area. I ended up walking several blocks before finding a tuk-tuk to take me back to the hotel and a cooling shower for only twice the typical price.

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

A vision in gold, Wat Pho’s Reclining Buddha

Wat Pho’s Temple of the Reclining Buddha could, from the outside, be mistaken for any number of other temples in this or other temple complexes in Bangkok. The excited gang of people waiting outside for the temple doors to be opened tell another story though. This is no ordinary temple, something that is dramatically proven after you walk through the doors and catch sight of the temple’s one, giant inhabitant.

At 46 metres long, 15 metres high and gold from head to foot, and with the sublime smile of someone at peace, Wat Pho’s Reclining Buddha is an extraordinary sight. The statue is so big it looks oversized for the building that houses it. Comparisons with Gulliver in Lilliput readily spring to mind. Walking down the length of the Buddha’s reclining body, the walls of the temple are covered in beautiful paintings depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life.

Temple of the Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple of the Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

IMG_6250

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Finally you reach the enormous feet of the statue, only to discover that the soles of the Buddha’s feet are covered in Mother-of-Pearl inlay. These depict the 108 different auspicious laksanas, signs or characteristics of the true Buddha. The feet are quite extraordinary, not that the rest of the Buddha isn’t, it’s just that at 3 metres high and 4.5 metres long the feet are even more so.

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

The position of Reclining Buddha is a representation of the real Buddha during his final illness, just before he passes into nirvana. Basically, as you walk around the giant statue you’re witnessing the Buddha’s death. At the rear of the statue (and the statue’s giant rear) are 108 metal bowls for offerings. Placing a coin in each bowl as you walk along is supposed to bring good fortune and a long life. There are plenty of takers for this latter day lottery, if you fancy your luck you can buy a bowl of coins at the entrance.

Temple paintings, Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple paintings, Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple paintings, Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple paintings, Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple paintings, Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple paintings, Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Constructed in the 19th Century during the reign of Rama III, the Buddha looks divine from the outside, but its interior is a little more prosaic. An inner core of brick is covered by plaster, finally gold leaf brings Wat Pho’s giant to life. I was one of the first to enter the temple and it was reasonably quiet, but I decided to do the circuit of the Buddha’s body again, the second time the whole temple was packed with people. Many prayed, many more took selfies or posed self consciously for photos; the atmosphere was fiesta-like.

Big Foot, Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Big Foot, Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Big Foot, Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Big Foot, Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Big Foot, Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Big Foot, Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Big Foot, Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Big Foot, Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

It is a feature of modern tourism, or perhaps a bizarre affliction of the modern tourist, while there are crowds that gather and queue to see the Reclining Buddha, a large number of people go no further than that. If you’re going to come all the way to Thailand make time to wander around the truly beautiful Wat Pho. That’s not to say there aren’t still quite a lot of people in the eight hectare temple complex, but even by mid-morning I was able to find myself alone far more than I’d expected…

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

The birthpace of Thai massage, Wat Pho

Famous for its majestic Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho is probably the most extraordinary temple complex in Bangkok. It is worth at least half a day of exploration, if not more provided you don’t mind being joined by several thousand fellow tourists. Having learned from my mid-afternoon experience at Wat Arun I arrived early. So early in fact that it wasn’t open. I must have looked a bit forlorn on the street because a friendly soldier ushered me inside with a smile, and a woman pointed me to a not yet open ticket booth.

It turned out that I was able to buy a ticket and was directed into the complex to wander around in grand isolation. There is an extraordinary stillness to this otherworldly place in the early morning, the bright sun illuminating the dazzling tiles of the temple roofs. This didn’t last long, the chatter of a medium-sized group of tourists suddenly broke the quiet of the morning – a harbinger of what was to come. It is a big place though, with lots of hidden corners and out of the way places, so I moved further off to where the tranquility was still intact.

Stone Guards at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Stone Guards at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple of the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple of the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Stone Guards at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Stone Guards at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Most people, once they’ve negotiated their way past the stone giants that guard the temples, make a beeline for Wat Pho’s most famous feature, the Reclining Buddha. I would have done the same but the building that houses the Buddha wasn’t yet open. This allowed me to search out one of the most intriguing parts of the temple complex, a building where the walls are covered in illustrations of traditional Thai medicine and massage.

Wat Pho is reputed to be the birthplace of Thai massage, and is home to the national centre for traditional medicine, of which massage forms a central part. Dotted around the complex are pavilions that house a massage school. In a city full of massage parlours, of varying quality and legitimacy, Wat Pho is the epicentre of all things massage. On a steaming hot day the air conditioned massage pavilions were a real temptation.

Thai traditional medicine diagram, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Thai traditional medicine diagram, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Thai traditional medicine diagram, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Thai traditional medicine diagram, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Thai traditional medicine diagram, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Thai traditional medicine diagram, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

I wandered past four huge Royal Chedi, Thai-style stupas, covered in bright tile mosaics. There are 92 chedi in the complex, the Royal Chedi are just the most impressive. They are surrounded by low buildings that house dozens of Buddhas. Wat Pho is said to have the largest collection of Buddha statues in Thailand – there are over 1000 images of the Buddha in total – I didn’t count but on the balance of evidence I’d say there are quite a lot of Buddhas.

People at prayer, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

People at prayer, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

People at prayer, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

People at prayer, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddha statues at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddha statues at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Temples at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Temples at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho is home to a working monastery and you can see Buddhist monks throughout the complex. In the morning many were at prayer, others were busy blessing the many visitors to the temples. It is an intriguing mix of old and new. Orange-robed monks ministering to those in modern clothes makes for a striking contrast. Central to the monastery is the huge ordination hall, which, while not at the geographic centre of the complex, is clearly its central feature after the building which houses the Reclining Buddha.

Buddha statues at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddha statues at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddha statues at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

The origin of ‘Speak to the Hand’? Buddha statues at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddha statues at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddha statues at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddha statues at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddha statues at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddha statues at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddha statues at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

I’d been wandering around for a while and suddenly realised that the building housing the Reclining Buddha would be opening in a few minutes. I made my way towards it past ever growing numbers of people, all with the same idea. I was picking up a bag in which to carry my flip-flops while inside the temple – you’re not allowed to wear shoes (obviously), but shoes aren’t allowed to touch the floor either, so the bags come equipped with velcro fasteners – the doors opened and I joined a very excited crowd that rushed inside…

Buddha statues at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddha statues at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Stone Guard and Royal Chedi at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Stone Guard and Royal Chedi at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun, third point of Bangkok’s Holy Trinity

Built in the Khmer style and standing eighty-two metres in height, the tallest in Thailand, Wat Arun’s central prang is one of Bangkok’s most striking and famous features. Approached from the Chao Phraya River it is a dramatic sight, looming high over its surroundings; approaching it from the rear, as I did, it’s slightly less dramatic, although wandering the nearby streets was a worthwhile endeavour in its own right.

This is one of Bangkok’s most important religious sites, and forms one point of the triangle referred to as the Holy Trinity. The other two points are the incredible Wat Pho and the enormous Wat Phra Kaew, which also houses the royal palace. Climb Wat Arun’s prang and you not only get tremendous views over the river and city, but you can see just how the temple complex fits into the Holy Trinity. The other temple complexes can be seen across the Chao Phraya. The climb up isn’t for the faint hearted, anyone with vertigo may want to avoid having to come back down – the stairs are very steep.

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

I timed my visit badly. It was mid-afternoon and the whole temple complex was very busy with pilgrims/tourists; but also the temple was partially closed for renovation and repair. These had just started so not much was out-of-bounds and you could still climb the prang; none-the-less it was a shame to see scaffolding on parts of the structure. It could have been worse, the prang is scheduled to close for up to three years while it undergoes renovation.

I’ve been to Wat Arun once before, nearly twenty years ago now, and had vivid memories of the beautiful and ornate mosaics that cover virtually every inch of it. They are still there, perhaps not as vivid as I recall, but no less beautiful. The mosaics have an unusual history: the style dates from the early 19th Century when Chinese trading ships arrived in Bangkok and offloaded tonnes of broken ceramic tiles, used for ships ballast. Recycling at its most practical.

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun was at the centre of the foundation of Bangkok following the destruction of its ancient capital, Ayutthaya, in 1767. Legend has it that the King, fleeing an invading Burmese army, arrived here at the site of an earlier temple when the sun was rising. He renamed it Wat Chaeng, the Temple of the Sun, a name many Thais still know it by. When King Taksin died in 1782 his successors moved the centre of their new capital to the other side of the Chao Phraya where they built even more elaborate temples.

Views over Bangkok, Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Views over Bangkok, Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Views over Bangkok, Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Views over Bangkok, Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Under Taksin, Wat Arun was home to the Emerald Buddha, one of Thailand’s most important religious artefacts. When the capital moved across the river so to did the buddha, reducing Wat Arun’s importance. It was abandoned for over a hundred years, and fell into disrepair until being revived by King Rama II. Today, Wat Arun still feels a little isolated from the main action on the other side of the river, but it is easy to get to and there are plenty of boats crowding the piers outside the temple carrying visitors.

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wise monkeys, Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wise monkeys, Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

I wandered around, looking into temples, observing people at their devotions and getting a feel for what it is like to be one of the most popular tourist sites in Bangkok – a city that Time Magazine estimated to be the most visited on earth in 2013, when it attracted 16 million visitors. Strolling to the river I found the jetty where small ferries transport you across to the other side. It was late afternoon and, as advised by every travel guide ever published, I headed to one of the rooftop bars facing Wat Arun to pay an extortionate price for a beer and watch a sunset that proved disappointing.

Sunset, Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Sunset, Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

The tale of the ugly duckling Buddha

Wat Traimit is home to a mystery. A very old, heavy and valuable mystery. The world’s largest solid gold Buddha statue resides within the top floor of this modern temple, valued at around US$300 million. It weighs in at five and a half tons and stands (well sits) at three metres in height. The history of Wat Traimit’s Golden Buddha remains shrouded in the mists of Thailand’s turbulent past; only in 1955 was the secret surrounding this 700 year-old statue even discovered.

Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

In the classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Ugly Duckling, an ugly baby ‘duckling’ transforms into a beautiful swan. For nearly three centuries the gleaming, golden brilliance of the Golden Buddha was hidden to the world by an exterior designed to make it look very ordinary. As the song goes, “A head so noble and high. Say who’s an ugly duckling? Not I!”

It is believed that for hundreds of years the Buddha statue resided in a temple in Thailand’s ancient capital, Ayutthaya. No doubt still a dramatic sight, by 1767 it was one of dozens of unremarkable statues plastered in a brown-grey stucco. The disguise was effective. When the Burmese captured and destroyed Ayutthaya in 1767 they melted down anything of value and took it to Burma, but they didn’t find the Golden Buddha.

Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Perhaps the Burmese killed the only people who knew the truth about the statue amidst the slaughter of the attack on Ayutthaya, because it remained abandoned amongst the ruins until 1801. The statue was then moved from Ayutthaya to the newly constructed Wat Chotanaram in Bangkok. No one seems to have known about the extraordinary golden statue inside the stucco exterior.

Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Donations at Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Donations at Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

In Wat Chotanaram the statue stayed for one hundred and thirty years, silently contemplating the changing world and keeping its secret to itself. Wat Chotanaram fell into disrepair and in 1935 the statue was relocated again, to the nearby Wat Traimit. There wasn’t enough space inside Wat Traimit, so it was kept outside under a tin roof. Only in 1955 when the statue was being moved into a new building was its true identity revealed.

Even then it was only by chance that the truth came out. Workmen were using ropes to move the statue when one broke sending the statue crashing to the ground. A chunk of the stucco broke off and, presumably to the amazement of everyone who witnessed it, the bright gold of the statue was revealed. The rest, as they say, is history.

Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Donations at Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Donations at Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Offerings, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Offerings, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Not the Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Not the Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Today a new and glitzy, some might say ostentatious and tasteless, temple houses the statue, which has become something of a cash cow. The irony of asking people to make donations for the upkeep of a statue valued at US$300 million can’t be lost on the many visitors; then again it doesn’t seem to deter people from handing over their hard earned cash. The surrounding area is home to an appropriate amount of kitsch.

While no one really knows why the Golden Buddha was covered in stucco, it’s assumed it was to hide its true value from invading armies, most probably the Burmese who regularly attacked Thailand in the 18th Century. To that end it worked so well that absolutely everyone forgot what lay beneath the stucco. The rediscovery of the Golden Buddha is considered a miracle by many Thai Buddhists, not the accident it really was. After all, had it not turned out to be a gold buddha encased in stucco, I doubt the workmen who dropped it would have been received much praise.

Minature Monk, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Minature Monk, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

The statue’s origins are also something of a mystery. It was probably made in India in the 14th Century before being shipped to Ayutthaya. The craftsmanship was of the highest quality; the statue is formed of nine pieces, which join seamlessly together. A key found beneath the stucco allows the statue to be assembled and disassembled.

The body of the statue is 40 per cent pure gold, between the chin and forehead 80 per cent pure, the hair 99 per cent pure. With so much gold on display I should probably have felt a little more in awe, but there was something underwhelming, slightly sterile about the temple that left me feeling oddly indifferent to it.

Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand