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Thai Trails

Angkor in Cambodia had been such an overwhelming experience that I had some real concerns that anything we would see in the central plains of Thailand would pale in comparison. In fact, while I had met plenty of people who had been to Thailand, I knew of no one who had visited the central plains. Our decision to explore that part of the country was based on two premises:

a) It contained the ruins of Thailands medieval capital cities, and; b) Generally no one seemed to go there.

Indeed, when planning the trip we encountered almost complete mystification from the travel agents we approached. “You want to go where? Hmmm. I don’t think we have anything going there.” Almost all travel in Thailand is directed to Bangkok, Chang Mai, Pattaya and the islands in the south.

Travel in Thailand proved to be generally easy – and cheap. From the airport we took a train to Ayutthaya. It cost 95 baht for two (one way). That is just under $2 each. The trip took about 40 minutes. Stepping from the train in Ayutthaya, we were pounced on by tuk tuk drivers. I had already picked a hotel from our Lonely Planet guide during the trip – the Tevaraj Tamrin Hotel. The choice of the Tevaraj was primarily influenced by the extraordinary weight of our backbacks, the determination not to get ripped off by tuk tuk drivers (which basically meant walking) and the fact it had a floating riverfront restaurant. One old guy followed us in his tuk tuk offering his services for 20 baht. We could see the hotel about 100 metres from the station but he still followed us. About half way there, as the straps of my backpack began to slice through my shoulders (I was also carrying Shelly’s backpack because she had a sore back) I began to have doubts about the logic behind my stinginess. But there was method in my madness (at least that’s what I kept telling myself) as the tuk tuk driver will get a commission on any hotel accommodation you purchase. And who pays the commission? Why, you do, through an inflated room tariff.

The Tevaraj was a nice hotel for a provincial town. The room cost us 1000 baht, which equated to A$25. For the price it was fantastic. We had a room overlooking the Ping River with a balcony to watch the barges plying up and down. But there was no time to rest. From the shop next to the hotel we hired bicycles and rode into the centre of town. This did involve the difficult task of carrying the bikes onto a longtail boat to get us across the river, but the locals were patient and helpful, steadying my bike as carried Shelly’s on board.

Ayutthaya was the Thai capital from the 15th century until 1767, when the city was sacked and burned by the Burmese. The city’s proximity to the Burmese border was its downfall. The Burmese sacked the city several times during Ayutthaya’s turbulent existence. In the early 16th century, the Khmers, who had suffered defeat after defeat against the expansionist Siamese kingdom enjoyed a rare victory and marched on the capital. Ironically, they were denied the pleasure of sacking the city as the Burmese had gotten there first and were in occupation. The Thai’s recovered Ayutthaya again, but after the disaster of 1767, the Thai kings moved the capital downriver to the relative safety of Bangkok. In its heyday, the city rivalled many of the worlds great trading centres. It was once larger and more prosperous than London and had a population of over a million. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch, the French, the English and even the Japanese had trading settlements in the city.

The city is actually an island, situated at the confluence of two rivers. Weaving through the Thai traffic up a central thoroughfare, we reached a pack at the centre of the island. Around this park are the remains of the ancient capital. New Ayutthaya has grown up around the ruins. We entered the first set of ruins. The royal temple of Wat Mahathat. Entry cost 25 baht. Shelly summed up our impression. “Well, this is very different to Angkor.” Unlike Angkor, where the buildings were constructed of huge laterite and sandstone blocks, the Ayutthayan building were built of brick with stucco facing. Nevertheless, the Ayutthayan style was founded on a revival of the Khmer architectural style, only more gracile and stylised. The parkland setting gave a picturesque quality to the place that was completely different to Cambodia. We wandered amongst headless Buddha’s and lopsided prangs (temple towers), manicured trees and clipped lawns. We climbed to the base of the ruined stupa in the centre of the enclosure and took in the view.

From there we moved across the street to Wat Ratchaburana, famous for its intact, towering prang. The temple was built shortly after 1424 to house the remains of King Borommaracha II’s brothers (who had been killed in the civil war that had installed him on the throne). We wandered around at lesiure before climbing to the base of the prang. In 1957 thieves tunnelled under the prang and looted the graves. They were later caught and part of the relics recovered, but millions of dollars worth of gold jewellery and artifacts were lost. Archaologists excavated the tomb and found a wealth of treasure still inside. In the end, there were so many artifacts that the government gave some of the smaller items away to the labourers who carried out the excavation. A generous touch. Most of the important items are on display in Bangkok and the Ayutthaya museum. There was a small stairwell down into the depths of the tomb. I wanted to see the tomb, but the climb up Angkor Wat only the day before had left my legs very sore. The stairway itself was equally as steep as those at Angkor and we decided it would be a bad idea to risk the hazardous descent.

Back on the bikes; we rode to Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the highlight ruin of Ayutthuya, with its three standing chedi’s. The Sri Lankan style (bell shaped) chedis were built to contain the ashes of the the royal family and were once covered in gold. Now only the brick and stucco cores remain. However, it was now around 4pm and we were getting tired, and when we were again asked for another 25 baht per person (about A$1.00) I had just about had enough (I think this can be attributed to a combination of ruin and baksheesh overload). We didn’t go in. Up the street however, there was a commotion which distracted me from my illogical stinginess. A couple on an elephant were posing for a photo. We wandered over to have a look. Shelly and I began to debate about the possibility of having an elephant ride. I must admit I was not keen. I had specifically planned to take an elephant tour through the ruins of Si Satchanalai in the north of Thailand. I had no interest in riding an elephant through Ayutthaya’s busy streets. But Shelly was keen and we followed the elephants, albeit on different sides of the street, as I had to head off to photograph Wat Phra Ram across the road. Shelly took a series of photos of the elephants, each one carrying Japanese tourists.

I think it would be hard to find anyone who didn’t have a soft spot for elephants. They are such an interesting and impressive creature. When we rounded the corner and found ourselves staring at a group of about 15 elephants, we just kinda went a bit silly. We took heaps of photos as they milled around their enclosure and our mind was made up. We would take an elephant ride. As we lined up to pay our money, a baby elephant, already taller than me, wandered amongst cafe tables prodding people for treats.

Actually, riding an elephant isn’t that great an experience. The movement is slow and steady but the seat carriage is extremely uncomfortable. It wasn’t long before we were squirming around in the limited space available trying to find some way of sitting comfortably. Alas, we failed. For a small additional fee a Thai boy with a polaroid took our photo in front of Wat Phra Si Sanphet. It would have looked excellent, except that the photographer separated the film too early (as always) and the photo was washed out. We still had to pay though.

By 6pm the historical parks were closing their doors, and the market stalls shutting up for the night. It was time to go.

Apart from its proximity to the railway station, I had chosen the Teveraj because it had a floating restaurant. Although the hotel restaurant was busy, the floating restaurant was virtually deserted. We were alone except for a bored waitress and an older gentleman and his Thai lady companion. Between them, the gentleman and his companion had drunk three large bottles of Leo beer and were quite drunk. The fellow was quick to recommend Leo brand. “It isn’t the best tasting beer in Thailand, but it sure is strong.” Perhaps because he had been starved of expat association, he wanted to talk. He asked us how the football was going back home (the grand final was being played as we spoke). We gave him a brief overview of the ladder, but ultimately we didn’t really have anything in common to discuss. He had been staying in Thailand for six months and from what we could gather this was his first trip out of Bangkok. “I’ve been to Khorat. Great place. Really great place. The people are lovely.” His companion laughed and snuggled up to him. We told him our plans, but hadn’t even heard of some of the places we were going and couldn’t offer any advice. When they finished their third bottle of beer, he paid the bill and, with the girl on his arm, wished us a good night and stumbled away.

It was our first real experience of a Thai cliche, but it wasn’t to be the last. Thailand is not a place for single ‘farang’ women to go in search of holiday romance. All single men were accompanied by a Thai ‘companion.’ Indeed, for many male tourists this seemed to be the main reason for visiting Thailand. In the tourist mecca of Phuket things was so obvious, so blatant, that it was quite repugnant. Horrible, old, ugly, leering men smothered in Thai girls (and boys) were propped up in the street front bars. One thing I could never quite comprehend: the smug look of superiority they all had, almost as if they were saying, “Look at me, I’ve got three women!” I really don’t see how the undisguised purchase of a prostitute can be a boost to one’s ego. I hate to sound like a miserable bastard, but when I met a father and son walking though a Phuket shop, in matching caps, with matching hookers, my stomach turned.

Left in peace, we enjoyed an interesting meal as the Ping river sped past (quite literally). We ordered three dishes. Chicken and cashews, (a tourist favourite) was excellent. Beef in red curry was nice, but scorching hot, but the third was… different. The menu described it Chinese style fried chicken. It is possible chicken formed some part of the dish, unfortunately we could not tell. All I can tell you is it had bones. Lots of them. Fried bones in some indescribably hot sauce. There wasn’t a single scrap of meat on it at all. The waitress, when she came past and saw the virtually untouched plate, asked us what we thought. “Hmmmm.”, was about the nicest comment we could make. She laughed and said she thought it was an odd choice for a westerner. I asked her to confirm that we had was what we had ordered – Chinese style fried chicken, and that the chef hadn’t misunderstood the order and given us stir fried rat. She confirmed that indeed it was the meal we had ordered, but described it as Thai style Chinese style fried chicken. Not something we will be ordering again.

The next day we took the train to Phitsanulokm however, our ultimate destination was Sukhotthai. Whether we reached Sukhotthai that day was another thing as the journey by train took five hours. The scenery of the central plains is not very exciting; flat plains, rice fields, and distant, lonely patches of jungle. Food and drink vendors marched up and down the aisles all the way calling buyers to sample their wares. It was quaint for at least the first half hour, but after five we were both feeling somewhat annoyed as the endless droning sales pitch continued on and on and on…

An hour north of Ayutthaya we passed Lop Buri. Lop Buri was once one of the furtherest western outposts of the Khmer Empire and was a former capital of Siam. Standing beside the railway line Khmer prangs, not dissimilar to those in Angkor, towered alongside more gracile Sukhotthai period ruins. Our stop was so short however, that I didn’t get to my camera in time before we were driving north again.

About 3.30 we arrived in Phitsanoluk, regional centre of the northern central plains. We wasted a valuable half hour trying to negotiate a return train to Surat Thani in the southern peninsula. The conversation with the clerk at the ticket office went a little bit like this: “Is there an overnight train from Phitsanulok to Surat Thani?” “No.” We come back a few minutes later. “Is there an overnight train to Bangkok?” “No.” The clerk gives us a list of times all late afternoon. “Anything later?” “Yes. You can catch the night train.” “So there is a night train to Bangkok?” “Yes.” “Can we catch that Bangkok and meet a day train to Surat Thani?” “No. Bangkok to Surat Thani is a night train.” “Can we catch a day train to Bangkok and then the night train to Surat Thani?” “Yes.” The clerk writes down a schedule of arrival and departure times, none even remotely coinciding with each other. “But this says we can catch the evening train to Bangkok and night train to Surat Thani?” “Yes.” “You said there wasn’t an overnight train to Surat Thani.” “Yes. There is a train.”

Yes there was a train, but we booked a flight from Phitsanoluk to Ko Samui. Much simpler. It was too late to travel by bus to Sukhothai so we stayed in town, another top notch but cheap regional hotel and took a wander around the streets. Phitsanulok doesn’t have much in the way of sights, but it does have a pleasant go-getting attitude. The riverfront was manicured parkland and everywhere there were families walking and picnicing. There was a real sense of community on the streets. Almost everyone we passed was dressed for a run or an aerobics session. And indeed, to our surprise, we stumbled upon a huge open air aerobics session by the town’s main bridge. There were at least three hundred people bopping about to the music – men, women, children, young, old, businessmen and housewives. Yes, Phitsanoluk was a very happy place.

The next morning we took a taxi to the airport because our Lonely Planet guide said that Hertz had an office there. They didn’t. We were directed to the local youth hostel, which is where the office is actually located. Half an hour later we were driving on the highway to Sukhothai. There was surprise and consternation back home when we told them we drove around in Thailand. True, driving in Bangkok is only for the very brave or very foolhardy, but driving in the country is easy. There are only two rules: 1) overtake anything that is moving slower than you; and 2) do not hit anything larger than you.

All road users in Thailand know their place and everyone is very courteous. After only a few minutes we felt very safe and comfortable. The only unpredictable element on the roads is the abundance of stray dogs, especially at night. That the roads aren’t covered in splattered dog corpses (like Australia’s country roads are covered in kangaroo corpses) amazes me.

Sukhothai town was as anonymous as any other Thai city and we drove straight through. Taking a wrong turn, we ended up on the road to Si Satchanalai. Ancient Si Satchanalai and Sukhothai are considered twin cities, with Satchanalai being the residence of imperial governors ruling in Sukhothai’s name. Since neolithic times this region was famous for its pottery. Scattered around the fields are the remains of the ancient kilns that were the source of its original wealth. The sparse ruins that are scattered around the historical park do not bear witness to the city’s imperial past however. We virtually the only people there. Being able to drive in the park was a great time saver and we were able to cover each of the ruins in almost no time at all. The first temple we visited was atop the hillock overlooking the town. Shelly was not impressed as we faced the ancient laterite stairway. “Must we climb everything?”, she asked. It had been a long drive and it was hot and humid and she was not keen on another march up a steep staircase. At the top sat a ruined laterite stupa and buddha statue. We wandered around in silence. “This would be impressive if we hadn’t already seen Angkor.”, she observed. It was true. The ruins were nothing on Angkor. I still wanted to hike across the spine of the hill towards the other stupas. “But why?”, Shelly asked. Her tone indicated that she did not think this such a good idea and consequently that I should not think it a good idea either. I relented and we headed back down the hill.

There are only two ruins of note at Si Satchanalai: Wat Chedi Chet Thaeo, with its lotus bud chedi; and the Sri Lankan style Wat Chang Lom, surrounded by ruined statues of elephants. But even these seemed rather drab and after a short visit we drove off towards the former capital, Sukhothai.

Sukhothai was the first capital of the rising kingdom of Siam and the heartland of Siamese identity. Formerly a Khmer outpost on the edge of the empire, the city grew in wealth and power throughout the thirteenth century and in 1238 Sukothai turned against her Khmer overlords and declared independance. From there the kingdom went from strength to strength as Khmer influence in the region waned. Sukhothai dominance was shortlived however, as in the south the energetic Kingdom of Ayutthaya was on the rise. In 1376 Ayutthaya absorbed the Kingdom of Sukhothai, and in 1431 Ayutthaya turned on the Khmers, sacking Angkor. The city never recovered and was abandoned afterwards. Of all Thai ruins, those at Sukhothai are the most scenic. Like Ayutthaya, the ruins are set in beautiful parkland, but unlike Ayutthaya there has been no encroachment of the modern city. The whole ancient city is preserved. In architectural style, Sukhothai had severed its ties with Angkor and adopted a strongly Sri Lankan influence, corresponding to the change of state religion from Hinduism to Buddhism. One of the most attractive features of the park was that each ruin was surrounded by a sacred pond. We took plenty of photographs of temples and buddhas reflecting in the water. It was green and serene. We stayed until sunset and came back again the next morning.

Leaving Sukhothai, we turned west and drove towards the Burmese border at Mae Sot. It was a long and winding road, and we did not make as much progress as we had expected. We stopped at Lan Sang National Park, where we were caught in a tropical downpour. Despite the advice of one of the park guards we hiked up to the lower of the parks three waterfalls. Along the way we were overtaken by a young Thai couple; he looking suave and flashily dressed; she in skin tight white pants, crop top and enormous soled shoes (the kind of shoes you would expect to see Ginger Spice wearing). The most fashion conscious hikers I have ever seen! Turning to the next waterfall, we found the trail had become a mudslide in itself, so we cut our visit short and got back on the road.

With 60 kilometres to the border, I realised we would not make it there and back before nightfall. It was 3.30pm already and we had been on the road most of the day and had only travelled some 150 kilometres. We stopped and rethought our plan. Turning south, we headed towards Khamphaeng Phet. Along the route home there was an army roadblock, obviously checking for smugglers. The officer in charge waved most cars through but stopped us. “Where are you coming from?”, he asked. “Lan Sang National Park.”, we replied. He nodded. I expected that would be it, but he paused a little longer. “You speak Thai?”, he asked. “No.”, we admitted. “But you drive?” That always seemed to concern people, both within Thailand and without. “Yes. We hired the car in Phitsanulok.” “Ahhh.”, he nodded. “Phitsanulok.” He waved his hand around. “You drive around Thailand?” “Yes. It is a nice country.” “Where do you come from?” Stupidly, I replied, “We’ve come from Sukhothai.” The officer laughed. “No. Your country.” “Ohhhh. Australia.” He nodded firmly. “Olympics. Kangaroos.” The constant symbols of Australia for 2000 and beyond. And then he waved us on our way.

Kamphaeng Phet was very much off the tourist track despite being the third most significant Sukhothai period archaelogical site in Thailand. Once the city had sat right on the bank of the Ping river, however, the ruins are now set well back. The city itself was small; the walls scarcely more than 600m on their longest side. After the old city fell into decay, the modern city had grown up around the ruins, leaving them to be pretty much buried by time and the relentless forces of nature. Now excavated to some degree, the historical park is a scenic and green semi wilderness in the midst of a featureless urban sprawl. When we arrived the rain had stopped but the knee high grass was still wet. The walking tracks were soft mud trails. Although there were people walking through the park on their way home from work, there was still a touch of that wilderness feel that made the ruins of Angkor such an experience. In the centre of what was once Wat Phra Kaew sat four eroded and crumbling buddha statues. Centuries of rain had washed the stuco sculpture away leaving only the slender faceless cores. Elegant in their ruination. Khampaeng Phet cannot compare with the scale and magnificence of Sukhothai, and although nothing on the size of Si Satchanalai, it far surpassed that ruin for atmosphere.

Once again we found excellent regional accommodation for less than A$25 per night at the Phet hotel. For the first time in central Thailand there was television in English; a rather sad American soft porn flick. Each time a rudie scene came on, the screen turned translucent green or red, blurring over any of the interesting bits. I’ve always found the Thai attitude to sex extremely contradictory. Pornography is banned and nudity frowned upon, but ‘special’ shows where the most explicit and repulsive acts are on show are common place. Prostitution was everywhere.

As I said earlier, Kamphaeng Phet is not a tourist town. We wandered around the streets that night searching in vain for a restaurant, bar or nightclub but found nothing, so we wandered back to the hotel. A block from the hotel we met a young Thai girl escorting a giant St Bernard dog. As we came nearer the dog began to growl and become agitated. Rabies is rampant amongst the dogs of Thailand, and before we could react the St Bernard pounced on us. The girl attempted vainly to restrain the enormous creature, but he was almost twice her size and he simply dragged her after him. The commotion attracted another dog, a mongrel, from a nearby shop and suddenly we found ourselves in the midst of a dog fight. We both threw our hands in the air to avoid being bitten. The dog lashed out with its paws catching Shelly on the back of the leg. A few moments later, in the safety of the hotel car park we assessed the damage. A large bruise, crossed with the faint scratch marks of the dog’s claws appeared on the back of her calf. Fortunately, the skin had not been broken.

And then there were tears. It wasn’t just the shock of the dog attack, and the threat of rabies, but a whole series of incidents which had afflicted her. In Ayutthaya, Shelly had slipped on some wet tiles and bruised her right knee, giving her a limp. Then in Phitsanulok a careening kid on a bicycle had crashed into her right leg, compounding the problem. Then in Khampaeng Phet, when we came back from wandering through the historical park, we found the car filled with mosquitos. We thought we had cleared them all out, but back at the hotel Shelly found the tell tale whelts of insect bites on her arm. And then the dog. As I disinfected the bruise, just to be sure, she sobbed, “Everything bad is happening to me on this trip.” It certainly seemed unfair, especially from her point of view. Our usual experience is for everything bad to happen to me. If someone has to fall down some stairs and break their arm somewhere in the third world: that would be me. If someone had to be stopped at the border and subjected to a body cavity search: that would be me. But this time, I would walk away unscathed. For Shelly the bad luck continued. Even in the sunny south, when we were supposedly relaxing on the Thailands beaches, Shelly managed to pick up the ubiquitous gastro bug – a very effective party stopper if ever there was one. Nevertheless, she didn’t catch malaria and she didn’t catch rabies, so we have to be happy about that.

Later, when we were composed, we ventured down to the hotel restaurant. It would be tactful to say the food was average, and the entertainment was dreadful. But I shan’t be tactful and say the entertainment was f…. dreadful! The evening started with a traditional band playing…….. I really don’t know what they were playing, as it was so awful. The dirge like music, painful in itself, was occasionally drowned out by the screetching and whining sound made by the bored looking girl pretending to be a singer.

Fortunately, the ‘traditional’ part of the evenings entertainment was soon over and the band was replaced by young Thai ladies dressed either in evening gowns or slut wear. Each girl sang a song or two, karaoke style. While Shelly indulged in that typically female habit of assessing each girl’s dress sense and musical talent – “She shouldn’t wear a dress like that. It makes her hips look too big. Ohh, she can’t sing at all, I guess that’s why she is wearing that see through top.” – I cynically observed that they weren’t probably hired for their singing ability. “The girls are probably for sale after the show.”, I said. I was immediately berated as a pervert and a sexist pig, but as each girl finished her set, left the stage, and began wandering amongst the tables, which were rapidly filling with middle aged business men, Shelly was forced to reconsider her position. By the time we left, the room had taken on a distinctly different aire, somewhat more akin to a pick up joint.

The next morning we drove back to Phitsanulok to drop off the car. Ahead of us lay the islands of the south. After two weeks of hard travelling, I envisaged wandering along beautiful white sand beaches, the azzure blue ocean lapping softly as sun bronzed, bare breasted beach bunnies bounced beautifly by. Alas, as in the way of all sad male fantasies, it wasn’t quite to be.

Of all the things that touched me most about the trip, it was the politeness and friendliness of the Thais. They don’t see many tourists in the central plains so the visit of strangers is something special. Despite the language barrier, people want to know where you are from, and where you are going. For example, the family at the petrol station in Phitsanulok. Only the mother spoke english. She quizzed us on our journey and translated our answers for the three generations of family who came out and stood around us in wonder. Farangs? Driving? They don’t speak Thai? But the final word I will leave to a young girl called Nin. On the long train ride from Ayutthaya to Phitsanulok she sat across the aisle from us. At Phichit, she got off the train, but before she left she came over to us, performed a wai (palms together, bowing your head as a sign of respect) and placed in my hands a brochure. A moment later she was gone, before I had even had time to respond properly. The brochure was for an agricultural/economics college and in the space at the end of the brochure she had drawn a happy face, and written, “Good luck for tourist. Nin. Economics student. ” I still think it was a lovely, touching gesture.

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