Published: December 8th 2007December 5th 2007
After a week in Chiang Mai, we finally decided it was time to continue on the "banana-pancake trail." To our delight, it was less of a trail than we had previously thought!
Leaving Chiang Mai, we hopped on a bus to Sukhothai, a relatively small town 6 hours south of Chiang Mai. Sukhothai was the first capital of Thailand, and it's heyday was from the 13th-15th centuries. It is a charming little town, once you get off the main highway that cuts through the town centre. There is a river that winds its way along the outskirts of the town, and beyond that there are orchards galore. It is a warm, dry region, yet very relaxing and beautiful. I was enchanted by it right away. Perhaps there were some elements of it that reminded me of summer in the Okanagan...
We decided to start off our tour of the city by visiting the Sukhothai Historical Park, located a couple of kilometres from the new town centre. Once we reached the park we rented a couple easy-rider bikes, and with a map in hand started on our exploration. It was interesting to see the Sukhothai ruins (which comprise the park),
as they were originally built during and after the height of the Khmer Empire. They were definitely Thai in architecture, yet we could visibly see some elements of Khmer architecture as well. There were even some purely Khmer temples in the park from a period when the Khmers occupied the region. The park isn't nearly as well preserved as Angkor, but it was a much more peaceful way to visit ruins. There weren't many tourists, so we often were at ruins by ourselves, or with only one or two other tourists. As well, it was delightful to ride our bikes from temple to temple and enjoy the views of the countryside surrounding the park. We finished our day with a lemon shake and an ice coffee before we caught the last bus into town.
Sukhothai also had another treat for us, which was this lovely little restaurant run by a Thai-Belgian couple. The food was about average, but the dessert! You can only imagine how tasty their ice cream with hot belgium chocolate was.. divine. It was the last thing we expected in relatively rural Thailand!
There were many ex-pat business in Sukhothai, and the next day we
had a better appreciation of why ex-pats might live in this little town. We had booked ourselves a half-day bike tour with a Belgian man named Ronnie, and spent the morning and afternoon biking with him and a Swiss couple. Ronnie picked us up at our guesthouse, all smiles and enthusiasm, and we knew right away that this was going to be a great day. For one, Patrick finally had a bike that fit him, and second, Ronnie was a great guide. The warm, clear shining sun didn't hurt either.
We biked along the backroads of Sukhothai, winding our way along the Mae Nam Yom river. It was a pleasant ride, biking at an easy pace, so we had the leisure to take in the sights around us. We stopped along the river at one point, where a lady from the market was buying fish from a fish farm. It was interesting to get a glimpse into the daily lives of the people, seeing their transactions, as well as noticing what an interest we as foreigners sparked.
Our destination that day was a lesser-known wat, where a rather eccentric monk had created a 'Buddha park' out of concrete
images. Apparently the monk had a special vision and decided he had to share this vision with others, and did so by creating images out of concrete, depicting Buddha's story. The park was quite spectacular as the images were life-sized and full of colour, creating a pleasant atmosphere. Ronnie did a great job going from image to image, explaining Buddha's story to us. Patrick and I were eager to learn the story, for all of our travelling in SE Asia we hadn't yet learned why Buddha 'created' Buddhism. I know we had learned this in high school, but the details were definitely rather fuzzy. It was good to hear the story from a foreigner, and one who had been living among the Thai people for 15 years. Ronnie was distanced enough from the religion to give us a clearer view of it, a view we wouldn't have received from the Thai populace. Subsequently, Ronnie's own thoughts and opinions of Buddhism were very interesting to hear. I guess if you could sum up Buddhism, as it was originally intended, in a phrase it would be : Be good to yourself, others, and the environment. I think that is one thing all
Wat Thawet Sculptures
This is meant to be a recreation of hell.
religions, and people of no-religion, can agree on, or aspire to.
After our ride with Ronnie we caught a bus to Ayuthaya, 4 hrs south of Suhkothai. Ayuthaya was the royal capital for four centuries, following the decline of Sukhothai, so it has much for history buffs to see. Once again we rented bicycles and rode from ruin to ruin, although our progress was a bit different from that in Sukhothai. For a small city ( ~90 000), Ayuthaya has an immense rode system, with many-laned streets of large size. Patrick finally explained to me that the roads are so large because they are based on the old road-system of the royal capital. Nevertheless, it made for a rather tentative biking experience at times, with cars making wide turns and passing lanes at great distances at great speeds. No worries, we were safe and made it back to our guesthouse at the end of the day in fine form.
The Ayuthaya ruins, being comparatively newer, are in better shape than those in Sukhothai. Like ruins the world over, they are of a religious nature, yet still incredible in their conception. Thai architecture of this period figures prominently with
chedis, cone-like structures, and prangs, shaped kind of like a rocket-ship. They both have similar importance, usually holding the remains of kings or objects of religious/royal importance. The kings at this time (actually, up to the 20th century I believe) were treated as gods, and believed in the "Divine Right of Kings," like countless other monarchies. As so, religion and royalty were deeply intertwined. To this day, the King of Thailand is revered like a god, and the worst insult to a Thai is one directed at their king. That being said, the king seems like a very good monarch, and has many pet projects directed at helping his population, especially the rural communities. Today is the king's birthday (he is 80 yrs old), and everyone is wearing yellow, the royal colour, in honour of him. There will be a big celebration tonight in Bangkok with parades and fireworks - it appears we are in for quite the night!
We completed our trip of north and north-central Thailand with drinks at a local jazz bar, and rested our legs for our next adventure, that of sight-seeing in Khao Yai National Park.
There are more photos below