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Published: November 2nd 2006
Orchids blooming in Mr Charin's garden, Kamphaeng Phet.
© L. Birch 2006
Four days after our arrival, we cast about for somewhere we could go and acclimatise gently to the heat and tumult of Asia. Kamphaeng Phet was a six-hour bus journey north of Bangkok and seemed to fit the bill. “A small provincial capital”, the guidebook said, “dominated by a number of Sukothai-era temples, that sees few foreign visitors.” It sounded so promising that, a couple of days later, we were ensconced in a small guesthouse close to the walls of the old city.
The journey there by bus took us across the flat central plains which now, in the wake of the rainy season, were a vast flooded waterworld. Trees stood knee deep in water and waterlogged fields stretched as far as the eye could see. Even small villages had not been spared, their ramshackle buildings inundated to roof level in some places. It provided a sobering glimpse of how parts of the world might look in fifty years if sea levels continue to rise in the wake of global warming. But if the human cost of this annual flooding was misery, the benefits to wildlife - particularly birds - was immense. They were everywhere; great clouds of Asiatic storks,
Ticket to Ride
A Samlor was the easiest way of getting around town.
© V. Birch 2006
white breasted kingfishers the size of pigeons, egrets, spoonbills, herons, waders and wildfowl.
We arrived late in Kamphaeng Phet after a six hour journey across the plains. As a stepping-stone to the far north, it proved to be an ideal stopover point. A relaxing place - once you got used to the usual clamour of Thai traffic - that provided an opportunity to take stock of our new surroundings, enjoy the cultural diversions of the old city with its brooding Buddha statues and crumbling remains, wander aimlessly around the markets and to get acquainted with some of the local people. We were not in any hurry to dive headlong into crazy adventures but simply content to soak up the atmosphere and find our place within this new world. Besides, a whole year stretched ahead of us - there was plenty of time for crazy adventures.
The ruinous remains of old Kamphaeng Phet dated back to the early 1500s and lay on the outskirts of the new town. Some of the temples were still covered in trees and jungle growth that made them look like a setting from an Indiana Jones movie. Most delightfully of all, there were no
Let Sleeping Buddhas Lie
A reclining Buddha statue sleeps among the ruins, Kamphaeng Phet.
© L. Birch 2006
other westerners and visiting Thais seemed to be more interested in us than they were of the ruins.
It was also here that we met Mr Charin and spent many of our evenings chatting until the 'candles burned low'. He seemed to take a shine to us and - before we left - took us out to his lakeside home, deep in the heart of the country. We had been on our way to watch the sunset over the Nam Ping River one evening when Mr Charin drove up alongside us, asking if we would like to see the lake house. Of course, we said "yes" and before long, were racing through rural countryside in his 4X4 in an effort to reach the lake before sunset. We made it with just minutes of light left, enough anyway to see how beautiful the house and setting were. It was situated on the edge of a national park with commanding views of a lake and jungle covered hills beyond. After an appreciative look around, we sat down to a dinner of green Thai curry, vegetables and rice - the buzz saw 'song' of cicadas in the darkened garden, almost drowning conversation.
Wat Phra Kaeo Moving On
Temple ruins, Kamphaeng Phet.
© L. Birch 2006
It was something of a wrench to leave but we did so with small gifts from Mr Charin - a lucky Buddha charm - pressed upon us before we boarded a bus for Thailand's 'wild west' on the border with Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Kamphaeng Phet, we decided, was going to take some beating.
Our next destination was Mae Sot, a rough and ready border town with a distinctly Burmese influence. The plan was to stay a night and then take a songthaew - a pick up truck pressed into use as a taxi - with a roofed over back and a row of bench seats facing each other inside - up along the border road to Mae Sariang, 300km to the north. Renowned both for the appalling condition of the road and occassional hold-ups by bandits, we viewed the prospect of travelling this route with some apprehension but also, strangely, with a degree of excitement. Strangely, because the possibility of danger only served to add an extra 'frisson' of excitement to a journey that few foreign travellers undertook and which promised some truly stunning scenery.
The night before the "border run", we
Hook-Nosed Vine Snake
One of many reptiles, birds and butterflies to be found among the ruins.
© L. Birch 2006
bedded down at an old teak guesthouse in the heart of the town. The room was all dark panelled teak and devoid of any furnishings apart from a fan and a mattress on the floor with a heavy mosquito net suspended above. But despite the austerity of our surroundings, we were ridiculously excited by our night's accommodation. Crawling beneath the net felt like getting into a tent . With the lights out, the sound of frogs - croaking loudly in the garden outside - seemed to intensify and echoed around the room. Tomorrow and the border run, would come soon enough.
Did we survive the border run? Stay tuned for the next gripping installment, "Friends in High Places"... coming soon!
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