Serene Buddhas and an Ancient Capital: Sukhothai

On Sunday, I headed up north, taking the train up to Sukhothai. The Sukhothai Historical Park houses the remnants of the 13th-14th century capital of arguably the first Thai (as opposed to Khmer) kingdom.

The train went to Phitsanolok, about an hour from Sukhothai. The trip was on a two-car special express train – I was rather puzzled to see the train because the car I was in seemed to be the engine! If you looked straight ahead down the middle of the car, you saw a door and the train tracks stretched ahead. I had bought a snack for the train, but surprisingly they served us complimentary cookies and coffee, and them later some curry for lunch.

Train curry!

Train curry!

The scenery was definitely interesting. We passed through Ayuthaya, another ancient capital, and could see tantalizing glimpses from the train tracks. Next we passed through Lopburi, where clustered around a shrine were more monkeys than I’ve ever seen before, in the shrine area, walking to it, in the street. Remember the deer in Nara? Well it’s the monkeys in Lopburi in much the same way.

We passed a lot of water, explaining why traditionally Thai houses are on stilts. We passed lots of those, too. There were many water lilies and more crane-like birds (herons, egrets, don’t know) than I’ve ever seen before. I saw some emaciated cow-like animals that seemed to have a hump (so I’m not sure if they were cows and I could just see bone structure normally hidden on a well-fed cow, or if they were some hybrid). I even saw a water buffalo!

I noticed a Western couple getting off the train at the same time so I asked whether they were going to Sukhothai and if so whether we could go in a group. As we stood looking at a map of Phitsanulok, a couple of guys speaking English joined us and we decided that a tuk-tuk to the bus station made sense. So five of us AND our luggage somehow squeezed into one tuk-tuk and away we went.

We found the bus to Sukhothai pretty easily and sat in the back by the luggage. It was a local bus, so it stopped frequently to let people on and off. A bunch of tiny older women got on, clearly coming back from selling their wares at the market. Our backpacks gradually were surrounded by piles of (probably handmade) baskets, bags of chili peppers, and finally a mesh bag of (live!) frogs. It was a great, if not terribly comfortable, trip.

The humidity in Sukhothai made the Bangkok-like heat feel 10-15 degrees hotter as we trekked to out hotel. (Turns out the first couple I had spoken to were staying at the same hotel.) Luckily, the hotel was beautiful (think teak cabins and beds with mosquito netting and a princessy feel) and, more importantly, had air conditioning. I really needed it after walking around – I’ve never been as sweaty in my entire life as during the few days spent in Sukhothai!

The following day, I set out to explore the center part of the historical part on foot. I started with the museum and then headed into the park. Some of the ruins are little more than that, while others have enough left (or reconstructed) that they are mind-blowingly beautiful. It’s just a bunch of pillars and water and serene Buddhas. I’m not sure whether some of the reconstructed ruins have been overly reconstructed, but it is a UNESCO heritage site and they do tend to be quite picky about that. Anyway, I loved it, despite being taken aback by how manicured the park is.

I had lunch at a noodle shop patronized by several of the pink-shirted park staff (delicious Sukhothai noodles) and then called it a day. I spent the afternoon reading and posting in the blissful air conditioning.

I had planned for two full days in Sukhothai, which let me be very leisurely. I booked a tuk-tuk to the northern part of the Historical Park since it seemed too far to walk in the heat. It was early enough that I beat the crowds, too. The Buddha at Wat Si Chum is beautiful. I’m so glad I didn’t miss that part of the park! My tuk-tuk driver was very sweet, off-roading a bit to get me as close to the monuments as possible. I’d have been fine with keeping our exhaust away from the ruins, but there wasn’t any way to communicate that so I accepted the offering with the spirit with which it was intended. He also picked up a turtle crossing a road so I could hold the poor creature – luckily we passed a later pond so I could set him free again!

It wasn’t even ten when I finished my tuk-tuk tour, so I wrote postcards and then walked a mile or more to the post office. People on the whole are so friendly here – I had some random people wave and yell “hello” to me in Thai and English!

I wrapped up the day with an oil massage. Massage is so cheap here!

Beware of Wily Strangers: Bangkok

This sign greeted me as I walked along the perimeter wall around the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok yesterday. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Monday night, I set out for Southeast Asia. First stop, Bangkok, arriving Wednesday morning since I got to cross the international date line!

I was flying Etihad Airlines, the official airline of the UAE, and had no idea what to expect since online reviews were so split. I found the flight from Washington, DC to Abu Dhabi to have exceptional service. (The flight attendants actually kept the coach bathroom clean and with the end of the roll of toilet paper folded into a little triangle, if you can believe it!) Best yet was the fact that the back of the plane was empty – a woman I started chatting with while boarding gave me the heads-up that I should try to move to the back, and I am very grateful for the advice. I ended up sitting by myself in a middle three-seater row, which meant that I could lie down and actually…sleep! It’s amazing what sleeping on a plane will do for preventing jet lag. The flight from Abu Dhabi to Bangkok was more crowded, so not as comfortable. Oh well, I got to catch up on the latest Star Trek movie, which I had been wanting to see for a while, so all was not lost!

Bangkok’s airport is fairly confusing, with multiple immigration entry points. Inexplicably we got herded to number 4, although our baggage was coming in on a carousel closer to a different immigration line. I went through pretty quickly, picked up my bags, and headed out to the taxi line. The same lady who had given me such good advice on moving to the back of the plane recommended that I take a taxi instead of the Airport Express train, since a cab wouldn’t cost much more and with the train I’d need to change multiple times and go up and down stairs. Well, people can’t always be right! I rather regret not taking the train in, despite the stairs, since I have a backpack to make stairs easy. (I’ve noticed in the couple of days I’ve been here in Bangkok that it doesn’t seem very accessible – the BTS Skytrain is very convenient, but I haven’t seen any elevators.) The nice lady was wrong about a taxi being cheap, perhaps because she inexplicably didn’t account for the traffic jams that Bangkok is notorious for. My cab from the airport cost almost $40, pretty steep in a country where so much is so very cheap.

I must admit that when I got into the cab, I was pretty sure I was getting scammed. My driver insisted on taking the paper ticket that they had given me when they assigned me a cab, and I thought that was the one piece of paper that was the rider’s proof of destination in order to prevent a scam. I sat there worried – and then philosophical – that I was going to be scammed, but I think I overreacted. I don’t know whether my driver took the most direct route or not, but I rather think he did. He pointed out where the airport train went. He told me to take it going back, because it would be much faster and cheaper. And he didn’t charge me the full, official airport charge of 50 baht, either. He seemed very surprised and grateful when I then gave him a 100 baht tip (about 10%).

I’m staying at the Courtyard Marriott since I have some Marriott points left (surprisingly, after using them all over the world this year!). I know it’s not the most atmospheric Thai hotel, but it’s very nice and just what I need to get over any jet lag and get acclimatized. It’s actually rather amusing being at breakfast and seeing the business-type folks in the business lounge, and knowing that I don’t have to work. And fresh guava juice at breakfast is a definite plus!

The hotel let me check in very early, so I spent a little time researching what I wanted to do on Wednesday (nothing too strenuous!) and then headed out. Since I’m only a few blocks from the Erawan Shrine, I headed there first. It’s a shrine on the street corner by the (extremely) high class Erawan Shopping Center. The shrine was built to reverse bad karma at the Erawan Hotel (and it’s apparently worked). A lot of people come to pray at the Hindu shrine, and there are Thai dancers there who are hired by the devout who have had a prayer answered. I sat for a little while, taking in the incense, the dancers and the devout, before moving on.

The devout in front of the Erawan Shrine, Bangkok

The devout in front of the Erawan Shrine, Bangkok

Incense at the Erawan Shrine

Incense at the Erawan Shrine

Next up was a search for an ATM, which I found in a mall. I checked the Erawan Mall first. It’s the first time I’ve seen as exclusive as Givenchy in a mall! However, no luck on an ATM, so I moved on to the one across the street, where I had better success.

I then went to the Jim Thompson House Museum. Jim Thompson was an American who first came to Thailand in WWII in his position with the OSS. He loved it so much that he moved here after the war, becoming fascinated in Thai handmade silk. He founded a business to bring Thai silks to the West – Jim Thompson Silk is now one of the best known names in the industry. As I learned during the tour of his house, his silks were used for the costumes in The King and I. I guess once Hollywood knows you, the rest of the world does, too!

Tours leave every 20 minutes or so, so I wandered around the garden for a little while and then sat on a bench to wait. The heat and, more importantly, the humidity, are taking some getting used to! The museum consists of his house (seven traditional Thai houses knocked together to form one big, semi-traditional house) along with a couple of smaller houses and his garden. Mr. Thompson collected beautiful Thai antiques, so I got to see numerous Buddha statues, some beautiful porcelain, and the houses themselves, made of beautiful dark wood. Thai houses are traditionally on stilts to avoid flooding and bases are wider than the tops of the houses to give better structural support.

After Jim Thompson’s House Museum, I was ready to head back to the air conditioning of the hotel. I was planning to pack in a full tourist day on Thursday, heading out to the Grand Palace (and being told to beware of wily strangers). And now that you’re hooked, I’ll tell you more tomorrow. See, I can be wily, too.