and tough guards
In Ayutthaya, Phitsanulok and Bangkok sit and lie enormous Buddha statues. Often made of gold. Dangerous-looking guards keep demons away from the buildings that hold Buddha reliquies. But Thailand has more to offer. That's a good thing because, after all, how many temples can you visit before they all start to look the same? There are beautiful landscapes, floating markets, the River Kwai and interesting mountain people. You can travel around by boat, ox cart, bicycle taxi or elephant.
Travelogue & photos: Angélique Woudenberg
We arrive before 7 AM after an 11 hour flight from Amsterdam. The first things we notice are the heat and the busy traffic: cars, taxis, mopeds and Tuk Tuks. Most Thai wear surgical masks in traffic; that doesn't surprise us with this amount of air pollution.
We drive to the first city where we're going to stay, the former capital of Siam, Ayutthaya. After lunch we visit a few temples, called "Wat" in Thailand. We visit the Wat Mahatat and the Wat Chai Watthanaram.
At first we see just ruins of temples that have dilapidated or that were destroyed by the Birmese, who beheaded almost all Buddha statues.
We learn the meaning of the positions of the different Buddha statues: a lying Buddha symbolizes the road to "Nirvana" or enlightenment and if a Buddha is sitting in the Lotus position, its right hand points to the ground and its left hand rests on its lap. We'll see this position quite often during our trip.
Kanchanaburi (River Kwai)
For every railroad tie somebody died
After breakfast we leave the former capital and drive to Kanchanaburi where our first stop is the war cemetery. Here hundreds of prisoners of war are buried, among whom Dutch, who were forced by the Japanese to work on the Birma railroad.
After the Japanese army occupied Thailand and Birma (now Myanmar) during WW II, it had problems supplying its troops in Birma. The Japanese government decided that a railroad had to be built between Thailand and Birma. They used allied prisoners of war to do the work of building the 415 km (312 miles) tracks.
But the bridge we see today is not the original one and less impressive than the one in the movie "Bridge over the River Kwai." It is said that somebody died for each and every railroad tie.
We visit the JEATH Museum in Kanchanaburi to learn under which circumstances the prisoners lived and worked. We see photos, newspaper articles and paintings by prisoners of war from Japan, England, Australia, Thailand and Holland. JEATH, the name of the museum, is an acronym formed by the first letters of the countries from which the prisoners of war came.
We have lunch on a raft on the River Kwai that is being pulled by a motor boat. We sail under the famous bridge, along floating hotels, floating restaurants and disco boats on which karaoke shows take place.
They are covered rafts with huge speakers from which extremely loud music sounds and which you can rent to sail down the River Kwai partying. That seems strange after hearing about the history of the bridge and visiting the war museum.
We drive to the train station Wang-Po where we take the train for a short trip on the original Birma railway. We travel 3rd class. It's quite an experience.
Damnoen Saduak - Bangkok
To the floating market by longtail boat
Today we take a longboat tour of the floating market in Damnoen Saduak. We move at top speed through the klongs, so unfortunately we can't enjoy the surroundings very much.
The floating market is a disappointment: it's a tourist attraction where more souvenirs than regular merchandise is offered.
Before we arrive in Bangkok, we visit a cocos plantation and the house of a Thai family. In front of their house several spirit houses are lined up.
These small houses are meant to appease the spirits and keep evil spirits away. Every day offerings of fresh flowers and incense are placed in front of the spirit houses. Almost all hotels have their spirit houses as well.
In the afternoon we're free to explore Bangkok on our own. Our first goal is Chinatown, which has untidy streets, lunatics on the road, chaotic traffic, smog and noise.
It's quite an adventure here to cross the street. Using the pedestrian crossing means putting you life in danger.
We brought a business card of our hotel to make sure that the cab driver will take us to the right one. Many cab drivers here don't read English and the business card has the name and address of the hotel in Thai.
The way back from Chinatown to our hotel is impressive. Every meter we see super-big pictures of Queen Sirikit and decorations in red-white-blue, the national colors of Thailand. The cab driver greets every picture with a bow.
The Queen's birthday is on August 12 and in honor of it all buildings and streets have been decorated.
At night we take a dinner cruise on the Chao Praya River. While we're eating we enjoy the view of illuminated temples like Wat Arun and we also can participate in karaoke.
The dirty water of the river is used to wash dishes and to shower
After breakfast we visit Wat Traimit to admire the Golden Buddha. It was discovered by accident when the statue was moved. It fell from the hoisting crane and the plaster broke, showing the gold through the cracks. The plaster was originally applied to keep the Birmese from stealing it.
The statue is beautiful, but we have to be patient to take a picture of it.
Our next visit is to the Royal Palace. In front of the entrance are tall guards and before you're allowed to enter, we are inspected to see if we are wearing the appropriate clothes and shoes. "Appropriate" means shoes (no sandals or slippers, slacks (ankles should be covered) and covered shoulders. We think it's a little exaggerated, especially when we see several Thai in flip-flops.
The first thing that strikes us, is all the gold leaf and the decorations on the buildings. The gold leaf has been applied by monks.
Near the Royal Palace we see a chedi. This is a building that contains a relic of the Buddha, for example a breastbone. On the outside of the chedi several Ramakien figures have been placed to protect it. A Rama symbolizes Good and is often pictured with a dark-green face. It protects the chedi from demons.
On the walled in compound of the Royal Palace is the most sacred temple of Thailand, the Wat Phra Kaeo. Its outside is decorated with 112 golden Garudas who are holding snakes. A Garuda is half-bird, half-human.
Before we can enter the temple, we have to take off our shoes. In the temple we see a small emerald green Buddha statue.
Our feet are not allowed to point in the direction of the Buddha, so we have to admire the statue kneeling. The emerald Buddha is called Phra Kaeo. Which explains the name of the temple.
This morning we visit the 46 meter (138 feet) long reclining Buddha in the Wat Pho. Nest to this enormous Buddha are 108 trays in which you can throw money. We see a woman throwing change in every tray, it seems to bring good luck. Unfortunately we didn't bring that much change.
After a short walk in the garden we leave and drive to the Chao Praya River, Thailand's most important river, where we take a klong tour.
The Chao Praya River consists of different streams, which are called "klongs". We sail on the dirty water of the klongs with a longtail boat and on the way we see lots of houses on stilts, rich and poor families living next to each other.
It's hard to believe, but this dirty water is used to wash dishes and to shower.
De klong tour ends at the Wat Arun which is decorated with thousands of china shards. We are getting a little "temple tired" by now.
In the evening we leave Bangkok and take the night train to Chiang Mai. We're in a luxury part of the train, it has air conditioning. At night, the seats are transformed into beds, which have curtains. After a 13 hour trip we arrive in Chiang Mai.
Traditional workshops and factories
In the afternoon we visit several workshops in and around Chiang Mai. Our first stop is at a place in Bo Sang that makes completely handmade, decorated parasols.
We watch a parasol being made. They have a wooden handle, bamboo ribs and a screen of prepared rice paper or cotton to which a pattern is applied.
I have them apply a personalized pattern on my handbag. This is done with a little cone, filled with paint, which has a small hole. With it, they can make pretty paintings in a short while. In the store behind the workshop we buy a handpainted umbrella.
Our next visit is to a handcraft studio where laquer products are made. Bamboo is decorated with black of gold flowers or flames. Traditional lackerwork products are jewelry boxes.
Next stop is a silk factory. They show us the silk caterpillars who gorge themselves for a week before they form pods. The pods are boiled and spun into silk.
Our last visit is to the biggest jewelry store in Thailand. They show a movie about gems and after this we get our personal saleswoman who shows us around the workshop. Here we see how jewelry and sculptures are made of natural stone.
Then we are taken to the showroom. A huge hall full of showcases with jewelry, made of different gems. We buy a little elephant, a bracelet and a necklace made of jade.
In the evening we explore the night market of Chiang Mai where we see our first tjitjaks (a kind of small green lizards) and also meet the Akha people for the first time. The stalls offer, apart from souvenirs, all kinds of fake brand merchandise.
Surroundings Chiang Mai
Elephant trip, jungle tour, rafting and a ride in an ox cart
This morning we're visiting an elephant training camp where we watch elephants being washed and afterwards performing tricks for the tourists. We didn't know that elephants can play soccer, basketball or the hamrmonica.
We take an elephant ride through the jungle. The two of us are sitting on a small wooden bench and the mahout is sitting between the elephant's ears. The animal has trunks and is enormous.
At first we go at a quiet pace through water, over hills and valleys and then, all of a sudden, our elephant feels like sprinting. We feed him a few bunches of bananes to keep him quiet.
Then we take a boat ride on a rickety old raft on the brown waters of the Taeng River. On top of that we are treated to an uncomfortable ride in an old-fashioned ox cart, pulled by two listless oxes.
Our last excursion for today is a visit to an orchid nursery. These flowers are indiginous in the Northern part of Thailand and are the most famous flowers of this country. In a different part of the nursery we see Siamese kittens and dogs. The Siamese cat originated in Siam, the old name for Thailand.
To the mountain tribes
We race up the hills in a pick-up truck
In the morning we visit the temple on the mountain: the Wat Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai. The temple is situated at a heighth of 1100 meters (3300 feet) and we can get there in two ways: by funicular or a stairway of 300 steps. Wanting to be good sports, we take the stairs.
I get myself blessed by a monk. At first I get doused with holy water and the monk says a prayer. After that he ties a band, actually more a string, around my wrist that will bring me happiness for the next five years. I'm nog allowed to take it off, it has to drop off my arm by itself. What seems strange, in retrospect, is that these monks are not allowed to touch women.
In Chiang Rai we take a pick-up truck which will take us to the mountain tribes. There's eight of us in the truck and we race up the mountains. We're thrown from one side to the other, so we can't really enjoy the view.
As soon as we arrive in an Akha village, we are surrounded by begging children and women with red-and-black teeth who try to sell us bracelets and tiger balm, which is supposed to repell mosquitos.
The women pose for a picture, for a fee. Their clothes are special and their headdresses are decorated with a silvery (aluminum) cap. The discoloring of the teeth is caused by smoking opium.
During the next stop, we pay a visit to the Yao mountain tribe, who are originally from Central China; their characteristic attire is a red fur cap and shawl. In the village are only woman and children. The women have stalls along the road and sell the same souvenirs you can find all over Thailand. Unfortunately we get to see very little of their authentic culture.
We race on, farther into the mountains, to the place where we are going to spend the night: Doi Mae Salong, waar voornamelijk Chinezen leven. Our guesthouse is on a hill, surrounded by tea plantations.
The evening brings heavy weather: scary lightening, thunderstorms and torrential rains, but that's not even the worst. Our bedroom is crawling with vermin, spiders, tjiktjaks and flees are on my bed. I'm glad it's only for one night.
The Golden Triangle
A boat trip on the Mekong
In the morning we drive to the Golden Triangle. This is the point where three countries meet: Myanmar (Birma), Thailand and Laos. Birma was the biggest producer of opium and Thailand was the trafficking country. The three countries had different valuta, so for the illegal trade in opium gold was used as tender, hence the name "Golden Triangle".
We take a boat trip on the Mekong River between Thailand and Laos. All islands in the Mekong a part of Laos. We get off the boat on one of these islands, Donsao.
For 20 Bath each, we receive a piece of paper and are allowed to enter the island. There isn't much to see: a few souvenir shops and some kind of post office where we mail picture postcards. We continue our boat trip and pass by a Birmese casino and see the boarder between Birma and Thailand, which is fortified with sandbags.
Our last stop is the most Northern point of Thailand, Mae Sai. It is a crowded, untidy and chaotic village, where we are assailed by begging people who don't look too hygenic.
Here we also see the boarder with Myanmar, but because of the stream of illegal immigrants it is temporarily closed. We can visit the Opium Museum here, but we don't feel like it.
An old, shriveled man bicycles us around
We leave Chiang Rai and "shake, rattle & roll" for a while through the mountains. On our way we stop at a rice factory where we are shown around. Just before we arrive in Sukhothai, a torrential rain storm begins. Because of it, our bicycle trip in Sukhothai Park is cancelled. Instead we take a tour with a tourist tram. This is the first time that the monsoon interferes with our program.
In the evening we explore Phitsanulok by bicycle taxi. An old, shriveld man of around 60 takes us to the Topland Mall.
We enjoy the ride in the bicycle taxi, but we also feel sorry for the man and give him a big tip.
A gilded Buddha statue with a wreath of flames
Today is our last day of excursions with the group. We visit Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahatat in Phitsanulok, where we admire the famous statue of Sukhothai: it is a gilded bronze Buddha with a wreath of flames around its head. Here too, we have to take off our shoes and cover our shoulders and knees.
Eight o'clock exactly the monk begins a series of prayers. It sounds like mumbling through the microphone. Rather embarrassing. A small group of Thai listens attentively and the tourists yell right through it. Temple fatigue is taking its toll.
We take a stroll at the tourist market and then board the bus for the long trip to Pattaya.
The last four days of our vacation we relax in the vulgar sea resort Pattaya.