Thailand from South to North
Gold, lots of gold in the temples
After Bangkok, the floating market in Damnoen Saduak, the Bridge over the River Kwai and Ayutthaya via Phitsanulok and Sukhothai northward. From Chiang Rai a boat trip on the Mekong River and a visit to mountain tribes. Via Sankaem-paeng, where they paint parasols, to Chiang Mai for a jungle trek on elephant back, bamboo raft and ox wagon. Back in the south, recuperating in the fishermen's town of Hua-Hin on the Gulf of Siam (Gulf of Thailand).
Travelogue & photos: Hans van der Ham
Lumpini Park, Bangkok's city park, is surrounded by tall buildings. In the park itself all kinds of activities take place: demonstrations and lessons ballroom dancing, Tai Chi, sword fighting, aerobics, song and dance, body building and fortune telling. There even is a course in laughing. It's fun to walk the jet lag out of our systems here.
I booked a bike trip via the internet at home. I get a mountain bike, Gon an ordinary ladies' bike and there we go, bicycling in Bangkok's Chinatown, the largest one outside China. Soon we bicycle through very crowded streets and alleys where life takes place outdoors.
Sometimes we have to cross through very busy traffic, but that goes amazingly well: just raise your hand and everyone stops. Via narrow alleys we arrive at a Chinese neighborhood temple. Here, I pray to the gods for a happy and long life: just a matter of choosing the right words and light some incense (cough cough), so that'll work out nicely.
Eventually we arrive at a small ferry that will take us to the other side of the busy, wide Chayo Praya river. There we see lots of gardens, narrow streets and canals (klongs). When we first started, at 7 AM this morning, the weather was nice, now it's hot and humid.
We are loaded on a longtail boat with our bikes; it's a long, narrow boat with a kind of truck engine for a outboard motor. It goes incredibly fast. James Bond used one in Bangkok in The Man With the Golden Gun.
Then again a leg between gardens. Bicycling is getting scary, the path is narrow and there are ditches on both sides. We take another, longer tour on a different longtail boat, back to the Chinatown side of the river.
Wat Traimit, a Buddha statue made of 5.5 tons of gold
During dinner we get acquainted with the rest of the group and the guides who will accompany us to the north of Thailand. Guide Frits Roos lives in Thailand since seventeen years. He is assisted by a Thai guide, Moo. It's obligatory to have a local guide in Thailand.
There also is a driver and a bus boy, who takes care of the luggage, cleans the bus, gets drinks and water and helps with all kinds of things.
It takes a little getting used to that waiters in restaurants kneel for you, even when they just hand you the menu or when you pay the check. That is, only the ones lowest in rank.
Hierarchy is important in Thailand and so are nice-looking uniforms. A train conductor looks like a four-star general. People are extremely friendly, polite and laid-back. Thailand doesn't have the nickname "Country of the Smile" for nothing.
The organized tour starts in Bangkok, where we visit the Wat Traimit (Temple of the Golden Buddha) in Chinatown. It has the largest massive-gold Buddha statue in the world: 5.5 tons of 18 karat gold. It also has other beautiful statues. In the temple we see many people who are praying, lots of monks and much incense.
Next we visit Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald-Green Buddha), a gigantic complex that borders on the Royal Palace: much, much gold. Every now and then the sky is blue, so it stands out nicely.
The Emeral-Green Buddha is in the largest building of the complex, but this most important religious symbol of the Thai itself is very small and stands in a kind of glass cage, on top of a pyramid of other statues. We're not allowed to take pictures here.
An open tour boat takes us through the klongs. We see a few monitor lizards, a scavenger which can be up to two meters long. The boat docks on the Chao Phraya river at Wat Arun, named after the god of dawn.
The complex around a tall pagoda is old, with glued-on china shards and it has a scary, high, steep staircase, 67 meters up.
In the evening we have dinner on a converted wooden rice barge. A girl plays a musical instrument that looks like a xylophone. It is dark and all the temples and palaces are illuminated. Very atmospheric.
Damnoen Saduak and Kanchanaburi
A floating market and the Bridge over the River Kwai
We get up at 6 AM to visit the floating market in Damnoen Saduak, 70 km from Bangkok. We cover the last leg in a longtail boat, so we race over the water again. To our left and right are plantations and on the way we feed catfish.
It's already busy on the market. Old women in boats sell food and fruit. The market turns out to be very touristy, so there are lots of souvenirs, some of which are even nice.
We continue on to Kanchanaburi, to the Bridge over the River Kwai and the War Museum with cemetary, where many Dutch WWII victims are buried. The bridge was partly rebuilt: the round bridge archs are the original ones, the straight ones were built after the war.
We have lunch on a towed pontoon which passes under the bridge. Afterwards, I walk up the bank and then the bridge. It is scary, you have to walk on a narrow sheet of metal between the tracks, with the deep (the water) next to it. It is rather crowded and we have to pass people all the time.
There are a few balconies on the bridge where you can stand when a train passes.
After our visit to the bridge we drive to a train station 20 km away for a ride in an old train. The train drives over a rather high wooden platform, which was built by prisoners of war. Afterwards we drive to our hotel in Kanchanaburi.
Ruins of a city of a million inhabitants
The next day we first visit Ayutthaya, the in 1767 destroyed capital of Siam.
Ayutthaya is a collection of ruins and you need some imagination to understand what it looked like, but a city of a million inhabitants must have been impressive.
A more recent temple sits next to the ruins: Viharn Phra Mongkol Bopit, with a huge bronze Buddha statue that literally fills the space. Lots of praying people here and some monks.
The national anthem sounds in the streets from speakers
We start on a long drive to Chiang Rai, 1000 km north of Bangkok in the Golden Triangle, in the border region with Burma and Laos. On the way we spend the night in Phitsanulok.
In Wat Mahattat, Phitsanulok's city temple, I see the most beautiful Buddha so far: large, not made of gold, but gold colored and with a completely different shape. A lot of praying is going on here.
Once we're outside, it's 9 AM and the national anthem sounds from speakers in the street. Everyone stands motionless, like people do on memorial days. We walk to a schoolyard a little farther. The students are lined up in straight rows and something official is sung and said to honor the teachers. They do this every morning.
Ruins of palaces and temples from the 13th and 14th centuries
We drive from Phitsanulok to the vast Historical Park Sukhothai, which has many ruins of palaces and temples from the thirteenth and forteenth centuries, when this was the capital of the Sukhothai kingdom.
Gon and I drive around here in a kind of motorized carrier tricycle taxi. A group of monk tourists also happens to be here, which is sort of authentic and colorful. Add a clear-blue sky and lots of green trees and the picture is perfect.
We drive another 500 km from Sukhothai to Chiang Rai, the last city before the Burmese border. We stay in Chiang Rai for two night in a luxury resort with vacation homes.
By boat on the Mekong to Laos
We first visit the Akha and Yao mountain tribes. A half-hour drive and then we transfer to pick-up trucks which take us into the mountains. Well, mountains: a kind of Luxemburg, but not less beautiful.
The tribes nowadays mainly busy themselves with selling souvenirs from stalls, but it's still fun. The second tribe even has stone houses and could have been skipped as far as I am concerned.
Then we board a ship to sail on the Mekong river. We sail a little bit and then dock at an island on Laotian territory. We get a visa for 50 euro cents in an office without walls and walk around.
There are only souvenir shops, but it's a completely different world from Thailand: considerably poorer. A liquor store on the island sells whiskey with snakes and scorpions in it.
City of the painted silk parasols
We leave Chiang Rai for Chiang Mai. Half way we stop in Sankaem-paeng, a town with different kinds of artisanal workshops. I skip the precious-stone and silk industry. I visit a parasol workshop: very interesting and colorful to see how silk parasols are made and painted.
You can also have your own stuff painted here, things like cell phones and cases for glasses.
We're in luck, it turns out there's a parasol festival going on, with a real Miss Parasol, who doesn't mind posing for me. Festivals, parties and all kinds of offficial events are popular here anyway.
Chinese lanterns with burning candles in them go up in the sky
We continue on to Chiang Mai, with a population of 1.5 million the second city in the country and capital of the north. We stay here for three nights on the twelfth floor of the Chiang Mai Grand View Hotel.
In the evening it's time for our "Kantoke dinner": we sit at low, round tables with little plates on them with local specialities. This is characteristic for this region. We are welcomed in the courtyard by a large group of people in traditional garb.
It's very crowded: I think there are around 2,000 people, among whom many Thai because it's Saturday night. Afterwards there are simple fireworks and it's possible to take photos of the employees in their beautiful clothes.
Another tradition from this part of Thailand follows: the launching of 120 centimeters high Chinese lanterns with burning candles in them. We are allowed to participate in the launching, which will free us of our bad thoughts. The sky is soon filled with Chinese lanterns.
Trek by elephant, bamboo raft and ox wagon
Today is elephant day! We visit a training camp for young elephants near Chiang Mai, where they learn to move tree trunks in the jungle. After a demonstration of what they have learned (and that is a lot, they even draw recognizable self portraits) we mount the elephants for a one hour ride.
Sitting takes some effort, but what an experience! We ride through the jungle and through shallow water and the only sounds we hear are birds. After an hour we're back and stiff.
We sail on a bamboo raft for half an hour. The water is very shallow and clear. Here and there we see an elephant turd; there are children who stand in the water trying to sell us stuff. We also meet elephants that are crossing the water.
Back on land we immediately get on a wagon which is pulled by two oxen. This is a twenty-minute ride, more than enough, because this is really bad for your kidneys. Afterwards we go to a beautiful location within walking distance of the river for lunch.
On the way back to the hotel we visit a butterfly garden and orchid nursery.
Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep
This temple also has a lot of gold
The next morning we visit Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, 15 km from Chiang Mai. This temple is a place of pilgrimage for the Thai. It sits on top of a 1,500 meters high mountain. Once there, you still have to climb stairs with 309 steps. Gon takes a kind of elevator.
Once we're there, it turns out that this is the most beautiful temple so far, even though all temples we visited are special in some way. We are blessed by a monk. Again, lots of gold and also a great view.
Afterwards we are picked up for a Thai massage. Men and women are taken to separate rooms and are given a kind of way too wide pyjamas. Then we are kneaded and stretched. Literally from tip to toe. The men are initially joking, but soon it gets very quiet, except for some groaning.
A not bad-looking girl sits on my back and neck at some point and later my head is on her lap. Spectators will probably think it looks like a picture from the Kama Sutra. Anyway, I'm ready for the world again. That is a good thing, because tomorrow I am going to bicycle for 5 hours in the surroundings of Chiang Mai.
I get a mountain bike, this time with a springy fork and an aerodynamic hard hat. With Miao, a girl who speaks English perfectly, I bicycle 30 km in 5 hours along non-touristy places around Chiang Mai. On the way we have lunch in a pretty spot by a lake. Bicycling is a little taxing here, because of the rolling landscape.
Fishermen's town on the Gulf of Siam
In the afternoon we are picked up and taken to the night train to Bangkok, where we arrive the next morning around 8:30 AM. After breakfast in the train station of Bangkok, we take our leave of the group and the guides.
We booked a few days in the Anantara Spa Resort in Hua-Hin, on the Gulf of Siam. After a two-and-a-half-hours drive on the busy road from Bangkok to the south, a short distance after passing Hua-Hin, we see an unremarkable wall with a gate.
After we are checked for bombs (!) we are on a long driveway. At the end is the entrance of the hotel, designed with both Thai and Malaysian influences and with many antique tools and lovely sculptures. Even the toilets are special. Around 260 people work here, among which an army of gardeners.
We visit the fishermen's town of Hua-Hin. Fishing boats are unloading at the pier. We take a stroll in the night market and buy some souvenirs. But after all this traveling, we mainly laze away the day on the beach and relish the memories of a wonderful vacation. We even start to think about our next trip to Thailand...