Discovering the Land of Buddhas
Central Thailand was to open our travel season in 2013. This was our first trip to Thailand and one that we organized ourselves, starting from Bangkok and touring the central provinces, with a few days at the Gulf of Thailand at the end to relax.
On arrival at the airport, the one with the virtually unpronounceable name of Suvarnabhumi, we were surprised how “western” the city and the Thai people appeared. This impression of modernism was to remain with us far past the confines of Bangkok.
While we were organizing immediate cash at the airport’s ATMs and a Thai phone card for emergencies, a tour operator managed to collar me, explaining that the following day would be the start of the Chinese New Year celebrations, for which occasion guided tours in the city would be much cheaper. We were much too wary of tricksters and still numbed by the invasion of new impressions to wish to book a tour with this gent. Instead, we made our way along moving slopes to the taxi-stands on the floor below. Here, a row of hostesses were there to make sure that the tourists and taxi-drivers were clear about where the latter were expected to drop off their clients and what fee would be charged.
Our driver took the expressway, avoiding the inevitable jams in the city centre. This led us through a rather ugly concrete jungle. Immediately we became aware of the lack of bright colour in the city. The sky was leaden, the views hazy and the humidity fierce. The outskirts of Bangkok seemed to stretch for ages, then suddenly we emerged onto a busy, smoky street full of vehicles and people. The roof of our hotel, the Shangri-La, peered above the smaller buildings to our right.
We were greeted with respectful “wais” or bows all the way to the reception and a pretty young woman in a smart, traditional silk dress accompanied us to the 24th floor, where we were due to have a “personal check-in”, one of the perks of our Horizon Club booking. A smart waiter brought us a fragrant towel for our sweaty faces and a pleasant fruit drink and presented us a with a hand garland of red and white flowers. Another gentleman knelt on the floor beside us to take down our particulars and explain that we were entitled to use the lounge we were in for soft drinks throughout the day, complimentary afternoon tea and gratis cocktails and canapés for two hours in the early evening. This came completely unexpectedly and we were naturally charmed!
There’s nothing like the offer of afternoon tea to make you realise that you are actually quite peckish, so as our luggage had not yet arrived in our lovely room, we opted for scones and biscuits with a nice cup of tea. We took time to do a little unpacking and reorganizing before daylight faded and it was getting a little dusky as we set off on foot to get our bearings.
The hotel is situated directly on the wide and sometimes boisterous Chao Praya. A broad slope at the rather majestic entrance takes you down to a shopping area in narrow streets, full of slightly tacky antique shops, stalls selling fake watches, cheap tailor shops and massage salons that offer views of clients inside stretched out on low beds and covered with blankets. Numerous cafes and a rather lovely temple with a school are also at home here. After about 30 metres, the street brings you to Silom Road, bustling with heavy traffic and thick with the sound of hootings and the roaring of motors and the screeching of brakes. Here, the more fashionable tailors can be found, sharing the pavements with jewelry shops and shops selling precious stones and expensive antiques. Tall, grimy buildings built in various eastern and western styles line the road; tourists, school children and local housewives and businessmen jostle along the steep, often broken pavements.
The noise and the heat were slightly overwhelming, so we returned to our hotel after stretching our legs and changed for cocktails. Not only were these complimentary, but they were also accompanied by the most wonderful dishes, little quiches and exquisite Thai salads, hot seafood dishes and cold ones, chicken legs wrapped in silver foil and mini- kebabs, tiny pastries and sliced baguette deliciously topped and several varieties of cheese. There were even deserts – hand made chocolates and small wafers filled with fruity mousses and chunks of fruit impaled on sticks. It became obvious that those guests who had booked this arrangement did not intend to have dinner after all this, and though that had not been our intention, we followed suit and tucked into this wonderful spread with everyone else.
After a short rest in our room, we had a drink on the terrace, watching the boats pass by all lit up in the dark night, to the sound of a would-be Tom Jones.
The night should have been wonderful after the hustle and bustle of our first day in Thailand and the comfort of our five-star bed, but jetlag set in and prevented any thought of sleep after three o’clock. So we were wide awake for an early breakfast, which we were unwise enough to take outside. By eight, the sun was high in the sky and the heat already sweltering. That did not stop us from taking advantage of the fabulous breakfast, a meal that left absolutely nothing to be desired. I tried a vegetable curry and dim sums among other dishes.
Our pretty hotel boat, finished in dark wood, ferried us as far as River City, an up-market mall. From here we threaded through a couple of narrow streets and embarked on the Chao Praya Express, a totally over-packed river “bus”. The boat rocked and charged its way along the rather insalubrious waters, emitting a dreadful noise. We fought our way to a place just inside the body of the boat, hanging on to metal bars and jostling with local people on their way to market or to work, perhaps, and with tourists like ourselves. Eventually, I managed to squeeze into a spot on the outside of the boat, from where I enjoyed the breeze while being mesmerized by the passing of canopied long-tail boats. On the riverside, broken-down wooden shacks stood side by side with Chinese-style houses with their quirky roofs and colonial buildings, once white, and tall, impressive blocks of modern offices. That morning, nobody arrived to issue a ticket. We were intrigued by the guys responsible for mooring us onto the landing stages, who communicated with the captain via a whistle, blown in a hundred different ways to convey steering instructions, presumably. At Tha Tien, pier number 8, we alighted to visit the Grand Palace.
This being a major pier, its wooden platforms conveniently lead you to food and drinks stalls and shops selling the usual trinkets and postcards and other souvenirs. We bought water from a wrinkled old lady selling bottles packed in ice and followed the crowds towards the beginning of one of the Chinese markets. Rows and rows of dried fish in different colours and shapes but all with the same pungent smell lay exposed to the heat, next to bags of noodles in varying shapes. A voice explaining Thai massage in English boomed from the shops beyond the stalls.
The Grand Palace is surrounded by a thick whitish concrete wall and you enter via one of the several gates on each side of a gigantic square. Normally. Like all the other tourists, we were turned away by a uniformed man who told us the palace was open to Thais only until 2 pm, as this was a special holiday. He told us we should take a tuc-tuc to visit some of the other places of interest until the early afternoon and before we knew what was happening, he called over a passing tuc-tuc and arranged a two-hour trip for 40 TBH, which is less than 1€ and included a visit to the Export Centre. Our driver was a Chinese-looking guy, well-dressed and wore shoes.
Our first stop, having driven for some 20 minutes in choking traffic, was Wat Thepthidaram. On the way, we passed a fascinating road lined with shops where huge golden Buddhas were on sale. Many of these were clothed in plastic sheeting, others were being cleaned. The driver pulled into the temple complex via a back road. We passed the distinctly Chinese-looking smaller buildings and climbed the few steep steps to the ordination hall. Exquisite golden and black lacquered shutters were set back from the tall windows to shed light onto the altar. Here, on a golden curtained throne, sat a slightly cross-eyed Buddha made of pure white marble. We were not his only admirers, for seated on a chair at the back of the hall was a young man who said he was from Singapore and went on to tell us that he was here to buy sapphires and emeralds. Apparently, this was one day in the year when VAT was dropped at the export centres, allowing you to purchase precious stones at around one third of their normal value. At the time, we were charmed by his friendliness and his openness, but looking back, it is probable that he was part of a system that had got us into this tuc-tuc which was to take us to the Export Centre.
We should have gone on to visit another unique part of this temple, which shows 52 statues facing Buddhas stepmother, but our driver came looking for us and we left. The roads widened as we crossed Siam Place. The king seemed to be omnipresent, beaming down benevolently from flags and posters that congratulated him on his 80th birthday some years ago. Our driver took us along an attractive khlong in the old town to the afore-mentioned Export Centre, a huge jewelry store with sapphires, rubies and emeralds set in rather old-fashioned gold and silver pieces priced at thousands of Euros each! We walked around the shop as quickly as seemed acceptable and left empty-handed, much to the disappointment of our tuc-tuc driver, who, because we had not bought anything, was deprived of his “commission” in the form of a petrol voucher. Suddenly, Chai could speak a little English and he managed to persuade us to visit two more outlets, where he was sure he would be given his voucher.
On the way to these outlet, we passed the entrance to the Royal Palace, the present residence of the Royal family. Here the wide roads were in perfect order and very green. A huge, gaudy wedding-cake-like plastic bearing two golden peacocks and rows of pretty fountains announced an avenue leading to the palace itself. Black-clad soldiers with rifles were placed outside the stone walls. Within minutes we had also passed Bangkok’s elite university, airy buildings set in a beautiful park, and pulled into a huge outlet selling precious stones and finished jewelry but also Thai clothes and other textiles. We did the rounds and were actually grateful for the toilet facilities. The second stop was at a smart tailors’ business, where the sales people were snooty but not aggressive. Thankfully, we finally then set off again for Wat Benchamabophit.
This architectural masterpiece, constructed from Carrara marble and with high-gabled, stepped-out red-tiled roofs, ornately finished in gold, is stunning. White marble lions guard the staircase leading into the cloister. A class of schoolgirls were also visiting. Having shed their identical black strapped shoes, they were wandering around the courtyard, chatting like little magpies, getting their white socks dirty. One of them plucked up the courage to ask if she could take our photograph. 52 Buddha statues, all the same height but each one entirely unique, sit crossed-legged along the sides of the cloister. But the highlight of this complex is the assembly hall. A giant Buddha in bronze dominates the room. Intricate demonic motives made of copper rest against red wood on the outside of the shutters, the same motive featuring inside on black and gold laquer. Above these, stained glass windows now let light into the hall. The floors, brightly coloured marble inlay work, are exquisite.
Outside the temple, busy women were selling ices and cold drinks. The schoolgirls were running round the gardens alongside the canal. Three decorative bridges and water pavilions make the spot attractive and refreshing; two rows of trees provide ample shade. If the two hours had not been drawing to an end, we would probably have rested here longer. As it happened, the main road back to the Grand Palace, where pink taxis flashed past at first, became increasingly jammed until it was clear that the traffic had come to a definite halt, so we left our tuc-tuc in the middle of the road, stupidly giving the driver a generous tip as we were late, and walked to the palace. Only to be told, once again, that entrance was forbidden for foreigners until the next day. Once again, the tourist policeman grabbed a tuctuc driver and told him to take us to the Big Buddha. We were reluctant at first, but not totally against the plan, since there are worse ways to visit a city. However, this time the driver stopped after only a few yards and said he wanted to take us somewhere else. So we got out immediately.
Wondering now how to get to the river for our boat, we were accosted by a group of university students, all females, who wanted to interview us. Willi stood aside filming, so I obliged. Their English was surprisingly poor and had I not seen their handwritten questions, I would not have understood most of them. They asked about the tourist’s impressions of Bangkok and Thai food, photographed me and filmed the interview, then took their leave.
There was an attractive market on the way to the river. As usual, the locals were enjoying noodle dishes and curries in street cafes or buying strawberries, pineapples and papayas, washed and in mouth-sized chunks. Cold drinks swimming in half-crushed ice were being served in plastic bags with straws. There were sunglasses and sunhats and plastic shoes on sale. Belts and hair accessories were shaded by tattered umbrellas above the stalls. Ganesh peeped out of a shrine smothered in pink and yellow and orange flowers, decorated with cobras made out of leaves and plants. Real works of art. Further along, vendors were selling amulets, curious Buddha images carved out of stone or in metal. Experts were using eye loupes to verify their value.
Exhausted and feeling the humidity, we sat on a wall in a garden overlooking the river and the two of Bangkok’s most beautiful temples next to some teenage school girls and poured bottled water down our dry throats.
There was a plate of exotic fruit waiting for us when we reached our hotel room, and having had nothing but water since breakfast, we were eager to try them. We had rose-apple, sapadillo and mangosteen, all crunchy and not too sweet. That evening we booked a table at the Salathip Thai restaurant. A pricey meal with a khon dance performance and accompanying wines, featuring many prawns, countless rather spicy but delicious new tastes and the traditional sticky rice with mango and a Thai tea ice to finish.
We attempted to visit the Grand Palace once again the following day. As before, we were turned away at the gate and the guard attempted to shuffle us into a tuc-tuc. We resisted, however, and instead walked the few yards to Wat Pho, a “must” for visitors to Bangkok, where Chinese giants carved out of rock kindly allowed us to enter the gate.
The temple is famous for its reclining Buddha, a huge, benign Buddha 15 metres high and 43 metres long. Having slipped off our shoes, we entered the place reverently, but had to be told by a guardian to take off our caps. Smiling dreamily with sleepy eyes, Buddha rests his tightly curled head on his right hand, supported by two rich blue and gold mosiac pillows. At the other end, two giant golden feet, one poised on top of the other, are inlaid with beautiful, delicate mother-of-pearl pictures. The statue is really incredibly beautiful. Around the wall behind the image of Buddha, there are 108 bronze bowls. As we passed, the chinking of tiny coins being dropped into these bowls to bring luck accompanied us to the exit.
Our admission fee included a free bottle of water, so we went to retrieve this, passing lovely garden areas with huge rocks and waterfalls, one of which boasts a large bodhi tree. I was amazed to notice a smoking area erected for tourists. We wandered around the cloister containing the usual bronze Buddhas, where yet another student group accosted me for an interview, on to the richly decorated chedis that house the ashes of the royal families and found our way to spanking clean toilets. There was a hall where the faithful were sticking gold leaf onto another Buddha image and a sick dog with ominous-looking patches on its coat was looking for a shady place to rest. Another highlight for me was the royal temple, presided over by another golden Buddha staring down at a huge bodhi leaf. Here the guards were very strict, insisting that all visitors sit or kneel down. The painted walls of this temple depicted the Ramakien epic.
Wat Pho has another particularity. Once a centre for traditional medicine, it is now regarded as the highest authority on Thai massage. You can learn Thai massage here or, for the moderate fee of 300 TBH for half an hour, enjoy the benefits of it. The entrance to the massage rooms looked highly professional and was deliciously perfumed with herbs. I just had to photograph the cat standing next to a rock carving in almost exactly the same pose!
For the second time that day, we tried to enter the Grand Palace. A tout on the back side of the wall told us it was closed for the whole day. We carried on right round the wall and found an entrance where the gate was open and tourists streaming in, many of them having to hire shawls and trousers or sarongs in order to be adequately dressed. The complex, in the old Bangkok style, is basically divided into two sections, the largest of which is the Wat Phra Kaew temple area and the smaller the royal residences of the past. We skipped the regalia museum and made our way to where a huge golden chedi stood out in height and grandeur above the rest.
Gold is splashed liberally on all the buildings here and the plethora of richly decorated temples and shrines have the attraction of a Disney world, with royal blue mosaic and red tiles contrasting flashily with this gold. We passed a shrine dedicated to a hermit doctor and followed the crowds to the raised golden chedi, which is reputed to house the relic of Buddha’s breastbone. A model of Angkor Wat reminds of the days when Cambodia was occupied by Siam. Demons uphold heavy buildings and a collection of delightful golden kinnaras or half-human mythical figures poise teasingly next to temples and shrines. It is fantastic in the literal sense of the word.
However the greatest treasure of Phra Kaew was still before us. This is the emerald Buddha, actually carved in jade, kept just about in sight but almost hidden away in the dark recesses of a beautiful mosaic temple with gold and silver pillars. The statue has travelled far across Asia, originating 500 years after Buddha attained nirvana and rediscovered by chance after lightning struck a temple in Chiang Rai in 1434. Visitors are expected to keep a respectful distance from the statue and no photography is allowed in the temple. Only the king is allowed to touch the statue. He does this three times a year when he changes the Buddha’s seasonal dress.
Outside this temple, while tiny golden leaves hanging from the temple roof were chinking, people were dipping lotus flowers in holy water and shaking it onto their heads. Indeed there was a great deal of ritual-making going on involving gold leaf and incense sticks and lamps and various offerings.
Fascinating as it was, I found it almost a relief to leave the dazzling temple area and carry on to the Royal Palace. The entrance was guarded by smart young men in cool lilac-coloured uniforms. In the huge audience hall, the walls were hand-painted with a pattern of Buddha faces, each one unique. A massive and impressive throne with the typical tiered sunshade above it was the only piece of furniture here. We visited the weaponry on display on the ground floor of the palace and admired the Siamese rough bush trees in the gardens, but were unable to assimilate much more and decided to return to the Shangri-La. On arrival at the Oriental pier, we passed the legendary Oriental Hotel, dark and luxurious, on our walk back to ours.
That evening we feasted on the delicacies available at our lounge and made use of the complimentary cocktails prior to boarding the hotel boat once again and setting off for Asiatique, a new riverfront down the Chao Praya. With its abundance of smart places to eat and drink or enjoy an ice-cream, it reminded us of Clarke Quay in Singapore. There were flashy advertisements for cosmetic surgery and dental treatment, another reminder that Thailand is perfectly capable of cashing in on modern trends other than electronics. But the riverfront is also a quiet homage to the old harbour and slave trade that took place here in the past. Disturbing statues in chains contrast to the lightness with which rich, modern-day consumers hover above the burdening reality of the poor.
Fireworks from the Grand Palace lit up the sky as we waited to board our boat. A cool beer on our hotel terrace rounded off this full but pleasant day.
Before we left Bangkok, there were two highlights to be dealt with. The first was a boat trip along the khlongs and the second was to visit Wat Arun on the other side of the river. Via the concierge, we were able to book an hour’s trip by longtail boat immediately. Boarding the boat was not exactly easy for a scare-baby like me, but I managed to get into the boat without it capsizing and after half an hour or so, I got used to the rocking and almost relaxed.
At the first lock, there was a delay, so we continued to the next one, where we also had to wait. It was a dull day but not quite as hot and quite pleasant on the waters. At first we passed several large villas and attractive wats. There were also the traditional wooden houses on stilts, the balconies of which were bunged full of clothes airing on hangers and bed linen hung out to dry. Wicker cages like huge upturned cups prevented livestock from running away. A couple of monitor lizards lay immobile on the sunny terrace in front of a house. Satellite bowls and aerials hung onto roofs and shrines perched on balcony railings. Potted plants were lined up on the edge of landing piers. Not only houses and temples but also schools, small cafes and municipal buildings floated past. Occasionally a boat would leave a landing pier, one carrying grilled chicken for sale, another paddled by a cheerful woman wearing the traditional broad straw hat bearing souvenirs. Posters in English invited tourists to buy food for the fish to bring them luck on the broader Khlongbangluang. On the whole, this was a great, relaxing insight into the life of Thais and the perfect illustration of Bangkok’s reputation as Venice of the East.
We reached our hotel after 80 minutes, which was quite enough considering how hard and the wooden benches on the boat were. After a quick liquid refreshment in the lounge, we took three boats to reach Wat Arun on the west bank of the Chao Praya, in the previous capital of Thonburi.
It is clearly a working temple. Not far from the entrance, a university class was visiting the ordination hall, which is decorated outside with mosaic from coloured china and shells. Seated at the side of the hall, two monks in the typical orange robes were explaining the scenes from the Ramayana painted along the walls. Outside, plastic chairs and tables looked ready to welcome these students. Women were busy washing plates in huge steel bowls or drying them. The cooking was being done inside. A short distance away on the same side, a dozen or so boys in orange robes were chanting from a script, led by an elderly monk in glasses. One or two boys were tired and lolled over the table or yawned in boredom, unattended by anyone. A short walk away we came across a meditation centre just outside the precinct. The famous three monkeys were portrayed holding eyes, ears and mouth closed. A muscular, pot-bellied Ganesh wearing golden jewelry eyed the offerings of fruit spread out before him. Although the temple is Buddhist, various elements of the Hindu religion can be found in the decorations.
This is particularly noticeable in the central prang, a pagoda in the khmer style encrusted with coloured pottery and the main attraction of the temple complex. The giant four-sided prang is reported to measure up to 86 metres in height and has steps on each side to allow those who wish to to access the greatest part of these. The steps are very steep and narrow, so while Willi clambered up to the highest part possible, I settled for the middle tier which still offer wonderful views of the temple complex and across the river. The prang is said to represent Mount Meru, from Indian cosmology, and all sorts of Hindu gods and demons are depicted on its walls. With the pieces of porcelain, thought to have originated from the ballast of ships coming to Bangkok from China, stuck all over the ornate building from top to bottom, it is a most curious piece of architecture.
Six pavilions separate the temple from the river. These are hardly noticeable because of the numerous stalls selling souvenirs and food and traditional costume with the finely pleated silk cloths worn over dresses across one shoulder. Alongside these on a lawn, a young couple in khong dress, the man wearing a pixie-like hat and the lady long finger extensions, were posing for pictures. We left them to cross the river again, waiting at a simple landing stage where a young lady was breast-feeding and bags of fish food were on sale for 20 TBH.
Feeling that we could not leave Bangkok without strolling through Chinatown, we made our way through the dark, but cooler market stalls in the narrow alleyways. The wares, mainly stinky dried fish and fish steeped in buckets of grey slime or brown slush, hardly looked attractive and many of the stalls were unmanned. The few sales people present were Chinese, poorly and dingily dressed. It was rather depressing. However once we emerged onto the main road, the pavement was full of light and delicious odours and tiny food stalls. Singing birds hung in cages from the awnings of some of the shops. School children, mainly, were queueing up for sweets and cakes and drinks but also grilled satays and fish and chicken wings. Dum sims in all sorts of colours lined up on the counters. Sausages and fish balls sizzled on hot grills. Tiny fried quails’ eggs sat in baskets lined with banana leaf. A lady was making the finest of tiny wafers and turning them into a kind of ravioli. Another was pouring sweet liquid into metal holders to make ice lollies. Further along there were packages of sweets, candied fruits and sickly coloured cakes, some of them covered in roasted coconut.
Soon the food stalls made way for the flower stalls, huge bundles of flat banana leaves providing a sort of buffer between the two. Crossing a narrow path where water from a blocked drain had formed a huge puddle and two men were bravely scooping up an evil-smelling grey sludge, we came across a huge flower warehouse. On sale were mainly heads of marigold and other flowers used for offerings, such as jasmine and chrysanthemums. Ladies were busy threading these into garlands. Wholesalers were examining and haggling. Back on the street, we saw some of the most beautiful garlands and floral decorations I have ever seen. There was such a variety of colour, not juxtaposed willy-nilly but with system, shape and length and hue expertly arranged to produce genuine works of art.
We were exhausted when we reached Rajchawongse pier and content to look around us at the school children and small groups of young monks before our boat came. It was naturally packed when it did arrive. A lady in an orange shirt came past jangling the clever cylindrical metal box that looked a bit like a pencil case and served as purse, ticket issuer and ticket clipper all in one. We sat on the boat a little longer this afternoon, getting off at Sathorn where the skytrain station is. From here, it took us only a few minutes to reach the hotel, though we got distracted on the way and decided to purchase a shirt and some silk ties for the menfolk back home.
Our dinner consisted of a selection of Thai starters and satays to share followed by a delicious duck curry.
I made a fool of myself trying to say goodbye to the pleasant receptionist at Shangri-La – she understood my words to be a proclamation of love.
A taxi took us to the airport, where we took over our rented car, a Toyota Prado which had been on the road for several years. It was still as dull as it had been since our first day in Bangkok, but through the tinted windows, the sky looked even more leaden. Moving north, we found a great deal of heavy traffic. Eventually the surroundings became less urban and paddy fields and sugar cane provided a little green as we approached Saraburi. Women smothered in hats with broad rims and matching cloths wrapped round their faces walked along the lines of traffic selling drinks and trinkets. On the other side of Saraburi, rugged mountains lined the road and a lovely botanical garden had been planted at the roadside. Beyond these, the outskirts of a modern city announced that we were entering the former capital city of Lopburi.
There is not a great deal of choice of accommodation here, so we were a little wary about our modest hotel. We needn’t have worried, though the Lopburi Inn Resort was a little strange in many ways. To start with, the Inn has coined on to Lopburi’s reputation of being the City of Monkeys and designed a resort abounding in plastics of monkeys. They are everywhere, designed as waiters and guests, in the dining-room, at the poolside, in the lobby and omnipresent in the gardens. The receptionists were dressed in traditional local costume, sweet little wide, lacy tops that reminded me of the party dresses of the fifties, with knee-length pantaloons in bold patterns. This was in preparation for the King Narai Fair, we were told.
Our motel-style room was simple and clean, but a little worn. We only stayed there long enough to do what was necessary, then left to visit the old town. Unfortunately, most monuments close at 4. 30 pm and it was already past 4. We parked near the railway station, where, as expected, hoards of monkeys were slithering down posts and clambering over gutters on the old buildings facing the row of food stalls alongside the station. A lady-boy with black eyeliner spread thickly over his eyelids, working behind a small grill, confirmed that the monkeys often succeed in snatching tidbits from these stalls.
The monuments in Lopburi are mere ruins of the many Khmer temples that were destroyed by the Burmese in the eighteenth century. I must admit that I find it difficult to imagine the former magnificence of ancient buildings when they have virtually been raised to the ground, but here in Lopburi, there is enough of the original structure left to give a good idea of their dimensions. Set in a green park with frangipanis and hibiscus trees, the ruins of Wat Mahathat are picturesque. Millions of flat laterite stone slabs piled on top of each other stretch imposingly into the sky. A couple in wedding attire had chosen this romantic setting for posed for wedding photos. Otherwise the place was deserted apart from countless mangy dogs.
A guard arrived to lock the grounds, so we wandered round the old town, discovering shops that sold the traditional costume we had admired at our hotel reception and a modern temple preparing for a wedding. They were checking the sound as we wandered round, Buddhist music delighting our ears. Food was being prepared in massive cooking pots, hundreds of plastic chairs had been set out in rows. At the stalls around the temple, sweet and savoury snacks were being cooked in oil and packed into bags. Everyone was certainly very friendly.
As we had expected, King Narai’s palace and the museum were also closed, but we were permitted to walk through the gardens, admire the box-tree elephants that decorate the former elephant stables and use the facilities. We arrived at an open-air museum that our guide book had not mentioned and here, through the middle of a modern temple complex in which chanting could be heard, we discovered a landing stage on the Chao Praya. Chinese fishing nets were in operation further up the river. Two young girls, Ai and Stom, were seated at the edge of the pier feeding the carps. They offered us some fish food, so that we might improve our kharma. We passed a few more prangs shining golden in the setting sun before we reached the eleventh-century Prang Sam Yot, originally a Hindu shrine, near our parking spot. Monkeys, the crab-eating macaques, were everywhere, doing summersaults on the green lawns, perched on posts eating whatever they had scavaged, romping around playfully all over Buddha statues. On the other side of the road they were shinning down drainpipes, swinging on telephone cables, jumping into the back of pick-ups and creeping under vehicles. It amazed me that the monkeys did not go into the many restaurants on the pathway; the residents of Lopburi have obviously made the rules clear.
Before returning to our resort, we took a drive to a pagoda outside the city centre, where the sun was setting over the river and a dog with painfully swollen udders was biting its fleas. We attempted to find a more rural road to take us back and came across a wonderful modern temple in the middle of dwellings that we would consider hovels, but which were teeming with life. Loud music from an invisible loudspeaker drifted across the entire village.
Back amongst the monkey plastics at the hotel, we armed ourselves with mosquito spray and a hairdryer and investigated the dining-room, shabby like the rest of the resort but clean. At a keyboard, a Chinese man was singing most abominably, totally out of tune. It was still rather early but we ordered the first of four(!) beers and ordered duck curry with pineapple, sea-food wok with green curry and two portions of steamed rice. The food was really good, unlike the music, which a female singer performed only slightly better than her male partner. There were only about four tables occupied in this large room. Nevertheless, the karaoke started and I will never forget the Chinese rendering of “The Tennessee Waltz”, which I could not get out of my head for several days afterwards.
Despite the musical goings-on, we fell asleep quickly and awoke early but refreshed. Breakfast, a buffet with television, was pretty awful, with strong Nescafe that must have been standing for hours and a syrupy orange “juice”. I opted for Chinese fried rice with chicken, which was very greasy but edible.
It was Sunday. Feeling increasingly more familiar with this land of Buddhas, Willi and I decided to take a more adventurous route to our next resort just outside the Khao Yai National Park along country roads. Our first surprise along the way was the Pasak Josallid Dam which we discovered at Muaklek.
Thailand appears to be full of dams. Each one that we have seen has been a picturesque development attractive to inland tourism and often demanding an admission fee. This one was free. It was still rather early but already the huge carparks were filling up fast and families were preparing picknicks and barbecues at the lakeside and in the flowery gardens and fresh green lawns. At food stalls, ther local business people were already grilling and boiling. The lake itself was unspectacular but there were many recreational opportunities with cycle paths and hiking tracks to nearby waterfalls. I paid 3 TBH for a sheet of toilet paper and the use of a clean squat-pan.
We had noticed the fields of sugar cane, some already harvested and even turned over, revealing rich reddish soil, others still full of swaying green corn-like leaves. And the lorries that we had overtaken had been groaning under the weight of harvested cane stalks. So it was no surprise to discover a sugar mill on our route. But the sight of literally hundreds of lorries queueing up to enter the factory’s parking areas was a revelation. The vehicles lined up to have their wares unloaded taking up entire roads. We got out to photograph this phenomenon and an educated-looking middle-aged woman in a posh car wound her window down to ask if all was well.
The temperature descended to a mere 25° C as we passed fields of open-air cattle stalls, aloe vera plantations and even experimental vineyards. We reached the town of Pak Chong, where most shops were closed, but found a drinks mart where we could stock up on bottled water. From here, the road leading into the park featured modern villas and new condos and countless resorts. Ours was situated right on the edge of the mountains, just 7 km from the park entrance.
From the start, we were enthralled by Kirimaya, which means something like “enchanting place”. Also a golf resort, the hotel faces huge green lawns that stretch along local farms. The buildings are super modern and slick, the guest rooms really classy and the restaurant, next to an infinity pool, seems to float on wooden floors over lily ponds.
However it was chiefly the park we had come to see, so after a rapid complimentary snack in our room, we headed for the main entrance and drove along the long windy road through luscious forest. Dutiful warnings that elephants and cobras might pass were accentuated by the piles of dried elephant dung at the side of the road. We passed two groups of macaques, a larger variety with pale blue eyelids and a smaller, darker species. Occasionally, a sambar deer could be spotted, usually basking in the sun. But it is the landscape that people come to enjoy here. And the butterflies.
We stopped at a resting place and looked around, discovering a monitor lizard in the deep grass behind a toilet block, near a stream. Hundreds of butterflies were milling round here in groups of white or yellow. We followed other tourists to the Huai Sawat waterfall and decided to walk down the steep steps to its base, slightly uneasy about the fact that we were not wearing leech socks like most of the others. The exercise did us good! But fresh elephant dung at the base of the fall made me want to turn back before it became dusky. We ventured on along a pitted, windy road like the ones we were used to in Kenya that climbed high into the mountains towards a radar station until a road block manned by a couple of friendly soldiers prevented us from climbing any further. At a viewpoint, a group of young Chinese were noisily devouring noodles from a take-away carton.
It really was dusky by the time we reached the visitors’ centre, but we were lucky enough to see another antilope grazing here, its triangular tail edged in white hanging limply over its hind quarters. We reached Kirimaya without any encounters with elephants, and so I was very relaxed in the evening and prepared to enjoy our Thai meal with global wine buffet, which simply meant “all you can drink” for 990 TBH each. While I tucked into a fantastic chicken and coconut soup with mushrooms and galgant, the famous and popular tom kha gai, Willi fought his way through a plate of shrimps in fried noodle nest, which he said was rather cold and greasy. His sweet and sour pork was better. My laab, a dish originating from Cambodia with minced duck, was a little dry but pleasant. We accompanied this with Chardonnay from California, changing to a cabernet Sauvignon from Chile which was more to our taste.
Breakfast was served in the golf club house. The restaurant was covered but open all all sides, looking onto the sugar cane fields and vineyards in the background, with the starter holes in the foreground. We sat next to a communicative Thai couple of our own age who were entertaining an Arabian business man. There was an incredible variety of Asian food here. After breakfast, I tried an iced Thai tea, very sweet because enriched with condensed milk.
Our day in Khao Yai involved three walks. The first, only 1.8 km there and back, took us along the bush, savanna with grasses grown very long, where a camera team were filming. It was during this walk that we fell in with a Dutch guy who had spent most of his life in New Zealand then Thailand and whom we secretly named Crocodile Dundee. Under a cowboy hat, Crocodie had long blonde hair tied into a ponytail, a very scarred face and many tattoos on his skinny arms. Not the kind of person one would normally get talking to. But he was very friendly and polite and gave us several tips. His very young Thai partner seemed very happy. We walked together to the watchtower hideout that looked onto a lake, a most airy and cool spot. Needless to say there were no animals around, though we could see that the long grass had been trampled flat where the elephants come to drink at night.
Our next stop was at the visitor centre to get information. The museum was closed for “development”, but the staff lost no time in asking me to correct the English on some posters they had in their computer. The humorous lady suggested we should have a walk to the Haew Narok waterfall at the other end of the park road. We spotted a couple of Sambar deer on the way, then there was nothing but long forest roads lined with giant ferns under a blue sky with bright sunlight for around 30 km.
The 2.6 km walk to the waterfall was beautiful, but strenuous in the heat. We counted over 250 steps, many of them very steep, which was particularly noticeable on the way back up! The path led us through tropical rain forest, across a river where a young lady was carelessly dangling her feet into the water, undeterred by or unaware of leeches, whilst her young man took photos of her. The walk was worth it. An impressive amount of water crashed vertically down the rocks in front of us. The walk back to the car was a real sweat. A group of Buddhist monks came towards us, shook hands with Willi and laughed jollily. My legs were like jelly when we reached the car.
However by the time we reached the visitors’ centre again, where we wanted to cross the hanging bridge, we both felt refreshed and decided to complete the nature trail, a mere 1,2 km. It was rather dark under the thick foliage and very insecty, but it was charming to walk under the canopy of tropical vegetation, stepping over lianas and slipping over moist lichen and running into spiders’ webs. At a waterfall we were joined by a few monkeys, who soon moved on.
For our physical efforts during the day, we rewarded ourselves with two salads, mine with Khorat sausage and Willi’s with squid and Khao Yai mushrooms. The dressings turned out to be so spicy that tears were rolling uncontrollably down my cheeks and my whole mouth felt as if it was on fire. No amount of water or beer could quench the burning. But the sea bass with tamarind and Willi’s chicken with sticky rice were most delectable.
We slept with the balcony door open wide that night, only a mosquito curtain between us and the cool mountain air.
We took our time over breakfast the next morning and decided to stop at a field of marigolds on our way to the vineyard we had planned to visit. It always amazes me in Buddhist and Hindu countries that there are always so many flowery garlands around, but you never actually see the flowers growing anywhere. These were beautiful healthy flowers and looked sturdy.
Wine production is booming in Thailand, which is strange considering the price of even local grown varieties. We called in at Granmonte, a totally picturesque Italian-style location shaded by the Khao Yai hills which sells not only wine but also a Mediteranean dream. The grounds are stunning, with a small arboretum and lotus ponds and flowers and shrubs everywhere. A guest house and restaurant bring Italian flair. The shop sells jams and chutneys and various other local products as well as red, white and rosé wines starting from around 17 € per bottle. If I had to choose an area to invest in, this would be the place. The entire area is developing fast, taking advantage of the luxuriant conditions of the rain forest, the evening coolness and the fact that Bangkok can be reached within 2 hours on a good day. Stylish villas with opulent gardens and luxurious restaurants are springing up everywhere, while the old traditional houses, huddled round small shopping areas consisting of a couple of food stalls and fruit and vegetable shops, still remain, oblivious to the changes. New roads wind round old mud tracks, old temples stay complacently put. Two worlds are juxtaposed, apparently with no sign of tension.
As soon as the mountains were no longer in sight, the thermometer rose to 37°C. The traffic in Saraburi was gruesome again. After passing through the town, we were surrounded by rice, the paddy fields in different stages of ripeness. Those fields still flooded were mirroring the leaden sky, other fields were carpets of green young plants, hovered over by white cattle egrets which descended in flocks to get their fill. Banana plantations relieved the monotony. We crossed the quiet little town of Pha Chi, peacefully crossed by several canals, and turned on to the road to Ayutthaya, yet another former capital of Thailand.
What a contrast this city was! Ayutthaya is loud, noisy, full of fast new roads that bring far too many cars in. There are brand new shopping malls here that would put our local one to shame as well as hospitals and universities of the highest standard. But this new modern city is not what we were here to see. The history park in the old town hides a wealth of architectural wonders that stand witness to the greatness of former times. But our first challenge was to find our lodgings, which were well and truly hidden away in a street that looked less than trustworthy. It was nothing short of a miracle that Willi managed to put his printouts of Googlemaps and our road map and the signposts together to actually understand where we were. Though my heart sank into my stomach when our car turned into the shabby, narrow little street of ramshackle buildings behind a canal, it soared again as we entered a charming garden with a small lake of its own with a spouting fountain in the middle.
Baan Thai means Thai house. Our homestay was actually a collection of these, not one the same as its neighbour and each one set in its own enchanting flowery surroundings with a place to sit outside. The reception was also the dining-room and bar, an airy open-walled place with green plants sprouting out of ponds. Our room was basic, extremely clean, with an old fashioned shower room and separate toilet and a washbasin in the room itself.
It was boiling hot, so the idea of a river trip to three temples that are not situated with the others on the island was most tempting. After an ice-cold coke, we got ready and met the young couple, Jessica and Christian from Munich who were to be on the same boat. A tuc-tuc arrived to transport us to the landing stage which we reached by driving through a busy temple complex. The longtail boat cut nicely through the waters, which were calmer here than in Bangkok. Within minutes, we arrived at Mae Nam Pa Sak, the pier for Wat Phanam Choeng, a very Chinese fourteenth century temple with elaborate red and gold shrines, buzzing with people. The twenty minutes that our boatsman had allocated were not nearly enough, for the temple complex is huge and there was so much local activity going on, things to try and fathom out the reason for and processes to watch. We directed out steps to where the chanting seemed to come from and entered a temple full of people. A stern-looking golden Buddha, 19 metres tall, peered down at us through a magnificent doorway clutching a staff with a stylistic bodhi leaf on the top. This was Luang Po To, Thailand’s largest Buddha statue, made in 1344 out of gilded stucco and particularly revered by Chinese mariners. Below him, in the golden recess, twin Buddhas made of jade and ruby and dressed in sort of leotards made presumably out of glass pearls, look equally stern. I stood gazing at this statue, unable to take my eyes off it until I became aware of activity to my left. Here a monk was sprinkling holy water on a sick man who lay prostrated before him, chanting continuously. An Vietnamese Buddhist nun from the USA with a clean-shaven head explained that the man was being healed from rheumatism. To my right, ladies and men dressed in white shirts were unraveling bales of orange material, folding them into lengths and packing them into baskets. A poster informed me that 1 length cost 120 TBH. I imagined that these lengths of cloth, which might have been monks’ robes, could be purchased as an offering for the resident monks, who, as we know, are not allowed to possess anything.
The time had passed so rapidly here and we were due to be back at our boat, but we found the time to enter a sort of memorial hall, where the deceased were obviously portrayed in statue-form, all looking like Chinese emperor dolls, many of them covered in bead necklaces. Dragons were a reoccurring motive at this temple, finding their way across doorways and wrapped round pillars. Across the way, a Chinese shrine seemed to be dedicated to a huge red dragon. Stray dogs walked in and out of the temples. Nobody seemed to mind.
Back on the river, which looked considerably cleaner than the stretch at Bangkok, we chugged past the most charming wooden houses and resorts, to Wat Putthai Sawan, one of the oldest temples in Ayutthaya. When you disembark, however, it is a quite modern part of the complex that you first encounter, with monuments to five great Thai kings and hundreds of statues of cockerels. Why these roosters are associated with Thailand’s greatest monarchs, I never discovered. We walked past a stylized tree of birds in flight and a gong, a waterfall, and beyond these, the living quarters. Near the kitchen, one of the ancient prangs was decorated by a collection of rather kitchy Buddha dolls round its middle. The largest of all the khmer-style prangs, surrounded by a cloister filled with the usual bronze Buddhas, must once have been resplendent in a coat of whitewash. We were determined to find the reclining Buddha, which stood in a derelict part of the temple complex in waste ground and was covered in orange and yellow cloths. I found this Buddha rather appealing, with its oversized earlobes and gentle smile.
Our final visit was to the Khmer temple ruins of Wat Chaiwatthanaram, which presented itself against the light in the setting sun. The individual temples were not so easy to distinguish one from the other, so I did not try, but enjoyed the walk round and was thrilled to discover a pair of betel-red beetles locked in fight. A bird with the shrill song of a peacock accompanied us.
If truth was known, we were both feeling rather tired at this point and found the khlong ride through the middle of Ayutthaya island most relaxing. The boatsman dropped us off at a night market, where the Thais were buying prepared food sold in plastic bags before night set in. It was busy here but not at all hectic and the pleasant odours of food made us feel peckish. We had no idea where we were, but believed, at first, that if we could get a ferry across the river, we would be within walking distance from our lodgings. We walked for about half an hour without finding a ferry and eventually asked someone to point out on our street map where we were. Alas, it would have taken us probably a couple of hours to reach our homestay. So we found a tuc-tuc who charged us far too much, but at least recognized the name of the place.
Insects were flying round the electric bulbs in the restaurant that evening, a sign that the weather would change, we were told. Accompanied by several bottles of thirst-quenching Thai beer, we enjoyed chicken in green curry and Penang curry with pork respectively before retiring for a much-needed shower.
The Thai omelette that I ordered next morning was pretty much like any other omelette. With a modest breakfast inside, we set off for Bang Pa-In on the Chao Praya south of Ayutthaya. Bang Pa-In is the summer residence of the royals and is wonderful. The visitors’ loos made the first fantastic impression, clean, like all Thai toilets, and very modern with marble floors and walls.
It was extremely hot that morning and we were glad to find a long shady avenue alongside perfectly manicured lawns for the first part of our stroll round. Many visitors had availed themselves of the electric cars that were provided. To describe the palace grounds would require too much space. One should imagine a huge ornamental pond, fountains and quaint little bridges, an imposing European-style palace (guarded by a soldier with a cough) and many traditional Siamese ones, a Chinese palace with lots of red and black laquer and a pagoda-shaped watchtower. The most stunning building is a Thai-style pavilion standing in the middle of the lake. To visit the Varobhas Bimarn residence, a sumptuous apartment with European furniture, Thai musical instruments and the thickest carpets I have ever walked upon, I had to put on a sarong to cover my trousers. Individual mansions for members of the royal household backed onto the river, where the royal barge was also on display.
To combat the heat, we treated ourselves to a Haagen Daas ice in the palace café. Just outside the palace, we stopped to look at the goings-on in one of the many large, modern schools. It was obviously lunch-break. Most of the school children were seated at wooden benches with tables or lining up at the food stalls to buy something to eat. Some were playing basketball in the blazing heat. Thai pop music was being blasted across the ample grounds.
Back in Ayutthaya, we had decided to find a supermarket where we could buy cough drops and a razor for Willi and tablets for our mosquito gadget. Tesco Lotus was situated in a brand new mall that any European capital would have been proud of. The underground car park was suitably equipped for the huge vehicles that the Thais drive and we were amused to find rows of pick-ups in there, too. There was a market place atmosphere inside with actions taking place that required customer interaction and the music was rather loud. The sales assistants we spoke to spoke next to no English, so we were left to our own devices to find what we were looking for. It was quite an adventure!
Strolling through the mall had cooled us down, so we decided to go straight on to the historical park, the part of the old town that is packed full of significant ancient temples and monuments. Convinced that the majestic old Khmer ruins would be much of a muchness, I suggested that we head for Wat Mahathat, the most famous of ancient temples, first. This large complex, once a religious centre with relics of Buddha and probably surrounded by moats, has a particular attraction – a sandstone Buddha head which lies in the external roots of an old bodhi tree, the most photographed image in Ayutthaya. Alongside this enigmatic head sit a row of decapitated Buddhas statues; several of the ancient prangs lean dangerously to one side. Despite the roving tourists and loquacious guides, the area continues to radiate a peaceful and even romantic atmosphere.
Looking for the ancient palace, which we never found, Willi caught sight of tourists on elephant back, riding on iron palanquins under red sunshades, a red-shirted mahut at the front. We stopped and realized there was an elephant camp very nearby. These gentle giants had nothing to do with the wild African elephants we are used to. Trained from being very small, they were familiar with tourists and very friendly. There must have been ten or so animals here, waiting for the next tourists, being showered or prepared to have a photograph taken. We asked here for directions to the floating market, a further attraction, but nobody could really help. As usual language was the greatest barrier, though we were made to understand that one of Ayutthaya’s floating markets had been destroyed in the dramatic floods during the monsoon season of 2011. On the one of the stalls on the opposite side of the road, I bought a couple of woven bottle holders, then we carried on searching for the Royal Palace.
By accident, we ended up on back roads behind the city centre, where a totally different life was unfurling. Gone were the noises of heavy traffic churning along the highways, disappeared the inquisitive tourists, nowhere to be seen the impressive prangs of yore and busy shops. Instead traditional wooden houses on stilts slept on narrow roads full of tiny stalls and kiosks and apart from the occasional crowing of a wandering cockrel or the cry of a passing bird, there was silence. The signs to the floating market somehow directed us back into the centre, where we pulled up at a parking space in what we thought was an open-air market. It was the Phra Mongkhon Trade Centre, belonging to a wihan or assembly hall of the same name. Inside we found one of Thailand’s largest bronze Buddha statues, now gilded, and also CDs of Thai lounge music. Outside the hall, two youngsters were selling giant grasshoppers on sticks, made of leaves. They were rather cleverly made actually and seemed to fly as the boys ran along with them to demonstrate them. In the background, the three lovely prangs of the fifteenth century Wat Phra Si Samphet were perfectly framed between the trees of the gardens in between the temples.
The trade centre was closing as we passed through on the way back. Many of the food stalls had abandoned completely, but the sweet stalls were still trying to do business. We marvelled at the variety and were fascinated by what looked like a cross between spaghetti and candy floss in every colour of the rainbow. I bought a pair of Thai silk wrap pants.
Our day had been exhausting, so we were prepared to return to the homestay for a well-earned drink, but very close to Baan Thai House we spotted a sign for the floating market and decided to take a last chance. There it was tucked behind a new shopping centre, not floating in little boats in the sense that we had hoped, but nevertheless a touristic market on two sides of a canal that was doing brisk business in the food and drinks department. We strolled around, having passed a man on an elephant and I bought some lovely cotton fabric that I hope will one day turn into a long skirt. We watched an elephant being hosed down in a side street (and I swear I did not flinch when it walked past me at close range!), discovered two camels straining their necks through the bars of a cage to feed and were somewhat dismayed to find a couple of tigers prowling restlessly to and fro in an equally inadequate cage. However the elephants in the small kraal just up the road seemed to be well looked after.
After a gin and tonic, Willi and I shared pork with ginger, garlic and peppers and chicken with egg-fried rice and green vegetables that evening.
For some reason we both woke very early the next morning and opened our windows before six to listen to the dawn chorus. My breakfast included a small gastronomic sensation: I tried a Thai speciality wrapped in banana leaf called sai-sai, a cooked coconut cream with a purple chewy middle that I could not define.
We were on the road early. A rather beautiful, dazzling white chedi rising in the distance caught our eye and we made a short diversion to go and investigate. At the roundabout leading to the temple, a huge monument and several colourful cockrels on parade commemorate the great King Naresuan.
A road in flat countryside with paddy fields right and left led for a good half of the distance to Kanchanaburi. Beyond Angthong, there were also banana plantations and fields of sugar cane and cassava. Kanchanaburi is much larger than we had expected. It was 38 °C here, but much dryer than anywhere else we had been. We passed the two memorial grounds to the nearly 9,000 prisoners of war who lost their lives during the construction of the famous Kwai River bridge, vast grassy fields with rows and rows of small, flat plaques. The sheer dimension of these cemeteries is stupefying.
A market area provides ample parking space for visitors to the bridge over the Kwai and restaurants, floating or otherwise, and kiosks and public toilets cater for the needs of the tourists. Many of these were Japanese. The bridge itself is rather unspectacular, these days a solid iron construction, originally of-course made of wood. A tourist train took passengers across the bridge and passed to and fro as we walked along the tracks, squeezing into one of the little bays at the side every time it did so.
I was more interested in the JEATH museum, a documentary of the conditions of the prisoners of war who were forced to work under inhuman conditions to build the bridge. We found the “original” JEATH museum, which was not the modern one we wanted to see. Nevertheless, a reconstruction of the bamboo huts the prisoners lived in and many old photographs were enough to give an impression of the hardship that had to be endured. I was particularly shocked by the picture of the open-air urinals which were constructed to “water” the vegetable plots that provided the prisoners’ meagre food rations. A few models gorily showed the injuries causing the deaths of those who fell off the bridge and long lists made it clear how many had died from cholera, malaria and typhus. A few rather nice shots showed some prisoners flirting with the local girls, shedding a human touch.
Outside the town, passing neatly kept rural dwellings with fertile plots where fruit was grown, we eventually found a scruffy little temple which boasts a series of Buddha statues in its caves. An open-air kitchen and dining tent was being manned by a friendly lady who appeared to provide meals for the monks and the school children that we could hear chanting their lessons in a large, lofty building behind us. Three or four bored dogs accompanied us to the entrance to the caves where a poorly dressed man sold us entrance tickets for 20 TBH. A stony path led us down to a steep flight of metal stairs, then we were underground in a wide chamber with the first of many statues, many of which depicted Hindu deities, and blobs of orange and yellow candle wax. I had expected the caves to be pleasantly cool, but it was pretty warm down there. It gradually became darker as we proceeded through the narrow corridors, climbing over steep, smooth rocks and hanging on to stalacmites to keep our balance. After some twelve minutes or so we emerged into bright daylight near rows of wooden toilet cubicles and washrooms. The lady at the kitchens sold us ice-cold coke and we tried her banana chips.
We had a two-hour drive in front of us, so we did not linger here. The first part of the journey was delightful with easy driving through tropical forest abounding in mango and papaya and tamarind trees and groves of coconut palms. Our instructions became difficult to follow as we approached the resort areas further west, the problem being that most tourists book with tour operators and arrive at the floating hotel by boat, whereas we had a car to park and had to find the land route. Pak Saeng bridge was signposted as Pak Seng pier. Here we crossed the wide Kwai river with its unspoilt, leafy banks, and continued on fertile country roads that took us past several elephant camps, local wats and small farms. The roads became increasingly narrow until, just before we reached the area above our hotel, they were hardly more than a cycle track. A series of tree stumps suddenly blocked the track. We got out to find a souvenir shop in the middle of nowhere, where Russian tourists in canoeing gear were having a bite to eat. No-one could advise us and there was nothing here but a rocky hill that descended into the Kwai river. It was surreal, weird and most unpleasant!
Shortly, a local man with a mobile appeared, obviously irritated by the presence of our car. He showed us the direction to drive in and after removing one of the stumps, Willi could squeeze past onto a further track, curving round papaya trees, that took us past a shrine and a couple of tethered bullocks. A grassy clearing opened up before us. This serves as the parking space for the Floathouse, our hotel. Leaving our luggage in the vehicle, we went down several flights of wooden steps that led to the river and across a drawbridge onto the floating reception.
Actually they had no recording of our booking, but made us feel welcome with an iced tea and set about finding us a room. And what a room! Whatever imperfections the Floathouse may have, their deluxe rooms are incredibly tasteful. Teak and rope form the basis of materials used. Mosquito nets round the comfortable beds protect you at night. In the daytime, a generous terrace that drops straight into the river invites you to relax in deckchairs or on the swing. The outside shower is perfect! And the bar equipped with a decently priced bottle of American red! For now we sat down to a sunset Singapore Sling at the bar and watched the Russian tourists swimming past in life-jackets and the longtail boats speeding by, which made the entire hotel rock.
To say that we slept well would be untrue. The evening meal boded well. We shared wok-fried pork with ginger, chicken in red curry and a plate of mixed vegetables in oyster sauce, washed down with Chang classic beer. It was still early when we retired, so the bottle of red came in handy. Somewhat dozy, we crept into bed expecting to fall asleep immediately, but the room was full of new, unfamiliar noises and it was a little unnerving to see the river rushing past below us through the floorboards. The wood and the metal ropes joining one room to another groaned and screeched respectively as the rafts swayed to the rhythm of the fast-flowing Kwai. In the black night, something – probably one of the large branches that we had seen carried by the strong current – hit the swimmer making a terrific noise and unsettling me.
So it was very early when we had our cup of early morning coffee on the terrace. The sun rose slowly from behind the tall leafy bank on the other side of the river, spilling a diffuse warmth that was welcome, for the early morning was chilly, cooled by a strong breeze that chased the river on its southward course. I reflected that a river is supposed to flow. But not this one, not the River Kwai on its way to Samut Songkram. The current here bursts with strength, its waters gushing, tumbling almost, creating ripples of white froth that float on the greenish-brown waves. Basically clean, but nevertheless presumably carrying away our body waste, the river transports the occasional log, while isolated plastic bottles or disposable plates and dishes bob innocently alongside the boats. The early morning scene could have been a peaceful one, but the iron girders and stabilizers supporting our room continued to squeak and moan as they strained against the current and the waters themselves rippled with a voluptuous surge as they disappeared under our creaking wooden raft. The thatch on our roof crackled in the breeze, while the potted palms rustled underneath. Another party of swimmers floated past in neo-green life-jackets, laughing and calling to each other in guttural Russian. No, peace and quiet is something else. Yet this was relaxing all the same.
Our breakfast lacked the raffinesse that one would find in this category of hotel accommodation. The European dishes did not look appetizing, so I had fried egg rice with chicken and vegetables, served by a bare-footed youth with a huge grin. The Floathouse’s “crew” is a very young team of mainly Thai and Burmese Mong people, not particularly well-trained, but very friendly and helpful. They are required to fulfill all sorts of skills, so the barman, for example, also has to fetch cases and strip down wooden chairs that need to be varnished. The room attendants were a giggly band of teenage girls who had painted white spirals on their faces with the traditional white paste made from ground thanaka wood.
The Erawan waterfall was our destination for today. On the way to the Erawan National Park, we tried to identify the plants and trees surrounding us, baffled by a green plant whose stalks were left standing in bundles, like pikes, after harvesting. The large pale citrus fruit that we had not seen here before turned out to be pomelo. The rural life here was certainly peaceful. We skirted a dam, beautified with attractive gardens and considered lovely enough to warrant entrance fees.
For entrance to the National Park, which was incredibly full, mainly of Russian tourists in bikinis despite the dress code posters, we also paid fees. The park is extremely well-organised, with shops and cafes and toilets and souvenir shops but also a youth hostel and other accommodation. The water falls on seven different levels, each one stunningly beautiful and affording natural basins suitable for playing and bathing. Following a paved path in dappIed light, the walk was very pleasant at first, later becoming steep and uneven on natural rock riddled with roots. I had not realised that the going would be steep and relatively strenuous and gave up before level four, nursing my insect bites. Willi continued to the top, returning drenched but rewarded by the magnificent views and some lovely film in his camcorder.
On our way back to the Floathouse, we stopped at a market stall to admire the local produce. Ginger, tamarinds and taros lay in wooden crates, while pomelos, melons and papayas wore coats of plastic netting to prevent bruising. Dried chillis were packed in bags, fresh green peppers hung from the awnings. That evening, a few mosquitos joined us for a delicious meal of chicken with cashews and shrimps in green curry. Our second night aboard the floating hotel was more restful, the strange movements and sounds being now more familiar.
When we tried to pay our bill next morning, which we eventually had to settle in cash, the young crew members were seated on a platform next to reception crossed-legged on the floor, eating rice and giggling, while the receptionist was getting her hair plaited by one of the room attendants.
Buffalos pulled faces at us as we drove westwards, the cockerels and hens in the Mong village scuttled away fast at the approach of our car. A young knock-kneed girl with a black fringe stared shyly, clinging onto a balcony post. The lush vegetation became even lusher and numerous signs to waterfalls and dams suggested that the area was incredibly fertile.
Nakakiri was easy to find. We were given a relatively frosty reception and our room, spartan and rather weathered, was in an awfully ugly block. However, it was clean and the air-conditioning worked very well. A hot and deserted restaurant faced the empty pool. I ordered the most delicious tom yum ghai, a spicy Thai chicken soup that is nothing for the faint-hearted, and an iced coffee while Willi had fried pork with sub-standard fries.
We spent the early afternoon at leisure on the balcony, venturing out after 4 pm in the direction of the Sai Yok Yai waterfalls. Virtually on the main road, the falls are easily accessible and quite lovely, if unspectacular. Mostly Thai families were enjoying the attractive site, many seated on colourful plastic woven mats set out on the dry earth in places that were not pervaded by gigantic tree roots enjoying a picnic. The Hindad hot springs were only about twenty minutes away. For 100 TBH you can spend 45 minutes here in the several walled pools under leafy trees. The pathways were in natural stone, decorative little bridges led from a thriving market area to the pools. Delighted cries of local children filled the air as they splashed and danced in the water sending fine sprays over the adults picknicking in the grass or attempted some serious swimming, fully dressed. We paused to stop at a store selling root vegetables and tried to ask a young lady called Yuu about the strange plants we had photographed the day before. She signaled that the plants were root vegetables, mentioned the words “like potato” and went into a pantomime to show us that they were ground then sent to bakeries. Suddenly she sprang to the back of the stall and returned with a manioc, fresh from the brazier, which she expertly split and invited us to share. The lilac-cloured flesh was starchy and slightly sweet, quite tasty. We finished this delicacy walking across a hanging bridge that led to rain forest, but abandoned the idea of walking here, fearing snakes.
Before we returned to the hotel, we ventured towards Phitok, one of the Myanmar border towns along the Vachiralongkorn Dam. Passing a typical Mong farmhouse, huge and airy, on stilts, Willi turned into a side road to get a glimpse of the water. We surprised some lads bathing here. Despite the fact that the eldest of these boys was forced to stay in the water, having abandoned his britches, they were very friendly. The sun was about to set, giving the sky that lovely pastel apricot shade, as a longtail boat hushed by in the foreground. It was most romantic, so trying to prolong that magic sunset moment, we drove a further few hundred metres to the next village.
During the night, there was a heavy downpour, which we hoped might bring down the temperature. Indeed it was pleasant as we watched the sun rise from the comfort of our beds, but by 7.30, it was high in the sky and already hot. Breakfast was Asian-style. I tried a tiny glass of chrysanthemum water, which tasted of sugar and not much else, then spooned some flat noodles onto my plate. They were horribly glitchy and I found it hard to swallow them down. A small portion of fried rice and minced chicken helped to take the taste away.
I had understood that the three pagoda pass was a mountain pass and had looked forward to this excursion to the boundary with Myanmar all holiday. In fact, it is just a border town where the Burmese can obtain articles not otherwise easily found in their own country and the Thais can purchase gold, natural cosmetic products and heavy wooden furniture at good prices. Past the huge Khao Laem Dam, where tiny floating houses rested on the waters, the road took us along forests of gum trees, plantations of the roots which we had now identified as cassava, and bananas. The further we drove, the humbler the houses at the roadside appeared. Sometimes they were mere wooden frames on stilts with wooden plank floors, thatched roofs or roofs made of corrugated metal and either no walls or walls made of flimsy bamboo matting. Occasionally, the rooms would be divided with this matting. Many of the houses were built under trees, some of the compounds consisted of several such houses. Typical for the region were huge earthenware pots standing outside the houses, presumably for water.
We drove through three provinces that morning. In the last one, closest to the Burmese border, the roads were in a dire state of repair, potholes replacing decent tarmac and only a faded yellow line in the centre. As we approached the border, yellow signs made it clear that the importation and exportation of alcohol is strictly forbidden.
The three pagodas were merely small constructions like the ones you often find in the middle of roundabouts in Eastern countries, draped in orange and yellow and red cloth for the Chinese New Year. A Thai-Japanese peace temple has been erected here. No European tourists were to be seen. Instead, the local Mong people were thronging round lacquered trinkets and cheap jewelry as well as silver and gold, fresh orchids and the white thanaka paste that is used for skin protection and for beauty. In buckets, entire goats’ heads were soaked in liquid, their little black horns sticking upright. We visited the rather smelly toilet, where I had to take off my shoes and put on the flip-flops provided. A pretty young girl allowed me to take her photograph and an Asian couple photographed us at the border. As we were leaving, a thin boy of around six, flaking thanaka paste on his sad little face, a grubby vest tucked into his trousers, held out his hand for money. I gave him a vitamin lolly, which he was clearly not impressed with.
On the road leading to the border we had noticed signs at a bridge displaying pictures of floating houses on a river and wanted to check this out on our way back to Sanghkla Buri. We got out to photograph a long line of simple floating rafts with thatched roofs, like beach huts, that presumably could be hired for the day. In the shallow river, which looked clean and attractive, with plenty of trees to provide shade, clothed children were using old tyres to keep them afloat. Others had chosen a deeper spot for a proper swim. An open-sided school bus parked on the other side of the bridge under a flamboyant fuschia-coloured bougainvillea and the children started to speak to us in simple English sentences. We were calling back as the driver started the engine to move into a side street, but he misjudged the corner and suddenly, the left back wheel plunged into a hole, causing the children to cry out. The driver got out to inspect the damage, while the children got out in a very disciplined way and waited at the side of the road. Willi was sure that there was no way we could help, and we moved on, stopping only to photograph a Mong lady in a sarong selling characteristic fan-shaped brushes at the roadside.
Sanghkla Buri is the largest town in the area. It has a character of its own. The wide streets on straight roads in the town centre were almost empty, so we drove towards the lakeside and discovered the Riverside Hotel. Spontaneously, we decided to have a spot to eat, ordering rice with chicken basil and an iced coffee for me and fried pork with aromatic herbs and cola for Willi. Unfortunately there was a mix-up with the serving and Willi had almost finished my meal when his arrived, full of coriander, which I do not like. Several generations of a Chinese Singaporean family were sitting at a neighbouring table, exchanging red envelopes containing wishes for the New Year and presumably money.
Not far from this restaurant, a genuine floating market was just closing down after business at lunchtime. Crossing swaying bamboo bridges, we ventured in, passing women who were scrubbing crockery and huge tureens and tin cooking pots in the lake water, only a few yards away from the squat pan toilet cubicles. This was the only time that we felt we were not particularly welcome, which was understandable since we had no intention of eating, so we left very soon and had a quick look round the temple that was situated on either side of the main road out of Sanghkla Buri. In separate shrines, Buddha was represented here in different attitudes, the position of his hands conveying different messages. The statues are rather crude, but unique. Fine metal bodhi leaves adorning three golden pagodas in a row tinkled in the breeze.
We expected an uneventful journey back, but at the roadside Willi suddenly saw a yard where shredded roots were drying in the sun. He pulled into the yard and we surprised a small family who were chopping the tubers in the shade of a kind of supplies shop. The family, a mother with three young girls, started to giggle when we walked up to them, but they were very friendly. The elder woman showed us the shredded roots that we were interested in, giving us a sample and talking non-stop in Thai, repeating the word “mansaplang”, which we have never been able to translate. The girls wielded sharp, shiny choppers, cutting the roots on tree stumps. After a while, two chubby, grubby bare-bottomed toddlers waddled over from the back of the shop and plonked themselves down amongst the chopped tubers to be photographed. We gathered that the root was cassava, which would probably be taken away to be milled. We were so startled by this friendly encounter that we forgot to take a photo of the cassava chips, so we pulled in once again by a yard where another woman, sweating under her straw hat, was helping to bundle the drying chips into storage bags before the rains came. She laughed when I asked if I could take her photograph, but gave me a smile all the same, revealing several gaps where teeth should have been. Another woman, seated under a roof, was hammering strips of bamboo into matting, weaving them so as to create a simple pattern. We gave her shy children a handful of lollies.
Back at the hotel, a group of Russians had arrived. They were somewhat boisterous but a jolly crowd and it was pleasant to have other tourists around. Willi placed the chip of cassava on the table on our balcony. Next morning it had gone.
It would take us at least four and a half hours to reach Hua Hin, south of Bangkok the next day. We had planned to break the journey at Nakhon Pathom and at Damnoen Saduak. A kilometre-long straight road took us right through the centre of Kanchanaburi, where heavy smog stayed with us until we reached the busy town of Nakhon.
Until we arrived at Phra Pathom Chedi, the highest Buddhist pagoda in the world, it never occurred to us that this was the first day of the Chinese New Year. As we approached the temple, it was clear that this was no ordinary day! We saw the orangey chedi from the main highway but actually getting there was not so easy and trying to find a parking spot was a challenge. In a totally overcrowded car park that was filled with food stalls and impromptu cafes and where manoeuvering the vehicle without running over somebody’s feet was virtually impossible, Willi parked the car at a doubtful place right on the edge of the fenced-off area outside the temple.
The festive atmosphere was that of a village fair. Chantings and sermons filled the market air. Having crossed the food courts, we saw the chedi rising high above the trees that surrounded it behind a smart cream-coloured wall. A flight of steps led up to a Buddha statue whose mudra or position of the hands symbolized his teaching. Here incense sticks were being sold and lotus flowers and flashily coloured bodhi leaves on stems. Discarded shoes lay abandoned on steps, next to the stalls, in the middle of the pathway. A bespectacled young monk blessed those kneeling before him and handed out long, narrow red bands in return for a donation. Crossing a circular arcade surrounding the chedi, we climbed a staircase and found ourselves walking clockwise round a wall along the pagoda, the Thais with their palms pressed together in a gesture of reverence.
It was quiet up there, but having completed a full circle, we went down to investigate once more. People were buying bells, which were blessed then attached to a pulley and hoisted manually off to a place at the top of the chedi. On huge sheets of red paper, others appeared to be writing down their New Year’s wishes. Buddha statues were being coated with strips of gold leaf. A compère in a red shirt moved easily among the crowds with his microphone talking non-stop in front of a tall standing Buddha with his right hand raised, symbolizing protection. Postcards were on sale and drinks and music CDs. Cobra images unfurled at the bases of steps. Music and food smells filled the air. Images of flea-biting hounds and all sorts of wares including crockery and T-shirts and hair accessories and shoes flashed past as we made our way back to the car.
We attempted to find a short-cut to take us to Damnoen Saduak, where the greatest of the floating markets are at home, but lost our way on the rural streets, where we passed shrimp farms and small salt gardens. The salt pans became larger as we approached the coast and bags and sacks of unrefined salt stood at the roadside waiting for customers. When we finally arrived at Damnoen Saduak, the place was practically deserted and only a few boats still remained in the khlongs. These were laden with fruit and vegetables; a few of the ladies, most of them wearing the characteristic straw hat, offered food. In the permanent market buildings lining the khlongs, souvenirs were on sale. To experience the hustle and bustle that normally pervades these canals, you obviously have to be here first thing in the morning.
Neither Willi nor I expected Hua Hin to be the large town that we drove into late that afternoon! Neither were we prepared to find so many Europeans here. The truth is that many Europeans spend their winters here and many are even proprietors. The traffic was horrendous on this holiday and we were thankful when it began to thin out as we left the highway and sided onto a coastal road due south. Pinkie was our holiday host at the Let’s Sea boutique hotel. She brought cold towels perfumed with peppermint and a glass of water, coloured pink and tasting slightly musty.
This glass of water, along with the unfortunate smell that emanated from the drains near the restaurant, was the only problem we had during our stay. Otherwise this beautiful hotel right on the narrow coastline was wonderful. The rooms were built right on the swimming-pool, which ran the length of the two rows of buildings, with a shallow square in the centre that accommodated sun-beds. Those with a ground-floor room accessed the pool straight from the balcony. Our room, on the second floor, had a garden sunroof with shower. Even the public toilets were little gardens with fountains. The rooms were very generously cut with a posh bathroom that had a step-in shower with no walls in the centre. We were thoroughly spoilt, with fresh ice and mineral water being brought every evening.
Once the table in the sea-front restaurant had been reserved, we got changed and lotioned and sat down to an exquisitely presented papaya salad with deep-fried crabmeat and shrimps, a baby filet of red snapper on spinach and a roast duck curry, which was accompanied by a Chardonnay from Chile.
After an equally gorgeous breakfast, ordered à la carte from a huge list as you do in a hospital room and during which I made the acquaintance of rice custard, little cakes of rice that were reminiscent of rice pudding, we spent the following day relaxing at the resort, but the day after, we were ready to do some discovering again. Passing the islands just south of Hua Hin, we headed for the fishing village of Pak Nam Pran. Forest walks were signposted along the way. We stopped at an elaborately decorated shrine, the tongue-twisting Chao Mae Thapthim Thong shrine, where fierce Chinese giants and cobras were guarding the entrance and tourists were getting off their bikes and a French child was wailing. Equally interesting were the cows grazing in the field opposite, boney white cows with a hump and huge, floppy dewlaps and ears like sheep. At the fishing village itself, we were delighted by the flat boats moored on the beach, bearing numerous coloured flags on staffs. Fishermen and their wives were busy tending to their nets beside an café, where trestle tables and hammocks were almost hidden in the dark shade of old trees. Strange-looking crabs and small fish were squirming in plastic crates. A very wrinkled old lady returned my smile conspiratively.
Along this coast were third-class resorts, no luxury but attractive and lovingly decorated and devoid of tourists. The narrow strip of beach was shared by coconut palms and cattle. The main attraction here is the Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, named after the 300 peaks on the jagged range of hills in the park. At Ban Khao Daeng, the last fishing boats were just coming into the estuary and we spoke briefly to a young fisherwoman with her meagre catch, who had just pulled in at a broken jetty, asking her if she would eat the fish she had caught. She said it was for sale. Most of the coloured boats were already moored at more intact piers near a bridge a little further upstream, where mussel banks seemed to have been erected. We drove past indications to various caves on to Hat Sam Phraya, a beautiful beach lined by a narrow forest of sea-pines. It was lovely here but very hot, so we continued on to the village of Khao Daeng, , where preparations were going on for a wedding ceremony. Metres and metres of pink and green material were being unravelled and twisted into wonderful drapes to decorate flights of steps, a podium was covered in the most beautiful, thick carpet and bouquets of flowers were everywhere. A particularly ornate temple with a steep roof decorated in pale blue and gold stood out against the backdrop of a verdant forest and beyond that the back of a stony mountain like a jewel embedded in a velvet box.
The viewpoint signposted only a few metres further was up a steep hill. All around the spot where we parked the car, shy dusky langur monkeys were lurking about, so while Willi climbed briskly to the top, I photographed the monkeys and tried to observe the songsters in the canopies high above me. There were more monkeys at the mangrove walk. An informative wooden walkway wound across the swamps where smooth, grey roots plunged into marshy lowland, patches of fresh green leaf suddenly livening up dry, dull, woody limbs. Dragonflies zoomed across the flat waters and invisible beings – lizards perhaps – rustled through the grasses.
We exited the park at the southern end, only to enter it again from the west, on the other side of the mountain range, to visit the lotus swamp. At an odd little café, where dogs barked uninvitingly until they were shut away, we ordered a coke. A schoolgirl served us at an untidy table, then went back to her folding chair to watch television. The fishy smell came from a large plate of shrimps drying in the sun behind us. The swamp actually had very few lotus to boast of. Under a completely grey sky, there was no colour and no life, apart from a brown pigeon who accompanied us all the way to the end and all the way back, hopping in front of us on the wooden balustrade, several cormorants, and the very beautiful purple swamp hen.
Very sweaty and very tired, we arrived back at the hotel in time for Willi to have a swim. That evening we tried pomelo salad and satays and a deep-fried crabmeat dish.
Before leaving Hua Hin, Thailand’s oldest beach resort, we wanted to make sure we had seen something of the town. We had read that the railway station was worth visiting. Turning into the main road that leads from the coast inland, we were met by a sky full of red Chinese lanterns, tiny Thai pennants and flags commemorating His Majesty, King Bhumibol, the world’s longest serving monarch, who turned 85 last year and has been in and out of hospital for the past two years. The railway station was at the end of this road. Its most striking feature is the royal waiting room, a quaint classical Thai building with a tiered roof that stands apart from the main station. The station, in red and cream and in the colonial bungalow style, stands amongst green verges and flower beds and is surprisingly small for the size of this almost monstrous city. Just standing under the shaded waiting area sends you mentally into the turn of the 20th century.
Hua Hin’s main temple, Wat Ampharam, was not so quaint. On the other hand as a working temple, it revealed a lot about the day to day life and death of the Thai people. Here was a cemetery, where tall, ceramic bird-table-like tombstones commemorated the rich and powerful and a large, airy cremation hall full of plastic chairs. We did not enter the temple, but headed for the floating market on the other side of the city before it closed. We needn’t have bothered really, since the market was very artificial, not floating at all and its wares could have been found in most malls, I imagine.
The Mareukathayawan Summer Palace, the palace of love and hope, on the other hand, situated between Hua Hin and its little sister Cha-am, was very much worth visiting. The palace was built in only 16 days by an Italian architect in 1923 for the modern king Rama VI. At one of the stalls round the car park I bought a T-shirt to cover my bare shoulders and thought I was decently dressed. However, court protocol demanded that my legs should be entirely covered, so I had to tie a grey-coloured sarong round my waist, too.
Built in guilded teak, the palace is a series of open wooden halls and rooms on stilts connected by elevated walkways that were designed to let in as many breezes as possible. Directly on the coast – a rather spoilt stretch of beach these days – the gardens are immaculate and filled with huge fig trees, bamboos, frangipanis and palms. At one side there are exhibition rooms showing the life of the courtiers at that time.
At the main palace we were confronted with a long list of prohibitions that included no smoking, no photographing or filming, no wearing of shoes, hats or sunglasses, no shouting and no running. We were given a linen bag to put our belongings in and ordered to switch off our mobile phones. We progressed slowly through the spartanly furnished palace rooms getting a feel for the simplicity of the times and the perfection of this airy architecture. Fascinating were the exhibits of silk and some garments, with the explanation of the traditional allocation of certain colours for each day of the week. Beautiful bright colours with daring combinations. On Sunday, for example, green wrap-around trousers were combined with red wrap-around bodices or lychee red trousers with very light green bodices. Alternatively patterned print pantaloons with a lychee red background were combined with a light green bodice or maroon bottoms could be worn with a light green bodice. We were also amused to discover that the royals had a predilection for English sit-down toilets.
A life-sized portrait of Rama VI’s only child, Bejaratana, who died in 2011, greets the visitor at the bottom of the stairs at the end of the visit. Since her father’s death, the palace has never been lived in. Today’s Royals use the Klaikangwon Palace nearer to the city. Parched by this time, we bought a paper glass of passion juice which was full of crushed ice and tasted salty.
There was one last monument to be visited and that was the huge Buddha statue on Khao Takiab, Chopstick Mountain, also known as “Monkey Mountain” because of the colonies of comical-looking crab-eating macaques that live there.
Standing 20 metres high, the Buddha dominates a small, dingy beach on which mainly Europeans, crowded under the sunshades of cheap cafes, get drunk or fondle the legs of some poor Thai woman. Thai massage was also being practiced. I found the place untidy and insalubrious, so we took our photographs of the monkeys and Buddha and left. In time for a walk along the shore before the tide enveloped it, sending crashing waves onto the sunbathing area of Let’s Sea.
This was our last evening – an evening with time to reflect on the 19 days that we had spent in Central Thailand. An evening to be thankful for all that we had encountered, in good health and safety. To recall the anecdotes that always make travel a lively and personal experience. To remember the fascinating monuments to Buddhist culture, new facets of Asian tradition and the gentle, amicable disposition of the Thai people.