Discovering the Land of Rice
I know of nothing more comforting than the perfume of freshly cooked jasmine rice. Thai rice. It has a good, wholesome perfume which follows you wherever you go in Thailand, where most people in the towns eat at simple, mobile cookshops. This and many more enticing odours characterized our three-week tour of Northern Thailand which began in mid-November.
After a disappointing flight with Thai Airways, featuring a reading light and an entertainment system that did not work, a half-eaten bun in the seat pocket and flight attendants who did not supply us with regular drinks during the night, we arrived to find Bangkok smouldering under a hot afternoon sun. Smog filled the air as usual so that the skyscrapers leading you into the city centre looked slightly ghostly.
We had booked to stay in the rather swish Shangri-La hotel which boasts an unsurpassable location right on the Chayo Phraya, close to the legendary Mandarin Oriental. It was a balmy evening with a light breeze that played with my hair as we sat down to mixed satays, Thai fish cakes, spring rolls and spicy minced duck and pork, followed by duck in red curry on the hotel terrace that overlooks the river. After dinner we enjoyed a stroll to the Skytrain station up the road and on to a main road with fruit and vegetable stalls on every corner and at least two bodies rolled up asleep against the buildings. Rubbish was stacked at the roadside in plastic bags awaiting collection. The traffic was heavy, the air stifling and the neon lights cruel. Our walk was nevertheless pleasant and therapeutic and we slept like logs on our first night in Bangkok.
The breakfast room was buzzing with excitement the following morning, for a VIP was amongst the guests and he was surrounded by police from the special branch and a host of subservient managers. It was pleasant enough to eat outside. My breakfast included dim sum and sushis and delicious green tea croissants.
Chinatown was on the programme that morning. We cannot resist being pushed by the crowds down cluttered streets and alleys, past food stalls and shops selling everything from grenadine juice to fresh fish and dried mushrooms and cheap toys and modern clothes and tools. The pavements in Bangkok are also used as workshops and offices and dining places. People stopped to buy a ring of pale, round sausages or have soup with vegetables ladled into a plastic bag for future consumption. Others were hurriedly cramming a noodle dish into their mouths from disposable plates. Stray dogs wove in and out of the crowds, patient, peaceful dogs at home on these streets. Thickly knotted cables hung loosely from the eaves of houses, shops and temples.
I paused to take off my shoes and breifly visit a temple dedicated to both Buddha and Laozi, then we continued across a main road to a covered bazaar that appeared to specialise in textiles and trinkets and hair-pieces of all things. The alley was extremely narrow, but that did not prevent cyclists and people on mopeds or pushing carts to use the market as a thoroughfare. There was a lot of pushing and shoving going on and notices in English were warning about pickpockets, so we were glad to find an exit from where we would be able to walk to the memorial bridge that crosses the Chayo Phraya.
As we stopped to glance at our street map on the way, a helpful old man pointed to a wat across the road, motioning that we should visit it. Wat Chakkawat Rachawat Woramahawihan or Wat Sam Pluem as it is sometimes called, was not actually on our sightseeing list, so we were particularly delighted to find a temple very different from most of the others. There was a deserted atmosphere in the temple grounds, with most of the buildings locked and hoards of stray dogs roaming nonchantly past several crocodiles and a few turtles in two rocky basins. A squat buddha presides over a cave at the back, where the monks’ tin pots and pans were neatly stapled and drying in the sun.
Suffering a little from sore and tired feet by the time we reached the memorial bridge, we hailed a moped rickshaw, negotiated an acceptable price and set off for Wat Suthat, passing an attractive flower market and the Rop Khrung canal, lined with tumble-down but rather picturesque cafés. The temple welcomed us with a huge poster warning innocent tourists about the various ways one could be diddled here. There were no official guides, but apparently it is not unusual for con men to pose as guides and lead you to factories where you will be morally obliged to leave more money behind than is reasonable. Instead we wandered round the rows of bronze Buddha statues, some of which were undergoing painstaking restoration by concentrated men wrapped round them in strange poses. We admired an imposing, gleaming crossed-legged Buddha statue surrounded by dark frescoed walls, resting on an exquistely worked pedestal. Next to it a smaller Buddha seated within a dark snake coil caught our eye. Lined up in the grounds were a series of shrines depicting various stages of the life of Buddha which I found enthralling.
We ended our tour of Wat Suthat in the ordination hall, where an enormous gentle-faced Buddha looked down upon a group of young monks in bronze. The statue is magnificent, but it was the frescoed walls displaying scenes from everyday life, some of them a little erotic, that particularly pleased us. The laquered doors were also wonderful, resplendent with dancing girls and musicians and rulers on elephant back.
Outside the wat stand the towering pillars and crossbars of a giant swing, formerly used in Brahmin ceremonies and long since a Bangkok landmark. As far as I know, the swing, over 21 metres high, is no longer used.
The walk to our next destination, the Golden Mount, took us along a street where statues of Buddha and Hindu gods and goddesses are cast and the most incredibly life-like wooden sculptures of venerated monks are made. Here dragons and gongs and bells and statues in all sizes and made of every conceivable material are sold alongside gifts for monks, wrapped in costly-looking textiles. We crossed the peaceful canal and a road where market stalls were being set up for the evening and entered the Golden Mount grounds.
A fairground presented itself. We were lucky enough to experience the temple fair, following the full moon Loy Krathong festival two days earlier, during which thousands of candles embedded in banana leaf or spider lily plants float down the river. There were stalls with eatables, that is cakes and puddings and fried meats and poultry and a sort of crêpe, which the ladies made by spreading the wafer-thin batter on baking hot grids with their bare hands. There were grilled foods wrapped in banana leaves and there were fried insects and worms. There were gaudy-coloured drinks and mounds of strawberries and sliced fruits. Dresses were on sale, swinging enticingly from hangers on awnings, and towels and crockery. Beyond the stalls you could sit in wooden platforms, shaded from the harsh sun, and admire black and white photos of the Hindukush and a rudimentary documentation of early Buddhism. An invisible voice spoke non-stop into a booming microphone.
To climb the hill to the temple, shining gold at the top of a moderate hill, a small fee was demanded. Then a shady path with mainly shallow steps led the visitors past tiny gardens set in rocks and laughing Buddhas and a stream and bells and gongs. At one point we were refreshed by a mist that was diffused from one of the little gardens. The going was easy, even in the heat that we were just about getting used to, and within minutes we were admiring the view from the hilltop temple, an array of tiered temple roofs, old Chinese buildings and splashes of greenery against a cold, grey skyscraper skyline. A sign beseeched us to keep our shoes ON, for a change. I was touched by the apparent devoutness of two Asian schoolgirls, huge lotus flowers clasped between their praying hands. The temple itself was not particularly impressive.
On the other side of the complex there was a crematorium. A well-known and popular monk had recently passed away and many monks as well as laymen were paying their respects in a marquis adorned with garlands and bouquets, watched by kitchy dragons in Barbie colours and security officers. We walked to the over-crowded boat station via the Grand Palace and returned to our hotel to rest briefly before dinner, which we had booked at the Salathip restaurant. As expected, dinner, a traditional Thai menu, was excellent. Three short dance performances made the evening very pleasant.
We allowed ourselves a lie-in the following morning, so it was too hot for breakfast outside. Instead we observed how an obnoxious tycoon at the next table, a very strongly-built brute of a man who looked Pakistani, ordered the staff about. Walking through the exclusive Chi wing of our hotel to avoid the heat, we arrived at the Skytrain station and bought day tickets for 130 baht. It was our intention to ride the train from end to end, getting on and off when we felt like it, to get a feeling for the city as a whole.
Our first impression was that the Thais using the train were extremely polite and disciplined, queuing up at the side of the doors to allow passengers to alight before boarding the trains and never pushing. Inside the train it was nothing less than freezing cold. From the monorail it was possible to look out but the view was diminished by the sunscreens on the windows.
We got out at Siam, where two enormous, modern shopping malls prevail in a cold, concrete-and-glass jungle. But this would not be Bangkok if there was not a small, flowery Hindu-style shrine bearing offerings tucked away at the side of the road, where a young, shoeless Asian was praying in silence, a bouquet of incense sticks in his hands. We changed trains for the Erawan Shrine and found it on a very busy thoroughfare full of brightly coloured taxis that hardly seemed to move in the intense traffic. Business hotels, all the famous chains, and restaurants abound here, while two monorail tracks swerve and converge above your head. The train leaves you at the crossroads with four shrines, one at each corner, but you cannot see these for the masses of people and buildings and traffic. A series of stands on the wide pavement, mainly selling beautiful garlands, eatables and tiny red cages containing birds indicate that a holy monument is not far away.
The shrine is protected by an iron gate that could have been in Hyde Park, where an elderly lottery ticket vendor was dozing over his wooden tray. A wall of smoke from the joss sticks being offered at the main shrine made our eyes sting. The strong perfume made you feel slightly heady. Scores of marigold garlands were draped over a fence around the four-headed Brahma, plastered in gold leaf, and dozens of plates of fruit and coconuts stood in state at the altar. At the side of the shrine, six attractive young dancers, wearing the same thick make-up and matching lipsticks, in exotically brocaded costumes and heavy-looking mirrored headdresses, sang and swayed and turned to the rythm of an instrument resembling a xylophone. In between each short dance, which was paid for by individuals wanting to improve their karma, they knelt down in silence, hands clasped togther. Those who had “offered” the dance would kneel down in front of the dancers on plastic cushions facing the shrine and pray. While this was going on, others were lighting their incense sticks from lampsticks and pouring holy water over their hands or heads from silver-coloured bowls. All the senses were activated at the same time here and like most of the tourists, we were overwhelmed by the spectacle. It took quite some time before we were ready to continue our tour of the city.
Back in the chilly train, we quickly recovered our senses and enjoyed the trip to Mo Chat, the end staion. Most people descend here to visit the legendary Chatuchak Weekend Market, but as this was a week day, we went to the well-kept park instead. There were gardeners everywhere, in the traditional matching cloth hats and scarves that protect noses and mouths, mostly heaving leaking water hoses across the paths. Water-birds swanned across the lakes while pigeons flattered around the picknickers on the plastic mats that appeared to be on hire. This was a good place to perch on seats of rock and swallow the drinking water we always carry with us and consider what to do next. We opted for the Skytrain again and travelled with the many school-children to the station at the opposite end of the line, Chit Lom, a quiet, almost rural place featuring a number of international boarding schools.
Back in the city, we took an enjoyable walk through a quiet, shady street to the Jim Thompson House, a wonderful collection of traditional teak houses in flowery, park-like grounds that commemorates the American who rescued and promoted the production of silk in Thailand after the second world war. We were fascinated by the young man who was extracting thread from the cocoons boiling in a pot over a tiny furnace and by the grace of the young woman who was spinning next to him. However, although it was only mid-afternoon, the light was beginning to fade in the leafy forecourt and we decided to forego the art collection here. On our way back to the Skytrain, we were stopped by a local man who had worked in Munich and he recommended that we should try the foodcourts at the nearby MBK mall. This was on our way back, so we exited the train early and made our way across a gigantic walkway, past a couple of beggars with gruesome physical deformations into a noisy, busy mall.
It is no exaggeration to say that you could hardly move in this mall. It didn’t matter which of the maybe twelve floors you were on, you were constantly pushed, shoved and bumped into in this building. The shops were small and huddled together and absolutely full of customers and wares. Everything seemed to be sold together – clothes, electrical goods, jewelry and trinkets. There were nail studios and massage parlours and all sorts of eateries. The main foodcourts were on the 5th and 6th floors. They were uniformly cheap and basic, covering local cuisine from India, China and Vietnam as well as fast food. We gasped at the unbelievably moderate prices and left as quickly as we could, nauseated and almost asphyxiated by the crowds. This time it was a relief to escape into the icy bowels of the Skytrain.
There was one place on our list of places that we wanted to visit in Bangkok that we were a little shy about. Patpong. Everyone we know who has visited the city has been shocked by this red-light district, many of them scandalized or revolted by the open attitude of the sex market here. We did not wish to participate, we just wanted to experience this side of Bangkok’s reputation. We got off the train at Sala Daeng and emerged onto a broad sidewalk where stallholders were getting ready for the evening’s trade. We walked around the area for about an hour and were disappointed not to have been accosted at all. We did pass a huge massage parlour which a group of fat Asian businessmen entered clutching briefcases, but there were no exotic ladies standing on street corners and there were no men dressed as women and there were no advertisements for the dreaded pingpong shows.
Footsore and weary, we passed our day tickets on to a couple of Thai ladies who looked as if they could use them and spent the rest of the evening at the Shangri-La.
For our last full day in Bangkok, we had decided on a decent walk to compensate for the long hours spent on the train the day before. Kho Kred was our destination, a small island on the Chayo Phraya where there are no cars, but a 7 km-long walking path. To reach the island, we took the Chayo Phraya Express boat to the end station at Nonthaburi, zig-zagging across the river once we had passed the touristically interesting stations. As the river became wider, it became much steadier and the ride was so relaxing and peaceful, that many local people simply dozed off. At Nonthaburi, once famous for its durian fields, we were immediately surrouded by the owners of small speedboats, eager to ferry us to the island. After a short walk round the relaxed but bustling town, we came across a German-speaking local who confirmed that 800 baht was a fair price for the crossing and Willi managed to persuade me to board the two-seater motor gondola that took us to the island in about twenty minutes. It was actually quite thrilling. I kept hoping that the spray of river water wetting my lips was free of bacteria. Little verandahed houses on stilts with rows of potted plants kept speeding past until we reached a curious white chedi robed in red, where a small, rudimentray landing stage appeared.
Accompanied by the ubiquitous flea-ridden “soi” dogs, we began our circular tour of Kho Kred. The island is famous for its pottery, most of it daintily finished with frilly edges, but outside the first wat we came to, where a local woman with a speech defect was selling lottery tickets, the mugs resembled German “Steiner”. We bought our drinking water here. A little later I greeted an elderly lady with the white paste of the Mong tribe smeared across her face and she stroked my arm affectionately. The pathway wound down tiny rural streets with very small kitchens and shops until, without warning, we came across a pottery. To the sound of European classical music, two men were crouched over their wheels, concentrated and slow in their movements. At a primitive shop next door, intricate little pots with indented lids, pretty objects that we had no room for in our cases, were on sale. We continued round corners and through yards and round another temple, admiring the occasional views across the waters from in between the humble houses. Suddenly the path left the coastline and led in a straight line through the middle of the island. This was rural Thailand pure! A few houses on stilts stood in paddy fields or in verdant banana plantations alongside stagnant pools covered in algae. It was hot and green. Wizzened villagers who passed by on bicycles greeted us with a friendly wave of the hand, shy women grinned almost imperceptibly. Half-way along this straight path, we came across a hamlet where an old lady was weaving a mat. We paused to have a look and she asked me if it wasn’t too hot for us to be walking through the island – at least that’s what I took her question “lou mai?” to mean.
Once we had reached the opposite coastline, the road became more touristic. Market stalls appeared selling food and drinks and pots and clothes. The odd moped and even motorcycle forced their way past us in the narrow, twisting alleys. We visited another wat briefly, admiring the statue of Buddha wringing out his wet hair after bathing. Our ferryman was waiting for us at the pier and sensibly, taking note of our very sweaty faces perhaps, he advised us to rest and have a drink of water before boarding his boat. He literally sped back to Nonthaburi but I was too tired to be scared. There was a delicious smell of sweet, sticky rice in the air. I just sat back in my seat and enjoyed the ride.
Completely refreshed after another relaxing trip on the Chayo Phraya Express, Willi and I got off at the Thewet Pier in search of the Large Standing Buddha which stands some 32 metres high at Wat Intharawihan. It was not easy to find but we were aided by two humourous Thais who wanted me to take a photo of them and agreed to pose with Willi as the three wise monkeys who see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. Through a dark little alley full of souvenirs set out on tables and past a stall where you could improve your karma by buying a bird in a small cage for 90 baht and setting it free, we finally reached the wat. To be honest, I found the statue a little disappointing in the fading light. We traipsed back to the pier and caught the next boat to Rachawongsae, where we wanted to find the Chinese Sanchao Kuan Oo temple which is dedicated to a horse and frequented by gamblers. Sadly, it was closed.
We were tired and thirsty by now, but the ice-cold water purchased at Sampeng Market revived us a little and the good toilet we found in the Shanghai Mansions, a noble Chinese hotel with a black and red interior, was most welcome. The street lights and neon lights in the shops were lit and the district now teeming with people. Fully expecting the Wat Traimit, which houses the world’s largest sitting Buddha in 18 karat gold, to be closed, we persevered through the streets of Chinatown. It was, of-course closed and the only sensible thing to do at this point was to walk to the River City mall, from where a hotel boat would ferry us back to the hotel.
It was at River City that we had one of the best ideas that day! Grateful for the slightly cooler air at the riverside, we sat down and ordered a sparkling wine and relished every drop.
A loquacious Chinese taxi-driver who tried to exact 500 baht from us instead of the metre price that was recommended at our hotel took us to the airport the next morning to pick up our rented car. He encouraged us by telling us that we were about to visit the most beautiful part of the country and recommended us to try the local speciality of Chiang Mai, khao soi.
The Nissan Almeda was brand new and the formalities quickly dealt with and after a false start, we were soon on the motorway that takes you through industrial Bangkok to Ayutthaya and from there to Saraburi. Beyond Saraburi, the landscape becomes more rural and the driving easy. We decided to drive straight into the Khao Yai National Park and check in at our resort later.
Gone was the smog that permeates Thailand’s cities. Here the sky was clear and blue and the temperature pleasant. At our first stop, just past the rather shy gibbons, a crowd of ornithologists were observing a flock of great hornbills, which are particularly beautiful in flight. A couple of sambhar deer then a muntjac posed for our cameras. Eager for a walk, we carried on to the Haew Narok waterfalls, down the steep uneven steps, then up to the top.
There was plenty of water, so the falls were impressive. Everyone who passed by did so with a friendly smile on their faces. I tried to capture the hundreds of lemony common grass yellow butterflies down by the river, to no avail, but managed to get a shot of the dark blue tiger butterfly. On leaving the park, Willi spotted the most beautiful red-headed trogon.
All in all we were very satisfied with our National Park drive and in a good mood for the night in luxurious Kirimaya. The receptionist brought us a refreshingly cold lychee tea, then we were invited to choose the complimentary snack package. It was almost chilly at dinnertime. While we were tasting prawns in crispy glass noodles and a spicy Thai mushroom-filled squid salad with celery stalks and leaves, followeed by more prawns with fried Thai basil and a wonderful, mild duck curry on the terrace, the Kanchikorn Bank were having a karaoke upstairs. Our waitress, the friendly Pim, taught me the words “aroi mahmaa”, meaning “very delicious” and gave us some tips for our next destination, Korat, her hometown.
Korat (Nakhon Ratchasima)
A golf car took us to breakfast at the golf club. From the huge, wide windows, we watched local workers in their typical broad straw hats crouched over rice on the paddy fields in the distance. It occurred to us that the fruit and vegetables on the stalls lining the road were always fresh-looking and wondered how the Thai traders managed to do this with so few customers. Here, where wine production is becoming popular, the stalls were full of black and green grapes. My travel notes informed us that there was a wihan that might be worth a visit in Sikhiu. An actor called Sorapong Chatree has built a memorial here to a much revered monk with the impossible name of Luang Phor Somdej Phra Buddhacharn Toh Brahma Ransi. The result is a magnificent, though kitchy, complex that could be in Disneyland.
From the car park, which stands on a gravelled area in front of an unfinished temple, you walk along a shaded walkway that twists and turns past a luscious sculpture garden on one side and a lake with huge plastic swans on the other. There are horses formed in boxwood and stepping stones and islands of trees and flowering shrubs and seats and ponds. Imagine Hundertwasser and Gaudì and Zen gardens rolled into one concept and you may have an idea of the fascination of this place, somehow beautiful in all its tawdriness. In an entrance hall, devotees were applying gold leaf to a languid sleeping Buddha or buying stone bracelets and other trinkets. Money was seriously changing hands! Completely overseeing the picture sign that forbids tourists to enter the temple area sleeveless, we carried on into a series of beautiful gardens and immaculate lawns and a waterway surrounding a temple no less fairy-tale-like than our own Neuschwanstein. A tall, golden statue of the aforementioned bespectacled monk sitting cross-legged shone down on its visitors. There was a distinct spirituality about it all and I could not help asking myself why Christianity could not be equally attractive. The place was alive with visitors, whole families who had come out for the day to spend a little money. An enormous restaurant catered for these and funnily enough, the toilet building was the only place signposted in English.
It’s just as well we took time here for a walk, because it took us two whole hours to find our hotel in Korat, the new name of which is Nakhon Ratchasima. Not that the searching was in vain. The address of our hotel was almost the same as that of the main street in the city and this was where the problem lay. Driving to and fro along this main road, we could observe the goings-on in a typical Thai city that has no real claims to touristic fame. In the end we stopped two missionaries, who we thought must be schoolboys with their rosy, scrubbed faces and shirts and ties. They, however, were new in the place and could not help us. In the end we found a tiny tourist information office on the edge of the town , where three young ladies asleep on the front desk arose as we entered. Unfortunately none of the three could speak English so their female boss took charge and was most helpful, providing us with information as well as superb map material (printed on very superior quality paper).
The Dusit Hotel was much better than we had expected, with a boring facade and a most interesting interior with quality decoration. We found it on an up-market street only yards away from a smart new university and a posh shopping precinct with several western-style cafés and also beauty clinics. A porter arrived in our room bearing a plate of fruit, which we devoured immediately. There was plenty of time left for a scout round the city before dinner, we thought, but it turns dark fast in Thailand. We paid a visit to the statue of the town’s heroine, one Ya Mo, who, in the nineteenth century, organized a revolt amongst the womenfolk against the Laotian occupation, thus rescuing the city. There are a number of theories about how she actually did this, but the means seem irrelevant when you experience the deep respect and love the Thais show for their heroine, showering her illuminated pink image with flowery garlands and other offerings.
Further along the pedestrianized municipal area, we came across a political meeting at which angry voices were bellowing into microphones on giant screens in front of rows of mainly vacant red plastic chairs. This was a seemingly harmless meeting of the “red shirts”, the opposition movement who were currently demonstrating in Bangkok. On the main road, the kitchens were packing up as the light faded. Here and there, a cockroach would scuttle into the darkness of a passageway or along the side of the road. On the tiled pedestrian street in the middle of a dual carriageway, children were swerving in and out of rows of plastic cups on inline skates; a rat rushed past, disappearing into a dusty bed of shrubs.
Music could be heard in the distance, and as we walked further up the road, a series of small stages surrounded by park benches appeared. Men and women dressed in traditional Thai folk dress were performing folk dances and songs, the pleng korat, for the public. I was amused to find a row of orange-clad monks enjoying the show.
Dinner at our hotel, like the breakfast buffet, featured Thai specialities, so it was with a stomach pleasantly full of rice noodles with greens and spicy minced pork and delicious banana bread that we started for the ancient Khmer town of Phimai the next very hot and sunny morning. The temple complex at Phimai is presumed to have been the prototype for Angkor Wat, which is only 300 km away from Phimai as the crow flies, facing south. This fascinating complex was full of tourists, many of whom had hired guides. It shocked me that one young male guide obviously bleached his face, like many others who follow the trend to want to appear European, leaving a clear line on his neck where the bleach was no longer applied. The ancient buildings were no less captivating.
A French couple pointed out various lintels to me, some of which portrayed amazing animal and floral images and others scenes from the Ramayana, since the temple was originally Hindu. It was not easy to clamber up the steep, narrow and mainly broken steps, especially in the oppressive heat. Butterflies and dragon flies abounded in the grassy areas between the temple buildings and it was while I was trying to capture the common yellow butterfly that the first heavy drops of rain fell.
It clouded over and we were relieved by the slight drop in temperature as we dawdled through the town. Down by the river, a man in underpants was having a wash, so I diverted my attention to the cocks that scuttled away as we approached them. On the other side of a gateway in the ancient town walls, crowds of “red shirts”, bursting with pride and anticipation, were boarding a bus bound for Bangkok and the mood was very festive. We wandered across the river, where scores of limp but still colourful krathongs were floating amongst the reeds. On the quest to find the famous banyan trees, we discovered an extrinsic boules place complete with scoreboard and a huge, modern park where people were exercising on mechanical fitness equipment.
On our way back towards Korat, we took our time to observe the rice-harvesting. At the cooperatives, freshly harvested brown rice was stacked in mounds about three people tall. Then we stopped to photograh and film a group of elderly farmers who had spread their harvest on huge, blue plastic sheets to dry. The women were holding sacks open while the men scooped it up by the bucketful and emptied it in. Every now and then, they would shake the sack from one to another to settle the contents and this movement looked like a well-rehearsed dance. The farmers were surprised that we approached them but did not object to being photographed and the women laughed with gapped teeth smeared with bright red betelnut when I stumbled over a rake with huge prongs sticking up in the dry rice straw. I showed them the images on my display and reaped smiles on very wrinkled faces. One of the ladies touched my arm in a gesture of approval.
Ecstatic after this successful contact, we journeyed on towards an unusual temple at Ban Lak Roi that we had read about on the internet. We stopped at a filling station where a young female attendant found it hilarious that we did not understand a word of her language and taught us the word “tem” for a full tank. The toilets were full of mosquitoes hanging on to the walls and hovering over the tank of water at the side of the bowl that you use for flushing, but, as everywhere in Thailand, they were clean. As we turned into the narrow road off the main one, a couple were gathering rice straw in a nearby field and a rattling, painted truck driven by a headscarved Muslim lady passed us laden with rice for the collection centre.
The temple was one of the weirdest places I have ever visited and was not described in any of the guide books. It was actually more of a fairground with mechanical plastics that were animated if you fed them with coins. You enter this place via a fence full of apes sculptured in old, dry wood. Then an army of colonial-looking soldiers appear, apparently guarding an area dislpaying activities from traditional rural life, many of which no longer exist. As you carry on, the area turns into an African savanna with giraffes and pigs and tigers and zebras and antelopes, but also multiple-headed and -handed Hindu statues. Then a huge Kingkong-of-an ape warns you that something dreadful is about to appear and you find yourself wandering through an area of statues portraying the most dreadful and shocking torture scenes. Human beings and ferocious animals are hacking each other to death. Dogs tear testicles apart, penises are split with axes, bosoms are stretched until they hang over the victims’ shoulders, chests and stomachs are mangled, dripping with scarlet blood, and burning torches shoved up backsides. Babies are roasted, faces are brutally smashed and nails are driven though sensitive body parts. The few Thai visitors stopped to be photographed with the atrocities, seemingly amused by the brutality; some dropped coins into the appropriate slots for a bit of action. And we? We were shocked but at the same time fascinated that such scenes could be portrayed in a temple complex. There were coin boxes everywhere and I suppose the financial gain justifies the wicked images.
This does, however, shed some ambiguity over the image of the gentle Asian wielding the lotus symbol of purity before a sympathetic and benevolent Buddha statue. Not only the creator of these horrific and barbaric scenes, but also the amused or nonchalant visitors raise the question of whether the Asian’s conception of horror is in any way comparable to our European notion. At any rate, the barbarities are replaced by the usual gaudy shrines with fat Buddhas and dragon watchmen and gods and goddesses à la Hindu as you climb the gentle slope that leads to a golden temple. Here a senior monk was blessing the devotees with a lotus bloom and young men with huge earplugs were ringing the temple bells. This was Hinduism/Buddhism as we had experienced it up to now. Still somewhat bluffed, we bought a packet of three pizza-sized rice cakes with a caramelly topping for 20 baht and left.
Even in this tiny village there were cookshops. A man crouched over his drying rice sorting grains. We passed through quickly and headed for Korat, where we wanted to visit Wat Sala Loi or “temple of the swimming pavillion”, the modern temple built by Ya Mo and her husband. Built like a junk, the temple has won several prizes for its architecture. Inside the main temple stands a cool, serene, simple white Buddha whose hands are held in the stylised protection position. Outside this temple, ambitious visitors such as Willi rubbed away at the central knob of a large gong to get it vibrating. The temple grounds were alive with crowds of children playing kick the can, a monk clad in orange robes hosing down a motorcycle and several stray cats. Among the latter was a beautiful Korat cat, cobby, with a slatey grey coat and green eyes and a bell tied around its neck.
This modern wat is situated by a dirty old river in a rather more squalid area than we had seen before. As in many low-market shops in Thailand, the shops themselves served as the family living-room and usually contained a sofa or chairs or a TV. A woman was seated on a mat in such a room eating from a plastic container with her hands. There seemed to be a place at the back for sleeping and there was no evidence of running water. A khlong or canal running at the back of the houses seemed to be the only source of sanitation here. It occurred to me that it must be very difficult to keep vermin away from such habitations.
Our short journey back to the hotel took us to the 17th century Chumphon Gate and a badly-lit road where hairdressers and tailors were at work on this Sunday evening. We treated ourselves to a delicious meal in the hotel’s Chinese restaurant and ordered fried rice with crabmeat, shrimps baked in oyster sauce, Honkong-style duck and vegetables in garlic sauce. Unfortunately the sweets, soya and Cantaloupe melon in coconut milk and gingko nuts in warm syrup, were indelectable.
The morning we left Korat was sunny. Rice seemed to be drying everywhere and melon stands lined the main road, with hammocks stretched below the poor roofs. There was a lot of arrowroot, too, sending off a comforting, cerealy smell where it was drying in flakes on mats or stored in huge mounds at the roadside. It clouded over as we moved north onto a winding, undulating mountain road through dense forest in the National Park. There was much less traffic here than we had been used to and the small towns appeared very clean and intact. At the cooperatives, rice was standing in mounds as high as the heaps of sand or gravel found at home. We left the Korat plateau, where there is only one rice harvest a year, and turned into the fertile Lower Menam Valley, where the paddy fields were in varying stages of ripeness.
Here, the fields were lush, green and pretty. It began to rain, softly at first then in heavy downpours and the recommended road which was a dual carriageway on our map, turned out to be under construction from beginning to end. This was a pity because the scenery would have been wonderful: dark mountain forests at first, then less dramatic slopes in pastel shades. There were plants that looked like tea and tobacco and bananas and coconut palms and papayas. The houses in the countryside looked neat and tidy and of a high standard of workmanship and material. The province of Phitsanulok struck us as relatively wealthy.
As we entered the town, the skies were leaden and it rained persistently. We passed the old city walls and moats and turned into a heavenly compound full of lawns and spouting fountains and ponds carpeted with flowering lotus. The Pattara Resort is modern and slick. We were given afternoon tea in an open restaurant facing a huge pond, where a hatted gardener in a small, blue boat was weeding. The staff, not professional by any standard, were most attentive and the waiter-cum-porter-cum-driver showed me how to fold lotus leaves in two different ways to make table decorations. We feasted on chicken satay and green curry with chicken (that was ordered as beef) and roasted duck in red curry with rice and chappatis.
Despite our copious dinner, we enjoyed a wonderful breakfast buffet with fresh shrimps and crabsticks and dim sum, then left to discover the town, starting at the Wat Yoi, a Buddhist place of pilgrimage with a locus-formed golden chedi. Dancing girls, considerably less beautiful than their counterparts in Bangkok, were performing in a corner as we entered the main gate. Wasps were buzzing round the sticky, sweet sugar cane syrup sold in hanging cane containers. There were literally hundreds of tourists here, mainly Buddhists, buying entrance tickets and offerings and small sachets of gold-leaf and lotus flowers. Most visitors come to adore the fourteenth century golden Phra Buddha Chinarat, which sits in a transparent robe in an exquisite black and gold temple in the centre of the complex.
The guards were very strict about clothing here and you were not allowed to take a picture from a standing postion on any account. A constant rattling noise made me study the worshippers more closely and I discovered that many of them had purchased a cylindrical wooden container with what looked like joss sticks inside. These were shaken from time to time, producing the rattling noise, and I believe they are used to predict your fortune.
There was plenty to look at and photograph at this complex, since the side temples were all lovely, featuring plants we had never seen before and a particularly fat Buddha and precious mother-of pearl doors. The stallholders were selling souvenirs, herbal medicines and all manner of things to eat. Wat Nang Phraya, a temple on the other side of the road was undergoing repair, but we went in all the same and were treated to some lively wall paintings and a priceless golden Buddha statue that stood about a foot high, seated on an ornately worked plinth.
Across the main road on the banks of the River Nan stands an old temple in poor state of repair with a forlorn atmosphere to it. This is Wat Ratburana, which boasts a photogenic chedi that dates from the fifteenth century. This is a curious collection of old buildings including a shabby ordination hall with very strange frescoes, a huge banyan tree that was dripping with garlands during our visit and a brand new Chinese-style building that I think is a library.
Further along the Nan river is a tourist information office tucked away behind a fast food restaurant in a very traditional-looking building. It seemed to be closed, but as we opened the door, a very young girl wearing a little dress and ridiculously large Minnie Mouse slippers woke up from her place on a small sofa and did her best to please us. She understood no English at all, but we succeeded in getting a town map all the same. Even with the help of this map, it took us a while to find the Sergeant Thapwee Folk Museum. A schoolgirl on work experience showed us round and she was rather good actually. It was extremely hot, but the exibits were all in traditional teak houses that had windows open on all sides and were remarkably airy. There was an extensive display of household and medicinal objects as well as animal traps and a pictorial record of Thai fashions through the ages, but the most interesting exhibits for me were the birthing room, a common outhouse that used to be in existence in most homes, and a series of equipment for doing self-massage, which the young lady tried out on Willi.
The Thai Bird Park and the Buddha casting factory adjacent to the Museum were rather disappointing. The birds were all jammed in cages that we judged to be insufficient for the needs of some of the larger birds. However we may just have been suffering from the oppressive heat. It was a relief to seek out the coolness of our resort, where we were assured that the temperature was unusually hot for the time of the year.
It took us about half an hour to leave the city the next morning, but that did not matter since the townsfolk who were walking to work or setting up their rickshaw stalls had smiles on their faces and made you feel good. The first rural stalls that lined the road were selling melons: Cantaloupe melons and net melons and honeydew melons and water melons and Christmas melons. These were often unattended. We passed numerous paddy fields, then reached a mountainous area where the road snaked through virgin forest and led to a fertile plain with bananas and maize. We reached the province of Chiang Rai and passed through the university town of Phayao with its lake.
By the time we reached the famous white temple, it was absolutely pouring with rain. Asian tourists with steamy spectacles and dripping umbrellas hopped around our vehicle. We decided to postpone our visit. Finding our homestay, quite far from the town and in a rural area, was a challenge and happened almost by accident. We were greeted by the friendly Phaet, shown into a comfortable room and given a complimentary glass of red wine, then settled in and enjoyed an early T-bone steak and a pad thai, before the nightcap on our tiny terrace.
We woke to the chirping of a thousand crickets in a garden still immersed in low cloud. It was cool but humid. At the local temple, someone was booming out a sermon to the entire village. Dew had settled on the furry leaves of the pointasettia in front of the terrace and mosquitoes were still picking their victims. Rows of birds clung to the electric wires on the street. We had a long journey ahead of us, starting through the town, whose shopping streets were straddled with flag bunting. Outside the town there were stands selling the small local pineapples and basketware and there were, of-course, rice fields in every direction.
It took us a good hour to reach Chiang Saen, a sleepy little town full of traditional teak buildings. We found Wat Pa Sak, photogenic Khmer-style temple ruins idyllically set in a small teak wood, bathed in ideal morning light, though the lichen path around it was dangerously slippery after the rains. We hurried on to the Chedi Luang, a temple complex housing a huge chedi, where I was nearly struck down by a tree that was being felled by flipflopped monks. Thousands of insects flew out of the crown as it hit the ground about 20 metres from where I was standing, so we made a speedy retreat here, too. Only a few kilometres further, we reached the promenade that skirts the majestic Mekong, the border river that we had come to see.
Across the peaceful waters of the wide, somnabulent river the hillsides of Laos were still enschrouded in cloud. Only a few kilometres further north, we would be able to see the land of Myanmar, too. Without the turmoil of the Sop Ruak temple, the Golden Triangle would be a magical place, a place to ponder, a place of reflection. Instead it is a commercialised tourist magnet that loses its geographical and physical meaning in a commotion beyond words. But this is Thailand, where everything is colourful and happy happy. This is the land of giant Buddhas and wheels of fortune and flashy dragons. And I believe it is fitting for the local people for commemorate this wonderful spot in their own fantastic way.
We spent a while peering over a viewpoint, taking in the grassy triangular piece of Myanmar to our left and the shores of Laos to our right. We took a picture on the mobile of a young Thai gent dressed in a bonnet and thick anorak in the heat of the midday sun, who had driven up from Bangkok on his motorbike. I stalked a tattooed monk for a while to take his photo, then we left for the countryside. Not far outside the town, a colourful crowd of landworkers with checked shirts and sun and dust protection were feeding bundles of rice into a threshing machine, whilst on the opposite side of the road, their poorer neighbours were energetically threshing the rice by hand, a really hard job. We were bound for Mae Saen, a border town boasting two “friendship” bridges and a Burmese market.
The market was amazing. It was held on the main road to Myanmar which was decorated by lampions and golden-crested street lamps and carried on forever. The Burmese were easily identified by their straw hats, which unlike the Thai hats, are pointed, and by the carrying poles, still a useful means of transporting goods in the narrow market passageways. Some of them pushed handcarts bearing fruit including a pale version of the granite apple, which I hadn’t seen before; others sat sideways on the side of carts pulled by bicycles. Many of the Mong women had smeared white paste onto their faces. This was a fascinating kaleidoscope of colour and noise and odours, a photographer’s dream!
We had intended to join a small road off Mae Chan through the mountains to visit Doi Tung Royal Villa and then the market town of Mae Salong where tea thrives on the hillsides. Little did we realise how steep the roads would be and how impotent our vehicle would prove to be on the uphill stretches. After the umpteenth checkpoint that day, when we saw a gradient ahead that looked particularly challenging, Willi decided to turn round and drive back to Mae Chan. Pineapples and maize are grown around here, and strawberries, filling roadside stalls in every possible form – fresh, dried, as juice and jam and in preserves. On our way up the mountains tea plantations appeared, green and lush as always and there were tea centres where one could taste different varieties. Finally, at the end of our road, Mae Salong unfolded before us.
Mae Salong, a town that became populated by exiled Chinese soldiers some fifty years ago, was an opium-growing area until quite recently. Now there is an effort to produce tea, coffee, cabbage, galangal and herbs for medicinal purposes and the market has become a vital tourist attraction. The light was beginning to fade and the last tourists were turning back to their buses, but we were approached by several persistent ladies from the Akha and Mien tribes in traditional costume, wearing heavy headdresses with bells, short skirts and long, brightly coloured socks. The ladies, who were trying to sell us woollen bracelets, looked more Chinese than Thai, with the ruddy cheeks of the rural population. On the road back down to the town, we passed the last of the tea-pickers, who were spraying the crops in the distance.
On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at a Tesco Lotus Supermarket to buy insect spray for the car, since the mosquitos were getting in there at night and hiding under the seats only to reappear in the morning, (when they actually have no right to still be active,) and making a meal of me. Outside the market, in the semi-darkness, an aerobic class was taking place, with the leader on a raised stage and a whole shadowy crowd repeating her movements and obeying her instructions to thumping disco music. Just like that, off a supermarket car park! Chiang Rai looked different at night and many streets were closed off or turned into one-way roads for the night market, where suddenly flocks of people filled the pavements. Understandably, then, we had trouble getting our bearings and it took us much longer to reach our homestay than we had anticipated.
The next morning there was a downpour at breakfast time. One of those tropical downpours that make a terrific noise as millions of leaves get washed. There were several places to visit on our list before we finally left Chiang Rai and we were a little sad to feel that we were nevertheless leaving this town without having really got to know it. Our first destination was several kilometres north of the town and is not particularly well-known. When we stopped to ask the way, a Thai gentleman hopped on his bike and accompanied to the place where a narrow road turns off the main road. The Baandum or “black house” Museum, is the home of the Thai artist Thawan Duchanee and contains his eerie sculptures made from horns and bones, reptile skins, traditional African sculptures, old boats, Lanna-style woodcrafts and art installations housed across 32 buildings, most of which are Lanna-style pavilions made from black wood. The collection is situated in a park with a lovely lake and is one of the most beautiful open-air museums I have ever seen.
Another highlight followed. We visited the Hill Tribe Museum, at which five different hill tribes live and sell their artwork, mainly carved wooden articles but also textile products such as loopily-woven silk scarves. I hope we may be forgiven for being predominantly fascinated by the “long neck” women, in this case the Padaung, a sub-tribe of the Karens, who wear an increasing number of brass rings round their necks as they get older and are amazing to look at! Rings are also worn on the arms, from the wrist upwards, and the legs, from the knee downwards and can account for an additional 30 pound of weight. I felt rather sorry for these ladies and girls, who, on account of the brass, spend most of the daytime seated with stretched-out legs at looms.
Some of the younger women were very pretty and wore delicate paste ornamentation on their cheeks and flowery headdresses. One young mother had her only weeks-old baby stacked away in a basket in a sitting position, covered with a cloth although it was fully clothed, and she tapped the side of the basket from side to side to keep the baby quiet.
We learnt that the neckrings are applied from the age of about four or five and if a young woman wishes to have these removed, she may do so. However, as the neck muscles are terribly weak without the support of the rings, she is then obliged to have intensive physiotherapy. I suppose it is attracive to the tribe for the women to earn good money as a tourist attraction. The same applies for the other tribes who live here, all in abysmal, thatched wooden huts falling into a stream, the Akha, the Lahu-muser, the Palong, who traditionally wear large ear-plugs, and the Lu Mien-Yao. A rather strong smell was coming from an open stall where wild, black swine were rolling in the mud. Many tourists complain that they feel like entering a human zoo at such villages. I tried to communicate with these women and one Padaung lady invited me to sit down beside her. She sat very close – too close for my European comfort – and we communicated mainly by sign language, though she could count in English, showering me with a slightly pepperminty scent as she spoke. Next to her, a neighbour’s baby was squirming on the lap of her eight-year-old daughter, who kept trying to pull down its dress to hide its genitals. How nice it would have been to spend a little longer with these ladies!
However, we had a further 200 kilometres to drive that day and we wanted to visit the famous, new, white temple before we left the area. The building of Wat Rong Khrun was started in 1997 and construction is still going on. It is a brilliant white complex, filigrane in its elements, many of which represent hands and feet. Pure white, sharp-edged demons and dragons and tusks stretch into the sky, this morning a steely grey, and reflect in smooth lakes. Tiny mirrors enhance the dazzling effect. In contrast, the ubosot, or monks’ building of residence, (which also houses the opulent visitors’ toilets) is entirely gold and no less intricate. There was a pavilion with a roof decorated with thousands of hanging, silvery, heart-shaped pieces of metal . At a kiosk, these metal pendants were on sale. On two lage tables covered with wax cloth, children were writing on these with felt tipped pens. Mosaics embellished the marble floors. Everything was designed to express purity and despite the thousands of tourists, the temple complex was a place of peace and tranquility.
Across the road, music was streaming through an amplifier. Pleasant Thai music, from a family of three. After listening to a few sample songs and melodies, we bought a couple of CDs here. (Back home again, we threw them into the bin ; they were awfully dissonant!)
The road to Chiang Mai was lovely, but incessant rain made the journey through the jungle rather depressing. We passed strawberry and coffee plantations and arrived at an area where shopping precincts had sprung up around several hot springs, where schoolchildren were dipping tiny baskets of quails’ eggs into the hot water to boil them.
We stayed overnight at a charming homestay in Doi Saket built by the German Jürgen, who lives here with his young Thai wife and several noisome dogs. Just before entering the town, we stopped to use the toilets at a filling station which was adjacent to a huge rice collection point. The heaps of rice mounded here were larger than any we had seen so far and a bulldozer was rumbling over the hills of rice to pile them even higher. From all sides, vehicles were coming in driven by men with scarves tightly fastened round nose and mouth or wearing hoods with eye-holes cut out, tipping the newly arrived cereal from the back of the pick-ups. It was sheer unbelievable.
Jürgen recommended that we should eat at Sorn’s place in the small town. Sorn’s place turned out to be a restaurant-cum-living-room, with books sprawling over the sofa and falling from high piles on the shelves. When Sorn was not attending to his clients or lending a hand in the kitchen, he was sitting among the books on the sofa doing his accounts. His yellow pork with curry was hot, even by Thai standards, but our meal was very good.
Mae Hong Son
Willi feared that our car might struggle up the steep mountain roads that we would otherwise loved to have taken into the Doi Inathon National Park, so we had no option but to make the six-hour loop journey with the main traffic via Chiang Mai. The traffic was slow and choking for the first couple of hours through the labyrinth city of Chiang Mai and the industrial towns that followed. But once we had left the Ping River Valley, our road snaked alongside the wide, meandering river Yuam through a highland forest and our spirits soared. At the Ob Luang National Park we had a stop and made a mental note that this could be worth a visit on a future trip. There were pumpkins and marrows at the side of the roads here and fright-inducing lorries would thunder down towards us bearing cabbages or onions or tangerine-sized oranges or coconuts. Fields of dried, crumpled maize and lush banana plantations followed us up the road and the sun came out to greet us in the Mae Hong Son district. We kept our distance behind a mad lorry driver who only managed to avoid a couple of head-on collisions because of the alert reactions of the oncoming drivers. And we stopped again to buy a plastic bag of cut pineapple from a pretty girl at the roadside, where a female cleaner was extracting rubbish from the dried-up ditches with one of those gigantic pincers. As we approached the town of Mae Hong Son, there were signs of tourism with resorts and signs offering bird watching, rafting, excursions in the national parks, trips to hilltribe villages and sporting activities.
The Fern Resort lies on a doubtful road full of flea-bitten stray soi dogs on a former paddy field. It is a resort owned and run by Thais for Thais and totally charming. We were offered a pandana tea and shown to our room, a slightly scruffy but clean cottage with a balcony at the front and another at the back. It was so relaxing here, with a lavish, fragrant garden and the regular knocking of bamboo spouts in the stream. It was already late afternoon, so we decided to head for the sunset terrace, which is open from 5 – 7 pm only, for a sundowner. Armed with gin and tonic and Chang beer, we sat down next to a group of Swiss tourists and watched the sun turn the sky deep orange over a rice field. The charm of this resort was heightened by the hopelessly unprofessional but friendly attitude of the zealous staff. Their knowledge of English was very poor and they had no idea about the value of the wine they were serving and our first menu choices were unavailable. Our waitress, a ruddy-faced laughing girl with a spring in her step and much too much energy, proudly served the Bordeaux in a bucket of ice. But the vegetable tempura was light and delicious as were the vegetables with chicken in oyster sauce and the pork in red curry that replaced the unavailable sirloins.
It is not easy to find your way around Mae Hong Son, but we made it to the post office, which sold oil and ginseng tea and pillows and other remarkable objects, and bought a set of lovely stamps which were each divided into two, so that each stamp showed half a picture. We looked for the lake and found the market instead. There were more Europeans here than I would have thought possible in this rather remote area, but judging by their market behaviour, I guess they possibly live in the area. In return for a photograph, I handed out small packets of Haribo sweets for the children of the poorer, local farmers, brought for that purpose. And we marvelled at the very long green beans and the tiny, round aubergines that are used in green curry and the other strange vegetables. We studied the beautifully presented manifold varieties of dried fish, the huge buckets of teeny-weeny dried shrimps and the pink eggs. And we tried a sort of crêpe, that was smeared with scalding hot pineapple jam, folded, and stuffed into a conical bag.
In the end, we also found the lake. The air was dry and it was very hot, so there were not many people around the lake or even in the Wat Hong Cham and the adjacent Wat Chong Klam. A very young girl, a child, had fallen asleep over the bread she was supposed to be selling for the fish just in front of a pavillion. Oversized synthetic lotus flowers were floating on the still waters. We parked the car on the lakeside and began our temple tour. A five-meter high, white Burmese-style Buddha statue in transparent robes stood on a golden stage in the first temple. The second, a wonderful teakwood complex in the Burmese style, boasted a white and golden chedi. It felt so good to walk barefoot over the polished, creaking teak floor in the ordination hall, where women are forbidden to enter the area closest to a golden Buddha. In the temple next door, a low building with a silver-edged, green-tiled roof, the adult monks were checking tents, presumably for a camping expedition with the young boys in orange robes who were flitting excitedly from one room to another behind the altar. There was an unusual Buddha woven out of reeds here, with huge, long-stretched ear lobes.
Choosing not to visit the Wat Doi Kong Mu temple which towers over the lake and is probably the most famous temple in Mae Hon Son, we drove into the countryside where it was cooler. We were aware of a hill tribe village in the area and Willi was vaguely intending to drive into the National Park, but it was on a whim that we chose the direction of a waterfall close to the border to Myanmar. The closer we got to the waterfall, the more purple flag bunting we noticed and outside offical buildings and temples, there were metres of purple and white cloth fastened in garlands. The Pha Sua waterfall was pretty and void of tourists when we arrived. We walked along a path leading to its base and left, following the signs to Pang Tong Palace. Little did we realise that the palace is a royal residence! That explained the purple bunting. King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his Queen Sirikit rarely use the demure, but the watchmen must have been surprised when we naively asked if one could visit it.
Back we drove down the hill, following a motorbike with a young lady riding pillion, who was carrying a birdcage in each hand! We decided to visit Ban Noi Soi, a self-sustaining refugee camp and home to the Karen tribe, some 40 km away. The road was rather bad and had broken away severely at one point, then it deteriorated to a dirt track, along which tea-pickers were returning from their work. As the road became increasingly pitted, we parked by the side of a road at a bridge where some villagers were doing their washing and a host of persistent, tiny black flies settled on my legs. We slowed our pace to line-up with two female pickers, their baskets slung across their foreheads. They were a giggly pair of women who were clearly amused at our prescence. Almost without warning, they dived into some bushes at the side of the road, presumably to join their village, and motioned that our destination lay ahead. The village was literally on the edge of the jungle and the beaten track, full of puddles, just stopped at the end of it, at a muddy place where men and boys were playing volleyball. Dogs and flashy cockrels crossed our path. The villagers were going in and out of poorly constructed houses made of thin, woven wooden planks and thatch, many of them, womenfolk and men, cooking in metal pots in their yards over brushwood fires. I bought a couple of postcards from an attractive “long neck” lady with a young child strapped across her front and handed out some sweets.
The villagers, rather distanced, obviously thought it was strange that we had just turned up in their village but I do not think they really minded and nobody refused permission to photograph them. Before we left, a pair of young girls explained that the elder one, who already wore about eleven brass rings, did not go to school, whereas the younger one, who wore no rings, did.
Returning to our car, we were accosted by two young women who wanted to speak English. Again, the elder of the two wore rings and the younger, ringless girl went to school. We had noticed a simple church on the way up the hill and now we decided to have a closer look. It was a Baptist church. An assured young German woman came across to ask if she could help and from her we learned that the Karens are Christians. She was a volunteer teaching English here. In the fields, rice stubble was being burnt and the workers were wearing the pointed hats of the Burmese tribes.
That evening, the local shan dish of pork curry was available and we ordered fried chicken with lemongrass and curry with shrimps and vegetables in oyster sauce. A faithful dog stayed at my side all evening. The following morning, our waitresses were all wearing traditional dress. Our baby elephant presented me with a small bouquet made from shiny green pandana leaves. It stayed with us in the car boot until right up till the last day, its comforting perfume reminding me of the wonderful time we had spent at the resort.
To complete the recommended Mae Hong Son loop, we had to drive a little further into the mountains, where we would be rewarded with a view of the highlands on both sides of the road. From there the road went downhill. At our first stop, we payed three baht for the worst toilets we had seen so far. The locals were selling various sorts of insect-infested rice and beans. The views were slightly spoiled by cloud, but at Pang Mapha, the view was excellent despite dark skies. We had been told to watch out for the Tham Lod limestone caves which you can enjoy from an bamboo raft. We stopped at the first amphoe or administrative district, to ask for information about the caves in the town hall. There were people sitting outside waiting for appointments, I assume. Nobody could speak English except a schoolgirl and she could not understand me. Inside, at a wide window in a sort of porter’s lodge, nobody took the slightest notice of us, but then the postman came tripping down the stairs and he asked if he could help. Alas, he could give no information. We decided to ask at a café, a tourist place belonging to a lodge but noone there spoke English. I had actually seen signs to a Tourist Information Office on the edge of town, so we turned back and the only office building we could find was the police station. We walked in and lo and behold! a chubby policeman was on duty below a sign reading “Information”. And he could speak English! While we were speaking to the policeman, the postman turned up on his bike, very surprised to see us! We had missed the turning to the caves some 30 km before and it seemed ridiculous to go back.
Our first impression of Come Hide Away Lodge at the former hippie town of Pai was one of disappointment. There were few guests. We slept in a room next to the royal room, where the king’s sister often stays. It was on arrival here that I discovered bites, lots of red bites on one leg and a few on the other. I suspected the flies might have been responsible from where we had stopped the day before, but they could have been from bedbugs, I suppose. There were still a couple of hours of daylight to take advantage of, so we parked the car near the market hall and walked around the small town, noticing how very young most of the tourists were. Not surprising considering that the hotels and resorts in the centre are low-budget. There were also many middle-aged European men and women that one might put into the “overgrown hippie” category. We strolled around the bridge area and considered walking up to the Temple on the Hill (Wat Phra That Mae Yen), then took the car instead. This was just as well since the path to the giant Buddha statue was barred. The view of Pai town was lovley. It was pleasant to stroll through the local market back to the car. And any misgivings we may have had about our resort were dispelled at dinner, when our hostess, Mona, cooked a wonderful meal for the three couples staying there. She had advised us to bring our own wine. We started with shrimps in batter and raw vegetables in the fish-chili sauce that is typical for the region. Tom yam soup followed, then we enjoyed chicken with cashews and vegetables with rice and finished with fresh papaya and pineapple. It was the spiciest meal we had had in Thailand but so delicious! Over dinner, we learnt from Chan, Mona’s right hand, chief waiter and driver, that the “red shirt” riots in faraway Bangkok were escalating.
There is no shortage of small, not necessarily cultural places to visit around Pai. We began with a stop-off at Strawberry Farm, which was exactly that. It has been extended to include a tiny, simple resort and a shop-cum-entertainment centre with a strawberry theme. So there were funny little rides and photo cut-outs in front of the beds of fruit, above which a hundred little sunshades hung from wires in the sky. Besides strawberry wines and juice and smoothies and shakes and knitted bonnets that looked like ripe berries, there was a bakery and you could also buy plum wine. Rickshaws kept rolling in bringing small groups of tourists, many of whom, like us, were particularly appreciative of the toilets.
At least the memorial bridge had a historical context. The original bridge over the Pai River was burnt down by the Japanese after World War One and later rebuilt by the local people, many of whom belong to the Lisu tribe, a farming folk that originate from China. We crossed the footbridge along uneven, unstable wooden planks. On the far side of the bridge, Lisu-style embroidered garments – very pretty and wearable fashions – and handicrafts were on sale. Pai rafting experiences started from here and had it not been so hot, we might have been tempted. As it was, we journeyed on to the Treehouse Resort to see if the resort was as fascinating as its name. It was! Though most of the rooms were in pleasant, chalet-type cottages, you could actually sleep in a tree house. The resort was enchanting with no end of sitting places and a spa and the new bridge which is being built over the river. Elephants strode past us carrying seated tourists and the restaurant looked good. It was here at the toilets that I had to discard my shoes and done the usual flipflops to use the facilities.
A leafy road took us to the Pai hot springs, a few kilometres away. We were not equipped for bathing, so we just took a few pictures at the entrance gate, where a man and a woman were framing a portrait of the king with white and golden yellow fabric, expertly twisting and folding it, in honour of his forthcoming birthday. A bubbling, steaming brook was babbling invitingly over its stony bed. I resolved to come again one day.
The canyon, very close to the town, was quite busy. We spoke to a group of young people from Bangkok and later to a group of chatty Malaysians. A steep flight of steps led to the canyon itself, where the walk around it proved to be a little too hazardous for us, with steep, slippery stones that suddenly replaced the path. The fearless young were posing for photos right on the edge of a precipice, as they do. We had a pleasant walk for as far as we felt safe and enjoyed the butterflies, numerous and fascinating in this country. They were also milling around at the Mo Paeng waterfall in a rural area near our resort. This tiered waterfall, with its pools, is most popular with European tourists who turn up there, hair streaming behind them despite the strict helmet restrictions, on mopeds. In front of the waterfall, amidst rows of scooters and so many stray dogs that you had to be careful not to step on one, a few locals were selling bottled drinks and a few snacks in an effort to earn a little money. The nicest part of this waterfall is that you cross a very traditional Lisu village to get here. It was harvesting time for the small heads of garlic grown here and, like the other Thai crops, it was drying on blue plastic sheets on the roads and in the yards. In one house, we glimpsed a group of small children playing on the floor while chickens strutted across the roads and a couple of buffalos grazed dosily in the field.
Following the winding road back, we stopped at the Chinese Village, a tourist attraction built in a village that houses Yunnanese refugees. On green lawns with small ponds horses wearing soft, gaudy cloth saddles were waiting to be ridden. Rows and rows of stalls offered fruit and vegetables and shops -downstairs-dwellings-upstairs, made of dried clay and with thatched roofs, were selling cheap souvenirs. From this hill village, there were lovely views across the countryside. Passing the food stalls and restaurants in a square featuring a strange, castle-like building, we realised that we were feeling peckish, and sat down at a clean but simple fast-food place. Our “snack” was huge. I tried four whopper dum-sims filled with minced pork, while Willi tucked into spare-ribs and fried potatoes and a bowl of rice that was ordered by mistake.
It would not have felt right to return to the lodge without a visit to the local temple, just a few metres away from the gates. There was a very relaxed atmosphere at the Ban Moo temple. Monks were sitting in the shade with time to have a chat with the local people and nobody batted an eyelid when a mucky duck waddled across the shrine where two members of the royal family are laid to rest. In a festive shrine lit with sparkling fairy lights, the tomb of another royal was decorated with giant hibiscus flowers. In the main temple, I watched a television recording in which holy water was being scooped out of an open, ceramic Buddha head, watered down, filled into plastic bags and distributed to a crowd of ladies. Here, too, women visitors were filling plastic bags with water from a basin outside. The ladies, from Chiang Rai, assured me that this water was “same, same” as the water in the film.
That night we would eat in the town, but after our visit to the temple there was time to relax for an hour at the poolside. I watched the many doves fluttering down in threes from the dovecot in the tiered roof of the reception building. A cock crowed, Willi snored gently, the doves were calling and the weavers squawking. The sun disappeared slowly behind the little wood behind the stream and dried leaves dropped silently to the ground. How peaceful this was! And what a contrast to the night market street in Pai! The market abounds with shops selling things-that tourists-want and places to buy a snack to eat with your fingers or to have a civilised meal at a table. You could buy sugar cane juice and almost any other drink in cane tubes, some of them elegantly etched.
After perusing the stalls selling greasy noodles – yellow squiggly ones and slippery, flat brown ones, and brittly white ones, for example – and the grilled flat, black mushrooms served on banana leaf and the little round Thai sausages that you can find on every street corner in the region, we opted for the 90 year-old Ban Thai Terrace on the main pedestrian precinct. We ordered fried morning glory in oyster sauce and stir-fried beef and red curry, which turned out to be more of a soup than we had anticipated and was rather spicy.
Mona had had morning glory prepared for breakfast along with fried rice with dried shrimps and delicious fried noodles. She made me try sweet chili paste with my toast. The grass was wet with dew and it was almost cold as we left for Chiang Mai.
The mists clinging to the hillsides as we left Pai , which turn the mountain scenery into a mysterious, but rather gloomy sight, are what most Thai tourists come to the area for. We prefer the sun and there was plenty of that, too, as we turned from one curve to the next down the winding road that leads to Chiang Mai. The further we penetrated this busy city, the more the fumes seemed to choke us. It was a pleasure to find our hotel , despite its proximity to the airport, in a pleasant, quiet forecourt. Furthermore I declare the Suanpaak Boutique Hotel to be the provider of The Perfect Hotel Room.
Not that we were there for long. Not too tired from the morning drive, Will agreed that we should take advantage of the long afternoon ahead to visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Once again, in the mountains. The complex is only twelve kilometers from Chiang Mai, but you need to take your time to get out of the city and climb up this popular steep road. Once you have found a place to park the car, you will probably have to walk quite a distance to reach the 309 steps to visit the chedi. On these steps we were disturbed by universtity students, blackmailing visitors to donate money for a new science block. There were the usual pagodas and statues and bells and shrines, both Hindu and Buddhist, including a model of the Emerald Buddha. The original copper plated chedi is the most holy area of the temple grounds and most of the tourists had accumulated around this area, resplendent with gold in the late afternoon sun.
This part of the temple complex was stunning. The metals, gold and bronze and copper, all magnificently worked, radiated a feeling of awe for the workmanship it entailed and general well-being. I knelt down at the back of a number of Buddhist visitors to be blessed by a tattooed monk dispersing holy water, much of which splashed my new camera.
From this holiest of places there was a grandiose view of Chiang Mai city, sprawled out in a light shroud of smog. Young, student-aged monks were selling amulets here, while an older one was emptying the donation bowls.
We followed a pick-up back down the road in which five children bumped along in the back, occasionally disappearing under a blanket for warmth.
After a quick change and thorough insect protection spray, we started out for the Chiang Mai Safari Tour which is recommended on most travel forums. The tour consists of two night-time trips in an open tram through the savanna zone and a carnivorous zone. In between you can watch short shows and shop. After securing our tickets, we took a modest buffet at the Giraffe Restaurant and waited for our tours to begin, admiring two rather splendid and photogenic caged tigers at the entrance. After the tours, which I rather enjoyed, though Willi prefers wildlife wild, we walked around Swan Lake on the Jaguar Trail. I was pleased to be able to observe the predators, particularly the white panther, close up.
If our hotel had perfect rooms, the café at which breakfast was served can at best be described as mediocre, though the fresh orange juice was excellent. There was hardly any congestion on the city roads, a phenomenum that we associated with the truly beloved king’s birthday. Posters and pictures all over the land show him as a modest-looking man, small-boned and almost fragile behind his over-sized glasses. His thin mouth is usually screwed into a worried-looking, tight half-smile. He seems wistful and wise. Food stalls were still being set up on one side of the square moat that surrounds the old city and which makes navigation easier once you have fathomed it out. At the Tha Pae gate, a temporary stage was being erected for the evening birthday celebration and two country women were making jewelry.
We walked down the main road, put off somewhat by the numerous warnings about false guides. Indeed we were constantly stopped by eager taxi-drivers and rickshaws and, I suspect, a few con men. Our first stop was at Chedi Luang, or Temple with the Great Stupa, a beautiful complex with a very ornate main temple containing statues of Buddha’s apostles. I could have stayed forever in this temple, equally beautiful from the outside and within, where hundreds of rectangular flags hung from the ceiling. A great sense of spirituality exuded from the building itself and also from the worshippers. The very large fifteenth century chedi from which the temple gets its name is behind this and displays watch-dragons and elephants as well as a full-lipped Buddha with a golden leafy boddha tree sculptured in the background. While we were admiring this, a university student approached me and asked if I would complete a tourist survey for her. I was amazed by the complexity of the survey and to be honest, much of the terminology used was unfamiliar to me.
Another temple on the same green, relaxing grounds caught our attention because of the mass of pastel colour and silver used beneath the dark, multi-tiered roof. Next to it stretched a languid Buddha in a netted robe and beyond this, pushy ladies were offering hand-garlands and caged birds. There were also donation boxes for each year in the Chinese horoscope calendar. But what impressed me most was the Lanna Monk Chat, a initiative of the Lanna campus of the Mahamakut University which presides on the temple grounds. Here, visitors were invited, in English, to come in and have a chat with the student monks, about their way of life or anything else that interested them. Had I been alone, I should most definitely have taken advantage of this offer!
On our way to the Phra Singh temple, we more or less stumbled across the tiny Wat Phan Tao, described as an “unsung treasure” in one of the guide books. I couldn’t agree more. The viharn or meeting hall of this beautiful, simple teakwood temple was originally built as a throne hall and is one of the few original all-wood temples remaining. An unusual heavily decorated stone gate at the entrance of the grounds welcomed us in. Under the watchful presence of a golden Buddha enframed by two delicately worked naga serpents, visitors and devotees were dutifully dropping coins into scores of metal bowls in four rows at the side of the viharn.
We were even more delighted by Phra Singh itself. Around a magnificent white and golden chedi, old wooden temples impress by their testimony to age. Most of these date back to the fourteenth century when Chiang Mai was the capital of the Lanna kingdom. You can visit a thousand temples in Thailand and not get bored, because each one has a special point of interest or treasure or atmosphere that will stay with you forever. In the case of this temple there were two features that I will never forget: the frescoes, almost alive and painted with immaculate detail, and the ordination hall, with a marvellous emerald Buddha and four very life-like statues of recently departed elders. This wat is a working monastery. Along the back of the ubosot, or living-quarters, washed metal bowls were draining upside down on a balustrade. The same metal bowls could be seen on a huge photograph portraying the monks on their daily morning walk through the town collecting alms in the form of food for their daily needs.
The main chedi contains the famous Phra Singh Buddha which sits against a background of red laquer patterned with gold leaf. Its exterior is an exquisitely ornately sculptured tiered teak building, decorated with the typical chofas or bird-like roof finnials. In another, the largest building, which houses a huge copper and gold seated Buddha from the fifteenth century, monks accept gifts, bestow blessings and sell amulets.
Having had our fill of temples for a while, I suggested that we walk half-way round the town moat, an estimated 3 km., which would bring us back to the car and give our legs a good stretch. It was hot, but the sparkling fountains and grassy banks provided a freshness that you do not find within the walls. Before we reached our destination we were both dying for refreshment and turned into the old town once again in search of a good café. Thus we stumbled upon the Glasshouse, a café and restaurant that was so cooling and pleasant that we booked a table for dinner as well. One fresh orange juice and one lemon soda later, we also discovered a hotel that would entice me if we ever visit Chiang Mai again: the Tamarind Village, an oasis of peace under shady tamarinds in traditional style. With the heat and the walking, we were rather tired by the time we reached our vehicle and thought a country drive would be relaxing. It took us over half an hour to leave the city. Our route took us past numerous factories producing the articles we had seen in stalls throughout the old city centre: leather goods, silk, silverware, handbags made from every conceivable material and sculptured wood. Around San Kamphaeng, where there are hot springs to visit, rice was being grown or harvested according to the development of the crops and buffalos wallowed in the wet fields. It really was relaxing and the perfect way to cool down before changing for dinner.
Just before we reached the hotel, Willi changed lanes where he shouldn’t have. We were immediately stopped by an excited traffic policeman who made ample use of his whistle. There was a lot of arm-waving and finger-wagging. Willi apologised and looked contrite and the policeman let us off with a warning not to do it again.
An open taxi-minicab dropped us off near the Glasshouse, where we feasted on papaya salad and satays, chicken with green curry and the much sought after khao soi, which our Chinese taxi-driver had recommended in Bangkok. This was a truly delicious and mild dish of flat noodles with chicken in a creamy curry sauce. A white, starched tablecloth and Chilean Chardonnay served in fine glassware made the meal a memorable event.
After a spongy pancake breakfast for me and an omelette for Willi, we set off in the direction of our next destination, intending to drop in at Lampang on the way. Lampang boasts an Elephant Conservation Centre as well as an elephant hospital, but it was the town with its renowned teakwood houses and temples, skilfully ornamented by Burmese carpenters, and the typical horse-carriages that we were principally interested in. We did not have a great deal of time to spend looking for these and had difficulty finding anything like a town centre at all. Instead we found a stocky clock tower that was dwarfed by the huge, tiered advertising boards all around it. There were busy shopping streets with awnings made of scraps and every indication that this was a thriving, developing municipality. A mental note was made: don’t even try to visit a town that you haven’t really got time for! Lampang, I am sure we will be back one day, you deserve a proper visit.
Not far from the outskirts of the town, we stopped to have a brief look at a stall selling wooden animals of a type we hadn’t seen before. They were assembled from bark or thick shavings and were delightful. Around the Den Chai area we were mystified by stalls selling large, white flakes in plastic bags. There’s only one way to satisfy curiosity. In sign language, the family at the wayside stall we stopped at confirmed that the flakes were edible, so I agreed to buy a packet and mimed my intention to open the packet and eat them. The saleswoman looked horrified and lifted the lid of a cooking pot on her stand. Here were the flakes bubbling away in hot water with vegetables. My internet research suggests that these were beaten rice flakes. Fortunately there were also (very greasy) banana chips on sale, too, so we were able to do business.
A few kilometres before Sukhothai, there is a historical park called Si Sachetai, in a very fertile, wide valley where not only banana plantations thrive. We passed a number of absolutely beautiful teakwood dwellings in all shapes and sizes and fashions. So we were rather disappointed to find a rather squalid town as we entered Sukhothai, especially as the name can be translated as “dawn of happiness”. The entrance to our “resort” was in a backstreet and did not inspire confidence, though the reception did its best to promise style. A middle-aged, flabby ladyboy in a jacket and wide trousers, his hair tied in a knot on top of his head and always pronouncing the female particle kha at the end of his sentences, showed us into a modern room that was not terribly well cleaned but fulfilled all our needs.
The local people in Sukhothai revere a stone statue in a monument down by the Yom River which King Ramkhamhaeng the Great had made in memory of his mother, so after unpacking, we started off in search of the monument, eyes stinging from the fumes of the heavy traffic. It was getting rather dark, but as the sun was slipping into the river, we thought we had eventually discovered the shrine. What we thought was the image of Phra Mae Ya was, in fact, yet another Buddha. The real Mccoy must have been hiding in the closed shrine next to the white stone building with intricately carved pagodas that protected the Buddha.
The walk gave us a good appetite and made us very thirsty. Attracted by the hearty laughter coming from a first floor terrace next to our hotel, we climbed the steep wooden steps to the Chopper Bar for a beer. This arrived in a cooler depicting an erotic stick-man and -woman. All the food we ordered came together but was tasty, so we did not mind too much. The Thai bikers on the next table were in their element. At a table heaving with food, the waitress kept bringing Thai “whisky”, a dangerous brew, and there was much coming and going and guffawing and general good humour, whereas the European guests, many of whom were staying at the cheap backpacker joints in the area, were somewhat subdued.
We had a ridiculously early night and woke refreshed and ready to start our day at the street restaurant with an original breakfast of, in my case, a ham and cheese toasted sandwich and Ovaltine. The historical park and ancient capital of Sukhothai is about 5 km away from the new town and quite the opposite of the bustling metropolis. It is a peaceful, verdant area abounding in ponds and reservoirs, measuring in total 70 square kilometres, and contains around 40 Khmer temples. We could not have been luckier; our morning was sunny with a clear, blue sky and a light breeze. The light was perfect. We spent over five hours at the main temple area, wandering over green lawns, under ancient, shady trees, listening to and watching the many birds and photographing the majestic, fine old buildings. We admired the lotus-formed chedi and the octagonal chedi at Wat Mathahat, with its unique frieze of wandering monks and the bell-shaped chedi of Wat Sa Si.
We wondered at the Wat Si Sawai with its three prangs and chiselled evidence that this Buddhist temple was originally Hindu. We were fascinated by the walking Buddha, a Sukhothai invention of the fifteenth century, at the Ta Pha Daeng shrine. We marvelled at the mondops, or square-based pavilions with the stone Phra Attharot Buddhas. And we went to see the statue of King Naresuan, who created the Thai alphabet.
However, it was not only the historical cutural aspect of the park that charmed us that morning. Interested birdwatchers, we were pleased to find the shiny black drongo and two kinds of kingfisher, one identified as the black-capped variety, here. We found a Chinese pond heron, Willi filmed a common hoopoe and we finally discovered the owner of the metallic-sounding voice that we have been trying to identify for years, the brilliantly coloured coppersmith barbet. Elated by our ornithological success and totally reposed from the long walk in the fresh air, we continued to explore the site by car. At Wat Chetupon we found a badly deteriorated temple showing the four meditative positions of Buddha and learned how the edifices had first been moulded in brick before being completed in sandstone. I also photographed a bridal pair posing amongst dowdy yellow flowers here. But the highlight of the day was still to come!
Having driven to the north gate, we stopped at Wat Si Chum. where at the end of the sandstone passageway ruins, a gigantic, eleven meter-tall Buddha figure looms up in the distance. The pillars in the passageway and the courtyard beyond them give the Buddha an extraordinary three-dimensional appearance. The Buddha is called Phra Achana – one who is not frightened – and has a benign aspect. Its medative right hand, the one that points down to Earth, almost as large as Willi, was painted with gold leaf. Phra Achana attracted me with unusual force. It is without doubt the most impressive Buddha I have ever seen. The ruins here were so pretty, the black and white contrasting strongly on the weathered stone and rays of the slowly setting sun casting delicately carved pagodas in a rosy light. Our ornithological success continued as the evening shadows lengthened. We caught a black collared starling and an Indian roller, digitally speaking of-course!
On our way back to the new town, a herd of rather skinny, dewlapped cattle were also going home. The sun had set long before we arrived at the hotel. We freshened up briefly and set off for the “walking street”, a sort of weekly night market, already heralded by dense traffic and a huge crowd of two-wheelers parked by the riverside. The street was one long succession of eating stalls on each side of the road. Spicy, scented dishes bubbled in cauldrons, there were sweet fried noodles which tasted like peanut brittle, miniature vegetables made of a jelly-like substance, sushi with the most delicate decorations, fish with deep-fried spinach, pork satay, (which we tried), fried quails’ eggs, little pies, a thousand varieties of cupcakes, smoothies, Thai tea with Carnation milk, salad bars, arrowroot crisps, Sukhothai jelly-like deserts and deep-fried shrimps in tempura, to name but a few dishes. Had I been alone, I would have fed myself through this market! Instead we had a beer and deep-fried shrimps at the Chopper Bar and a very good shrimp curry and beef in oyster sauce at our hotel restaurant.
Having taken the wrong direction, we ended up driving along very rural roads for the first hour the following day, during which I counted four dead dogs. As usual, there were paddy fields to the left and to the right. Wet paddy fields, dry paddy fields, muddy paddy fields and paddy fields full of straw that was waiting to be collected. Two young men were pulling a rather primitive plough across the road in one village and in another, a woman on the balcony of her very old, stilted house was combing a little girl’s hair. A very well-dressed old lady was taking a walk, bent over her stick. And a rice hat peered above a crouched body in the paddy fields, where some lady was weeding all alone. Kites strung on a rack were being sold by the family who made them, presumably, their tails fluttering as the traffic flew past. A wandering monk passed by in very shabby robes, carrying his belongings in a cloth bag over his shoulder with a large ladle in his left hand. Despite the sizzling tarmac, he was trudging barefoot along the dirty, fumey highway.
Baan Thai, our homestay, was as beautiful as we had remembered it. The owner, an intelligent, very pleasant woman, showed us into our cottage, then we left to visit the old town once again.
Having looked in vain for the hyacinth plant water bottle containers that had been on sale opposite the elephant kraal, we bought a few small presents in the kraal shop and watched the smaller elephants, dressed in red, sequined “clothes”, who were waiting to be photographed. It was so pleasant to wander through the dry, clear air in the public park, which takes you past the romantic and extensive Phra Ram ruins, that were unfortunately closed, and a lake where a monitor lizard and various water birds were bathing. Later we walked to Wat Mongkhon Bophit, which we had seen last time we were here and where children were still selling grasshoppers made of leaves on sticks. A giant linga was now on display here. Nearby, where we were trying to get a picture of the majestic chedis of Wat Phra Si Sanphet, a squirrel on the historic wall was nibbling at the neck of a discarded coconut.
Willi had the idea of by-passing the busy market place here to reach the canal road, from where he was sure that we would get a better view. On the way we passed a woman who was selling tiny fruit that looked like mirabelles on a mat on the floor. We bent over to take a closer look at her wares and she generously handed us one each to try. They were very tart, but not unpleasant. We entered a park from where the chedis could be seen better and approached Wat Mongkhon Bophit from the back. I was touched to see that a simply clothed man had bought plastic bags of food and opened them on the pavement where three stray dogs were gulping down the contents. He was watching them eat with a satisfied smile.
Now we passed through the market to reach our vehicle. A speciality here appears to be very long, thin noodles in sickly colours sold in plastic bags. There was also black jelly and fruit cuts and smoked fish and two women were cooking flat, crispy-looking somethings in deep fat. Our dinner consisted of spring rolls with shrimps inside, duck in green curry and a red padaeng pork curry. With a plate of steaming, fragrant rice, naturally.
Back to Bangkok
It would have been pleasant to get to the airport with no hitches. We left very early after a greasy Thai omelette, glad to be able to avoid the centre of Bangkok, where the “red shirts” were back in belligerent form. We had difficulty finding the right motorway at first and lost a considerable amount of time. So it was not particularly fortunate that we were pulled over at a checkpoint.
This was the umpteenth checkpoint we had passed since beginning this four thousand kilometre-long odyssey and there was no evident reason for being stopped. The officer, whose English was very basic and who spoke to us very fast in Thai most of the time, demanded to see our papers. Then he started frantically looking for a vehicle identification number all over the car, but could not find one. To top it all, he then wanted to see the log book, which we didn’t even know existed, and complained that we were, by law, bound to make an entry for each day. Rather difficult since all the forms were in Thai and nobody at the car rental office had mentioned any such thing. I was handed a biro and told to fill the log book in. So I told the man that we were on the way to the airport and mimed a plane taking off. He smiled and patted me on the back and said “OK, happy, happy!”, took back his biro and indicated that we were free to go and catch our plane.
This incident sums up the Thai attitude as we had come to accept it. The Thais we have met do their best to act correctly and to work in a professional manner, though, particularly in the hospitality trade, they often do not have the necessary training. But they make up for their lack of professionality by being extremely helpful and friendly.
The memories that we took back to Germany were happy ones, impressive ones. We are still full of admiration for the Thai culture, past and present, and for the hard working people, especially those who work day in, day out, in the paddy fields. And I swear that I will never again eat or cook rice as I used to, taking it for granted, letting the grains slip down the sink or scraping odd remaining grains into the rubbish bin. Thailand and its rice are worthy of more respect.