Singapore Journal - Trip to Northern Thailand
- Submitted by: Matt Donath
- Submission Date: 09th Feb 2005
Friday night I make dinner for Sean and Henning. Since I'm cleaning out the fridge before our trip to Thailand, we don't have too much in the way of ingredients. I wind up making three dishes, all variations on the same theme. I take all the vegetables we have in the house, stir-fry them and split them into three portions. One I serve over rice with a soy-ginger-garlic type of sauce. Another goes over rice with a yogurt garlic type of sauce. The third goes over noodles with a peanut-orange sauce. Sybil likes the last one the best.
Sean has just completed a very successful trip to Nepal and Thailand. He seems much calmer and happier since we saw him on the way out. His mind is more peaceful. He shows us some photos from his trip; some of them are from Chiang Mai, where we are soon headed. He will soon be off to San Francisco to look for work.
Henning shows up with wine in a celebratory mood. He has just been offered some contract work and is elated. One of the things I really like about Henning is his optimism. Instead of thinking negatively that this is only contract work instead of permanent, or that the salary is less than what he asked, he is thinking about how great it is for him to be starting a new job. He is generally optimistic and pleasant to be around.
Saturday, we need to clean the house and get ready for our trip. Unfortunately I get bad flu-like symptoms and have to spend time in bed.
I'm still feeling bad on Sunday so we get out the door about 10 minutes late. Then we wait at the wrong bus stop for about 12 minutes. I know this is amazingly stupid for two people who have lived here for 8 months, but Sybil thought this was the right spot and she asked one bus driver who confirmed that it was the right spot.
It's the wrong spot. So now we are 22 minutes behind schedule and Sybil and I never add in much buffer time to our travel plans. We usually wind up catching flights at the last minute but we can see that this one is going to be close.
After waiting at the correct stop for about 8 minutes we flag down a cab. Wait a sec, we don't have enough money to get to the airport and this cabbie refuses to take our NETS card. We later agree that he shouldn't be able to refuse it but we have no time for arguing with cab drivers.
We decide to take the MRT part way and then cab it from there. Just as we cross busy Orchard Road we see the airport bus coming by on the opposite side! Sybil makes a mad dash across the street and bangs on the door but the s.o.b. won't stop for us. She is very upset but I convince her that we have no time for curses. We head down to the MRT station.
We wait an interminable 14 minutes. Since it is a Sunday the trains don't run as frequently as they do on the weekends and we must have just missed one. We have another, shorter wait at another station when we transfer to the east line.
By this time we know we are in serious trouble. Sybil and I both have amazingly long histories of miraculously catching last minute flights. In fact, neither of us has ever missed a flight, despite our lack of planning adequate lead time.
We're not giving up. We fly out of the MRT station and bully our way into a cab ahead of a woman who hailed it at the same time we did. Sybil does an excellent job of nagging the cab driver to go as fast and as efficiently as possible.
The cabbie can't get his car into gear! He has trouble shifting and accelerating around vehicles. After he grinds his gears a few times Sybil offers to help him work the stick shift. We're moving though and still have a prayer.
Then comes the coup de grace. He asks us what terminal we want. We don't know. There are two choices. I say to go to whatever one is closest, which is Terminal Two. Sybil also thinks we should go to Terminal Two because she thought saw a sign for Singapore Airlines there. However, the cabbie thinks we should go to Terminal One. Since we don't know, we trust his judgement.
I rush out of the cab at Terminal One while Sybil waits with the car in case it's wrong. It's wrong. The board says our flight is at 'Last Call' for boarding. We zip over to Terminal Two and frantically sprint to the Singapore Airlines counter, asking for the gate number. The woman there won't tell us. She says we are too late. She says that they close the boarding 30 minutes before the flight, as people have to go through immigration, etc. Sybil does her best to argue with her. She says that we're both marathon runners (well, half true, although I haven't done any running in a while) and that we can make it; just tell us the gate number and let us try!
She won't let us try. She's sticking to the rules. They tend to do that here in Singapore. Sybil is fuming but we're clearly at fault. The Singapore Airlines agent says that maybe we can use our ticket on Thai Airlines. She's just passing us along though because we discover they don't have anything. We talk to another Singapore Airlines ticketing woman and she says the 1:30 and 4:00 flights to BKK are booked solid. We reserve for 6:50pm but wait to pay the S$50 charge because we want to see if we can fly stand by on the earlier flights. Then we talk with a very smooth Singapore Airlines duty manager named Ben Tan. He says he will do his best to get us on the earlier flights but nothing can be promised. 'That guy has had some customer service training,' says a now somewhat pacified Sybil. We're both impressed by his ability to seem helpful without really doing anything.
OK, so now we get to spend the day at Changi Airport! What fun! Actually, if you have to be stuck at an airport this is probably the one to do your time in. They have waterfalls, aquariums, many shops, bookstores, MTV, plenty of pretty good food at not so outrageous prices. Yes, you could do a lot worse. We can recommend the hot and sour soup at the sit-down restaurant upstairs.
At 1:00pm we have a go at the 1:30pm flight. 'Little chance,' says the ticket guy as he pecks at the keyboard. He looks at the screen and then goes and talks to another guy. It seems there are two seats open on this flight. They wait 6 minutes and then let us in. Probably someone else was late and got bumped; it's probably a continuing cycle with Singapore Airlines. At least they're consistent though. Take heed, when they say to arrive early -- they mean it!
However, once you're aboard Singapore Airlines you know you will have a pleasant flight. The service and the food are always good. Even in our economy seats we get an in-flight entertainment screen and remote control. You can watch the flight path, play video games, get travel information, or view movies. We choose the films, even though you don't have quite enough time to see an entire film. Actually, you should have enough time but they stop the movie for all announcements, however banal, and they collect the headsets a bit early. These are small complaints though; overall they are great to fly with.
Bangkok's airport is easy to escape from. We have the option of train or bus. Originally I was going to take the bus but Sean recommended the train. Since it's Sunday I guess that the infamous Bangkok traffic will not be so bad and opt for the bus since it will take us closer to where we want to go. Turns out to be a good guess because traffic is not a problem and we're quickly on our way to a hotel Henning recommended, The New Siam, just northwest of the tourist popular Kao San Road area. New Siam info: 2824554, fax (66) (02) 2817461, Phar-Athit Road.
New Siam is full but they have an overflow house down the street where we get a serviceable room for B200. This will turn out to be our worst value for money during our stay in Thailand, but this is a good price for Bangkok. We have dinner along the riverside and are very happy to be on our way.
Monday, in the middle of breakfast at New Siam, I suddenly get antsy about booking our train tickets to Chiang Mai. I jump up (surprising Sybil with my hurry) and run down the street to a tourist agent. The agent tries continually to call the train station but can't get through. Finally she connects and discovers there are no seats during the time I want, but 4 seats are left on the last train out tomorrow. I reserve 2 seats and the agent says she will have them by 1:00pm the next day. Her commission is only about 20-40 baht, so I thought it was well worth the price to have the tickets on hand instead of going all the way over to the train station to see if anything was left. There are a few agents near Kao San Road who charge much higher commissions, so it does pay to shop around a bit.
After breakfast we take a walk over to the Grand Palace. It's hot and crossing the wide streets in this traffic is hazardous. We wind up on the wrong side of the Palace and are barred by the walls from entry. So instead of walking to the other side, we opt to go into Wat Pho instead. This is the one that has the famous reclining Buddha with the mother-of-pearl inlay on his soles. Overall, it's an outstanding wat, full of statues and 96 stupas. One series of statues demonstrates techniques of Thai massage. Outside of the reclining Buddha building the place is practically deserted.
We meander back along side streets, cutting through markets. At 1:00pm we return to the ticket agent and find a different woman there. I take a look at the walls and see they are different from what I remembered. Oops, wrong place. I walk out and then in again. It is the right place. Workers seem to be demolishing one of the walls so they removed all the decorations. A crazy French guy with a large scar on his chest is mumbling angry nonsense to a perplexed young Thai woman. He doesn't seem to be there for any particular purpose, just some crazy guy who wandered in off the street and she doesn't know how to get rid of him. Eventually he leaves on his own and the woman I dealt with earlier walks in directly after with our tickets.
We take a ferry boat ride over to Chinatown. Now this is the way to get around Bangkok! Cool, wet
The heat is terrible though, so we head over to the station early to sit and replenish our precious bodily fluids. First we split a Red Bull and a White Shark. These are those vitamin drinks that are popular in SE Asia, especially in Thailand where they are primarily drunk by males wanting to increase their virility. Sometimes they are mixed with alcohol, which may negate any virility affects. There are about 4 main brands but the Red Bull is the best. Then we drink some yogurt and a lot of water.
The train ride starts out with some fascinating views of shanty town life along the tracks: children playing soccer and riding bicycles, women watering gardens, people just hanging around. One old man sits on a chair under an overpass with nothing else around him for 100 meters. He just sits and stares blankly at the train passing by. You can see a lot of life from an open train window and I'm mesmerized by the show.
The heat makes sleeping difficult. I drench the sheet with sweat and then place the blanket under me. During the night I can smell the smoke from many fires, probably from slash and burn farming. Eventually, I fall into an uneasy sleep and wake up cold! I can't believe I'm actually feeling cold as it has been too hot for me for such a long time. I gratefully put the blanket over me and watch the dawn emerge as the train winds through misty mountains.
Arriving in Chiang Mai, we walk over to the river and head north to check out the guesthouses there. First one is full. The next one, Mee's, has large double rooms with private bathrooms for only 80B. Unfortunately, it also has the manager staggeringly drunk and drinking Johnny Walker Black whiskey with two shady characters at 7:30am. The place also reeks of Thai marijuana, so we take a pass. Next we check out Cowboy and J'Taime Guesthouses. Both are passable but not great. Finally we come to Phun Phun and decide to go with it. Turns out to work out fine for us; the rooms are large with private bathrooms. Phun Phun info: 321 Charoenrat Road, phone (053) 243-362, fax (053) 246-140, email email@example.com. Mention the Singapore Journal - the owner told me they will take reservations over email. I never make reservations ahead of time but I like the idea.
While I am recovering from my cold, Sybil is now feeling sick. She goes right to bed. I tend to her and pop out for a short look at the town, wandering through the interesting markets. At night Sybil gets up and we head north, looking for local food. The restaurants up there don't look so hot. We wind up eating at a roadside stall near the Rama Bridge - sticky rice, spicy pork (rahb) and herbs.
Throughout the north, the local food places often serve herbs and raw vegetables on the side. We loved this! The variety is great and we had a lot of things we'd never seen before, although they often have basil, mint or cilantro. Many of them are supposed to have medicinal benefits and they often leave interesting flavors in the palate, countering the highly spiced food. Sean once described the vegetables here to us as 'sticks and twigs' so we wind up using the same terminology
Wednesday morning, we head into town and pick up some yellow watermelon and rice cakes for breakfast. At least I consider it breakfast, Sybil considers it a snack. We make our way over to the old part of the city, in the center, visiting wats along the way. We come across Pin's Pantry and have another breakfast. David, a Brit who has been here for 1 ½ years teaching English, prepares our food. This place is newly opened and run by his girlfriend Pin. Pin's Pantry can be found at 19/3 Rajdamnoen Road, just around the corner from J.J's Bakery.
Sybil is interested in getting a Thai massage. David recommends the place right across the street, called Natnicha. We decide to come back there later. We spend the rest of the day visiting the many lovely wats scattered throughout the old part of town. The narrow back roads wind charmingly through relatively quiet neighborhoods. We are careful to cover our bare legs with our sarongs when we visit the wats and remove hats and shoes when entering buildings. We see amazingly few tourists and most of these wonderful wats are empty.
After a long and fascinating ramble, we return to the Natnicha massage place. Pin is chatting with the owner, a woman named Khum. Pin helps us communicate with the Khum, who doesn't speak English. Sybil goes first and I chat with Pin awhile. Pin knows the Phun Phun owner and seems a bit tired from starting up her business. Sybil persuades me to join her in having a massage when another masseuse arrives. Khum is working on Sybil and she turns out to get the better massage. Still, I find it quite interesting and I'm not a big fan of massages. You get hit with elbows and feet, and your muscles are tweaked in peculiar ways. Blood flow is slowed and then sent forth in a rush. Your muscles are moved and then pressed. It's very different from western style massage and I think I prefer it.
Thursday, after a late start, we head over to Phrathat Doi Suthup temple atop the mountain overlooking Chiang Mai. This is a famous temple so they have shared taxi trucks that run there from just north of the north gate of the old city. Unfortunately they wait until they have at least six passengers and no one else seems to be leaving now. We finally agree to pay double the normal price of B60 in order to get up the mountain. This is a lot for the distance but we want to get going.
Unlike yesterday's wats, this place is full of tourists. On the way up the naga staircase, we pause in front of the many tourist stands selling all kinds of outrageous junk. One stall in particular grabs my attention. They sell caps that look like they're made out of Coke cans or other name drinks. 'Now what does that have to do with Thailand?' I ask Sybil. 'Who in the world would possibly buy something like that?'
As if on cue, an Italian man wearing three cameras comes up and immediately starts bargaining for the hats. His bargaining is wildly confusing; he's just tossing out prices, running the gamut as if looking for an opening. While plucking hats off the makeshift rack he manages to knock most of them over. His bargaining eventually frustrates the Thai vendor and he won't budge on a price of around B200 for two hats. This price seems high to me but the vendor seems genuinely disinterested in going any lower. We watch in amazement as the Italian man then pays him double the agreed price! I've seen tourists do a lot of strange things but this guy had tremendous entertainment value.
This wat has more gold melted onto the Buddha's than others I've seen. Gold flakes shimmer in the wind. We stand near a Japanese man who has hired a local tour guide and listen in on her explanations of the murals. In one chamber, a monk flicks water from a bamboo stick at entreating believers kneeled before him. The monk seems to have his mind on other matters; perhaps he is doing penance by dealing with tourists.
We hike over to the office of the nearby Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. No one there speaks English and their map is practically worthless. We're not equipped for serious trekking though so we just take a short hike along their well-maintained trails. It is possible to camp here or rent bungalows.
We spend the night grazing through markets, eating at local stalls. We stop by a bookstore and eventually realize we've been wandering away from our guesthouse. We flag down a tuk-tuk and agree to a fair price of about B30. However the guy takes us to the east gate of the old city instead, an area we call 'farong central' because that's where all the foreigners are. He does this because he wants to ask another driver how to get to our guesthouse. Should have asked me first because I have to show this guy on the map exactly how to get there and then he explains to our somewhat dim-witted driver. We don't mind the longer ride though as we get to see a lot along the way.
Friday, we plan on going out to the San Kamphaeng Hot Springs. However, on the way out we meet Surajit Jamornman, or 'Bird' as he asks us to call him. He's a professional photographer who is headed out to the botanical gardens to take photographs for a book about Thai orchids. He offers a ride and we accept.
The Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden is supposed to be one of the best in Thailand. It's fairly new though so it isn't quite finished yet. We spend a happy day hiking around the area, looking at flowers, and sitting near the gentle waterfalls. At 3:30pm we meet Bird and his assistant at their makeshift studio and watch them work. An hour later, Bird gives a slide presentation to the director of the garden and PR head. The director is a pleasant man who once worked at the New York Botanical Gardens and with the Smithsonian. After the presentation, Bird gives the PR head a ride home. She is a very nice woman named Boonyanij Jantimangkoon and she has a beautiful traditional house outside of Chiang Mai.
Saturday, we again head for San Kamphaeng Hot Springs. First we catch a shared taxi truck over to the town of San Kamphaeng and then hitchhike from there. We're fortunate enough to catch a ride with a local couple headed to the hot springs. Here we find a beautiful garden where many locals picnic. Many of them boil eggs in the hot water.
Sybil wants to soak though so we check out the bathing area. Turns out that rooms are rather expensive for couples but very reasonable if you come in a group. We take a room anyway and wait for a pool built for 14 people to fill up. There are two water spigots - one has cold water and one has scalding hot spring water. Screaming kids in the neighboring room spoil the atmosphere and we're both feeling a bit lethargic.
After several attempts we manage to catch a ride back to Chiang Mai with a very nice woman named Amnuayporn (sp?) Chaiya. She gave me her business card but it contains no English and her spoken English was extremely limited. We ride in the back of a pickup truck and admire the mountain scenery.
I should mention here that people in Thailand are extremely pleasant. Henning says they are the nicest people in Asia and he may be right. Thailand dubs itself the 'land of smiles' and you do see a lot of them. We came in knowing no Thai but Sybil is particularly diligent about practicing the language and eventually we are able to communicate with non-English speaking locals.
Sunday, we eat breakfast at the farong-filled J.J's Bakery. I wanted to go back to Pin's Pantry but Sybil wanted fou-fou for a change. Thumb's down to the overpriced food at J.J's. Afterwards, we're visiting some nearby wats and I have to make an emergency trip to the washroom. I'm not positively identifying J.J's as the cause.
We try to deal with tuk-tuk drivers to take us to the National Museum branch. Most of them want inflated fares but eventually we strike a deal with a driver to take us to Wat-U-Mong, wait for us, and then take us to the National Museum for B80.
Wat-U-Mong is one of the most interesting in the Chiang Mai area. We're fortunate enough to visit on a day when new monks are undergoing initiation, so the place is full of activity. There are some strange contrasts at this wat. Strewn around one building are wonderful old stone carvings. These are almost cast off to the side. Along a more central walkway they have placed those cheesy posters from the early 70's depicting dogs drinking and gambling, etc. Years ago in the States you used to see these things in low life bars or badly decorated 'rumpus rooms.' Here they are effectively used as a morality teaching tool.
In fact, almost every tree in this wat has a sign with some sort of moral axiom; most of them are in Thai but some are in English. They also have a Chinese pavilion and some cave alters. We see a large dead frog in a fountain as we leave - strange and interesting place.
The Chiang Mai branch of the National Museum is a disappointment. Some of it appeared to be closed off so maybe we didn't see it at its best. From what we saw it's not worth visiting.
Monday, we catch a bus out to the town of Lumphon. We wander around town, a bit lost, but manage to find a great wat with graphic murals depicting hell. They have another set of murals depicting the life of the Buddha. Good stuff, even compared to Chiang Mai.
We catch a bus to Lampang and walk over to the railway station to make an advance booking for Phisanulok. Then we take a slightly overpriced B40 tax ride over to the Tourist Information office on the second floor of a municipal building. The people there are extremely helpful and we get plenty of useful information.
OK, I may as well get my usual Lonely Planet rant out of the way here. I don't travel with this omnipresent guide, but I do read it and sometime copy some of the maps. I shouldn't have bothered because, as usual, the LP maps are riddled with errors. The Chiang Mai and Lampang maps are particularly ludicrous. The information inside even the very latest version is commonly incorrect. Fortunately you don't need to bother with it because the local government tourism offices are quite good. Here you can get a more accurate map as well as more up to date information about accommodations - for free.
We head for the TT&T Guesthouse, which is newly opened and not yet in the LP guide. The owner, Tom, is a very friendly guy and the guesthouse buildings are made of beautiful teak. Say hello to him for us. TT&T info: 55 Pahmai Road, phone 054-225361.
We head up to the Northern Herbal Medicine Society. We're looking for the place when a woman on the street points it out to us. Turns out she works there. This time I get the more experienced masseuse, a woman named Lumdum Kurpunngern who started training in 1939. She has the ability to tweak you in ways that can leave you numb or tingling, but ultimately very relaxed.
Two beautiful local girls, clad only in sarongs, chat with me after getting out of an herbal steambath. The name of one of the girls translates as 'Moonlight.' 'Do you have baby?' one of them asks me. After the massage it's our turn at the herbal steam bath. We sit in a tiny room while steam from a preparation of 108 herbs rises up out of a box on the ground. When we step out for a breather we're offered tea and herbal medicine.
This is a great place and highly recommended. The people who work there do not speak any English but they have a sign in English explaining all their prices. Despite being tiny and out of the way, they do get farong customers because they are mentioned in the Lonely Planet (with the wrong prices). It's at 149 Pratooma Road.
Tuesday, we walk over to the main markets in town. Lampang is a very likeable place. The neighborhoods north of the river are scenic and the town is bustling without being congested. If we were on our longer trip we would definitely spend more time here.
Some locals help us find a shared taxi truck to Ko Kha, which is near the famous Wat Prathat Lampan Luang. It's taken the driver so long to rustle up enough people to make the trip to Ko Kha worth his time that the market has literally engulfed his truck. Fish and vegetable vendors have set up their stalls around his parked vehicle. A blind guy plays drums on cans; hey, he's got some rhythm! Finally he's able to maneuver enough people out of our way and we're off to Ko Kha for 20B.
Even though the distance from Ko Kha to Lampang is many times further than the distance from Ko Kha to the temple, the tuk-tuk drivers there want 50B to take us there. So we hitchhike again. We hitchhike throughout the trip and found it to be pretty easy.
We greatly enjoy Wat Prathat Lampan Luang. First we see one of those fat Buddha statues. Sybil relates the story she has heard about the fat Buddha. Once, an extremely handsome acolyte was studying to become a monk. However, many of the women in town would distract him from his studies because they wanted to be with him. So, he prayed to the Buddha to help him to become a more dedicated student. The Buddha made him fat and he was happily able to complete his studies without distraction.
We pass through a grove of lovely trees whose branches are propped up with long poles. Inside the main compound, we examine several lovely buildings containing wonderful murals from the 15th-18th centuries. A large gold Buddha sits in a central altar. A tour group migrates through while we sit lingering. Sybil notes how an inconsiderate British woman walks up to the altar and picks up one of the flower offerings to examine it.
We hitchhike back to Ko Kha and wander into the back streets where we talk with a local woman with a poodle. She thinks we must be lost to come into her neighborhood. We buy some of those kung fu type pants, as they are very comfortable in the heat. Then we grab a shared taxi truck back to Lampang.
While wandering around the market there, a boisterous local woman persuades us to eat at her cart. She speaks some English and we are practicing our Thai. Soon we have a crowd of people around us. We meet the vendor woman's sister and also her teacher. Since the teacher's English skills are the best, Sybil spends a lot of time chatting with her, telling her all about places in California she probably won't have an opportunity to visit during her upcoming package tour there.
We leave but swing by again later to pick up a shared taxi. We meet the teacher again and she gives us some mangoes and sticky rice; lovely and generous Thai people. We take the shared taxi to Jed Soo where we see astrology animals, monks sweeping a lovely garden, and a Manikin Pis statue near the toilets. For some strange reason, we will later see several of these Manikin Pis statues in Thailand. Maybe they make them for export to Belgium and keep a few for themselves.
We should have looked at our maps before rushing out to Jed Soo (or Je Dee Sao). We were thinking it was close to the massage place but they are not so near each other. We have to hitchhike out of Jed Soo. Some nice people pick us up but we don't know how to tell them where we want to go. We just say 'Lampang,' which is foolish because we're still in Lampang. So, we sit on the back of their pick-up not really knowing where they are taking us.
They wind up taking us to another wat! It's almost dark by now, but we don't care. Turns out to be a great place and it's empty except for some monks eating Popsicles. We find out this wat is called 'Prakaew Dontao' and discover it is not far from the massage place we visited last night. We guess on a side road and it takes us directly to the place. Time for another herbal sauna!
This time Lymdum gives us some sticky rice (kow neiw ping) and some coconut milk pudding stuff. If I lived in Lampang I would go to the herbal sauna several times a week.
We walk back to the TT&T and find Tom and his wife sitting outside with a German guy from Munich and a few other guests. We chat with Tom for awhile and he teaches us some naughty things to say in Thai. He tries to persuade us to go to a bar for a short time where he will play some music with the German guy. He's very persuasive but we are tired and have an early train to catch. So, he serenades us with a few songs: 'The Boxer,' 'Mrs. Robinson,' and 'Take It Easy.'
Wednesday, we're out early but Tom is up. He gives us a parting hug and his friendly Doberman insists on a pat. We taxi to the train station and find it crawling with soldiers armed with machine guns and rocket launchers. Later we will see several troop trains going out and we learn there has been an incident on the Myanmar border where some Thai troops went missing. There are 100,000 Karens camped out in the border area.
The station is very clean but our train is about 40 minutes late. Two large Aussie fellows shout back and forth to each other from different seats. Sybil entertainingly imitates them: 'This here must be the Mississippi River, eh Carl? And that could be King Tutankamma's Tomb over there.' Later, the more amusing Aussie narrates with his video camera aimed out the window: 'there's a rice field for ya. And over here on the right side...' swinging his video camera around to the other window ' ...is another rice field.' Throughout the ride he plays with a young Thai boy; later the youngster throws up on the floor.
Arriving in Phitsanulok we find the TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand) office and once again find them helpful and efficient. After several failures we manage to find an ATM machine that gives us some money. Then we find a cheap (for Phitsanulok, which is a relatively expensive place to find a bed) hotel. Later, I'll read that Lonely Planet describes this place, The Unachak Hotel, as 'an old stand by.' We should have followed the listing given to us by TAT as they leave this place out. Turns out it's a brothel and has very loud karaoke music at night. Sybil was careful about asking them about this ahead of time, but they ducked the issue. By the time they start playing it is too late for us to find another place.
The famous wat in town is Prasrirattana Mahathat, with its impressive gold Buddha statue. Nearby Wat Nang Phaya is less busy and we linger there. We stroll along Riverside Park looking down on the shanty houseboats that line the river.
Thursday, we are happy to leave the Unachak, moving to the Asia Hotel. They offer clean, large rooms, although you can hear the nearby train station. Much better than Unachak though and not too expensive at B200. Asia Hotel info: 176/1 Ekathodsarod, phone (055) 258378, fax 230419.
We catch the #1 city bus to the terminal, then get a WinTour bus to Sukhothai for 19B. Once there it is easy to get a shared taxi truck to the old city. We wander through a large local market that included some sort of religious revival - lots of chanting and drum playing. We cross a rickety bridge across a gorgeous lotus pond to see a small wat on an island. Then we head into the Sukhothai Historical Park.
They have some amazing ruins here, far too much to see in one day. This place was one of the highlights of our trip; an impressive civilization once flourished here and these ruins are its tombstones. We throw down our sarongs, lie down, and reflect on the ages. I would love to return here and see all of the many treasures.
We meet a Japanese guy named Kikuo Kaneko. We'd seen him briefly at the Phitsanulok train station when we came in. He was also in Chiang Mai and is doing a temple tour down to Ayutthaya. Later, I make the observation to Sybil that while you don't often see solo Japanese travelers, when you do see them they seem grateful when you make the effort to talk to them. However, they never seem to direct the conversation. In other words, they are happy to talk to you but seem too shy to ask questions themselves. I think this is probably due to limited English skills, but it might simply be reserve. Once I spent some time with a Japanese fellow in China. He spoke no English but we had about the same level of Chinese. Even though our language skills were on equal footing I still had to initiate all conversation. I don't mind this, just a silly observation. I'm extremely interested in Japan so I like to talk to Japanese travelers.
The trip back to Phitsanulok is a breeze. Sybil sees our bus (turns out to be the same one we took in) parked along a road and we jump in as it's leaving. Similarly, we catch a #1 bus just as it's pulling out of the terminal. After showering, we have some delicious street food at some nearby vendor stalls.
During our wanderings in Lampang, we smelled something in a drug store that resembled the medicine we'd been given at the massage place. We purchased it and now give it a try with a chaser of Thai honey. Really cleans out your sinuses! I've tried to have my Singapore, Hong Kong, and Indian friends tell me what is in it. They are all familiar with the smell and taste, and some even know the names of the herbs in Chinese, but the only ingredient they can identify is cloves. It's supposed to 'cure queasiness, vomitting (sic), stomatch (sic) upset, giddiness as well as nourishment of heart.'
Friday, we purchase our tickets for Don Murang station in Bangkok, near the airport, for Sunday. We check out some car rental prices and find that the cheapest in town is B800, including a driver, for the day. Not bad, but we decide we'll do it if we run into other people who want to share the car.
We visit the Folk Museum, which is the personal collection of handicrafts gathered by a local businessman named Dr. (Sgt. Major) Thani. Many interesting traditional items make this well worth seeing. We learn exactly how to castrate an ox by smashing its balls with a hammer and read the 38 steps involved in rice harvesting.
Next we go to Dr. Thani's nearby Buddha casting factory. Most of the workers are asleep but a few are carving wax Buddha images. The place is full of birds and (unhappily) dogs in cages.
Since we are in the neighborhood, we decide to check out the Phitsanulok Youth Hostel. We chat with the owner, Sapachai, and find him very engaging. Sybil knows something of his history already because she read about him in the Lonely Planet book. I'm looking at it now and give them full marks for recommending the place. Sapachai has created a lovely garden atmosphere here for the hostel, together with a restaurant and an Avis car rental place. His gives us a full tour and invites us back for dinner.
Later, on the train to Don Muang, we'll meet two backpackers who were unhappy with their stay at the Phitsanulok Youth Hostel. I'm surprised, such a nice place, how could you not like it? 'It's a rip-off,' they say. 'The Lonely Planet says it's B40 for a dorm room and it's B120.' I can hardly believe it. First, the LP prices are almost always badly out of date, even in the latest version. Anyone who follows them is a true novice. The TAT office lists their correct prices. Second, B120 is still the cheapest bed in Phitsanulok, which as I've explained has a dearth of guesthouses. It's a lovely environment and well worth the price.
So, here are the current (April 1998) prices for the Youth Hostel: single rooms with twin bed are B200, double bed is B300. He is putting in some large, AC rooms upstairs which will be B300 and B400. You do need Youth Hostel membership but you can buy a temporary card for B50. The prices are reasonable and include a small breakfast. He's also going to offer cheap Internet access soon. I will stay there the next time I'm in Phitsanulok. Youth Hostel info: 38 Sanambin, phone (055) 242060, fax 210864.
We spend the rest of the day wandering around town. At one point Sybil bops her head against some low scaffolding and gets a nasty bump. Poor baby! It can be treacherous walking around Thailand.
Dinner with Sapachai is fabulous. The restaurant there is amazingly top notch. I never would have expected such a good place at a youth hostel. We have some Rhinoceros fish, cashew chicken, mixed cooked veggies, and some green curry fishballs. Lemon-grass drink and fruit plate for afters.
The conversation is equal to the food; Sapachai is an intelligent man of the world. While talking about the secret to a successful relationship he says you have to be able to 'close one eye, one ear, sometime two ears, and your one mouth can ruin it all.' We talk about the trouble on the Myanmar border. We discuss how history is not emphasized here because they've had so many different regimes (like the Sukhothai old city) that the new one always tries to erase the old.
As dinner concludes, we hear 'Lara's Theme' from the 'Doctor Zhivago' movie (which Sybil and I like). The smell of jasmine flowers perfumes the night air. I sit back and reflect on good food and excellent company. We very much hope to run into Sapachai again down the road.
Saturday, after waiting on repairs for 90 minutes in a stifling bus, I suggest we jump out and demand a refund. They are not used to this request but we get it. We're trying to get to some waterfalls east of town. Out comes the thumbs, but busy Highway 12 is a bad place to hitch and we're not having success. Then we see some people getting into a car and ask them for a ride. They speak no English but oblige. Turns out they are going to the same place the bus was headed for!
They are a couple with two little girls. One is 12 years old and we learn the woman is her aunt. They take us to a temple dedicated to Kuan Yin atop a mountain. Actually, they call it 'Kuan Yi' but it is the same Goddess of Mercy we've seen in Singapore. They show us exactly how to do the fortune telling ritual we've seen at the Bencoolen Street temple. First we get 3 lighted joss sticks and a flower (in Singapore they often use flowers and fruit) and kneel down in prayer. Then we offer the flower on the altar and place the burning joss sticks in a cauldron. Taking a cup of bamboo sticks we kneel down again in front of the statue of the goddess and shake the cup until one stick pops out. The stick has a number on it. Mine is 22 and Sybil's is 6.
The young girl helps us find which fortune to select from a partitioned box, based on our number. Later in the day we meet a friendly Air Force guy named Cliff who can speak Thai and can translate our fortunes. Mine says that I must discuss my problems with other people and get opinions from others before addressing them. It says my future 'is like gold' and things will go very well for me. Sybil's says that she will be able to be helpful to others and that her future is also bright.
When we get to one of the waterfalls, the woman calls her sister on a cell phone. We don't understand what's going on at first but eventually gather that they are concerned about leaving us hear without a ride back. We believe the woman thinks her sister knows English better than she does because Sybil is not really able to communicate with her. Eventually we are able to relate that all is well and we appreciate the ride and their company.
At the waterfall we see some guys pulling pods (Tamarind?) out of a tree with a long pole. We are curious and they give us one to try. Inside is a seed surrounded by a sac. They gesture that we should eat the sac and not the seed. The taste is subtle but good.
Many huts are setup over the rocks by the falls and lots of locals are picnicking and floating in inner tubes. Many people, including vendors, have setup shelters over the water. After walking around we sit in the shade and cool our feet in the water.
We meet a bunch of American Air Force guys with a number of Thai girls. Aside from Cliff, we will eventually meet Ricky, John, Bill, Russ, Trip, and several others whose names I have unfortunately forgotten. They're all great guys and we chat with Bill, Ricky and others while some of them go out on paddleboats. They offer us a ride back. Splitting into two vans, we go out to lunch with one group and then wind up at the same Kuan Yin temple on the way back. Before we part they tell us they will be at a karaoke bar later, where some of the Thai girls work.
After about 9:00pm we wander over to the bar and find it after some difficulty (turns out their directions weren't quite right). One of the Thai girls we met that afternoon is there. She tells us the guys aren't expected until after 11:00, but she gives us a hotel room number. She also says some of them are eating at the Treetop Restaurant. We check out the hotel but no one is around. Since these guys basically own the hotel during their stay, one of the van drivers offers to take us to the restaurant.
We find them finishing up their meal at the Treetop. They are waiting on two of them who are down the road getting a 'sudsy.' Sybil thinks this is a bar at first but it's clear that they went for the Thai soap girl routine. Suddenly, a terrific thunderstorm hits and the lights go off periodically. This is highly unusual, as the monsoon is not supposed to start for another month; must be El Nino effects, or possibly seeding of clouds because they had draught conditions.
After waiting out the storm we head over to collect the sudsy boys at the brothel. We find them happily drinking with the prostitutes. About a dozen women dressed in evening gowns sit behind a window inside a brightly lit room watching television. They have numbers pinned to their dresses. There are seats outside the room where men can inspect them for selection. Sybil sits down to talk with one of the hostess women. Turns out she is from the northeast, a poorer region. She keeps grabbing Sybil's thigh. Sybil feigns alarm but I can tell she's not worried. The hostess later grabs my arm and says she will kill me if I come back to this place without Sybil.
One of the guys selects a schoolgirl type and ducks into a back room. We head into the karaoke bar. We spend the rest of the night here singing with the Air Force guys. The Thai whiskey makes them a bit loud and rowdy but the staff there doesn't show any indication of annoyance. The local crowd also overlooks the fact that sometimes their Thai karaoke songs are drowned out by loud (but funny) imitations of Chris Farley: 'I'm sleeping in a van, DOWN BY THE RIVER!'
Sybil hams it up with the microphone, performing her Chinese cat meow and vocalizing the guitar solo at the end of 'Hotel California.' The Air Force guys do a 'gangster' version of a mellow song: 'Every time you go away, you take a piece of me WIT JU!' Sybil grabs the schoolgirl prostitute and leads her around the dance floor until the poor girl collapses on her high heels. Very early in the morning we catch a ride back to our hotel, passing through the active night market - Phitsanulok being the central market hub for the area.
Sunday, time to get back to Singapore and we have a long trip ahead and sleepy heads on our shoulders. We've allotted only one hour buffer between the time our train is scheduled to arrive in Bangkok and the time we need to check in for our flight. The train arrives 50 minutes late and proceeds to get progressively later as we poke along to the south. Sybil starts driving me nuts with her worry over missing another flight. She wants to consider jumping out and flagging down a taxi. I'm not that concerned, even though time is getting uncomfortably short and I'm the one who has to get to work the next day.
After finally arriving at Don Muang station, we run over to the airport. I know that if we can only find the Singapore Airlines check-in before the 30 minute bump-off time, we'll be OK getting through immigration and customs in time. After a bit of running around we find the right desk and check in with over 5 minutes to spare. Everything else, paying airport tax and other exit formalities goes smoothly. Then our plane is delayed by 30 minutes so we wind up waiting after all that rushing about.
The trip back is uneventful. Our apartment, which we had so scrupulously cleaned before we left, is in shambles, with all the floors completely covered with dirt. We can see our footprints as we walk about. Dirt from storms and construction must have blown through the windows.
I hear the following from people at work when I tell them about our trip: 'Didn't you take an elephant ride?' 'Chiang Mai, Golden Triangle... Phitsanulok?' 'Two weeks, so long-eh, just for Thailand, I thought you went back to the States.'
As in our Malaysia trip, we write thank you postcards to many of the wonderful Thai people who helped make our trip a success. We'll be back soon.
The 'Singapore Journal' can be found on Brian Lucas's Rec.Travel Library pages at: http://www.travel-library.com/asia/singapore/matt_donath/index.html. If you want to send me email my address is firstname.lastname@example.org.