Sukhothai: Dawn of Happiness

Sukhothai is a small city divided into two zones – the riverside New City, where the bulk of guesthouses, shops and restaurants are located, and Old City; the site of Sukhothai Historical Park, formerly known as Dawn of Happiness. New City is rather charmless; there would be no reason to visit if not for the historical park.

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We wandered around New City on our first day here, and were intrigued by these matching T-shirts. A kinder version of “I’m with Stupid”, but with the same twist – the  wearers would need to line themselves up appropriately before heading out.

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We also discovered the answer to a question we had about a fruit we kept seeing, and finally tried – green, apple-shaped, kind of pucker-y, not that sweet. Turns out it is guava. (or farang, the Thai name, also for foreigner). I was so surprised – I imagined guava would be soft and sweet, like mango or papaya. Working our way through Thailand’s many wonderful fresh fruits – one stand at a time.

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Time for the temples! Now I’m a fan of trudging around in 36 degree heat with 90% humidity as much as the next guy. As fascinating as ancient temples can be, after a few dozen they can fall into the camp of ABC (Another Bloody Church), and our sightseeing can quickly move from being engrossing to feeling obligatory. But when the view looks like this, the temples pull us in:

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Old City is located 12 km. from New City, and is easily accessible by songthaew, a truck-like conversion with bench seats that is short on comfort, but long on local colour. Since many of these drivers eat, smoke and text while they drive, we rely on the hanging flowers and talismans to keep us safe. Plus, it’s great entertainment for $1.

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The Sukhothai Historical Park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site 25 years ago, but the ruins date back to the 14th century. It is a vast area, spread out over 70 sq. Km., encompassing the moated, walled old city and sprawling into the countryside. If you keep to the main sites, it can be done on foot, but we wanted to see as much as we could, so we rented bikes for the day. It added a lot to our visit – so much fun to cruise around and feel the wind (light breeze?)  at our backs.

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To give you an idea of the layout, this map shows the main temples (called wats) as well as the outlying areas. We stuck to the sites inside the walls, and visited Wat Si Chum, the large temple at the northern edge.

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The Park is gorgeous, but one delightful aspect of this area was the moats, the trees, lily ponds, and small lakes – all serving to soften and highlight the ruins and to provide much-appreciated shade.  Although there were great busloads of tourists, we often found ourselves alone – there is more than enough room for everyone.

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We began with the site’s largest and most important ruin, Wat Mahathat. It featured a number of chedi (the lotus-bud topped conical structures) and Buddhas and columns.

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We visited this same wat later in the day, from another angle and came upon these two gentlemen, lighting incense and praying. It is interesting to observe how Thais pray quietly and reverently in public outdoor places. Buddha provides great solace, in his many incarnations. It is a religion I know very little about and am curious to learn more.

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There were mobs of schoolchildren at the historical park. In many places in the park, they were lined up listening intently to their teachers. To our teacher friends and family – come and teach in Thailand –  these kids are a dream come true. Neat little uniforms, no acting out, very attentive.

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Whenever we ran into them, they were quite curious and friendly. “Hell-ooo”, they would call out, and then all giggle when we called back to them. Since we are finding Thai a very tricky language to get right, we were the cause of great amusement, even among the teachers. Below, the boys lined up to buy incense  to pray at the wat.

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The outer reaches of the park have both a stone wall and a moat. The moats were full of water lilies – so beautiful during the day. All that still water must bring out the mosquitoes at night.

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There were a couple of small islands with ruins, accessible by bridges. Such a painterly quality to this scene.

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Wat Si Siwai has three Khmer-style prang; a bit distinctive from the other wats.  We entered into the centre  prang and peered up inside. Nothing but a hole in the wooden roof and the unmistakable smell of bat guano.

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One photo op after another – this atmospheric shot as we pedalled past.

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And finally, we reached Wat Si Chum, just outside the gates. The 15m Buddha stares down from his perch in the square shrine. If you can see the man in the bottom right of the photo, you’ll get a sense of scale.

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One of the notable features of the Buddha are his giant, gold-fingernailed hands. I asked this young woman to pose beside them to give you an idea of their size.

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We’re into the rhythm of the road now – time has slowed to a dreamlike state and even though we may not get used to the heat, we’re figuring out how not to fight it. (Pulling at my hair and waving at my face has not worked so far.)

We’re heading north to Chiang Mai tomorrow and will spend at least a week there.

 

Hua Hin: from Royal resort town to Scandinavian getaway.

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Just three hours south of Bangkok, Hua Hin has been the resort residence of Thai royalty for decades.  With the arrival of the Hilton in the 90s, Hua Hin began to attract mass tourism from Europe and China, and with it, the inevitable  building boom dedicated to bringing in package tours. Condos, high-rise hotels and swank shopping malls have transformed this once sleepy fishing village; Hua Hin is in very real danger of losing its original charm. One hold-out – The Centara Grand Beach resort, complete with topiary and staff in pith helmets and jodhpurs, is a high-end and cultured nod to the past.

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The broad white beach is still a major draw, but the historic area around the fishing pier is slated for demolition. Apparently, the plan is to take out that whole area, and put in a boardwalk with upgraded shops and restaurants. Needless to say, this is not sitting well with the locals.

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Naresdamri’s seafront is filled with piers like this, offering waterfront seafood restaurants

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An example of the original shopfronts that are in danger of disappearing

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We walked out to the end of the main fishing pier (which will remain intact). This young boy sat in a lineup of fishing rods, carefully baiting his hook.

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Buckets of beautiful, white squid being cleaned, right on the dock.

Cleaning fish on the Hua Hin pier.

Fishing boats grounded by low tide.

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Hua Hin is a love it or hate it kind of place, and our first impressions were not that great. At first glance, it is a bit of an overgrown, tacky town, with sleazy commerce front and centre.  Beautiful young Thai women and much older white men are a common sight. Sex tourism is a huge thing in Thailand, and while I don’t want to start a debate about the ethics of men exploiting women’s dire economic states, I find it stomach-turning.  A number of blocks in the centre core come alive at night; it is not so much a stroll as a scene.  Even Stephen and I were solicited, which really does prove there is something for everyone here. We laughed, they laughed back.

Massage parlours line the streets – one needs to be a little careful about choosing. The girls tend to sit outside and call out, “hello, massage.” Prices run about the same – $10-$15 an hour – but the credentials bear checking out first. Chances are if the girls are in heels and hot pants, there may be a happy ending. Legit parlours will look like the one below:

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Slowly, though, Hua Hin began to grow on us. We discovered our favourite places to eat, and spent hours wandering the streets, and let it all wash over us.  Hua Hin is a popular destination for Scandinavian tourists, but we also heard German and Dutch being spoken everywhere. Canadians and Americans – we are in very low numbers here.

We met up yesterday with our friends from Nanaimo, Chris and Sue. They have lived in Thailand in the past, and come each year to a small town just south of here. Chris met up with us at our hotel and brought us treats from the market – small “cakes” with sweet and savoury fillings. As he took us on a tour of the town, we passed the lady who makes them.

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Our Thai food education continued as we made our way through the market. Tamarind is very popular – this is what they look like.

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The fish simply cannot get any fresher – everything that is sold in the market comes right from the waters of Hua Hin. The prawns are massive, the lobsters are tiny, crab comes in a variety of sizes and colours, and the squid are glistening and pure white. There is almost no fish smell going through that part of the market – the products are that fresh.

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Some of the staples of Thai cooking – lemongrass, lemon leaves and a particular type of ginger.

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We grabbed a Songthaew ( a collectivo-style truck with bench seats – one just stands at the side of the road and waves them down) to Chris and Sue’s place about half hour from Hua Hin. After a roadside lunch of papaya salad, we headed up to Monkey Mountain. There is a temple there and a giant Buddha, as well as staggering views of the town and bay, but as the name suggests, the big attraction are the hundreds of monkeys. Our first sighting was this fellow perched on a boat as we approached the hill.

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It was such an incongruous sight, much like seeing a giraffe bellied-up to the bar. Like any other wild animal sighting, it was exciting until we discovered there were more where he came from. Many, many more…

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There are hundreds of these monkeys, and tourists are warned not to feed them, and not to carry food around, as they will surely come and snatch it from you.  All of this was fun from a distance, but as we made our way down the hill, Chris observed,”Well, we’re walking right through the monkeys.” And indeed we did, without mishap – the big males, the mothers carrying their babies, the young ones – they all scampered past us

After such a wonderful day, we ended on a high note – dinner at a weekend market with new friends.    It is Festival of the Lanterns, and the entrance to the park was festooned with lit-up fabric horses.

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The Cicada market is a collection of food stalls and handicrafts, ringed by tables on one side and entertainment at the stage at the back. You make the round of the stalls, much like a giant buffet table, decide what dish most appeals and then circle back and order.

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I ordered a huge salad with pomelos, shrimp, noodles, vegetables – spicy at first, but then simply delectably flavourful. That is the joy of Thai cooking – fresh food, not too much meat or fish, lots of veggies, lovely noodles, exquisite spicing – so nuanced, so healthy – I could eat like this for the rest of my life, and I probably should. This was one of the curries.

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After dinner, we checked out the crafts – all of them a cut above the usual market fare, and at incredible prices. Oh, such temptation – but what do I buy that I can carry for the next three months?  Thanks Chris and Sue, for such a thoroughly enjoyable day and for all your insider tips to being in Thailand.

Chris, Sue and friends at Cicada Market

One last note…our unseasonable weather.  We’ve been told weeks will go by without a drop of rain and this year everything has changed. There has been so much rain in the south (site of Thailand’s famous beaches), that roads and railway tracks have been washed out, so access to the beaches and the islands is gone for the immediate future. We’ve had rain in Hua Hin every day, but today it has been non-stop and torrential. We’re heading north tomorrow to Kanchanaburi, where The Bridge on the River Kwai is situated. Next time I post, it should be in sunshine.