Thailand: Bangkok, Sukkothai, Chiang Mai – Jan. 2013

As Susan was presenting at the International Conference on Unsafe Abortion in Bangkok in January, 2013, we decided that a return trip to Thailand was in order. Susan spent a week in Bangkok before Phil arrived, and we spent one day in Bangkok exploring while Phil recovered from jet lag. We stayed in a lovely little suite hotel near the Democracy Monument. After our one day in Bangkok we got up for an early flight to Sukhothai. Bangkok Airlines calls itself a “boutique” airline, and in fact the waiting lounge included coffee, snacks and free wifi. We had breakfast again on our one hour flight. Bangkok Airlines owns the Sukhothai Airport, and also owns a luxury resort near the airport – which must explain the zebras and giraffes near the runway. Yes, there is a small zoo that is part of the hotel…

Sukhothai itself is a small town without a lot of sights. However, it is a base for exploring the many temple ruins in the area. On our first full day, we headed for Old Sukhothai, which is about 30 minutes away by bus – sort of a bus – in Thailand trucks are outfitted with 2 benches in the back and called song taws (2 benches). We rented bikes and set off to explore. 3 minutes into the ruins, a beautifully serene Lanna-style Buddha greeted us. The setting of the temples surrounded by moats and trees and the artistic beauty of the Buddhas that still survive in the temple ruins was breathtaking. In spite of the heat, we were glad to have bicycles to get from temple to temple, though as the day wore on and the sun got hotter, our water breaks got a bit longer each time.

On our second day we took a bus for 1½ hours to Si Sachanalanai, an outpost of the early capital city of Sukhothai. A village separated the two ends of the ruins, and we again rented bikes to cover the considerable distances around the park. On our third day, we headed to Kamphaeng Phet. The bus from Sukhothai took just over an hour, and dropped us right at the ruins. This first set included a reclining Buddha framed by 2 seated Buddhas, surrounded by trees – it was hard to leave. We then went to the museum, and upon returning to the ticket booth to get bikes to go the 3 kilometers to the next set of ruins, learned that the only 2 bikes available had just been rented to someone else. There were no buses, no taxis, few options. We sat in the shade and pondered the survivability of walking up the road in the broiling sun, but ultimately decided to do it. We were not disappointed; the vast temples and remnants of a giant walking Buddha, as well as a temple with elephant carvings on the base, was well worth the walk. Once finished, however, we dreaded the walk back, as we needed to go to the bus station, which was (we thought) 2 kilometers past the museum, so a 5 kilometer walk. But we must have had good karma after visiting so many Buddhas in 3 days – a woman we’d spoken to at several sites stopped and offered us a ride. It turned out that the bus station was much further than we’d thought, so she truly earned merit by saving us from the heatstroke we surely would have encountered if we’d had to walk all that way.

Our hotel in Sukhothai was lovely – on the edge of town on a quiet side street, designed in traditional teak style surrounding an open courtyard with a pool. Our room has lovely wood carvings and antiques, and breakfasts included sticky rice treats.

We took a 5 hour bus ride to Chiang Mai – comfortable except that everyone on the bus was freezing due to the over air conditioning.

We originally visited Chiang Mai about 20 years ago – at exactly the same week, during the annual Flower Festival. In some ways, the city has been loved to death. Tourists are more common than locals, and the main street has businesses mostly targeted at tourists. The traffic, noise, and crowds wereexpected, but jarring nonetheless, especially after being in quiet Sukhothai. Luckily, getting way from the tourist madness was actually quite easy. A short walk in any direction led us to beautiful wats and quieter streets.

Chiang Mai’s wats (temples) are numerous and varied. In Buddhism, building a temple brings the donor ‘merit.’ Royals and the wealthy in this area built an unimaginable number of wats in many styles. Some were more grandiose than others, but all were highly decorated by extraordinary craftspeople, and many were breathtaking.

Our last full day in Chiang Mai was spent in the hills at an elephant sanctuary. Although there are many tours offering elephant rides, this place is really special. It was founded by a hill tribe woman who has dedicated her life to recuing elephants. As logging was banned in 1989, there are now large numbers of domesticated elephants in Thailand who no longer earn money for their owners, so have been abandoned or mistreated. This sanctuary is now the home for over 30 elephants plus several young orphans, whose mothers were killed while foraging for food – with the decreased natural habitat, farmers and elephants are in competition, and the elephants usually lose.

Visitors to the sanctuary are told at the time of booking that there are no elephant shows or rides. Instead, after a 1 ½ hour ride into the mountains, we spent the day feeding and watching the elephants in a natural and unrestricted setting. Handing an elephant a piece of pineapple or melon by placing the fruit in the tip of the trunk and feeling the trunk wrap around your hand is an amazing experience. There was also a 3 week baby elephant that we spent a lot of time watching as it played with a tub, spooking itself when the tub made a loud noise and scooting back to its mother. There were also several elephants that were blind, due to mistreatment by their owners. Each had a “special friend”, another female elephant who had befriended it and helped her to navigate around.

Much of our time in Chiang Mai was spent visiting stunning wats, drinking fresh fruit smoothies and iced coffees, wandering around markets and craft shops, and getting foot and back massages. On our final day in Chiang Mai we did all of these for a final time, ending with a one hour massage before grabbing a song tao (red truck taxi) to the train station for our overnight train to Bangkok. There was a bit of drama as we came to realize that the airconditioning in the first class car wasn’t working, but after a fair amount of negotiating we moved to a 2nd class car with air conditioning, watched a movie, and slept well.

Arriving in Bangkok for our final two days reminded us of how lucky we were with the cooler weather we had had for most of our time in Thailand. Bangkok was much hotter and more humid than when we’d been here 2 weeks earlier, and it really slowed us down. Luckily, there was a hyper-airconditioned 7-Eleven every few hundred feet where we could cool off. We even found ourselves choosing restaurants based on their fans and air con rather than their menus! However, Wat Arun and the Grand Palace are amazing in spite of the heat, and were a great ending to our taste of Thailand. When we had originally planned to visit the national palace, it was about 100 degress (maybe centigrade), and about 1 million others had the same idea. They wouldn’t let Susan in because she was dressed too immodestly (seriously), so we gave up and came back the next day – the minute they opened. There were no crowds, it was cool, and we could walk around without bumping into a million others.

Logistics

Bangkok: Ratchadamnoen Residence Hotel – There are benefits to being in this part of town, but stay away from noisy Khaosan Road (the tourist ghetto). This hotel is close to everything, and all the taxis know where Democracy Monument is. A large room, a coffee maker, fast wifi – The hotel could not have been better.

Sukkothai: Ruean Thai Hotel – Exceptionally designed, like a teak palace. A bit far from the center of town, and very few dining options. While something more central would be more convenient, this is a lovely oasis.

Chiang Mai: Jangmuang Boutique House. Very well located, nice breakfast, beautiful room – although the phallus-decorated headboard gave us pause.

Rail: We booked a first class a/c cabin about 4 months before the trip on the overnight train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. But when we got there, the a/c was broken, turning the cabin into a sauna. The train staff wasn’t exactly helpful, but we moved to a nice 2nd class sleeper next two friendly monks.

Scams: We’ve traveled extensively in India. The Thais are rank amateurs at scams. I suppose that some people could get taken in, but here’s a bit of advice: 99% of the “free” street information (like when something opens) is not true. We saw signs everywhere (especially at the wats) warning people of con artists posing as tour operators. We had no problems.

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