Northern Thailand – It had been a while since we took a motorbike trip, so we were getting restless for freedom. Our friends, Ray and Megan, suggested an itinerary they had done around northern Thailand that sounded pretty good. So we rented a bike, bought a map, and hit the “super highway” heading south towards Lampang.
The super highway is anything but. No doubt it’s a highway – it’s the “super” part I take issue with. It’s certainly wide enough – three lanes of traffic going in both directions with a nice grassy median to give it some order. But drivers, particularly motorbikers, seem to ignore the flow of traffic and drive on the wrong side against the flow of traffic at full speed. This makes it hard to drive on autopilot and enjoy the scenery.
Thailand really showcases their elephants so our first stop was at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC). There are offerings of rides, shows, baths, etc in almost every town but the TECC was supposedly one of the best in terms of treatment of the elephants with proceeds from the center going towards their elephant hospital. They also treat elephants from around the country.
The center wasn’t too touristy and the show wasn’t too showey. We learned some new facts about elephants, like they can’t see so well and they rely on smell. And when you are around them, they smell your feet to learn who you are and see if they remember you. I feel bad for the elephants who got to know Tina.
Most of the show was focused on demonstrating how elephants are used for moving logs, how you ride them and how they work together. Then the canvases and paint brushes came out. I have seen elephants on tv pick their own brushes and colors. But here, the mahouts sort of hid behind the trunks and guided the elephants with what they painted.
This was unfortunate because the mahouts were clearly hired for their animal skills, not their artistic abilities. Even the elephants were unimpressed with the paintings. The show ended with people being able to feed the elephants. I got so into it, I bought some bananas and got a kick out of getting covered in elephant snot.
We made another stop outside Lampang at Wat Pra That Lampang Luang. Set on a hill, this open air temple built in the Lanna style was pretty unique from wats we had previously seen. The temple compound was beautiful, spacious, and filled with different structures. The most interesting was the Wihan Ton Kaew, a little building – which only men could enter – which when it was a bright sunny day, you could see a camera obscura image of the main temple projected on a sheet hanging in the room. The magic of the moment was broken when the guide – a smelly toothless man – asked me for some money.
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The next morning I woke Tina up and convinced her we should change plans and go to Sukhothai – an ancient capital town with a set of ruins that seemed interesting. She agreed. So after breakfast we headed south stopping at a random roadside restaurant (with misters to keep us cool) that had fantastic tom tam ka – which, in Thailand, you eat by scooping the editable bits out onto a place of rice to eat while sipping the broth.
We weren’t aware of this procedure until the staff kept asking us if we wanted rice. They didn’t speak English (we ordered by pointing to the words chicken” and “soup” in our guidebook) so they kept repeating “rice”. We kept repeating “no thank you”. After the waitress left and placed the order, the chef came out all incredulous and asked in a demanding tone, “Rice”? At this point we just wanted to eat, so we gave in and said yes.
Because the roads in Thailand are so massive and lack any culture, we decided to ride while listening to our iPods. Not only did this add a soundtrack like you see in the movies, it also created a communication problem. Tina was singing along with Rilo Kiley as loud as she could. Occasionally I could hear her over my tunes and the sound of the bike, causing me to slow down so we could talk only to realize she was oblivious to me trying to talk with her.
We outran a couple thunderstorms and arrived in Sukhothai around late afternoon. While touring a couple ruins, we learned there would be a light and sound show that night telling the history of Sukhothai. After checking into the hotel, and eating some tasty chicken and pineapple curry with coconut milk, we rode back to the park to see the show.
There was a viewing area in front of the stage that was reserved for people who had tickets. Unclear how one gets, or needs, a ticket for a free show, we found seats off to the side for us ticketless people. Right before the show started, several tour buses arrived and unloaded hundreds of Asian women – some kind of women only tour – who filled up the reserved seats. Just that morning Tina had read something about how sex tours for Asian women were becoming more popular in Thailand. But we aren’t ones to judge…
The show was a riot. While narration in Thai was playing, kids would reenact the battles, festivals and whatever other events took place in the story. But the story has pretty much been condensed to just battles and festivals resulting in boys coming out in battle gear staging epic fights and climbing on the ruins while the spotlights made it seem really dramatic. Then they would receded into the darkness, as more boys and girls would come out in peasant clothing and celebrate and dance. Then another battle would take place.
The funniest part of the show were the stray dogs that would wonder on to the “stage” – which was just a grassy bit in front of a temple. Sometimes there would be a few dancers performing in elegant costumes and a dog would walk out and sit by them watching, or just wander around the stage totally unaware of what was happening. They were clearly the sidekick to the warrior’s straight men.
The finale consisted of a huge battle then a celebration that was punctuated by a small-time fireworks show. At the end of the fireworks, one of the launchers failed shut off so it kept spitting out rather large sparks and smoke as the cast was taking its bows and the lights came up – removing any doubt as to the cartoonish quality of the show.
During the show I kept seeing lightning flashing the distance – which added drama to the battle scenes – but made me hope the show would end soon. We hadn’t been back in the hotel for 20 minutes before the heavens opened and what sounded like a monsoon came to town for a much more impressive light and sound show.
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Not having much time at the park the night before, we went back the next morning. There was hardly anyone else there which was refreshing. But surveying the grounds as we arrived, it struck me how this park represents how Thailand is so different from other parts of SE Asia we had visited.
The grounds were immaculate – like some kind of golf course. There were paved paths and trees removed to give good views of the ruins. You could literally tour the place in a car and not need to get out to see anything. Granted, some parts of Angkor Wat have been cleared, but you still get a sense of ruins out in the jungle. This was more like an amusement park without the rides.
After lunch, we headed to a second related set of ruins,Si Satchanalai-Chaling Historic Park, a bit north of Sukhothai. This was more of what we thought Sukhothai would have been like. It was in the middle of nowhere, no one else was there and most ruins were had been slowly taken over by either nature or neglect.
The park was near a tiny village who’s one guesthouse had closed, leaving us with a way too expensive guesthouse as our only option. So we booked it to Utaradit, the next town on the map.
Utaradit wasn’t in the guidebook so we hoped we could find a hotel easily and before nightfall. In Cambodia and Laos, guesthouses usually had a yellow sign with red writing that occasionally said “guesthouse”. But after accidentally riding a loop around the main part of town, we didn’t see anything that looked like a hotel.
I pulled over at a little noodle shop and Tina went in to ask where a hotel was. Suddenly a westerner, Howard, came out and talked with Tina. He invited us to join him for dinner and said that he’d find out about a hotel room.
We joined Howard, Pui (Howard’s Thai girlfriend) and a guy, who owned the shop, for dinner. We ordered some great noodle soup with meatballs and sat around talking for a couple hours. Howard was from the UK, but was in Thailand teaching English and computers. School had just ended, and he said he was the only Westerner in town and maybe the only person who spoke English.
Towards the end of dinner, Pui called a hotel and reserved us a room saying that she could get us a better price since she was a local. After we finished eating we followed them over to the hotel and checked in. I had mentioned I was hankering for some mangoes and sticky rice. Pui said she knew a little place nearby that served it, but we arrived only to find it closed.
On the way back to the hotel, she spotted a stall in the night market serving mangoes and sticky rice. So we pulled over and I got some while offering to get them some since they had helped us so much. They declined and said that it made them really happy to help out travelers since people had helped them out before.
So we got back to the hotel and I settled in with my little Styrofoam container of mangoes and sticky rice. As I started eating, Tina turned on the tv and found that The Patriot with Mel Gibson was the only thing on in English. While watching I wondered aloud whatever happened to him. To which Tina responded by asking whatever happened to all the mangoes and sticky rice.
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The next morning we went back to the market hoping to find something for breakfast. Nothing was opened yet so we decided to go “ghetto” and got some pastries and OJ from 7-Eleven and ended up eating them in the parking lot of a gas station after a fill up – for both us and the bike, I guess.
We got to Phrea, the last town on our trip, around lunch time and checked in the hotel which looked like a huge hotel with hallways like The Shining. We ate at the hotel restaurant which was ok until we realized they charged us for the ice in our drinks. Now, I understand that around here people charge you for everything. But it’s really annoying when they bring you things – like napkins, peanuts, ice – that you didn’t order and put in on the table then charge you for it. It’s frustrating because it makes you have to constantly ask if they charge for something, and if so, how much – then you seem like the stingy tourist reacting to the petty local.
The old town in Phrea was full of beautiful leafy streets and a peaceful easy feeling with locals just going about their lives. If one were looking for a great place to start a cute little guesthouse, this would be it. There is plenty on offer for the tourist wanting something not to far off the beaten path – unique Lanna style houses, interesting wats and a couple huge hilltop temples just outside town. And the countryside is full of rice paddies, coconut trees and charming little villages. I could stay here for a week.
After the sunset, and watching a storm move towards town from one of the hilltop temples, we hurried back to eat dinner. We stopped at the night market, but as soon as we sat down lighting struck and wind blew some tables over and people started panicking, so we headed off to a restaurant which was pretty boring and waited for the storm to pass as we planed our trip back to Chaing Mai for the next day.