Cultural delights in northern Thailand

Cultural delights in northern Thailand

My friend had to return to England at that point, so she flew out from Ko Samui and I got the ‘VIP’ 24 hour bus to Bangkok – not exactly VIP as I know it, but I did manage to sleep some of the way at least and arriving at 5am without a guesthouse was no problem as everywhere was still so alive so I sat in a cafe until the guesthouses opened! I was staying on the Khao San Road so I had the most sociable evenings I’d had since I left Australia! I spent lots of time checking out the stalls along the streets, went to the night market and had to go and see one of the infamous shows in Bangkok’s red light district, Patpong, and became a regular at one of the Beetle Bars (literally a camper van parked down a side street). I saw all the tourist sights: The Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha), the National Museum, Wat Pho (the temple of the 42m reclining Buddha) MBK Shopping Centre, and I was at Sanam Luang‘s public square/green on National Labour Day which was great because there was so much going on there as well as a concert in the evening.

After a whirlwind few days in Bangkok, I got a tourist minibus to Kanchanaburi, well actually two as the first one broke down, leaving us stranded on the side of the road until the new one came – it wasn’t the first time a tourist bus had broken down on me though! I stayed at a lovely guesthouse right on the River Kwai in Kanchanburi called the Jolly Frog – great sunsets, but loads of mosquitos! Did the obligatory walk over the Bridge over the River Kwai, saw the Japanese war memorial and the Chinese cemetery, went to the WWII war museum and the Allied Forces cemetery – and both reduced me to tears. I spent a day looking at the markets on Coronation Day (another public holiday) – not for the squeamish as it had lots of pigs heads and trotters, etc! At the Lak Meuang Shrine and the city gates they were preparing for a concert for the public holiday. After watching them for a while I went to the JEATH museum (Japan, England, America, Australia, Thailand, Holland- the nationalities of the POW’s made to work on the railway) which is laid out like a POW camp on the site of an actual camp and is made up purely of letters and drawings of the inmates and survivors – it was pretty graphic and intense and led to more tears.

I got a lift back to Bangkok with a new friend I had made and from there immediately got on another 12 hour VIP bus to Chiang Mai. Once I arrived, I got a songthaew (a truck used as a shared taxi) to the guesthouse and spent the afternoon checking out the old town, the city walls and moat, and then the night bazaar.

I went on a three-day trek into the hills, starting at one of the Lahu tribal villages outside Pai in Mae Hong Son (near the Burmese border) where we played with the children and animals and the men let us try their huge pipes of home-made tobacco. We trekked an hour and a half to the next tribal village of Lisu (Tibeto-Burmese people) where we stayed together in a bamboo shack in the village, it was an interesting evening, we played the guitar, drank and some smoked opium (which actually had quite a ritual to it)! The next day we trekked for around two and a half hours then stopped at a village with a waterfall where we all bathed to cool off, before trekking for another hour, using machetes to cut through thick undergrowth. There were lots of hills on this part of the trek, but as we were all starting to get exhausted we started the elephant trekking, which was an incredible experience amidst stunning scenery. We left the elephants and trekked for the last hour to the village of the Karen tribe, where we spent another night in a bamboo shack. We trekked all day on the final day, stopping to swim in the rivers to cool off. The last part of the journey was by bamboo raft, until the local kids capsized us!

The eight of us on the trek together got on very well, so once the trip was finished we hired a car together and went on a road trip further north. We drove to Pai via various pretty waterfalls and then on to Soppong where we stayed in a gorgeous little guesthouse on the river. We went to the caves at Tham Lot where we got a guided tour to see the impressive stalactites and stalagmites, column pillars and sinkholes, as well as all the bats and prehistoric drawings, from here we drove to Mae Hong Son, right on the Burmese border, and to the Longneck tribal village – it was amazing – one of the women’s neck coils weighed 6 kilos! We also saw the Kayaw Big Ear tribal village and the Big Knee tribal village – all are Karen tribes from Burma – we spent so long there that we had to spend the night in Khun Yuan, which is not much more than a truck stop, but at least they had beds.

We took a shortcut back to Chiang Mai over and around the biggest mountain in Thailand, Doi Inthanon, but it was too foggy to see anything. We stayed at the same guesthouse back in Chiang Mai and made the most of the pool after all of our travels. I did an afternoon Thai cooking class while there – the guy came and picked me up on his moped, then he and his family taught me to cook traditional Thai dishes of pad thai, green chicken curry, tom yam soup, morning glory, and sticky rice with mango, which I ate with them, and even got given the leftovers to takeaway!

From Chiang Mai I took a five-hour bus to Sukohthai, one of the old capitals of Thailand, where I hired a bike to check out the old town – Wat Mai, Wat Sorasak and Watson Khao, then over the moats to Wat Sri Chum with the big seated Buddha and finally out to the forest sites, climbing the big hill to see Wat Saphan Hin and the big standing Buddha, before heading back to the walled city and Sukhothai Historical Park which was full of Thai tourists – the ruins were very impressive (as a World Heritage site, it was to be expected!) and it only took a few hours by bike to take them all in, including the King’s Monument, Wat Sra Sri, Wat Trapang Ngoen, Wat Sri Sawai and then Wat Mahathat (the main wat) and the old palace ruins, Noen Prasat.

A day’s sightseeing was enough there and it was very quiet so I got another seven hour bus to Ayutthaya, another of the country’s old capitals, where I hired a bike again for more cultural sightseeing. It was a scenic ride through fields of grazing buffalo and along a canal, and so nice and peaceful. I saw the military monument, the Golden Mount Temple, the palace and temple ruins, Wat Phra Sri Sanphet, Wat Phra Ram, Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit (a fancy little house/chapel with a huge bronze seated Buddha), Wat Ratburana and the impressive Wat Phra Mahathat, with the iconic and much-photographed site of the buddha statue head encased in tree roots.

I took a regular bus from Ayuthaya back to Bangkok, where I got a minibus to Ko Chang, next to the Cambodian border. Here I spent my last weeks on the beach working on my tan, it was monsoon season by then, but still hot and would only rain for an hour or so in the afternoon. There isn’t much to do there so just chilled out, read books and sunbathed! I finally dragged myself onto the last of the backpacking buses and returned to Bangkok for one last night (this time I treated myself to a normal half decent hotel) before eventually flying home after an amazing seven-month backpacker stint that I will never forget… And from then on the travel bug was firmly implanted…