From Bangkok, once again it was time for a seven-hour bus journey northwards to Sukhothai. The key to the seven-hour journey in Southeast Asia is the selection of the bus company; who do regular travellers recommend? How long does the bus take and where, exactly, does it stop? Cheaper buses have a tendency to make cargo stops and diversions anywhere from every half an hour to every ten minutes. Do you get lunch thrown in, or is that extra? And if there isn’t a toilet – and there usually isn’t – how long are you going to have to wait until the next stop? The bus stations that major companies operate from tend to be some way out of city centres, but the buses that operate from backpacker areas like the Khao San Road have a nasty reputation for rifling through your baggage at some point during the trip. We’ve made the trip out to the bus station every time, except for our journey between Hue and Hoi An in Vietnam, and that trip amply demonstrated why it was worth it.
Sukhothai is a small town in Northern Thailand to which people go for one principal reason: the temples, wats and pagodas which date from the 13th and 14th centuries. It was once the capital of the Sukhothai kingdom of northern Thailand, and 26 temples and other structures, which share aspects of style with the temples of Angkor, have been restored or reconstructed. While the Historical Park, and the temples, are much smaller than Angkor, this is part of its charm; the park is quiet and peaceful, apart from the occasional soft-drinks stand or incense seller. The best way to see it is to cycle around it, and we took a tour with Cycling Sukhothai that also took in some of the villages in the 16km between the historical park and the town of New Sukhothai. Our guide was a weathered, bespectacled Thai called Noom (“Like moon backwards. Noom”) whose shirt had fallen apart along one sleeve and was stapled back together. “That’s good,” he said firmly, on hearing that his group for the day was British and Australian. “I want to speak English with the native speakers. I want to speak English like a native speaker.”
Noom took us to the local people’s catfish farms, their homes on stilts built of corrugated iron (“Imagine the heat coming off the roof”) and showed us the carpentery cooperative that employed many local people. He also took us to the market, where Thais buy their fresh food, and treated us to some snacks: deep-fried banana and sweet rice-flour balls filled with mashed bean. It was a beautiful day, and we sailed along the flat paved roads between villages, meeting only the occasional motorbike, and giving high-fives to the excitable children who rushed out to greet us. As well as Wat Mahathat, the largest and holiest of the temples, he took us to Wat Si Sawai, which copies many aspects of Angkor style, and Wat Si Chum, where a massive seated Buddha smiles benignly at all who enter. Monks wandered around in their shades of brown-orange-saffron-gold. (Most Thai boys, like most Cambodian boys, shave their hair and eyebrows and become monks for some weeks or months before finishing their education. This brings honour and good karma to their families.)
“We have more temples in Thailand than 7-11s!” said Noom triumphantly.
After quiet Sukhothai, we took the bus another six hours north to Thailand’s second-biggest city, Chiang Mai, once the capital of the kingdom of Lanna. The striking thing about it, though, is how unlike a large city it feels, far smaller than, say, a Birmingham or a Newcastle. While Bangkok feels unquestionably like a capital and the whole Chiang Mai metropolitan area holds a million people, urban Chiang Mai itself has a population of about 150,000. It has a cooler, wetter climate than most of Thailand, although November and December are months of warm and pleasant sunshine. The old city, where many backpackers stay, is a warren of little winding streets, guesthouses, bars, galleries, and restaurants. I liked it immediately; it had a friendly, laid-back and somehow arty vibe, and my beloved street art was on frequent and beautiful display. On our first night, we stumbled on the Sunday Walking Market and browsed the food and craft stalls, eventually acquiring new T-shirts to replace our battered ones. We wandered around and visited a few wats, particularly Wat Chedi Luang, where the modern temple sits in front of a huge ruined temple still crowned with a golden Buddha. We also spent a full day at the Elephant Nature Reserve about 60km outside the city, having the chance to learn about the ‘elephant industry’ in northern Thailand. Elephants were formerly used – and often abused – in logging, but it became illegal in Thailand in 1989 due to massive deforestation, leaving many elephants effectively out of work. Logging remains legal close by in Myanmar, though, and elephants are frequently used for tourist trekking and shows. The centre is run by a dedicated Thai woman named Lek (which means “tiny”; Loz immediately nicknamed me “lek wife”), who has bought all of the 40+ elephant residents so that she can retire them to a life of leisure. Some are blind (often deliberately blinded by their origjnal mahouts), others crippled from having too heavy weights on their backs or from having stood on landmines. The centre is one of the few where riding the elephants is strictly verboten (tourists are usually put on their backs, which are not built to take weight) and where they do not perform an “elephant show”. However, you get the chance to wash the friendlier elephants in the river and to watch the centre’s three babies, which range in age from a year to two months.
We finished up our time in Chiang Mai by going cycling in the countryside; from a beautiful forest park, we mountain-biked up hill and down dale to a lake, and sailed across by longtail boat to have lunch at a floating hotel. We also dropped by the local village primary school, where some of the children were pushed forward to ‘practise their English’ – “Hello how are you my name is Ping what is your name where are you from,” they monotoned, looking at their feet. Then we were headed south by air to the island of Phuket.