Posted by: Richard Marshall | November 30, 2016

Historic Cities of Thailand September 2014



Buddha at Sukhothai

Since I have been in Penang for nearly three years, it’s a bit ludicrous trying to write a post recalling my first impressions. For that reason, I think I’ll wait until next year to write a retrospective post instead. My first trip out of Penang was up to Thailand a few months after I arrived. At that stage my friends Luke and Emily were still working at the British Council in Bangkok, and another ila friend Mike had just finished a stressful year working at a law firm in Bangkok too. Since Mike had never been to northern Thailand we decided to meet in Chiang Mai and make our way back down to Bangkok. I had never visited Sukhothai or Ayutthaya, two of Thailand’s former capitals, so hoped Mike and I could check them out.

I flew from Penang to Chiang Mai, a wretched trip that involved flying to Kuala Lumpur first, 300km in the wrong direction. However, Mike and I eventually met up in the late afternoon and set about putting away quite a few Singha beers. I had visited Chiang Mai before, and found it to charming once again. Mike and I were slightly unenthusiastic tourists after a night of Thai beers, but we walked around the old town and checked out many of the Wats, the old city wall and the moat. We found a good place for the delicous local noodle dish, khao soi, as well as a Texan …er…restaurant? Eatery, anyway, with some pretty impressive specimens propping up the bar. We also hired a couple of scooters and made our way up Doi Suthep, a hill outside the town with a vast and teeming temple complex.

After a couple of days in Chiang Mai we headed down to Sukhothai on an inevitably uncomfortable Thai bus. The city of Suhkothai itself is a characteristically dismal Southeast Asian provincial city – a dirty concrete jungle of gimcrack buildings, noisy streets and a river full of slow moving muddy water that had only just receded from breaking its banks. There are two dull tourist strips – we stayed at the one closer to the city proper and a little out from the ruins. Oddly there was actually a pretty decent bar with good live music. Mike was convinced the singer should get on the first bus to Bangkok to treble his salary, and wondered what on earth he was doing out in the styx. We hired bikes and headed out to the ruins. Unlike Ayutthaya, where the remains of the former city are dispersed throughout the modern one, the ruins of Sukhothai are set apart in a green and leafy complex. This seclusion gave the place tremendous atmosphere and though obviously not on the scale of its contemporary at Angkor was nevertheless and fascinating and beautiful site. In the afternoon I drove my bike out into the countryside. Although there are paddy field areas in Malaysia, much of the areas I had traveled though were palm oil and rubber, a landscape I find hideous and depressing. So it was great to back in the land of paddy fields, emerald green and set against dark mountains, with tree-shaded villages incredibly still and quiet in the somnolent heat. To me it’s a quintessential feeling of being in Southeast Asia, and one of my favorites.


Stupas and ruins. Sukhothai

We took an even more ghastly bus down to Ayutthaya. I think I watched “The Expendables 3” dubbed in Thai, though it was clearly a move where dialogue was optional. Ayutthaya is slightly younger than Angkor or Sukhothai. It flourished from the fourteenth century until its destruction by the Burmese in 1767, after which it was displaced by Bangkok. Since then, of course, a grimy Thai city has grown up again around the ruins of the old. Arriving quite late, we just had dinner at a very nice riverside restaurant and headed to our hostel. The next day we legged it around the city checking out at least some of the huge remaining palace and temple ruins.


Seated Buddha, Ayutthaya

After Ayutthaya we headed down to Bangkok. Mike was in the final stages of leaving and departed for Vietnam a few days later. I stayed with Luke and Emily, who at that stage were working at the British Council there. Their apartment was lovely, and we did some tourist stuff, exploring some of Bangkok’s Chinatown looking at some of the old shophouses and go-downs by the river. We mostly focused on eating, however, and they introduced me to two of my all time favorite restaurants. The first was a fried chicken restaurant, so famous the alley it’s located on bears the name “chicken alley”: Soi Pollo. We had delicious fried chicken, pork neck and papaya salad, and I have always been back on subsequent trips. The most amazing restaurant, however, was Gold Bayleaves. The food was simply unbelievable – curries, fried fish, Thai-style steak, all on the side of the road and washed down with Singha beer. Luke and Emily also took me to a couple of their local markets and some lovely Bangkok rooftop bars.

I decided to take the night train from Bangkok back to Penang, thus (over the course of a few holidays) haven ridden the rails all the way from Chiang Mai to Kuala Lumpur. (I’ll have to do KL to Singapore one day just to finish the last section). The trip was uneventful, though the new electric trains on the Malaysian side of the border were quite a contrast to Thailand’s creaking network. I arrived in the morning, crossed from Butterworth to Penang Island on the ferry, and took the bus back to my apartment.

Thanks Mike for the photos! 



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