If you were to enter Thailand at it’s most northern point you would be crossing the bridge pictured above, leaving the town of Tachileik in Shan State, Myanmar and entering Mae Sai in Chiang Rai province heading south.
A journey to Hat Yai in Songkhla province in the deep south near the Malaysian border would cover almost 1800 kms and take well over 24 hours by rail or road. In various stages over the past three years I have traveled this route several times and count myself fortunate to have done so.
I came here at the start of a long backpacking trip. I had planned to be home again in seven months. I visited all of the places outside of Thailand that I wanted to see on my trip but I have always come back to Thailand. It’s been three years now and Thailand has become home.
I have also taken several thousand pictures along the way. While I have been fairly consistent in posting images, what has generally been lacking has been any kind of narrative or description of what the image was about; why I was taking the picture. A picture is worth a thousand words but words are still important.
In this space I want to show you what I have seen on the road between Mae Sai and Hat Yai an image or two at a time with a description and a map showing a location of where the image was taken, to the best of my memory.
Sawasdee krub (S̄wạs̄dī khrạb) is Thai for “hello”.
So, I’m eating dinner and talking to my neighbour the other night and the subject of ratty clothes comes up. I happen to be wearing my favourite shirt which has had a tear in the armpit for, well…years. I lift my arm to display the fact that, in any Ratty Clothing Competition that is currently taking place, I am the Alpha. Just before I beat my chest and unleash a howl of victory upon the neighborhood I realise that…it’s gone. The hole is not a hole anymore.
Someone sewed up my shirt. But who? When? Why?
It puzzles me right away because I “wuz gunna” get it sewn up for a while now (at least two years) but it was concealed in my armpit and let’s just say that my grooming standards have dropped a bit since I left home. Hilariously I still considered it to be my “good shirt”; a squirt of 4 year old cologne, actually wearing underwear under my shorts and the “good shirt” with the gaping rip in the armpit means it’s probably date night.
I’ve been doing my own laundry for over 7 months and, when I travel I usually just save it for when I get home. Like I said about the grooming standards right? Was it taken off the line at my apartment, sewn up and put back in secret? I doubt it but…what then? Who? When did I send it out for washing last? I rack my brains. I’m pretty sure the rip was there not long ago. But when did I last see it? Total mystery.
It’s a small thing no doubt; I’m sure an experienced seamstress or tailor could have sewn it up in ten minutes. But, the fact that someone did that, took the time, anonymously, without request and to my “good shirt” no less, made my day, even if I lost the Ratty Clothing Competition.
“I was locking the door to my apartment today and someone walked by me, and I apologized. Where do Canadians learn this from?”
– Actual Facebook quote from a Canadian
As far as I can tell, the Canadian penchant for unnecessary apology relates to the need to be included in the “group” or society during the cold, pre-furnace, early days of European migration; if you were a selfish asshole you may very well be left to freeze to death. Better to not rock the boat and apologize a little to ensure that most people were happiest most of the time, eh bud?
In Thailand there is a very similar concept – greng jai. There are over 60 million people living in Thailand and they do so with a remarkable amount of harmony. Many attribute this to the concept of greng jai.
Example of Thai social situation:
I needed the sensor on my camera cleaned and, as it was filthy, I decided to take it to a local shop my friend had suggested to me. I had no idea what amount of work was involved in cleaning the sensor on a mirror-less camera but it was worth something to me to be able to close the aperture without looking at a polka dot sky.
It was an older gentleman who owned the shop and he did the job quickly. I was thinking I might have to leave it with him but it took less than five minutes.
I asked him how much I owed him for doing me this quick but much appreciated service. It’s a big deal if your sensor is dirty, regardless of how long it takes to fix it.
Est le fun commence….
He shakes his head. Nothing.
I smile and offer him 100 THB.
No, no shaking his head, smiling.
I continue smiling. Please. Take it.
Smiling. Take it. Please. For the love of God take my money. Don’t do this to me man.
His wife laughs at the social sword dance playing out in the shop.
In the end my attempt to greng jai him fails. I put the money in my pocket, wai him as he is older than I am and thank him very much (kob khun ma krub) for his generosity. I feel sia nam jai (tears from the heart) – a loss of face at potentially having disturbed him.
Perhaps this is by design or it’s just good marketing savvy but I think he knows that the next time I need my camera fixed I will go back to his shop, not for a freebie but to give him business to regain some of the face lost in being put in his debt due to his generosity.
He wins long term. I win short term. Everybody’s happy.
However, while greng jai is a useful way to keep accord in society – and it works pretty well – a Thai friend of mine related some of the more awkward situations the desire to not disturb others can create:
“When it comes to work, some Thai people will not give you useful comments (since it might hurt your feelings) because they are afraid that you will hate them (since you are so nice to them). Some people consider this as greng jai as well, as in, ‘I want to tell him the truth, but I greng jai’.”
“I want to tell the parents that their children behave badly, but I greng jai. They are suffering enough.”
‘I don’t want to tell the police about what actually happened because he (the culprit) was so nice to us. I greng jai him.”
“Greng jai also has an effect on research. You know, some researchers refuse to use a 5-point scale rating on a Likert scale when doing surveys on Thai people. Some of them might feel greng jai and evaluate “3” on everything.”
So there you have it – the next time you inadvertently, involuntarily and temporarily occupy someone else’s personal space and feel compelled to apologize for potentially sharing their oxygen for a microsecond, you greng jai them – Canuck style.
Your noble desire to not even potentially, accidentally disturb your neighbour may look quite insane to the uninitiated but rest assured, you have a good heart (khun jai dee). In Thailand you will be understood Canuck.
I’ll never forget a woman I met on my flight out of Ottawa on my way to Asia for the first time. She was on her way to a meditation retreat in New Mexico and was interested in my choice of destination, the first of which was Thailand. We talked and she asked me at one point, how much luggage I had brought with me, with a bit of a smirk at the two pieces of carry-on I had stuffed under the seat and on my lap.
I thought I had pared down to almost zero in terms of baggage, both in my life and in terms of what I was actually carrying with me. I had given up my apartment and put the few things I hadn’t gotten rid of into a storage locker. My 45L pack was full and I had my camera bag and another bag with chargers and books, but I felt I had streamlined my necessities as much as I could. There are real disciples of this philosophy, who you’ll hear bragging about the miniscule amount of luggage they carry and I get it. There’s a feeling of real freedom in not being tied down to things. And, while that’s cool, I didn’t necessarily want to deny myself things I deemed (in Canada) to be small essentials; my DSLR, iPod, clothes I thought I would need…stuff.
I had picked my pack in large part due to the fact that it could house my camera bag in the bottom, but I carried the camera bag with me on the flight. Two months later, it, my iPod, a bunch of clothes, and a sword I had bought in Bangkok that I didn’t want to carry around with me on my travels for obvious reasons were on their way back to Ottawa via Thailand Post.
Four days after landing I had a motorbike crash in Krabi that affected my right shoulder and collarbone – downward pressure on it (like even from a camera bag) was bad. I had never really been much of a believer in mobile phone cameras but I realised quickly that the camera on my S4 was probably the equal of my older DSLR and, what I would give up in terms of functionality I would make up in portability. The phone was always in my pocket and the DSLR was a pain to even get out of the bag. Scratch one “essential”. The iPod was also scratched as an unnecessary due to the phone as well.
I had heard that Chiang Mai was cold at times and it is…for Thailand. For Canadians, the coldest Chiang Mai will get to would be weather in late May. It’s not cold. So, back to Canada went clothes that were ridiculously useless to me in my new climate. I thought of the lady on the plane from Ottawa at that post office near Khao San a couple of months later.
These days, this is what I pack. This isn’t a suggestion – everyone needs different things but these items have gotten me around SE Asia comfortably for the past few years…
Always in the Bag:
Shorts (3 pairs – I like cargo shorts for traveling; it’s like wearable luggage)
Convertible pants/shorts (1 pair) – These are good for when it gets “cold” in Chiang Mai bwahahaha…
Hoodie (again for the cold – I use it a lot more now as I’ve gotten acclimatised but I wouldn’t suggest it if you’re coming direct from Canada.)
Underwear (4 pairs)
T-shirts (4 or 5)
Cotton button down shirt (2 long sleeve, 1 short sleeve) – these are good because the sleeves can be rolled up, cotton breathes and occasionally I need a decent shirt. Occasionally.
Electric clippers and charger – DIY haircuts!
Toothbrush and paste
Swiss army knife (remember to put in your stowed luggage before flying) – the more attachments the better
Phone and charger
Polysporin or a similar anti-bacterial medicine (if you’re coming from Canada you may find that cuts and burns may not heal as quickly here. Bacteria thrive in heat so consistent application of polysporin is a good idea for any nicks and scratches you may get here.)
400mg Liqui-Gel Advil (I’m open to doing endorsements by the way if anyone is listening…)
Universal outlet adaptor
Hiking shoes (Rarely used but when I needed them I was glad I had them. You don’t do the Great Wall in flip flops.)
Wool socks (1 pair – for the times I use the hiking shoes. The worst blistering I’ve experienced was after wearing sandals for 6 months and then going for a hike in shoes with no socks.)
Swimming trunks (1 pair)
Nicoteine gum (I feel you judging me…it’s palpable.)
Travel sized soap and shampoo (one of each to be replenished with supplies from any guesthouse or hotel room stayed in.)
Camera – after sending the DSLR home and using my phone to take pictures I eventually decided to go back to a camera and got a lightweight, mirrorless Sony with a few lenses. I recommend mirrorless systems if you are buying a camera specifically for your travels. I only bring it if I’m intending to do a lot of shooting though.
Books – the biggest waste of space in the era of the e-reader and tablet but I like books on the bus or the train and I just can’t get used to an e-reader.
Never in the Bag:
Expectations, assumptions and opinions but that’s for another post.
Thailand is hot and t-shirts, shorts and sandals are the only things I ever really wear. Laundry is usually about 25-40 THB a kilo and there are laundromats everywhere so packing less and washing more is a good strategy for keeping things light. I tend to roll my clothes as opposed to folding them as well which saves space in the bag.
Clothing tends to be inexpensive here as well so if you get here and find that you’re short of something just buy it here. The sandals I have gotten the most mileage out of were purchased at a stall in Bangkok for 100THB (pictured above at about $2.85 USD). They lasted me for over a year and didn’t owe me a damn thing when I threw them away.
Make a list of what you think you will need and then start to pare it down. Again, I won’t tell you what to pack – what people need is pretty individualised, but the above has gotten me around without feeling like I was lacking anything for years now. The lady on the plane out of Ottawa was right.
A little while ago a friend of mine, who was interested in moving his wife and two kids abroad for a year and who was considering Thailand asked me, “Is it safe?”
I didn’t quite know how to answer that fairly over a few quick messages and I think he may have changed his mind about coming but I did give it some thought and here is my response…
Should I Worry About Crime?
I have never gotten myself into trouble in Thailand that wasn’t of my own creation. I have never been robbed. I have never been assaulted. I have never been in a situation where either of those events were even a concern of mine. I have never been in a position or place that I felt I could not handle or should not be.
Being the victim of crime is not a huge worry of mine; it happens of course but Thailand also sees over 30 million visitors a year and a lot of the crime against foreigners tends to happen in areas where (primarily foreign) criminal mafias congregate; Pattaya in Chonburi, Patong in Phuket and the red light districts of Bangkok. Stay away from criminals and it’s amazing how little crime you have to deal with.
The biggest concern I had regarding safety for my friend and his family would be on the roads; they take some adjusting to when coming from Canada. The number of fatalities per 100,000 people due to road accidents in Canada is 6/100,000. In Thailand that number jumps to 36/100,000. Now, that doesn’t seem like a huge slice of the pie until you consider all the possible ways there are for people to die. It’s a big percentage, usually in the top 5 in the world.
But once I adapted to the driving style I was fine. I haven’t crashed in two and a half years and that was a small one really. The first one was a doozie though; 6 fractured vertebrae and a snapped right clavicle. The key to that accident was that, not only was I adjusting to a very different driving style than I was used to, but I was doing so on a vehicle of a type I had never driven before – a motorbike
I would advise against learning to drive a bike here if you’ve never been on one before. Motorbikes are the absolute best way to get around and I’m definitely not discouraging people from driving them when they’re here. But, if you plan to, just rent one in your city and drive around an empty parking lot for an hour or two. Learn with a passenger on the back if you’re planning on doubling up to get used to the way the weight handles differently. It will be one less adjustment to make once you’re here.
Take the Train
In terms of long distance travel, Thailand is well serviced by rail so you don’t even have to go on the roads if you don’t want to. The train is a bit slower than the bus usually but it’s a good, inexpensive and very safe way of getting around Thailand. You also get to see the countryside and meet local people. The train is the best way to get around in Thailand.
Thailand is also serviced by several inexpensive airlines with extremely good coverage if you want to stay off the roads but get around the country quickly. A flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok costs roughly $49USD and takes about 1 hour and 20 minutes, while the bus or train will take 10-12 hours.
In the south boats tend to be the source of a lot of consternation among westerners as there is always a story of a speedboat crashing or a tour boat sinking off Phuket or in the Gulf. Yes these accidents do occur but the volume of boats on the water is incredibly high – accidents are bound to occur.
But I’ve been out on the water many times in vessels of all shapes and sizes with pilots from kids to frail old men and have never worried once for my safety. If you are concerned about safety on the water I would avoid speedboats as they tend to have the highest amounts of crashes and when they do crash it’s obviously at very high speed. The large ferries that operate the Gulf and Andaman Sea are ideal to get around on.
The big thing is that people have different tolerances for risk and different factors to consider when assessing that risk. Advising someone who is traveling alone as to what is safe versus someone who would be bringing their family with them is a tricky business. I have done things in Thailand that I would have done differently or not at all with my nieces in tow. But, if I can advise one thing when it comes to personal safety abroad is, trust your gut; don’t operate out of fear – the world really isn’t out to get you and danger isn’t necessarily lurking behind every corner – but if you feel as though you are in a situation that you can’t handle or don’t understand, walk away.
Like I said, in Thailand the only trouble I’ve ever gotten into has been of my own creation. Stay within your comfort zone and if something doesn’t feel right, back away; if the guy driving the boat is going too fast, ask him to slow down. Stay off the roads if it’s a concern; take the train or fly and take the large ferries when getting around on the water with your family. Thai people are gracious hosts. I wouldn’t live here if they weren’t or if I felt as though I was in danger in any way.
I look out my window and it feels like a grey, rainy day but it isn’t. If I stick my head out and look straight up and can see blue sky directly overhead, but I can’t see Doi Suthep at all if I look straight ahead and it’s a mountain. The source of the grey isn’t rain or fog or mist; it is smoke. The month is March and it is the burning season here in northern Thailand.
In most of Thailand there are two seasons; dry and green. In northern Thailand a third season is observed called the cold season which is from November to the end of January roughly. And then there is a fourth, unofficial “season”, between the end of the cold season and the start of the green; the burning season. In the dry and cold seasons it doesn’t rain at all really and so the air is as dry as a bone and so is the ground by March. March is when the farmers begin to burn the stubble to ready their paddies for the upcoming green season. Wildfires occur both as a result of these controlled burns and due to natural causes as well.
Slash and burn practices by hill tribes get a lot of blame for the smoke, but in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces most of the hill tribes have been moved away from that style of agriculture. That said, the burning isn’t just localised to northern Thailand but occurs in neighboring Myanmar and Laos as well, where slash and burn agriculture is still practised by many groups. Smoke doesn’t care much about international borders.
But a large part of the burning that is done in SE Asia in general is done by developers who are more than happy to allow indigenous farmers take the heat. Developers are seeking to clear land illegally; once the land has been burned who is to oppose the development? In Indonesia in 2015 people seeking to clear rain forest to develop palm oil plantations were major culprits in the regional smoke crisis of that year.
The topography of northern Thailand is such that the valleys that are home to the cities act as heat sinks and trap both the heat that rises up from the plains in the south and smoke from the massive amounts of burning in the region as a whole. The combination is nasty.
March and April, in Thailand, are the summer months, the July and August of Canada. Thailand is a hot country to start with but in these months, just prior to the first rains, the heat is special. High 30’s and 40’s become the norm. Further north from Chiang Mai in Mae Hong Son, the temperatures breached 50C last year. There isn’t any humidity really at this time of year either. It is just straight up hot.
When you combine this with the smoke, things get ugly. Two years ago I tried to stick it out but on one particularly bad day when Doi Suthep was totally obscured by smoke, I decided to do a little comparison of AQI’s or Air Quality Indices. An AQI measures many different aspects of air quality to arrive at a score which indicates clean air, with a score of 100 and above being considered dangerous. Generally the number that draws the most attention is the PM2.5 rating. PM2.5 particulate is extremely fine and is considered to be the most dangerous to be breathing regularly.
I checked Bangkok’s downtown air quality and it was reasonable; in the 80’s and below the danger threshold of 100. Next I checked Beijing, famous for its pollution. It was much higher than Bangkok, in the 180’s. Dangerous stuff but nowhere near the score that came next – Chiang Mai. The AQI for Chiang Mai at that time was 283– worse than Beijing by far. Chiang Mai has a population of about 1 million in the greater metro area by the way, compared to Bejing’s 30+ million and Bangkok’s 10+million. The air was poisonous. I was in Phuket (AQI of 8) the next day and for the next few weeks.
When I came back to Chiang Mai a few weeks later, I got on my motorbike which I had left at the airport and drove home. It was night time so when I turned on the lights I got a bit of a surprise; my hands were covered, thick, in greasy black soot from the motorbike handles. This was the residue from the air settling on the bike over the previous four weeks. This is what I am breathing right now, I thought. I smoke cigarettes and the thought still made me sick. It took twenty minutes of scrubbing to get my hands clean.
The thing is, for the other ten or so months of the year it’s beautiful up here; cool at night and hot in the day. Fresh mountain air only a short motorbike trip out of town. Even during the monsoon season it avoids the worst that the south gets. It will rain for a short time consistently but it avoids the day after day torrential downpours the south gets.
But during the burning season it isn’t a good place to be. Travelers with respiratory or cardiovascular concerns should think twice about coming to northern Thailand in March or at the very least speak to your doctor about what type of effect a high PM2.5 ratings could have on your condition. I’m not a doctor but as I write this we are currently rocking a PM 2.5 level of 156 which is unhealthy for even people without respiratory health concerns (see below).
(The above screen capture is from the following link and can be used to check on the AQI in Chiang Mai and other cities throughout the world.)
The only good thing about the weather in March in Chiang Mai are the sunsets. They are spectacular due in large part, as in Los Angeles I’ve heard, to the smoke.
I have spent over ten years either living in or working in a hotel. Prior to living in hotel rooms for the last three years or so, I worked in the hotel industry in both operations and management. So, having worked in the industry in Canada and experienced it as a customer in Asia, here are some of the ways that North Americans can expect their hotel experience to be different in Thailand.
Variety of Choice
Chain hotels tend to make up the bulk of the market in North America. From the Super 8’s at the low end of the star range to the Fairmonts at the top, the little guy is pretty much cut out of the market in the large urban centres. Bed and breakfasts exist, as do hostels but not in the quantity you will find in SE Asia. In Ottawa for example, there are three hostels I’m aware of and maybe ten or twelve properties that classify themselves as either a B&B or a guesthouse. The rest of the market belongs to the big chains.
Ottawa is the capital of Canada but doesn’t get a ton of tourism. As such, there are rooms but not many. There are roughly 100 hotels in Ottawa and that’s including the 15 B&B/Hostels. There just isn’t a lot of choice in rooms and the rooms available tend to be expensive.
Chiang Mai, in contrast, has a fairly developed tourism industry but is roughly the same size as Ottawa in terms of population. There are over 1,300 properties in Chiang Mai City, running the gamut from hostels to resorts. Bangkok by the way, has over 2,000.
Now Chiang Mai and Ottawa have different tourism profiles but even in comparison to Toronto, Canada’s largest city and most likely destination for tourists coming to eastern Canada, Chiang Mai has twice as many properties (Toronto has roughly 630 properties).
This kind of variety leads to my next point of comparison…
Value for Dollar
And what does all of this competition do? Well, along with a favourable exchange rate to the Thai Baht, it drives down the price and increases the value for the customer. As a good example, on my first night in Bangkok I spent less on a night at the best hotel I’ve ever stayed at (The Eastin Grand on Sathorn) than I paid at the airport motel I stayed at in Ottawa on the night before my flight to Thailand.
I would have to be exhausted and desperate for sleep to stay in a hotel in Ottawa that charged less than $100 per night. I’d probably just sleep in a car. $100 a night for a hotel room in Ottawa means that you’re neighbours are probably getting hourly rates or they’re drug dealers; moldy carpets and maybe the bathroom got cleaned last week. Bad neighborhood, crackheads..you get the jist.
In Bangkok, that same $100CAD (2600THB) would get you into a 4 or 5 star palace on Sathorn Road with a bellboy, concierge, silk sheets, rooftop pool etc etc. But the thing with Thailand that I realised very early on is this:
I don’t need a bellboy, a concierge, silk sheets or a rooftop pool. I just need a clean bed, clean floor and a clean bathroom. That’s it.
So, once that was established, things got really cheap.
A basic guesthouse in Thailand can run you anywhere from 200THB (really basic with no AC) to 600 or 700THB for a nicer place with breakfast and AC. That means, for basic accommodation, the higher end of the 3 star range is about $20USD per night. By basic room I mean, clean floors, clean bed and a clean bathroom, usually a TV that I never use and usually air conditioning.
So if amenities aren’t a huge deal to you, you shouldn’t have to spend more than $20USD on a room here. And as a rule, hotel rooms in Thailand at any star rating will be very clean – Thai’s are extremely fastidious about cleanliness in their rooms. As well, a small guesthouse is usually a family owned business and by staying there, you’re helping out the little guy economically and getting to know local people. Guesthouses are the way to go for an extended trip in Thailand. Guesthouses in Canada just don’t exist in the quality or quantity that you will generally find here.
A big difference that can take some adjusting to are the ergonomics of SE Asian hotel rooms. The beds are hard and the bathrooms are…different.
One of the most common complaints, if people have any, about hotel rooms in SE Asia is that the mattress is hard. Yup. Mattresses tend to be extremely firm compared to the virtual pillows we sleep on in North America. This will be the case in almost every room you stay in outside of the 4 and 5 star range. But I can speak from experience that a firm mattress is good for your back and if it’s really a problem, massages are cheap. But, when reviewing a hotel, don’t knock them down on the fact that the mattress was hard – they all are here.
The other big difference a North American will notice immediately is in the bathroom. SE Asian bathrooms tend to not have bathtubs and some will even dispense with a shower stall, having only a shower head coming out of the wall in close proximity to the toilet and sink. They tend to be very small to the western eye. There is something about this arrangement that cause some westerners some consternation (Water gets everywhere! It’s so small!).
I think it’s just a cultural set of expectations about how a bathroom is supposed to look more than anything. The lack of a bathtub has never bothered me. I find the idea of standing up in a curved, slippery bathtub (that rarely if ever gets used for a bath) to be an archaic holdover from a time when people actually bathed as opposed to showering.
In regards to water getting everywhere, the dryness of the climate tends to ensure that the bathroom floor and walls usually dry very quickly even without a fan. So yes, water will sometimes spray everywhere if you don’t have a shower stall, but just open the toilet seat and don’t spray the things you don’t want to get wet with the shower head (not too hard) and the bathroom will probably air dry faster than you will.
Rough Price Ranges (Bangkok, March 2017)
Below is a rough guide to what the range of rates are per night for the various star ratings in Bangkok in March 2017.
March is shoulder season (neither peak nor low season). As such, the rates indicated below would be higher from December to February (peak season) and lower from June to November (low season).
As well, prices will tend to be slightly lower in cities other than Bangkok like Chiang Mai and Ayutthaya and more expensive in resort areas like Phuket or the Gulf Islands. Be aware that price points and star ratings can overlap as well (ie.- a 4 star hotel may have a rate over 3000THB, a 3 star may have a rate below 500THB). What follows should be used a guide only.
So a friend of mine who lives in Japan was interested in doing a quick trip to Thailand and asked me for some ideas. Normally I would suggest at least three weeks in Thailand for someone coming from the Western Hemisphere but as he was already in the neighborhood relatively and just looking to get away I thought it would work.
Also, as he will be coming from Okinawa beaches aren’t a big priority; he wants a culture trip not a climate one. As such, if you land in Bangkok and aren’t looking to head to the beach you go north.
For a synopsis of the hotel experience in Thailand click here. Room rate estimates are at the bottom of the link.
The Man in Seat 61 has never let me down – the site is an excellent resource for train travel throughout the world. Relevant schedules and fares for the line you will take are here.
So, that said, a day after landing in Bangkok…
Day 1: Bangkok to Ayutthaya
Travel Time: 2 hours by rail
Arrive at Hua Lamphong Train Station in the morning to leave for Ayutthaya. Trains leave every hour and there is no need to buy a ticket in advance. A soft seat ticket is 65 baht ($1.87USD) and takes about two hours so it’s not a heavy travel day. If you arrive in Ayutthaya in the morning and can’t check in to your guest house right away there is a left luggage service at the train station so you can head to the historical park right from there.
It’s about a 15 minute tuk tuk or saungthaew ride from the train station to the Ayutthaya Historical Park. Most of the guesthouses in the city are between the Prasak River and the historical park on the way from the train station as well if you wanted to drop your luggage there on your way to the park for the day.
You can also arrange for a tuk tuk for the day – easily the best way to get around Ayutthaya for around 200 THB per hour. Renting a motorbike is also an option if you’re comfortable on one, though I’d suggest against it if you’ve never been on one.
Ayutthaya is the former capital of Siam, prior to the establishment of Bangkok as the modern capital. For roughly 400 years until 1767 it was the centre of power in what is now Thailand as well as large parts of Laos and Cambodia. Often clashing with Burma, Ayutthaya was destroyed by the Burmese in 1767, an event which is still a historical sore point.
What remains today are the temples, constructed out of stone and impervious to the flames that devoured the rest of the city.
Wat Phra Si, Wat Maha That and Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon are highlights. The Historical Park is the centrepiece of the day but a stroll in Rama Public Park is good in the evening and boat cruises can also be arranged on the Chao Phraya river.
Day 2: Ayutthaya to Sukhothai
Travel Time: 6 – 7 hours (Ayutthaya to Phitsanulok via train for 5 hours, one hour van or taxi to Sukhothai)
The next day is by train to north to Phitsanulok and then transferring from there to Sukhothai by van or taxi. Trains leave Ayutthaya for the north starting at around 8:30 a.m with four in the morning, two in the afternoon and the remainder being overnight sleepers. It is roughly five hours by train from Ayutthaya to Phitsanulok. Train schedules can be found here but you should always confirm info at the station.
At Phitsanulok, take a taxi (or saungthaew, the red trucks) or a van to Sukhothai – a trip of about an hour. I would avoid trying to see too much at the Historical Park by mid afternoon. Sukhothai is hot.
The historical park is roughly twelve kilometres to the west of modern Sukhothai. Spend the remains of the day strolling about this provincial Thai town. If you’re trip is in November, Sukhothai is also one of the better places in Thailand to experience the Loy Krathong festival on the full moon.
Day 3: Sukhothai
Sukhothai is revered by many Thais as the birthplace of the Thai nation. It’s name means “Dawn of Happiness” and it was founded in the early 13th century, about 50 years before Chiang Mai further north and over a century before Ayutthaya with whom it eventually merged. The founding of the city represents the founding of Siam and in many ways modern Thailand can trace its roots back to this place.
I was lucky that I went with someone who had studied art history and who was able to explain the Sukhothai style of sculpture and architecture to me, but I would suggest getting a knowledgeable guide to tour the park or do some reading on your own before arriving. A UNESCO Heritage site, the park is extremely well maintained and hosts some of the most beautiful Buddha images I have seen anywhere. Phra Achana at Wat Si Chum is spectacular.
Head out earlier in the day to avoid the late afternoon heat and if need be, return to the park the next morning before leaving again for Phitsanulok at noon.
Day 4: Sukhothai to Chiang Mai
Travel Time: 7 – 8 hours (one hour to Phitsanulok via taxi and 6 hours to Chiang Mai via train)
By noon at the latest you should leave Sukhothai and head back to Phitsanulok for the 13:22 train to Chiang Mai which will arrive there at around 19:30. You will leave the plains of old Siam and slowly ascend into the highlands of Lanna. Welcome to the north.
Once in Chiang Mai, check into your room and take a stroll around the old town or head to the night market. If you happen to be in Chiang Mai on a Saturday evening, there is an excellent local walking street at the south gate of the Old Town and on Sundays there is the busier, if more touristy, Sunday walking street at the centre of the old town.
Day 5 & 6: Chiang Mai & Lanna
Chiang Mai, capital of Chiang Mai province and former capital of the Kingdom of Lanna is the heart of northern Thailand. Lanna, as opposed to Siam, was a separate Tai speaking kingdom that evolved in parallel with Sukhothai and later Ayutthaya futher south. Often caught between neighboring rivals Burma and Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai and Lanna went through periods of rule by either (with the Burmese ruling here for over a century until the late 1700’s) with sporadic periods of self rule. But it can’t be underscored enough that Lanna is a unique place within Thailand and has a distinct culture, dialect and customs from the rest of Thailand. It is Thai but in the Lanna style.
Chiang Mai deserves far more of a detailed breakdown than I can provide here but for a good two day tour around Lanna options would include:
Doi Inthanon – roughly a two hour drive from the Old Town to the highest point in Thailand. Great views and a good survey of the local countryside on the way. (6 to 7 hours)
A visit to Wat Prathat Doi Suthep is a must when visiting Chiang Mai and is a nice drive or taxi ride up Doi Suthep. The Phu Ping Palace just further up the road is very beautiful as well. It’s pretty easy to spend an afternoon touring around on a motorbike to different waterfalls and viewpoints. A nice break from the city. (3 to 4 hours)
Spend an afternoon touring the Old Town’s hundreds of temples including Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chiang Mun.
A visit to one of the regions reputable elephant sanctuaries is a full day well spent.
Wat Rong Khun is roughly three hours northeast of Chiang Mai city in neighboring Chiang Rai province but it makes a spectacular destination if you wanted to get out and see the Lanna countryside
Chiang Mai works well as either a place to just soak up the atmosphere locally or as a base to explore Northern Thailand from and deserves a much more detailed description which will follow in a future post but, over a short two day stay the above would cover the basics very well.
Day 7 Bangkok
Travel Time: 1 hour 30 minutes flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok (several daily)
The 7th day could either be spent in Chiang Mai with a late flight for a return to Bangkok or an early flight to Bangkok for a one day visit. I love Bangkok and I think an early morning flight back and then visiting at least the city’s historic district would be a must, especially to complete a tour of Thailand’s capitals past and present. The Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho
and Wat Arun with an evening drink on the roof of the Banyan Tree Hotel on Sathorn Road or several on Khao San make for a fine day in Bangkok.
And here I will leave you. Whatever happens after that evening drink is between you and Bangkok.
My Dad put food on the table for four kids and then sent us all through school on his own. He then retired at 51. Boom. Solved the puzzle in record time on genius level and then dropped the mic with a golden handshake from the public service. He’s been retired for half of my life. You could say he has his ducks in order. He sensibly encouraged me to get an education and get a good job in the government. But he actually inspired me in the things that I saw give him enjoyment in life when I was young – slow travel and photography. Going and seeing.
I grew up in Ottawa, but my Dad’s family is from out west in British Columbia. For those who are unfamiliar with Canadian geography, a journey via 1979 Honda Accord (hatchback) from Ottawa to central BC is almost 4,000 km. For Europeans, this is a trip from Lisbon to Minsk and from where I am in Thailand it would be the equivalent of traveling west from Chiang Mai to somewhere northwest of New Delhi. This is a long car ride.
But I learned to love slow travel on these trips. We would take five or six days, camping unless it rained, and sometimes even when it did. Two and a half days of Canadian Shield and Great Lakes then into the Prairies and the great big empty. But not empty, full of grain and the biggest skies I’ve ever seen; I still overemphasize the sky on photographs because of these prairie trips. Then the blue rim of the Rockies would appear on the horizon and we’d be into canyons and passes, up and up and up days after leaving home.
I learned to love the landscape because there was little else to look at in those days; comic books and hockey cards could only wile away so many miles. A lot of the time was spent unintentionally learning what we would call mindfulness these days in the West. On a 4,000 km trip, to think about arriving is to invite madness. So, as the future is off limits to think about and what you drove past looks a lot like what you’re looking at right now, the present view out the window became the focus; the now.
The now of trees and signposts and small towns with weird names wizzing by; lakes and cliffs and then oceans of grain – for hours and hours and day after day watching the landscape change minutely, mile by mile, reading the road atlas, battered and stained, wondering what the next town might be like, what the people who lived there were like, what were down the roads that crossed ours? These are the essential seeds of thought that produce someone who loves to travel and they were planted in me on these epic, annual journeys my Dad took us on.
My Dad would smoke his pipe, we would listen to one of three or four cassettes we had, but usually nothing. Conversations would spark up and flame out but no one felt too much pressure to fill the time with chatter. And occasionally we would stop, my Dad seeing something he liked in the landscape and arranging us in front of a mountain or in front of a lake. He would just take the landscapes as well and, later after we’d return home there would be a slide show on the wall in the living room.
People always complain about slide shows but I used to pull the projector out to look at pictures out of boredom sometimes as a kid; I love slides. My Dad has a good eye and had invested in good gear in the era prior to the instant gratification that modern phones and digital cameras can provide us with. It would sometimes be months between taking the picture and seeing it developed on the wall. But it was worth it. To see an image in the bright, vivid clarity that only a good film exposure developed into a slide can provide and projected on a wall is, to me, the best way to experience photography. The gear helped but Dad is also a very good photographer.
I realised, after I started to really invest time into taking pictures, how much I was trying to recreate the look of the slides from those evenings in the living room as a kid. They were my inspiration when I was shooting landscapes. My Dad’s pictures were my first exposure to what a good image looked like. Thirty years after watching those slideshows, I found that I was subconsciously trying to recreate his style; the clarity and vividness and depth of focus I was going for was to achieve the look he used to get on those shots on those trips out west. Not Ansel Adams or Galen Rowell – my biggest inspiration for the pictures I was taking was my Dad.
This was a big revelation for me. In traveling away from home, I actually got closer to my Dad. In trying to recreate his images maybe we were seeing the world in the same way. My Dad retired at 51 and I currently don’t even own a driver’s license. What he wanted to encourage me to do in life, though eminently reasonable, wasn’t what ended up sticking with me. But what I saw give him joy in life did stick and in pursuing that which he inspired in me I have had the best years of my life.
I am alone in the back of a saungthaew, speeding through the countryside on the way to Surat Thani airport, having decided quickly to go to Bangkok for some reason. Smoking a cigarette out the back, my backpack looped around my ankle to prevent it from falling out and smelling the rice paddies and exhaust as the truck roars down the road and the evening turns to night.
Squatting under a pine tree watching the monsoon smash the ocean with rain in Khao Lak. Feeling like I am alone on the edge of the world. Sitting there for hours as the rain comes and goes, swimming and smoking and watching the world.
Floating in the ocean under a black velvet dome punctured by stars, unable to sleep and so out for a night swim. The moon lights the beach up like an overexposed black and white picture. Looking up at strange constellations, trying to figure out the map of the sky from my new vantage point beneath it.
These are some of the most vivid memories I have of traveling – more than visiting any sight or eating any food. Noumenal experiences burned onto my subconscious for the memory of near perfect freedom each one has left me with. The common thread with them all is that I was alone at the time of each.
I appreciate these moments when they occur more than a younger version of myself might. A young man has probably known nothing but freedom in his life. I first set out at middle age, aware of the freedoms only an open road can provide and after many years of feeling stuck in a career I had fallen into but wasn’t satisfied with. It was an escape that my younger self wouldn’t have relished quite as much.
I travel alone but I am not often lonely. Loneliness does occur though and is a price to pay for the freedoms I enjoy. When I experienced it abroad for the first time it redefined the concept of loneliness. There is being lonely and going through a rough patch in your home country and then there is being alone on the far side of the planet when something goes wrong in your life. But it doesn’t often occur for me and when it has, I have only ever viewed the experience as a transformative one; character building 101.
Another price to pay is that I am always saying goodbye to the friends I make when traveling. I am picky about traveling companions but the ones I do choose to travel with tend to become fast friends. I have particularly good luck with Portugese people for some reason. Anyhow, I am a firm believer that people who can travel together tend to have strong bonds. It is an excellent test of how much you have in common with someone – hit the road with them. So to be forming these types of friendships and then having them end repeatedly can be difficult. It is a true joy to travel with friends, the ideal and it can be very hard to go back to being alone.
But impermanence is the one constant in life and new people will be met, old friendships will be retained, the beat will go on. Those moments of absolute freedom are worth any short term downturn. The ability to experience a place in exactly the way you see fit, to live your life moment to moment, always exactly where you want to be and exactly with whom you wish to be (if anyone at all) is an almost superhuman state of existence. True freedom is a myth, there are always parameters and limits to it; reality dictates that no man is an island. But to come as close as I felt at those times I talked about above and on other occasions is a window into an ideal; a peak into Eden, a bite from the apple.
For me, to have experienced that saungthaew ride, and that storm and that starry night in the ocean were more powerful experiences than walking on the Great Wall or visiting the Colosseum. These moments are the juice of travel for me, or part of it at least. But it would have had to have been quite an accommodating companion to put up with a major u-turn or sitting on a beach in a storm; that person exists but until we cross paths I will gladly go it alone. The freedom is worth it.
Bangkok is the conventional Western way of referring to the capital of Thailand but to Thai people it is Krung Thep or City of Angels. Bangkok is thought to refer to an area of the initial settlement that translates to “Place of Olive Plums” or Bang Makok.
Krung Thep is an extreme truncation of the actual name however. The official place name (the longest in the world in fact) is…*deep breath*:
Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit
The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city (unlike Ayutthaya) of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn.
Yeah. I come from a place that’s named after some dude who happened to live at a popular crossroads. Old man Bell may have been a good guy…who knows? It’s a nice place. Quiet. Good hockey rink in the winter. But a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn it is not.