Exploration of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya temples
Sukhothai and Ayutthaya are two ancient capitals of Siam (Thailand) where more or less well preserved vestiges can still be found and explored. Ayutthaya is located only 85 kilometres from Bangkok while Sukhothai (also known as Dawn of Happiness) lies further North, 5 hours by bus from the city of Chiangmai. The bike ride in these two protected historical sites allowed me to explore beautiful temples, some of them dating from the thirteenth century. One literally travels back in time imagining what these opulent cities would have looked like moving around the various palaces, statues and buddha faces
If you've been to Thailand, you've probably already seen this picture that can be found on many postcards and guidebooks. In Ayutthaya, in the grounds of Wat Mahathat temple dating from the fourteenth century stands a fig tree whose roots envelop a Buddha's head. This sight is rather surprising since the head of the Buddha seems almost to be part of the tree itself. It is said that after the invasion of the Burmese army the temple was abandoned for many years. The tree would have simply grown up around the head during this period.
Wat Sa Si is located in the middle of a lake. The particular location of this temple is one of the most beautiful places in Sukhothai. This is one of the first temples I could see as I was entering the ramparts of the old city in the early morning not to be confronted to the big groups of tourists. As the sun rises, the stones of the temple take a very bright orange colour.
The peculiarity of Wat Si Chum is undoubtedly its giant Buddha named Phra Achana and measuring more than 15 meters high. I spent about an hour admiring the Buddha, amazed by its sheer size. Many children went at the bottom of the statue and I was very surprised to see that the hand of the statue was so much bigger than them!
The place has been damaged a lot by war and time. Over the years many buddha's heads have been stolen which adds on to the mysterious aspects of its remains!
The Mae Hong Son Circuit
The Mae Hong Son loop is a popular route in North Thailand. I had the opportunity to travel these 600 kilometres by motorbike over 5 days. This circuit allows people to explore the most mountainous province of the country and discover the most authentic aspect of the country away from the tourist crowds encountered in places like Chiang Mai. The numerous temples, caves and waterfalls found on the road make the exploration of this region particularly exciting.
One of the first halts can be done in Mae Sariang, a charming little town. The setting is very pleasant indeed with endless tea fields and rice paddies dominated by towering mountains. It is really worth it to stay there at least half a day to soak up the beautiful scenery. It is possible to climb the surrounding peaks that are home to magnificent temples overlooking the valley. On top of a mountain is a statue of a rather impressive giant Buddha who seems to watch over the town.
En route to Mae Hong Son, the city that gave the name to this circuit, I made an accidental detour. In no time I found myself on top of a mountain with a beautiful view over some fields and hills.
In Mae Hong Son, I met Nathalie, a French girl living in Canada who left for a long trip around Asia. I asked her to join me and I continued my adventure in northern Thailand with her. We left our backpacks at the hostel and we decided to go to visit a village inhabited by the Padaung, an ethnic minority from Burma, whose women wear a huge spiral collar around their neck. The road was not bad at all but at some point we ended up in front of a stream crossing the road. I crossed it without taking any special care and I felt the bike slip, we were on the verge of falling. A few meters further, another stream was flowing across the road. This time I focused so much not to fall that I did not see the huge elephant dung that was on the road a couple of meters further! We crossed without difficulty when suddenly I saw the elephant dung, I applied the brakes, completely lost control and the motorbike went into a skid. The fall was brutal and a little painful, but fortunately none of us got injured and we managed to get back on the bike. Markus, my traveling companion in Laos had told me that in Asia anyone who get on a motorbike fall a least once. I did not escape the rule but after all it is not every day that you made a slip on an elephant dung! It was not really worth it though as the long necks village turned out to be a pure tourist attraction worth no interest and which we do not recommend the visit. However, much more enjoyable was the visit of Ban Rak Thai which is a charming Chinese little town with just 800 inhabitants, located two steps – literally! - to the Burmese border.
Pai is definitely the most touristic city of this circuit. Indeed the town is a popular base for exploring the natural attractions of the region. A significant population of Western hippy backpackers and Thais rastas live in Pai. So you can imagine that this is not really a traditional place but the atmosphere remains relaxed in Pai and one can easily end up spending several days or even several weeks there.
The area is known for its numerous mountains and rivers. Many waterfalls can be found near Pai as well as many hot springs. Sai Ngam hot spring is supposed to be a "secret" hot spring mostly visited by locals but with the word of mouth it seems to attract more and more tourists. The setting remains idyllic in the forest, we could bask for hours in the transparent water of this hot spring.
55 km away from Pai is Tham Lot cave which is actually a series of three caves that can be visited on a raft accompanied by a local guide. These caves are rather impressive and one of them is home to old teak coffins. Tham Lot cave is often photographed because it is recognized as the largest cave opening in South East Asia. In the evening you can see - hear and feel! - thousands of bats flying out of the cave. The show is stunning!
Finally, the best place to admire the sunset over the surrounding mountains is probably the top of Pai Canyon. The views on the forest and surrounding countryside are spectacular. This is where we spent the last night of our short stay in Pai, the last stop on the circuit before returning to Chiangmai.
Roadtrip Bangkok / Krabi / Koh Phangan
Another highlight of my time in Thailand was the week I spent with Max, one of my best friends from Australia who joined me in my journey at the beginning of March. We traveled by bus in the Southern part of the country. Before that we met in Bangkok. Our reunion somewhat surreal took place around two buckets filled with vodka and a plater of grilled scorpions.
During our two days in Bangkok we still took time to visit the capital's numerous temples, its markets but also the Great Palace at the heart of Bangkok. The Grand Palace which has been used as the kings' residence since 1782 is the most visited monument of Thailand and rightly so. The vast palace is in fact composed of a large number of monuments, halls, courtyards and gardens. Although the palace opens its doors to tourists it is still a monarchic monument used for ceremonies and in which many royal offices can still be found.
A night bus took us to the South of the country in the small town of Krabi, which houses one of the most famous temple in southern Thailand: Tiger temple. It is not so much the tiger's track at the top of the mountain that we remember today but the 1237 steps that we had to climb to reach the temple. Max would have killed me that day but I can tell you that our effort were definitely worth it, the views from the top of this mountain are just phenomenal.
From Krabie it is possible to go to Rai Leh beach by boat. This beautiful peninsula is extremely touristy attracting climbers from around the world who come to climb its amazing limestone rocks. There are several beaches including Phra Nang which was once part of a list of the ten most beautiful beaches in the world.
We spent a whole afternoon relaxing on the beach after a very challenging walk in the jungle.
The last stage of our short stay in southern Thailand led us to Koh Phangan island. You have certainly all heard about this island also known as the full Moon island, a monthly party that attracts thousands of backpackers from around the world on Haad Rin beach. To be honest I can't remember much of our Full Moon party night though I had the great pleasure to see Esther, a close friend of mine from London who came to Hong Kong just for that evening.
Anyway what I will remember the most from Koh Phangan it is the island's secluded beaches (yes, there are!) and our beautiful motorcycle rides within the island. We also admired some really incredible sunsets.