Monday, 13 September 2010

Sukhothia and Si Satchanalai

Tuesday 31 August: From Phitsanulok station a lovely lady peddles me two miles to the bus station for a local fan-cooled bus (67th mode of transport) to Sukhothai. You can tell from the river level just how much it's been raining here - the water is above the bridge spans, which are backed-up with debris, and just inches below the river parapet. Homes, some on stilts, are a several feet below that.
I opt for a lovely bright and spacious (upstairs) room in the teak-built Garden House, near the river, in the new part of Sukhothia.
After dinner, an e-mail warning from my friends at the Foreign Office reads:
"Indonesia . . . volcanic eruption - Mount Sinabung, 40 miles west of Sumatra's main city Medan, erupted on 29 August 2010 after lying dormant for 400 years".
I can't wait to get there but it's still Ramadan and travel is difficult in Muslim countries this lunar month. It will be a while before I see my first active volcano.
Wednesday 1 September: for 200 years, from 1238 to 1438, Sukhothai was the capital city of the first Kingdom of Siam and I jump on the back of a truck to take me to the old city. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sukhothia Historical Park is an extraordinary place.
Hiring a red cycle for the day, I grab a map and I'm off. I start with the central group of temples - walled and moated, Wat Mahathat is the largest with nearly 200
chedi and a range of Buddhas, including an exquisite gold finger-nailed sitting Buddha - next is Wat Sa Si, or Sacred Pond Temple, beautifully set on a lake island with it's own little lake within the island - Wat Traphang is just a small Chedi set on the banks of a moat filled with crimson lotus blossoms - Wat Sri Sawai's three Khmer-style towers dominate the skyline.
Hunger forces me to stop for a quick lunch of tasty red pork and rice, then I'm off again - this time to the northern group. Tiny Wat Sorasak is ringed with elephants - massive and moated Wat Phra Phal Luang towers above me - the Buddha at Wat Sri Chum seems to watch you approach, he has an elegant hand and tapered golden fingers. Now it's serious cycling to the western group which are mostly in ruins but Wat Sa Phan Hin, three miles out, is worth a stop and I climb to the wooded hill-top and take-in the view.
Thursday 2: More wats today, but this time with a blue cycle, to see the eastern group - moated Wat Traphang Thong, now a living temple, has been rebuilt and houses an important relic, Buddha's footprint - Wat Chang Lom is another bell-shaped chedi circled with thirty-six elephants. In need of a wat-break, Ramkhamhaeng National Museum brings the whole city together with treasures unearthed from all over the site including a blue-glaze figurine in a bowl shouldering a child.
Back on my bike, it's a pleasant countryside ride to the southern group and Wat Chetuphon to see what remains of the walking and standing Buddhas - but where are his feet?
I end my day, as always, sipping Chang beer in the Chopper Bar where music plays nightly and there are views over the town, my sort of place - and the only bar in town.
Friday 3: I'm on a minibus for a day trip, 30-miles north to Sukhothia's sister city of Si Satchanalai, also part of the World Heritage Site, and yes, another map and cycle - a black one this time.
Some of the bridge slats are missing so it starts with a daunting ride over the Yom River to Phra Si Ratana Mahathat with it's huge tower, ruined chedi, sitting and standing Buddhas. Nearby is Wat Chao Chan with a much smaller Khmer-style tower. A few miles west along the river is the main site - steps lead up to the wooded hill-top Wat Khao Phanom Phloeng with a seated Buddha - below Wat Chang Lom is another bell-shaped chedi but ringed with elephants - Wat Chedi Ched Thaeo has seven rows of chedi - and lastly Wat Nang Phaya is another bell-shaped chedi. The countryside ride back is pleasant with waving farm-workers at the end.
Back on the main road the cycle owner promises to flag a bus down for me - to look after me, he says. It's a huge Scania double-decker with soft reclining seats (68th mode) and it's a few bhat cheaper than the minibus, nice man.
Photographs of Sukhothia and also Si Satchanalai.

Next day, truck to the bus station - bus to Phitsanulok - pedicab to the train station - 8:59am Rapid Train (fortunately it arrives at 9:45am) to Ayutthaya - foot-ferry across to the island, Siam's second capital city, old Ayutthaya.

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