There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 6 November 2015

Bangkok and the Train North: Part 1 of Thailand and Laos


Getting from Swynnerton to our Bangkok hotel took twenty hours. It was a long and tiring journey, but trouble free; both flights left and arrived on time and our luggage made the swift transfer in Frankfurt to arrive with us.  The huge queue at Thai immigration would have been less irritating had we not been quite so tired but once our passports had been duly stamped, we found Ake, our guide for the next three days, waiting patiently outside.

Sukhumvit, Bangkok, by day
The penthouse room at the hotel (by no means our first random upgrade) was comfortable and after a wash and a rest we took a walk to check out dining possibilities in the Sukhumvit area. We had plenty of choice with restaurants representing cuisines as far apart as Korea and Argentina, but the place we choose was uncompromising Thai. Lacking air-conditioning - the tables in the open sided building spilled out onto the street - and with basic d├ęcor, it was not the smartest restaurant in the district, but it was by far the busiest with a mixed western and local clientele.
Sukhumvit, Bangkok, by night

We grabbed the only spare table – it was inside but, mercifully right beneath a fan - and ordered a Thai red curry and fried rice noodles with chicken, green vegetables and egg. The red curry was cooked in coconut milk with chicken, abundant chillies, several quarters of small green aubergine, kaffir lime leaves and an unidentified vegetable the size and colour of a pea, though clearly not a pea [Update 07/11/15 We saw them growing near Sukhothai; they are ‘pea aubergines’]. It was magnificent; as hot as lava, as sweet as coconut and cut through by the citrus flavour of the lime leaves, it was the best red curry I have ever eaten. All this, plus a bottle of beer each, came to a 500 baht (£10).


We took the train north to Phitsanulok then travelled by car to Sukhothai

We slept well considering the time change but had little difficulty rising in time for a seven thirty start for the journey to Bangkok's Hua Lamphong Railway station. It was a short drive, at least in terms of distance, but Bangkok's notorious traffic ensured the journey took most of the allotted hour.

Hua Lamphong Station, Bangkok

We settled in our seats in the air conditioned coach for the five hour journey north to Phitsanulok. The train was designated a 'Special Express', but with only four coaches, it did not look much like an express and for the first hour did not move much like an express either. There are many level crossings in Bangkok and trains do not have priority, being governed by traffic lights like the cars. Our progress was fitful and it took an hour or so to be free of the sprawling city.
Escaping from Bangkok

Once in the countryside the train moved faster, though still stopping at every town, whether large or small.

Ban Ta Khli Station

We travelled through Thailand's central plain; the fields of rice occasionally varied by banana plantations or sugar cane. In the towns, the houses of the prosperous, their cars parked under shady awnings, sat in close proximity to the smaller dwellings of the less well off, some little more than shacks. There were temples too, dozens of them, each in its own compound. All had much the same design whether they were built last year or five hundred years ago but I have no photo, there are enough temples on this blog, and another will pop up before the end of the post.
Thailand's Central Plain

The countryside became more wooded and then low, rugged hills started to appear at first on the eastern horizon, then closer by and with some popping up on the west.

A few low hills started to appear
The service in the air-conditioned first class carriage (mostly occupied by foreigners) was excellent. At ten o'clock a girl appeared pushing a trolley and gave everyone tea or coffee and a cream bun of sorts. At 12 sharp she reappeared with our complimentary lunch; rice, (another) Thai red curry, and 'baby clams with pepper and garlic'. The curry was a shadow of last night's, but it was not bad and, like the rice and curry on the Sri Lankan train to Nuwara Eliya, it put airline catering to shame. The same girl walked through the carriage before each stop calling out the station though I struggled to make her pronunciation fit with the Roman transliterations shown on the signs beneath the more prominent Thai. The Thai alphabet has 44 consonants written from left to right without gaps between the words and 15 vowels which float above, below or to the left or right of the line of consonants. It looks forbidding, but the literacy rate is a reasonably healthy 96%.

Thai Railways, red curry and 'baby clams' 
There were often as many as three people in the cab with the driver - it was easy to see as the cab was at the end of our carriage behind a glass door. There was also the girl with the trolley, a smartly uniformed ticket inspector and a youth who regularly ran up and down the carriage with a brush or wet mop as appropriate. The stations looked well-kept with tubs of flowers and small shrines. On Britain’s accountant ruled railways, stations are strictly functional and often unmanned while service is minimal. In richer countries employing people is expensive which led me to wonder if ‘good service’ is essentially a consequence of disparities in wealth. Five hour train journeys allow time for such musings.
The route ahead (the driver's cab is on the right)

One station appeared also to be a railway museum; derelict equipment lies beside tracks all over the world, but this was old, yet cared for.

Crane built by Thomas Smith and Sons at Rodley near Leeds in the 1920s or 30s
Shortly before two we alighted at Phitsanulok (the 'ph' is more of an aspirated 'p' than an 'f'), the gateway to northern Thailand.

Approaching Phitsanulok
An old engine sits in the square outside the station. I did not know it when I took the picture, but the white minibus just arriving was to be ours for the next three days - an over-large vehicle for the two of us (plus Ake and the driver).
Outside Phitsanulok station

Ake introduced our driver as Mr Noy, which translates as 'short'. The diminutive sixty year old (yes we were given that unnecessary information, too) obviously took immense pride in his vehicle. He sat in a cockpit with more switches and buttons than an airliner, facing an array of gadgets and screens which barely allowed him to look out the windscreen. Sitting in the back we were faced with loudspeakers which could have blown us out of the van if he chose to put them on. There was a Tesco’s cool box (Tesco is big in Thailand) containing cold water for the next few days and above it a sign giving the passcode for his mobile wi-fi.

Shorty at the helm
Decorated panels and mirrors on the walls and ceilings hid artfully contrived strip lights.

Inside Shorty's minibus
Shorty's first task was to drive us a few hundred metres to Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat, usually known simply as Wat Yai (Big Temple).
Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat, (The Big Temple) Phitsanulok
Phitsanulok was once an Ankgorian provincial centre but by the 11th century it had become merely an outpost of the Khmer Empire. In 1238 the Kingdom of Sukhothai, considered the first Thai kingdom, escaped Khmer hegemony and ruled much of what is now Thailand and some surrounding regions from its capital at Sukhothai 50km to the north and our destination for the day.

Phitsanulok was an important city in this kingdom, and was the capital in 1357 when Wat Yai was built. The temple’s main attraction is the Phra Phuttha Chinnarat Buddha image. According to Ake it is solid gold (this was a gold mining area) and is 'the most beautiful Buddha in Thailand and in the whole world.'

It is a seriously revered statue so there are restrictions on how you may dress in its presence. They were mainly concerned with women's skimpy tops and short skirts and, for once, my shorts, were not considered disrespectful; perhaps they make up these rules as they go along. We were also instructed not to photograph the image from a standing position, but as long as we were kneeling or sitting reverently - i.e. with our feet pointing away from the image - we could snap away to our heart's content.
Phra Phuttha Chinnarat Buddha, Phitsanulok
Outside the hall is a Cannonball tree, so called because its inedible fruit looks very like a cannonball. It also has pretty and rather unusual flowers.

Flower on the Cannonball tree
 The Buddha was born beneath such a tree, reached enlightenment under a Bhodi tree and died under a banyan, so all three are considered sacred. The bhodi tree story is universal, the others a little more localised as is the story that the Buddha walked seven steps immediately after his birth, as symbolised by the small Buddha and seven,' stepping stones' beneath the tree.

Juvenile Buddha and his seven stepping stones beneath a cannonball tree

Like most major roads in Thailand, the road to Sukhothai had four lanes, wide hard shoulders and a
smooth surface. We made good time and soon reached New Sukhothai which was built long after the old capital lost its influence and was superseded by Ayutthaya further to the south.

It is a town of no great character and we continued some 15km to the outskirts of Old Sukhothai where we were we would be staying at one of several resort hotels in the area.
Rehydrating at our hotel, Old Sukhothai
As the restaurant specialised in set menus for coach parties we were happy when Ake volunteered Shorty to drive us into the centre of Old Sukhothai where there were plenty of restaurants to choose from, largely patronized by foreigners but still selling good Thai food. Shorty sat in his car doing whatever drivers do when not called upon to drive, while Ake joined us but ate nothing. 'I only ever eat breakfast and lunch,'  he said while sucking at a huge watermelon smoothie.

We shared a plate of pork with ginger (and more than a few chillies) and noodles with chicken and vegetables. Pea aubergines were again prominent. Ake seemed touchingly pleased with our desire to eat local food and strangely impressed with our ability to cope with chillies. 'You eat spicy food,' he said, almost incredulously.

1 comment:

  1. thinking about how pleasing it is for us foreigners to confound expectations or stereotypes (the negative ones, of course) held by the local population