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…..

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai, Village Celebrations and Ancient Ruins: Part 2 of Thailand and Laos

After a short lived breakfast-time rainstorm, we set off for Ban Na Ton Chan, one of a group of villages participating in a project to promote local crafts.

Mr Noy (literally ‘Shorty’) drove us and Ake across flat agricultural land past fields of cotton, rice, sugar cane and neat trellises bearing dragon fruit cactus, and into Si Satchanalai, the northernmost district of Sukhothai Province. It is a densely populated rural area with almost 100,000 inhabitants though the many dwellings rarely coalesce into recognisable villages; the main town, also called Si Satchanalai, is home to only 6,000. Here, and in several other places we passed what looked carnival floats, a dozen or more of them, brightly coloured  and pumping out music, surrounded by people busy decorating and  organising. 'It is a special Buddhist day,' Ake said. 'They are celebrating the end of the rainy season.' There is nothing particularly Buddhist about changing seasons but, like the Christian adoption of the pagan winter solstice and spring festivals, it was an excuse for a party.
Location of Sukhothai within Thailand
Si Satchanalai and Ban Na Ton Chan are a little to the northeast

The highways were wide and well made, though soon after Si Satchanalai town we turned onto two-lane rural roads which eventually took us to Ban Na Thon Chan. The village, lying to one side of a country road, specialises in cotton weaving but when we arrived there was almost no one about. The cafĂ© owner said everyone was at the temple celebrating the end of the rainy season. Ake made a phone call and while we waited for a volunteer local guide to extract themselves from the celebrations we had a look round the showroom. From the outside it seemed a broken down wooden hut but the inside was well-organised and slickly presented. The clothes - on the small side by European standards – were all cotton, the cloth soft and the colours rich without being garish.
A bespectacled elderly lady arrived to conduct our tour and led us across the road. The first house, like all the others (as we would discover) was empty. A loom sat in the yard and the house had been left open, though the downstairs, part workshop part living-room did not look particularly comfortable.

The loom and house deserted but left open, Ban Na Thon Chan
More appealing was the garden with its abundant fruit trees: pomelo, longan, jackfruit and mango. In the hedgerow we found lemongrass, galangal and spicy basil (a fiery relative of sweet basil). We enquired about a bush bearing the small pea-like vegetables we had encountered in red curries. 'Eggplant,' said Ake though the American word seemed as inappropriate for these as for the purple aubergines we are used to. [They are Solanum Torvum, a native of the Americas, where they are called, among other things, Turkey berries. In English they are usually called pea aubergines, though they are neither peas, nor, strictly speaking, aubergines.]
Lemon grass, spicy basil and galangal, Ban Na Ton Chan
The hedgerows were much more interesting than the weavers' untended looms. Our host pointed out a variety of herbs, some culinary others medicinal. As we walked we pulled off leaves, crushing and smelling them or giving them a chew. I was sorry though that I nibbled the leaf that was described as good for ailments of some organ I have now forgotten. I was warned it was very bitter; by comparison sloes are sweet.

Along the village street, Ban Na Thon Chan

'They don't need money to live here,' said Ake, buying into the rural idyll. 'They have food,' he indicated the fruit trees and the chickens scrabbling in the dirt, 'they have medicine and they make clothes,' he pointed at the hedges and the looms. We nodded wisely though quietly wondering if they knitted their own satellite dishes (every home had one) and hatched their mobile phones from eggs.

The end of the village where we turned right towards the temple
Reaching the end of the village we turned right towards the temple where we discovered the rest of the inhabitants. We were greeted warmly and offered home-made coconut ice cream with a sprinkling of peanuts - it was excellent.

Coconut ice cream, Ban Na Ton Chan
On the grassy area beside the temple trestle tables were covered with food and the ladies of the village were lined up and cooking their specialties.

The village women lined up to cook their specialities, Ban Na Ton Chan
We particularly liked the steamers, hotplates over boiling water on which they placed eggs, noodles, bean sprouts and other vegetable before popping on covers of woven rice straw.
Steamers, Ban Na Ton Chan
The local guide suggested we look at the temple. It was not open but we photographed the decorated end, and then Lynne went back with her to the celebration while I walked to the other end hoping to capture a folksy shot of the children playing.

The Village temple, Ban Na Ton Chan
While failing to do this I was called over by a group of men sitting in a circle on the side of the temple away from the rest of the village.
'What's my name?' the ringleader shouted. 'David,' I answered on the assumption that I had encountered a grammatical error rather than the opening gambit in a guessing game. He replied with his own name and then shouted an instruction to the man sitting by my feet. The rest laughed. These were clearly the village bad boys who had segregated themselves from the prim and respectable for some serious drinking. The man by my foot produced a shot glass and filled it with a colourless oily liquid from a bottle that had once contained water. I am familiar with rice whisky, but they thought I wasn’t, so I played along.

My new drinking buddies, Ban Na Ton Chan
Taking the proffered glass I sniffed it with exaggerated caution and found myself enjoying the sense of expectation among the circle. I had their rapt attention as I held it up to the light and examined it carefully. I sniffed it again, paused, then downed it in one, breathed out and said 'very good.' They had expected a laugh at my expense but had unwittingly challenged me on my specialist subject and their laughter turned into a roar of approval and a round of applause. I thanked them and they motioned that I should sit with them, offering me another drink, water and then food. I declined; they had already seen my party trick and with no language in common they would soon tire of me; besides Lynne might be wondering where I had got to.

I left them with a cheery wave and another 'thank you' which was echoed back with various intonations and much laughter.
Lynne was now talking to the mayor, who had come over to add her welcome, and eating mushrooms and pork from a pot bearing the legend ' Merry Christmas'. Very soon a pair of chop sticks was thrust into my hand along with 'Christmas' mushrooms and a dish of Sukhothai noodles – noodles with green beans, chillies and pork crackling.
Mushrooms and Pork in a Christmas pot, Ban Na Ton Chan
With breakfast a recent memory and lunch lurking on the horizon, I tried not to eat too much, but the food was good and the villagers were extraordinarily welcoming, pressing more and more choice morsels upon us.

Eventually we took our leave. Walking back to the car we encountered the village's oldest resident, a venerable man sitting quietly in the shade outside his house well away from the noisy celebrations. We chatted with his carer, possibly a granddaughter, who said he was a musician and toy maker. He sat in the corner, smiling but silent, and I was beginning to think that was all he was capable of doing but after a request from Ake he picked up his one-string fiddle and proved his fingers were still nimble.

Ban Na Ton Chan's oldest resident is a musician...
As we left he broke his silence saying something quietly to Ake who translated, 'He says you are very lucky to be able to travel the world and meet different people.' He was right and we felt humbled.

...and toy maker

Before leaving Ban Na Ton Chan we dropped into the village museum which explains the process of fermenting their cloth in mud to soften the cotton and enrich the colours. We are both more interested in food and fellowship than fabrics, so felt we had gained far more than we had lost by not seeing the weavers in action.

We bought the toy, and here is our grandson putting it to proper use

We drove back towards Si Satchanalai town, turning off to the city’s historical park. Originally under Khmer control Si Satchanalai (literally the 'city of good men') became the second city of the Sukhothai kingdom – the very first Thai kingdom - around 1250 and was traditionally ruled by the crown Prince of Sukhothai.

Little of the ancient city remains above ground other than temples, of which several groups are extant. The guide book suggests the historical park is busy but we walked through the four temples forming a line from the south-east wall to the city’s central ridge, almost alone.

At the 15th or 16th century Wat Nang Phaya (The Queen’s Temple) a path through the remains of the prayer hall led to the main chedi.

Through the prayer hall to the main chedi, Wat Nang Phaya
Si Satchanalai Historical Park
The temple is noted for its window – a series of slits – on the wall of the prayer hall, which is typical of Sukhothai style and, unusually, retains its original stucco decorations.

The windows with original stucco, Wat Nang Phaya
Si Satchanalai Historical Park
Wat Suan Kaeo Utthayan Yai is a little earlier and is the least well preserved. A line of columns stand before a bell shaped stupa from which the spire has long disappeared.

Wat Suan Kaeo Utthayan Yai and its spireless stupa
Si Satchanalai Historical Park
Behind it the fourteenth century Wat Chedi Jet Thaeo (Temple of the Seven Rows of Stupas) is the largest of this group. The rows of stupas, which may contain the ashes of the kings of Sukhothai….
Part of the seven rows of stupas, Wat Chedi Jet Thaeo
Si Satchanalai Historical Park

….lead up to the large central Chedi.

The main chedi, Wat Chedi Jet Thaeo
Si Satchanalai Historical Park
Wat Chang Lom (Temple Surrounded by Elephants) is fifteenth century. The central chedi is considered particularly fine. According to Dawn Rooney’s ‘Ancient Sukhothai’  it "skillfully amalgamates Sri Lankan and Mon [a people of southern Myanmar] influences with Sukhothai creativity."
With Ake in front of the central chedi, Wat Chang Lom
Si Satchanalai Historical Park
It is surrounded by elephants. Their legs are overlong, and where only the inner brickwork remains they look more like horses…

Looking more like horses...., Wat Chang Lom,
Si Satchanalai Historical Park
…though those in better conditions are clearly elephants.

Clearly an elephant (I think) Wat Chang Lom
Si Satchanalai Historical Park

Four temples felt like enough so we walked back to the car which Shorty had parked beneath an impressive flowering tree.

Shorty's van parked under a magnificent flowering tree, Si Satchanalai
We drove through Si Sanchanalai, the modern town as undistinguished as modern Sukhothai, and back to old Sukhothai were Ake recommended a restaurant for lunch. It was now well after two so we felt capable of eating, Ake was keen to feed us Thai cuisine and anyway the meal was already paid for. Soup with tofu and vegetables followed by green curry and minced pork with holy basil (a distant basil relative, known in India as Tulsi) was probably more than we needed, but it was very good.

After lunch we started our tour of Sukhothai's historical park at the ‘National Museum’ which brings together the best artefacts of the whole kingdom.
Funerary Urn, National Museum, Sukhothai
The museum claims that the Sukhothai kingdom saw the golden age of Thai bronze Buddha images and there were plenty there to justify that claim.

Buddha Image, National Museum, Sukhothai
Outside, the historical park is much bigger and busier than at Si Satchanalai. It was after four o’clock and with little more than an hour’s daylight left we were only going to see the highlights.
Wat Mahathat is a vast complex at the heart of the old city. Built in the 13th century it was continually modified until flooding problems led to the city being abandoned in the 18th century.

There are seated Buddhas….
Seated Buddha, Wat Mahathat, Sukhothai Historical Park
Gardens, Wat Mahathat, Sukhothai Historical Park
…standing Buddhas
Standing Buddha, Wat Mahathat, Sukhothai Historical Park
…more seated Buddhas 
Seated Buddha, Wat Mahathat
…and over 200 chedi, some on their own, others in clumps.
A Group of Chedis, Wat Mahathat, Sukhothai Historical Park
A little to the south is Wat Si Sawai which dates from the days of Khmer rule in the 12th century. Originally a Hindu temple the three prangs, which would look more at home in Cambodia than Thailand, represent the Hindu ‘trinity’ Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu.

Wat Si Sawai, Sukhothai Historical Park
Wat Sa Si sits on two islands in an artificial lake a little north of Mahathat and is reached by a footbridge. The Walking Buddha statue - typical of the Sukhothai style - is a replica, the original is in the museum….

Walking Buddha, Wat Sa Si, Sukhothai Historical Park
The chedi behind the seated Buddha may contain the remains of the 14th century King Li Thai. It is said to show Sri Lankan influence but the many dagobas we saw there (click here and scroll down)had smaller spires and a larger, more hemispherical bases.

Chedi, Wat Sa Si, Sukhothai Historical Park
Leaving the walled city we finished at Wat Phra Phai Luang, which predates the Thai city and may have been the centre of the earlier Khmer city. It was built in the 12th century during the reign of Jayavarman VII, the so-called ‘Leper King’ who built Angkor Thom. It was huge though much is now in ruins….
Ruined chedi, Wat Phra Phai Luang, Sukhothai Historical Park
…but one Khmer prang survives almost intact.

Khmer style prang, Wat Phra Phai Luang, Sukhothai Historical Park
Driving back to the hotel Ake asked if we wanted to go out to eat later. I expected Lynne to feel that we had eaten enough already and left her ample space to express her view. She remained silent so I tentatively suggested going out for a small something. That was my view of the conversation, as we walked to our room I got an earful for ignoring the ‘obvious’ signals and bulldozing her into going out again when she was tired and already stuffed. We will have to agree to disagree on that one
In the event I enjoyed a chicken stir fry with cashews while Lynne ordered crispy sweet and sour fried noodles. ‘But that’s only an hors d’oeuvre,’ she was warned (in those very words). ‘That is all I want,’ she said firmly.
Lynne and a pink iceberg of fried noodles, Sukhothai
My meal was very pleasant and continued to prove to Ake that a) we like Thai food and b) neither of us are averse to a chili or four, which seemed to surprise and delight him. Lynne’s noodles were a huge pink iceberg; like a solid version of candy-floss and almost as sweet, with the colour – and very necessary sourness – supplied by tamarinds. She tried a little bit, then a little bit more and discovered it was extraordinarily moreish and soon (with just a little help from me) the iceberg had become an ice-cube. ‘It was worth coming out just for that,’ she said and peace was declared.


  1. to travel well is to eat well, somebody must have said!

    1. I think it was you, Lucinda, but well said, anyway.