Last weekend was a four day weekend because of the start of Buddhist lent. Devout Buddhists and monks observe this period by praying at temples consistently for three months. This period is also marking by the lighting of large candles which are supposed to burn for the three month period. To celebrate the beginning of Buddhist lent, every school in Thailand has its own parade to present candles to local monks and commemorate the start of the holiday.
For the last couple weeks, I had seen students on campus making giant candles. The candles were about five feet tall and almost a foot thick. Although it kind of seemed overly elaborate to me, many of the students spent what had to be countless hours carving beautiful designs into the candles such as dragons or flowers. I was surprised at how intricate and detailed the designs on the candles were, if only students dedicated themselves the same way to their classes, they might actually learn once in a while.
But anyway, the parade last Thursday started after lunch. Since the school is mostly outdoors with no indoor hallways, I stood with some other teachers near one of the main buildings in anticipation of the coming parade. The parade exceeded my expectations and was much more of a San Franciscan eccentric, burlesque event than I was expecting. Students of all ages came by dressed in colorful costumes celebrating Thailand’s culture as well as its place among the ASEAN nations. Other students dressed in raver-like outfits with neon wigs and bizarre clothes, some even sported Obama masks or Miss Thailand outfits. After the parade ended, there was an assembly in which the giant candles were presented to monks from different temples. I was disappointed to learn that the candles wouldn’t be lit until they were safely transported to their respective temples, so it was somewhat anti-climactic.
The next day was the start of the four-day weekend. So Ben and I decided to go to Sukhothai. Sukhothai, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the site of the ruins of the ancient capital of the Sukhothai Empire (one of several previous empires that spanned Thailand). The ruins are located in the province of Sukhothai, in the capital city sharing the same name as the province. Sukhothai province is nearly in the center of Thailand, southwest of Nan.
One of the teachers was driving to Phitsanulok, another province, for the weekend and offered to drop us off on the way so we wouldn’t have to take the bus all the way to Sukhothai. Phitsanulok is slightly southeast of Sukhothai, so we opted to be dropped off in Uttaradit (east of Sukhothai) in order to take the bus to Sukhothai from there. The car ride to Uttaradit was exhausting. Having slept an insufficient amount the night before, and sitting on the back bench of a truck, it was hard to rest during the mostly windy car ride. However, it was still preferable to taking the bus (and cheaper), and the teacher even bought us breakfast on the way there.
After being dropped off in Uttaradit, we bought a bus ticket to Sukhothai and waited for our bus. Eventually, we were directed to our large two-story bus. Being unsure of how to proceed, I started going up the stairs to the second story before being awkwardly ushered back to the first floor. This would not have been a problem except that the people behind me were crowding me closely, I was wearing my large 75L backpacking backpack, and the people behind me seemed confused and/or wary of letting me back down. As I squeezed my way into the first floor, it turned out the lady who had ushered me there was just another passenger, and the “seats” she had referenced were nothing more than a ledge facing backwards and the aisle between seats. The awkward hilarity of the situation, combined with the stone-faced stares and silences of the other passengers, caused me to start laughing uncontrollably, and I was unable to stop after I saw Ben being ushered in as well to sit on the floor. As the other passengers looked on with distaste, I was finally able to stop laughing and prepare for the (thankfully) short bus trip to Sukhothai.
Upon arriving at the bus station in Sukhothai, we were immediately approached by a man offering us a place to stay at his guesthouse. A guesthouse in Thailand is a cheap form of accommodation, basically a hostel. Although he was a little overbearing, following me as I went to the bathroom, I had read about his guesthouse in a travel book and thus ended up agreeing to check it out. For only 175 baht each a night ($5.44), Ben and I were able to rent a room with air conditioning (an absolute must). The guesthouse was pretty basic; there was a bathroom for both rooms on our floor (although there was no one staying in the other room, so it was just ours), and the bathroom had no plumbing (a toilet that you dump water in to vacuum flush – common in Thailand, and a basin for a sink that simply slowed the backflow of water onto the bathroom floor). There were a bunch of other farangs staying at the guesthouse, which seemed to somewhat validate our choice of accommodation.
After checking in at the guesthouse, it was late afternoon, so we simply decided to explore the city and see the ruins the next day. The city of Sukhothai is split into the new city (the modern part of the city), and the old city (the ruins and the area around the ruins). The new city was pretty unremarkable and unimpressive, but it had a number of street food stands that had menus with English so Ben and I could actually know what food we were consuming for once. After eating at a street food stand, we walked around more of the city before retiring for the night.
The next day we went to old Sukhothai to check out the ruins. Old Sukhothai is about fourteen kilometers from the new city, so it is pretty close. We had heard that there was a 100 baht entrance fee, but we somehow managed to get in without paying (we weren’t trying to do this, it was just very unclear where we were supposed to pay and no one stopped us).
There was a decent amount of other tourists among the ruins of the old city, but it was still pretty amazing. I have seen ruins before, but I have never been to the ruins of a complete ancient city. There were lots of partially destroyed temples, large Buddha statues, stupas and figures scattered around a large area so we were able to walk around most of the city, but also find quieter areas that were not crowded with tourists.
It was blistering hot, and I was wearing my backpacking backpack with all of my stuff because I was too paranoid to leave it at the guesthouse, so I was sweating, a lot…
We stopped in the middle of the day and ate lunch at a small shack within the park where I got som tam (papaya salad – one of my favorite Thai dishes) for 35 baht ($1.08 – a pretty normal price for street food).
Later in the day we went to go see a big Buddha statue at Wat Sri Chum slightly outside the park, where we again somehow avoided a 100 baht fee (not on purpose – I swear!). The big Buddha was very cool; it was posed in a defensive stance against Mara (I believe), so one of its hands was resting on its knee and it had very long fingers. The big Buddha is located within a fairly small room of an outdoor temple, so everyone was very quiet which gave it a much more spiritual feel.
After Wat Sri Chum we tried to find another big Buddha outside the old city but got confused by our horribly inaccurate map and decided to call it a day.
On a random note, since it was the start of Buddhist lent stores were not selling alcohol to my dissatisfaction. Fortunately our hotel was stocked with beer (hotels could still sell beer), and thus I was able to enjoy a refreshing beer at the end of the day anyway.
The next day we decided to find the second big Buddha, and explore more of the surrounding area of the old city. While driving on the road we thought the next Buddha was on, I saw a statue on top of a nearby hill. That statue turned out to be the other big Buddha, which we arrived at shortly after seeing it. There was a cool walk up the small hill on what appeared to be an ancient staircase before getting up to the Buddha.
After seeing the Buddha, we continued on to a series of other ruin sites located around the old city. It was really cool to see these sites, as they were located in more lush, overgrown areas and there were no other tourists there to spoil their serene settings. Near one of the ruin sites I was approached by two incredibly skinny stray dogs that obviously wanted food. Feeling bad, I fed them the rest of my bananas and went on my way. It was bizarre because shortly after leaving them, we noticed a bunch of other identical looking stray dogs in the area – they must have all come from the same litter. This was also in a fairly remote area near the ruins but not near much civilization, so it was sad to see them clearly struggling to find adequate food.
We continued on to more ruin sites before eventually calling it a day and returning to our guesthouse. As we walked around for dinner we stumbled on the night market which was very lively with many vendors selling different food items, clothing, and jewelry. Very surprisingly, we also ran into two other teachers from our program (OEG), that were teaching in Tak (a province west of Sukhothai, bordering Myanmar). It was great to catch up with them and hear how their experience was going. Talking to them also renewed my interest in visiting Myanmar, as they were talking about the border cities. However, they were only in Sukhothai for the day, so we parted ways shortly after wishing each other good luck.
After walking the night market, we settled down at a street food stall, where I got pad sii ew for 40 baht ($1.24). It was far from the best pad sii ew dish I have had, but it still hit the spot. After eating, we returned to the guesthouse for the night.
The next day we were taking the bus from Sukhothai to Nan at 3 pm, so we had a decent amount of time to kill before going to the bus station. The owner of the guesthouse was nice enough to let us stay and use the internet at the guesthouse, so we started planning for our trip this coming weekend to Krabi. One of the employees gave us a ride to the bus station before 3, and helped us find where to buy a ticket. I was sort of annoyed to find out that although the bus was supposedly coming at 3, we couldn’t buy our ticket until 3. I have no idea why policies like this would ever exist, but I have learned to try not to understand the ‘logic’ behind it or get frustrated so I simply sat down and waited. At 3, we bought the tickets for the bus which was 30 minutes late anyway so it all worked out.
The bus back to Nan was about 4 ½ hours. Our driver drove furiously fast, and took the corners as if we were driving an F1 car. It was kind of harrowing to watch through the front windows as our driver passed other buses and cars anywhere possible, including blind corners. The road at the southern part of Nan province is also very windy, and our furious pace through the corners didn’t help settle my stomach. Still, we arrived (alive and unhurt) at Nan at about 8:00, and took the bus back to Tha Wang Pha shortly after. Although the bus and car rides each way were kind of long and windy, it was well worth it to see Sukhothai. I am also glad that I saw Sukhothai before I see Angkor Wat (which I plan to see in the near future), as Angkor Wat should be even more impressive.
Now I am preparing for my trip to Krabi and Koh Lanta this weekend. I will be gone for a whole week so I am very excited to have more vacation time! Until then, sawatdee khrap!