Old Sukhothai- Back in Time- 2013
Updated: Jan 4
Timing is everything in life and especially when you travel.
Although we love Bangkok - it is one of favourite cities - after a four-night stay, we were ready to leave behind its polluted noisy frenetic pace– city of angels with devilishly dirty canals.
We were booked 2nd class express air con train north but were dismayed when our train pulled into the station. More like a worn out subway car, cramped seats for our long legs; the journey north was not the pleasant experience we'd enviesioned.
Eight long hours on – and 2 hours late- we arrived in Phitsanulok, still another couple hours travel ahead of us. First, a TukTuk (the souped up golf carts) to a bus station, a mini van for a one-hour trip to new Sukhothai City, then after protracted negotiations, a Songtheaw (pick-up truck taxi) to the Orchid Hibiscus, a charming small guest resort managed by this trip's second congenial Italian proprietor Paolo (the first being Guido in Amman).
With his surprisingly strong Italian accent, Paolo stated our timing was impeccable as the old city was playing host to a Festival of Lights the very next day in honour of King Ramkhamhaeng, noteworthy as the founder of the modern-day Thai alphabet and Theravada Buddhism; it was truly an auspicious occasion.
Dawn broke clear and bright, a cacophony of birds cawing in the jungle, so we thought. Upon further inspection, we discovered a collection of exotic birds in large cages situated near our room – hence the early morning serenade. Rather distressing to see rare hornbills caged within; one hopped over to me and complained bitterly about his fate.
Bikes were conveniently available for rent directly across the street from our guest house for $2.50/da,y so Elaine and I booked a couple for our two-day stay, then rode into town where we scored fresh fruit from the local farmer’s market to tide us over before breakfast.
We noticed an island temple off the road; locking up our bikes we crossed the wooden foot bridge to explore our first over many area Thai temple. We were alone as it was still very early; we encountered other fellow travellers once we passed through the walls of ancient Sukhothai ($5 entrance fee) a short bike ride away.
The site was abuzz with preparations for the big event: staging, lighting, audio and video equipment being assembled; food and trinket vendors, sponsors booths being stocked, banners and lights were being strung. Clearly, we must return that evening to take in the excitement.
While unlocking our bikes outside of one of the magnificent 800 year old temples on the ancient site, Elaine shoutedt: “Elephants!” Two gigantic pachyderms, bedecked in sequins, a Mahout perched atop. They came right up to us, but weren’t stopping for photos, so we traced their progress with our bikes as they silently lumbered toward their hut about 400 metres away. We captured images of the great beasts being disrobed and fed by their handlers.
Later that night, these elephants, plus one more, would reenact a great battle that looms large in the annals of Sukhothai’s history.
We spent an enchanting morning exploring Sukhothai's temples, magnificent Buddha statuary and chedis, until the temperature became unbearably hot. The site was absolutely stunning- read up on Sukhothai at the UNESCO World Heritage web site.
Returning to our guesthouse after a delicious, cheap western style breakfast in the small town outside the temple walls, we spent the afternoon lounging in one of the two Thai-style open bungalows adjacent to the resort pool until it was time to depart for the festival.
Still jet lagged from our long vanishing Act from Canada, which continued to torment us despite arriving in Bangkok five days previous, we enjoyed some down time by the pool.
Feeling wonderfully rejuvenated after several hours of much-needed R & R, we hopped on our bikes in the hopes of touring the old ancient at sunset. As we biked toward a cluster of small cafes and food stalls near the gates of the old City, we unwittingly became caught up in a large procession, led by elephants decorated in full regalia. The parade included a life-size Buddha on a pedestal followed by hundreds of Thais, young and old, dressed in elaborate silk traditional outfits.
The street and sidewalks were jammed with people as we negotiated our way, careful to not run over anyone’s foot with our tires, also not to be mowed down ourselves. Finally we made it up to the old city gates. The site was in full on festival mode, a large stage near the statue of the hero king was filled with dignitaries who watched the procession.
The ancient ruins were lit up for the occasion, and entire scene formed a palette of sound and light invigorated all our senses. We peddled through the largely empty site as the sun slipped behind palm trees. A sense of calm and peace prevailed; we felt imbued with the spiritual magic of Buddhism.
We wheeled back toward the main plaza where we learned a reenactment of a famous battle was about to begin; perfect timing! Enter stage right and stage left: swarms of sword wielding warriors battling for the hearts and minds of Sukhothai (so we gathered as we could not decipher the Thai narration blaring over loudspeakers).
Next, enter elephants in battle regalia, as the mêlée raged on. The whole affair was very impressive; the crowd ate it up.
Hundreds of awe-inspiring Khom Loi (sky lanterns) were released into the night sky and appeared to float toward the moon, perhaps led by the hand of Buddha. Fireworks blasted nearby, and the throng was encouraged to march under the elephants’ upraised tusks, which formed an arch for good luck; of course we had to follow tradition.
After our minds were satiated with all the excitement, we filled our bellies with a generous and inexpensive meal of local noodles and other treats in the temporary night market, and then shopped in the instant open-air mall filled with handicraft and clothing boutiques. Elaine ducked back in to the vendor area to fetch some freshly made rice crackers drizzled with brown sugar syrup, while I ensconced myself next to two baby elephants in the care of a couple of young Thai boys who were selling small bags of sugar cane for 20 baht (about $1), which they proceeded to feed their charges.
The sounds of Thai boxing (Muay Thai) and the rhythmic drumming of the boxing musicians, mingling with singing actors reenacting the stages of the Buddha’s life, all set within the ancient royal stuppas, chedis and giant Buddhas of the old city of Sukhothai- a symphony of other worldliness and magic.
This was why we traveled – to feed our minds and our souls (and our bellies!) so that we felt fully alive and appreciative of this amazing and wonderful world we live in.
And we still had another 3 and a-half months to go.