“Old Siam Re-loaded”
Mention Thailand as a holiday destination and most people will think along the lines of idyllic palm-fringed beaches, adrenaline-fuelled nightlife and probably no doubt lady boys. But look a little deeper and this south-east Asian country has far more variety to offer the discerning traveller. Thailand is resplendent with beautiful temples and grand palaces, wonderful scenery, fantastic food, ancient history and extremely welcoming and friendly people. This trip is a return to Thailand which I visited back in 2007 as part of a journey that also encompassed Cambodia and Laos.
A Brief History
The earliest recorded evidence of settlement in the region dates from around 3600 BC, with the development of bronze tools, agricultural advancement and the domestication of animals, resulting in the establishment of communal villages.
From around 500 AD onwards numerous kingdoms would establish domination in the region, ultimately descending into atrophy to make way for the next more dominant power player to supersede them. The Mon Kingdom flourished from the 6th to the 9th century, strongly influenced by Indian cultural and religious beliefs, they introduced Buddhism to their kingdom which still pervades present-day Thailand’s religious landscape. The 10th century would see the emergence of the Khmer Empire of Angkor, which established its influence across a vast swathe of south-east Asia including large areas of modern day Thailand.
The 11th century would herald the arrival of the Thai people who migrated from the southern region of China; the Thai would eventually give their name to the modern day country that was known as Siam until as recently as 1939. By the 13th century the Thai emerged as the dominant players in the region, ultimately overrunning the declining empires of the Mon and the Khmer. The reign of King Ramkhamhaeng (1280-98) saw the introduction of the present day Thai alphabet and the establishment of Theravada Buddhism as the state religion.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in Siam establishing trading posts in the kingdom in the early 16th century. The Portuguese were joined in the early 17th century by the Dutch and the English, who were also eager to establish profitable trading ties with the country. The Europeans were primarily attracted to Siam seeing it as an entrepot for their increased trading possibilities with India and China.
Ascending to the throne of Siam in 1782, King Rama I was the founding father of the Chakri Dynasty, his descendants continues to rule in Thailand up to the present day. One of his first acts was to move the capital city to a small settlement called Bangkok on the east bank of the River Chao Phraya.
Fast forward to the 20th century, on 7th December 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and launched an invasion that swept across south-east Asia. After a brief resistance Thailand was swiftly overrun. The Japanese occupied Thailand until the final stages of World War II in 1945. The second half of the century was blighted politically by a string of unstable governments and military coups. The one constant and stabilizing factor in modern day Thailand today is the peoples love and honour for their royal family, a welcome distraction from the vagaries of unstable government and the omnipresent corrupt politicians.
Any adventure in Thailand invariably begins in the country’s bustling capital Bangkok, a thoroughly modern city with skyscrapers galore, a state of the art airport and brand new motorway connecting the airport to the city centre. The city has a surfeit of incredible attractions to visit, getting around is easy with transportation links such as the modern sky train, river taxis, buses and the ubiquitous tuk tuk.
Bangkok’s star attraction is without doubt the exotic splendour that is the Grand Palace Complex, a breath taking visual experience despite the overpowering number of visitors that it inevitably attracts. Construction of the palace commenced in 1782 when King Rama I ordered a new residence to be built to house the country’s most sacred image, the Emerald Buddha. He also commissioned the construction of a Royal Palace befitting the stature of his new capital city Bangkok. The wonderfully ornate collection of buildings visible today - added to down the years by subsequent monarchs - constitute an arresting display of architectural form and colour. Swooping multi-tiered roof lines, ornamental decorations, brightly coloured exteriors and lavish interior murals collectively define the Thai style of architecture. Within the Grand Palace complex are a vast number of diverse structures; golden domed temples, a monastery, a library, museums, ornate pavilions, beautifully manicured gardens, throne halls and the vast residential palace buildings themselves. Throughout the years a melange of architectural styles have evolved, from traditional Thai, Khmer and Chinese to the more western European architectural forms. Placed liberally around the complex are innumerable golden Buddha images; a plethora of towering mythological creatures decorated with intricate coloured glass mosaics add to the magical experience of this visitation.
Situated on the banks of the Chao Phraya River is another of Bangkok’s magnificent attractions, the 17th century Temple of Dawn (Wat Arun). The temple’s Khmer-style central tower rises to a height of 104 meters, making this building the tallest religious structure in Bangkok. The temple’s design is symbolic of the holy Mount Meru, the abode of the gods in Hindu tradition. Standing around the complex are guardian statues of giant mythological creatures. Bangkok is awash with countless magnificent temples, museums, innumerable retail therapy opportunities as well as many less cerebral attractions, and many days could be spent immersing oneself in the vast array of delights that Bangkok has to offer.
It’s a fourteen-hour transit by overnight train north to Chiang Mai and invariably such rail journeys are always an exciting and interesting experience. This sedate journey throws up endless opportunities to interact with fellow travellers; local Thai’s are inevitably fascinated where visitors to their country have been and the places they propose to visit on their trip. For dinner the dining car serves up a wonderful meal of chicken curry with cashew nuts and rice, fruit and a drink all for the sum of £3, inducing conversations with my fellow travellers of the good old British Rail sandwich. Bedding down for the night the train whisks you through the darkness, you arrive at your destination the following morning feeling refreshed and ready to absorb the sights and sounds of a new location.
Founded in the 13th century, Chiang Mai was the capital of the Lanna Kingdom on the northern border of the country. It rose to prominence as a major trading post along the caravan route between China and Burma. Chiang Mai is a pleasant release from the humidity and hustle and bustle of Bangkok. Touring here is a far more relaxed and laid back experience. As with anywhere in Thailand Chang Mai has its fair share of exquisite temples to visit; there are additionally many retail outlets selling beautiful handcrafts such as textiles, lacquerware and ceramics, with plenty of restaurants and coffee shops in which to take a well - earned break from the rigours of the day. Venture out in the evening and the diverse characteristics of Chiang Mai are on display. Cheek by jowl can be found innumerable restaurants, a vibrant exciting night market and the city’s red light district with its ‘massage’ parlours, where young women encourage your patronage.
Situated about an hours’ drive outside Chiang Mai is the Lanna-style temple of Wat Doi Sutep. Impressively located on the top of a steep hill, the temple grounds are accessed via a funicular lift. A multitude of golden Buddha images surround a giant ornate chedi (relic tower), prayer flags gently flutter, whilst the faithful offer up prayers and the air is redolent with the smell of incense.
Located a 4 hour drive south from Chiang Mai is the ancient city of Si Satchanalai. Founded on the banks of the Yom River in the 13th century, it is a pleasurable experience to wander through this wooded complex, then to turn a corner and be amazed by a picturesque temple or monument. The star attraction here is Wat Chang Lom or Elephant Shrine, which was constructed in 1285 to house the holy relics of the Buddha. Built from dark laterite stone and covered in stucco, the temple gets its name from the thirty nine elephant-shaped laterite buttresses around its perimeter base. The many temples here at Si Satchanalai are stylistically similar architecturally to the monuments found at Angkor in Cambodia, the dark laterite stone employed in their construction makes photography here a challenging experience.
The Sukhothai Historical Park is a treasure trove full to the brim with ancient temples and monuments. The old city was the first capital of Siam which was at the zenith of its power for over 200 years up to the end of the 15th century. Contained inside the old city walls are the ruins of twenty one magnificent temples, a further seventy temples lie within a three mile radius of the old city. Giant Buddha statues gaze out serenely from the elevated platforms of Buddhist temples, in contrasting style closeby can be found typical Khmer style Hindu temples. Hiring a bicycle and cycling around is the ideal way to explore this site, having said that after two hours in the saddle and with the air temperature at 38 degrees, I was melting rapidly. Situated in close proximity, the Ramkhamhaeng National Museum has a fine collection of sculptures, ceramics and other interesting exhibits discovered during the excavation of the old city complex. Quite possibly the highlight of the museum is the chance to luxuriate in its cool air conditioned environment, a welcoming respite from the blistering heat outside.
It may appear that this journey through Thailand is simply a sojourn from one temple to the next, until eventually templed-out, the allure of just lying on a beach and doing nothing seems an extremely attractive option; though obviously not in my case to those of you that know me well. This is far from the reality of this adventure, as the trip is punctuated with off-beat diversions that ironically tend to persist in the memory longer than some of the major attractions. One such detour was an afternoon spent on a converted rice barge gently cruising on the Chao Phraya River. As well as affording the opportunity to escape the heat, the gentle progress of the boat allows plenty of time to observe the local people conducting their business and commuting up and down the river, as well as allowing an insight into the life style of the indigenous river dwellers. The lunch served on board – vegetable soup, stir fried vegetables, chicken, beef, morning glory, beans and a selection of fruit to finish - was probably one of the best meals of the entire holiday.
The ruined ancient city of Ayutthaya was the former capital of the country from the 15th to the 18th century. At its apogee it boasted over two thousand golden temples and a population of one million, today but a tantalizing glimpse remains to suggest its past rich architectural and cultural achievements. A large number of highly picturesque ruined temples, golden Buddha images and the remains of the Grand Palace are spread across a vast area. Built in the late 15th century, the temple Wat Phra Sri Sanphet with its three Sri Lankan style towers is the complex highlight, and as such has become the iconic marketing totem of Ayutthaya. Visiting here in the late afternoon provided a less crowded experience, as well as having the soft sunlight facilitate some evocative photography.
Located 130km west of Bangkok, the town of Kanchanaburi is primarily known as the location of the infamous bridge over the River Kwai. The bridge was a link in the ‘Death Railway’, built during World War II by Allied prisoners of war to connect Thailand with Burma, it was intended to facilitate the transport of supplies to Japan’s rapidly expanding empire. Located close by is the Allied War Cemetery containing the graves of some seven thousand Allied soldiers. Immaculately manicured lawns and colourful flowers add a sense of serenity to this sombre tribute to those who laid down their lives. Along with many heartfelt moving eulogies appended to the headstones, one particularly moving inscription on the grave of a soldier barely in his twenties read, “Too far away your grave to see, but not too far to think of thee RIP”.
Our accommodation for the next couple of days consisted of a complex of floating raft houses moored together on the River Kwai itself and surrounded by jungle. Constructed from bamboo and rattan - there was no electricity, no air conditioning, no Wi-Fi and only cold showers – the idyllic location and rustic charm made this a chill out stopover. The next couple of days involved some rest and relaxation; dinner by candlelight on a floating pontoon, catching forty-winks in a hammock, having a full body massage and gently gliding down river on a bamboo raft.
The last day of this wonderful trip was spent back in Bangkok, a chance to visit a few sites that had evaded my itinerary at the start. Once again the highlight turned out not to be a renowned landmark much vaunted in a guide book, but a chance encounter stumbled upon when I took a wrong turning. The Thai Rice Fair is a street show for purveyors of a multitude of different rice crop varieties, as well as a vast selection of food and beverage products derived from rice. Thailand is the world’s premier rice exporter earning in excess of US$2 billion annually. As part of the show there was a stage set up with performances of Thai dancing and music. The kaleidoscope of rhythmic sounds and colourful costumes was a magical experience; sitting in the warm sunshine with a cool drink and luxuriating in the serendipity that gifted me this opportunity was a fitting finale to this fantastic trip.
As well as rice, which is a staple part of Thai cuisine, Thailand’s agricultural industry grows mango, papaya, kapok and lemongrass for the world market. Thailand also boasts an impressive 41 species of bamboo whose uses encapsulate everything from house building to tourist trinkets.
Our last meal of this trip was by far the best and in the most spectacular of settings. The Baiyoke Sky Hotel is Thailand’s tallest building and is situated in the heart of Bangkok’s tourist catchment area. The hotels extremely up market restaurant is situated on the 78th floor, with views across the city to take your breath away. The cuisine was eclectic, a wonderful buffet selection where you can eat and drink as much as you like whilst rubbing shoulders with the well to do people of Bangkok. Once you have had your fill of food and drink there is the opportunity to go up to the 84th floor where there is a revolving viewing platform with 360 degree views of the city.
As a travel destination Thailand has a wide spectrum of experiences to offer any visitor. Whether it’s a penchant for the adventure described here appealing to the discerning culture vulture, or the hedonistic sun, sea and sand experience for the beach aficionado, Thailand has it all in abundance. Add to the mix great food, ample retail therapy opportunities and fantastic weather, and you have a destination that delivers in every department.