Thailand is a multifaceted country where old traditions blend with modern technology, and each has its own place in the culture. As we traveled north from the River Kwai, we were immersed in the breadbasket of Thailand. Rice and salt fields spread out like sheets on your bed as far as the eye could see; no vertical relief in sight. Every few miles we passed through a small town with pleasant parks and the requisite temple or an exotic mosaic spirit house. Theravada Buddhism influences much of the daily life of the Thai people.
We stopped at a sustainable farm where chicken coops balanced over catfish ponds. The chickens pooped in the water from which the catfish feasted and were fattened up for the local restaurants. What could be more perfect? Vegetables and flowers were planted along the edge of the ponds for feeding the bodies and souls of the farmers. Located along the rear of the property, frogs were grown in large concrete vats along side patches of rice fields. The extended family lived in several homes dotted throughout the grounds and everyone from grandpa to grandson worked to maintain the farm and provide an affordable lifestyle.
By the afternoon we reached Sukhothai, which was once the capital of Thailand and home to a large collection of historic ruins. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city’s cache of well-preserved shrines, temples and palaces epitomizes old Siam. The current historical park site has 193 ruins covering approximately 28 square miles. We wandered down many pathways under huge shade trees and around lakes with a variety of birds enjoying the cool waters. The enormous statues with their meticulous carvings were breathtaking. We continued to be enthralled by the skill that the ancient artisans were able to achieve hundreds of years ago.
Traveling ever northward, we stopped at an outdoor market where bamboo, stuffed with either sweet or savory fillings, was roasting over an outdoor brazier for locals to purchase for their breakfast or lunch. Our guide purchased several varieties for us to taste…yummy! We visited a bamboo chop stick “factory,” whose antiquated equipment and teams of workers, turned out thousands of their product for export to other Asian countries. We stopped to see a Burmese-style Buddha, likely more than 200 feet long and resting comfortably on top of a temple, sporting exotic eye lashes and pink toe nails!
Taking in the local culture, there is always something mind-boggling at every turn in the road. Such as rats hanging from an outdoor umbrella that were available for purchase as an evening meal, while another roadside stand offered every imaginable farm tool. And so on it went.
We journeyed on to Chaing Rai, which is located in the notorious area known as the “Golden Triangle” where Thailand converges with Laos and Myanmar (formerly Burma) and borders the watery union of the Ruak and mighty Mekong rivers. As a watery highway, the Mekong is a bustling thoroughfare for moving goods from China through Laos, Thailand and Cambodia to the China Sea thousands of miles away. An interesting fact: in the 1920s, the CIA named this area the Golden Triangle because it was the main producer of the world’s opium, that is, until Afghanistan took over the notorious distinction at the beginning of the 21st century.
The Golden Pine Resort was our home base as we headed for the small village of Mae Salong, home of two semi-nomadic tribes, the Long Neck and Long Ears. They have their own language and distinctive customs that are very different from most of Thailand. We walked through their village where they offered their unique and custom-made artifacts for sale. Tourism has become a more profitable and a safe alternative to drug smuggling. The people were friendly and the children adorable. They jumped behind us and pushed our behinds up the steep slopes in order to get a small stipend for their efforts. So creative…
After leaving Chaing Rai, our early morning stop was the stunning Wat Rong Khun or White Temple, a contemporary, unconventional, privately owned art exhibit in the style of a Buddhist temple. The architect, Chalermhai, spent 40 million Thai baht (approx. $1.1 million US) of his own money on the project, which is not a temple but a center for learning and meditation. He hopes that this offering to Buddha will earn him a place in heaven. In any case, the buildings are magnificent and in some ways a little frightening with underworld characters aligning with more traditional sculpture and art. There is a constant bevy of interns, who work for little or no pay, on the project not slated to be finished until 2070.
We arrived in Chaing Mai in the afternoon, and after settling into a nice hotel, we set out to find a good place for dinner in the well-known Night Bazaar. A nightly occurrence, his maze of outdoor shops was jam-packed with people shopping for every imaginable household item, food, clothing and “you- name- it.” Look hard enough, you could probably find it. We literally held hands to keep from being separated. Crazeeeeee…
The next morning was our long-anticipated trip to the Maetaman Elephant Camp. The Thai people have long used elephants as their beasts of burden but modern equipment on the farms has replaced these beautiful animals and they now need to be protected. Tourism has been a boon to both the survival of these elephants and their owners as they can afford to be housed and fed. In addition to a wonderful hour-long ride through the jungle on these giant beasts, we made paper from elephant poop and we saw a circus-like show where they performed. I had mixed feelings about whether this was in the best interest of the elephants but reality says this is the way it is. A final float trip down the Maetaman River on a bamboo raft was a lovely ending for a busy day.
Our last day in Chiang Rai included a pre-dawn “presenting of alms” which consisted of bringing food to a spot near a temple for the young men who were studying to be monks. Many Thai youths study for 6 months to a year as a means of honoring Buddha without any intention of becoming a full-fledged monk. Most folks in Thailand bring food on a regular basis, or alternatively, to celebrate a special event.
Next we visited the Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep by entering and walking up a flight of 306 steps flanked by snarling naga serpents (Serpent King mentioned in Buddhist folklore. One could take a cable car but what is the fun in that? Once again we enjoyed the beautiful art and architecture that we have seen throughout Thailand. The view of the City of Chiang Mai from the temple patios gave us a bird’s eye view of the local area.
We ended our excursion in northern Thailand and returned to Bangkok before flying to Phenom Phen in Cambodia. We paid a visit to Wat Po where we saw the huge reclining gold Buddha approximately 150 feet in length. The temple was also the earliest center for public education in Thailand, and houses a school of Thai medicine. It is known as the birthplace of traditional Thai massage which is still taught and practiced at the temple.
We also saw Wat Trimitr which houses the world’s largest seated gold Buddha measuring nearly 16 feet in height and weighing five and a half tons. In the past, artisans crafted the Buddhas in gold and disguised them from invading armies with a covering of stucco and plaster. Paying respect to the beautiful Phra Sukhothai Trimitr is believed to give a worshiper an auspicious life.
I have neglected to mention how fantastic the cuisine was. Rice and noodles was the mainstay of the meal but each dish was unique due to the variety of meats and local vegetables. Every area had a way to incorporate local products, especially spices. And just in case we did grow tired of Thai food, there were lots of American chain restaurants such as Pizza Hut, KFC or McDonald’s. We found several outstanding ice cream shops that were always popular with our group.
Although leaving Thailand was not easy, we were looking forward to seeing Cambodia and one of the most famous ruins in the world, Angkor Wat. Our trusty magic carpet was waiting for us, fueled, restocked, and ready to carry us to our next adventure.
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. Marcel Proust