Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Stopping over in sleepy Prachuap Khiri Khan.

It's not in the guidebooks. Well, it wasn't in our guidebook, anyway. Patrick ran across some info online when we were plotting our southern route. Prachuap Khiri Khan is billed as "a nice stopover between Bangkok and Chumphon", and that's probably the most accurate description we've seen of a town in a long while.

Our brief stop turned into three nights. It's the laid-back kind of town where that just happens. We got off the train, we lounged around, we did some planning, we rented bikes and saw some stuff, we played with the guesthouse kittys, and then we got back on the train.

Here is some stuff we saw:

the bay from the north side of town

the bay from the middle inlet

the bay from the south side of town

sweet langur monkeys in the historic park

not-so-sweet monkeys crossing the road 
at Khao Chong Krachok

not-so-sweet monkeys impersonating aht
at Khao Chong Krachok

not-so-sweet monkeys jumping in the Khao Chong Krachok fountain
(it was hilariously adorable)

sweet baby goats doing their baby goat thing

a 60-ton green sandstone memorial to Thai WWII vets

another Buddha cave with a somewhat creepy statue arrangement


gorgeous Wat Ao Noi with its nine-headed dragon

some really cool skies

And that was our stopover.

Food notes: the night market food stalls are good, otherwise we didn't eat anything spectacular. This is a really great place for seafood. If only we liked seafood.

okay, the authentic Tom Yum soup was tasty

but do not eat train station pork and rice

and it's okay to give in -
try the grilled "bread, butter, and condensed milk" treat -
(but don't blame us when your teeth hurt afterward)

Lodging notes: Maggie's Homestay was fine for three nights. Big rooms, fairly clean shared bathrooms, lots of mossies, a handful of cute cats, and pretty gardens.

what 350 baht gets ya in PKK

Allegedly, Prachuap Khiri Kahn is where the Bangkok folks go on holiday but we didn't see much evidence of this. We were happy to spend three nights there and we'd be happy to stop over again on the way back north. But first we have to get south! At long last the island plan has been sorted - via train, then taxi, then overnight ferry. Sooooo not gonna miss these slow travel days...

WWII history and feet-cleaning fish in Kanchanaburi.

We'd decided to go south and we had two ways to get there: through Bangkok or avoiding Bangkok altogether. We opted for the latter and took a slight detour to Kanchanaburi, home of the River Kwai (Khwae) bridge, to learn a little more WWII history.

the obligatory bridge/river shot
(movie buffs should note: this bridge has been rebuilt...
and the movie was filmed in Sri Lanka)

Back in the day Japan decided to build a railway to make their conquest of Burma from Thailand a little more straightforward. A mountain range forms the border between the two countries, but that didn't stop the Japanese from designing a fully functional railway system. All it took was some engineering smarts and hundreds of thousands of POWs and Asian "volunteers" or "employees" (in quotes because they were neither - they were slave labor).

The Thailand-Burma Railway Centre gave a really good overview of the history of the railway. Over 16,000 POWs (38 for each km of track, mostly Australian and Dutch) and 100,000 Asians (mostly Thai and Burmese) died building the tracks. Conditions were awful, work was backbreaking, and food was scarce. Often the dead were buried in or near the work camps, and for whatever reason the Japanese allowed clearly marked graves and burial ceremonies. So after the war a handful of ex-POWs were able to go back and recover almost all the remains in order to bury them properly in what are now beautifully manicured cemeteries.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery (Don Rak)
where 6982 POWs were buried

Chungkai Cemetery just outside of town
where 1750 POWs were buried

Many surviving ex-POWs have donated artifacts to the museum. The exhibits are fairly unbiased (especially considering that it's a western-funded museum) and overall, really well done.  Worth the 120 baht entry!  And The Railway Man is now on our reading wish list.

Anyway. The train system is still operational so we took a day trip on the "Death Railway" to see this engineering feat up close. It's about 2 hours each way to Nam Tok. The scenery was pretty but the visions in our head from the museum were a bit haunting, especially when we got to the steep wooden trestle bridge built parallel to a mountain.

hand-sledged rock

the Wang Po viaduct's 300m trestle bridge

the river

the countryside

Back in Kanchanaburi we also stopped by Wat Tham Khao Poon, home to a labyrinth cave of Buddhas at every turn. Less serene and more flashy than Tham Ting and Tham Phoum in Luang Prabang, but deeper underground - which meant BATS! So cool.

weaving through the walls

one of the prayer rooms

the view from the wat grounds

And we took a day trip to Erawan National Park where we saw a seven-tiered waterfall (allegedly the most photographed in Thailand, used for all the travel brochures) and got our feet cleaned by fish. The falls were pretty but crowded with tourists taking a dip.

the nature trail
(it wasn't that exciting,
but we were the only ones on it)

one of the seven tiers

a quieter spot

The cleaner fish were definitely worth the price of admission though...

it tickled... a lot

almost too much to take

Food notes: with a Tesco and a 7-11 across the street we tried to avoid restaurants as much as possible. The restaurant food we did try was bland, uninspired, and expensive - with a few exceptions:

veggie Tom Yum = YUM

  • Paul's Coffee Shop - amazing sausage, mediocre food
sixteen more, please

Lodging notes: we arrived the night of a festival so all of our top picks were taken. We ended up at a random, large, ranch-style hotel on the main strip whose name escapes us and it's not worth the effort to find it online. It would have been fine if not for the cranky staff and creepy old white men milling about. At 250b/night, though, it worked. (Told you our standards were low these days!) The bazillion frogs in the garden outside and the morning rooster were definitely a bonus.

outside our room

Otherwise, Kanchanaburi itself wasn't really for us. The night market food stalls weren't as intriguing as we'd been led to believe, the town was dusty with stray dogs everywhere, and the percentage of regular tourists to creepy old white men was a bit out of whack.

But the history was interesting and a nice break from ancient ruins. Next nice break: a little beach time! Southern Thailand via a little town called Prachuap Khiri Khan, here we come...

Monday, July 28, 2014

Our ancient ruins triple-header: Sukhothai, Si Satchanalai, and Kamphaeng Phet.

"Sukhothai was a capital of the first kingdom of Siam in the 13th and 14th centuries. A number of notable monuments, which represent a masterpiece of the first Thai architectural style, can be seen in the Historical Park of Sukhothai, Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet. These three sites are representative of the first period of Thai Art and the creation of the first Thai state. The World Heritage Committee inscribed Sukhothai and Associated Cities on the World Heritage List in 1991."

Thanks, park entrance sign at Kamphaeng Phet!

Over three separate days we visited the ruins of at least 50 wats in the Historical Parks of Sukhothia ("sook-oh-tie"), Si Satchanalai ("see satch-an-a-lai") and Kamphaeng Phet ("cam-pang-pet"). We don't want to write about 50 wats any more than you want to read about 50 wats. But we really enjoyed our visits and want to share some highlights, so in the spirit of the Ephesus vs Hierapolis post here's a brief recap of our ancient ruins triple-header.

(We can't begin to do justice to the different architectural styles and blendings of cultures that formed each of these sites - Burmese, Khmer, Thai, Sri Lankan, Indian, we even saw a gate that looked strangely Roman - but ye olde internet has heaps of information on this if you're interested.)

Let's start with the Buddhas since the symbolism is pretty self-explanatory. The 50 wats we visited contained relics of at least 150 Buddhas. Some were pristine, some were reconstructed, some were falling apart (headless, feetless, armless, legless or some combination of those). Some were standing, some were sitting in various poses, some were walking, some were lying down. Some were massive, some were small. Okay, you get the picture. The ones in the forests were our favorites because they were so serene, but the massive ones were pretty amazing too. Here are three of the more massive Buddhas and/or Buddha sites with a little perspective:

Sukhothai's Wat Si Chum
(the hand is as tall as a person)

Si Satchanalai's Wat Suan Keao Utthayan Yai
(small Buddha, giant wat)

Kamphaeng Phet's Wat Phra Non
(stunning giant standing Buddha)

Next up: the elephants. Elephants are very symbolic in Buddhism, particularly white elephants which signify mental strength. (Click here for a story on how the elephant came to be symbolic.) Several wats were adorned around the circumference with elephant sculptures in various stages of destruction/reconstruction. Many had 32-36 elephants around the circumference and a few had almost 70! No matter the state, the carvings were amazing.

Sukhothai's Wat Sorasak

Si Satchanalai's Wat Chang Lom

Kamphaeng Phet's Wat Chang

Moving on to the chedi, or stupa - this is a holy monument where sacred things get buried. In some cases it's monks' ashes, in other cases it's allegedly a piece of Buddha's body (as was also the case with That Luang in Vientiane). Some wats have one chedi, some have multiple, and this one has 33 and an explanation of the different chedi shapes in the photo description. Not sure what the tallest chedi was, but we'd guess on average they were about 12-15 meters high. Architecturally, they're quite amazing. Here are a few of different styles:

Sukhothai's Wat Mahathat

Si Satchanalai's Wat Khao Suwan Khiri
(high up on a hill)

Kamphaeng Phet's Wat Phra That

As far as ambiance, Sukhothai was the biggest and also the busiest. Thankfully we took some online advice and headed for the remote, rustic west side of the park where we only ran into a few people over a few hours before heading back into the mayhem. Similarly, Si Satchanalai (not as big as Sukhothai, but still pretty big) had tour buses milling about the more popular sites but no one in the remote areas. Kamphaeng Phet was the smallest site and definitely our favorite. There were very few tourists and the locals use the peaceful, beautiful park for exercise so we got a lot of friendly "sawadee ka/kop's". Kamphaeng Phet was also the only site to have an entire wat complex, complete with dozens of former monk lodgings and speculative signage on on how/why each house was arranged, which we really had fun exploring until the red ants started reclaiming their territory.

Sukhothai's crowds

a quieter moment at Si Satchanalai

rustic Kamphaeng Phet

And finally, biking around all the sites is the easiest way to see everything. Leave us a comment and tell us which photo gets your vote for best bike spot!

Sukhothai's Wat Sa Si lake

Si Satchanalai's Wat Lak Muang

Kamphaeng Phet's Thirty Thousand well

Ancient ruins masochists can view the full set of pictures from all three sites starting here. Some of the more interesting explanatory text from the signs has also been transcribed for your reading and learning pleasure. (It's verbatim, so have fun...)

The ruins were very different than anything we'd done in Thailand up to this point. We also enjoyed the towns where we stayed. Sukhothai (where we spent four nights as it's a jumping off point to Si Satchalanai) sees a lot of tourists, but many are Thai so it didn't really feel like a tourist town unless we were standing on "Farang Guesthouse Row". The ruins are the big draw there and other areas of town - the Saturday night market (complete with line dancing like we saw in Chiang Rai), the nice ceramics museum (totally empty on a Sunday afternoon), and the nightly food stalls along the main strip - were mostly farang-free.

But Kamphaeng Phet (where we spent three nights just because it's a nice little town) was the clear winner for us. The park itself was so calm and beautiful, but on top of that most tourists day-trip from Sukhothai so they don't get to experience the great night market or the riverfront at night. It was so nice to finally find a town where you could just sit outside and watch life go by, where there wasn't a "Farang Guesthouse Row", where locals looked suprised (but happy) to see you.

Food notes:
  • Sukhothai's Saturday night market is fun, but skip the Sukhothai noodles
(they're sweet, it's weird)

  • Poo Restaurant in Sukhothai is not as amusing as it sounds
it does make a great photo op though

  • the markets around the Sukhothai ruins sell this amazing product
sadly, Patrick did not purchase one
(neither did Jen)

  • Si Satchalanai has some fine cafes along the main road leading into the park
just pick one, the pad thai is same same everywhere

  • Kamphaeng Phet's everyday night market is awesome, but skip the Vietnamese restaurant near Three J Guesthouse if you've recently been to Vietnam and skip Fourest Restaurant in the park unless you want overpriced, bland food

Lodging notes:
  • TR Guesthouse in new Sukhothai - great staff, convenient location, good price
huge colorful airy rooms

  • Three J Guesthouse in Kamphaeng Phet - the most charming place we have stayed in Thailand
it was like a garden resort
in the middle of the city

and Mr Cherin gave us a tour of his farm

his crazy, awesome farm

where we hope to WWOOF someday
instead of just lend a brief hand

Ayutthaya is also on the list, but we're all ancient-ruined out right now so we're going to fast forward from the 8th century to the 20th, detour west and see what this bridge on the River Khwae is all about...