Sukothai On Wheels – A Travelogue By Punam Mohandas
I set off for Sukothai completely on a whim. Living in the chaotic city of Bangkok with its glittering skyline and pulsating nightlife, the thought criss-crossed my mind vaguely that it might be kinda fun to check out what the erstwhile capital of the Kingdom of Siam looked like. With me, to think is usually to act (!) and the next thing I knew, I was poring over timetables on how to get there. Well of course, it IS possible to fly there seeing as how Sukothai has an airport – but flying takes all the fun out of travel don’t you think…the kind of fun you get from the sights and smells along the way and interesting companions at times.
As things turned out, I had a rather large-sized companion whose butt would keep spilling over into my seat! Thankfully, she was asleep most of the way. I had decided against travelling by train, as my trusty pal Google informed me I would have to switch to a bus anyway at a place called Phitsanulok. It all sounded too complicated and I just hoofed it to Mochit Bus Terminal and picked up a ticket (one-way) for 370-baht.
I’m impressed – we leave it 8.04am, only four minutes off schedule! Good thing I’d stopped by a couple of days before to buy my ticket as the bus was full and I was the only token farang on it; I had no idea so many people head to Sukothai ! Aside from the over-sized companion, the ticket also provided for a bottle of water, a muffin, and lunch. Lunch of course is always a welcome idea, but not if I have to have it at 10.30am which is when we made our pit stop! Everybody else tucked in quite happily and I must say it’s a jolly good spread to be included in the ticket price, with four main courses, rice and a choice of beverages.
And so, armed now with a mid-sized bottle of Fanta – which was more to appease the distressed lady at the counter who found I wasn’t taking enough advantage of my meal ticket – and of course, enough munchies, I settle back in my seat. Say – have you ever noticed how many snackies we manage to get through on journeys? I have to say, at a 90-degree recline angle, the seat is far more comfortable than an airline seat would have been.
Not a very good idea after all to travel by bus during the day on this particular route and next time I will probably do a night journey as the landscape is unprepossessing; arid and drab. Don’t get me wrong – lotsa green trees abound, but even they seem to sag like listless props in this blistering dry heat. The soothing gentle murmur of the lady behind me talking to her companion pretty soon lulls me into sleep…I have never really understood how the Thais talk so softly and yet manage to get themselves heard by the other party.
A little more than five hours later, we roll into Sukothai. I am staying at the Sukothai Heritage Resort and so I stay put on the bus, as the hotel staff have warned me to get off at Sri Samroung, which is a further 30- minutes away. Boy…as we trundle along, I am put in mind of those western cowboy novels where Sudden rides into this dusty town which looks abandoned and desolate. Not a leaf stirs…there is no sign of life. I have absolutely no clue where the half dozen passengers who got off at various points have vanished to – it’s like they were swallowed up by the dust whorls. Either these people follow the Sabbath strictly, or…
We reach Sri Samroung at precisely 2pm, six hours to the time we left Bangkok. Viva for Wintour’s bus service, however, I am the only person to get off here and I have no idea what to do next. No taxi, no songtaew, no local bus to be seen. I call the hotel four times in a row and nobody answers. Is this the norm for a Sunday here or is it just coz it’s Sukothai?! I’ve already turned an interesting shade of red-brown standing around for ten minutes in this open-air oven and, without further ado, I grab the only motorcycle taxi guy I see, who is sweet enough to lug my suitcase up in front of him balanced precariously across his thighs. Thus interestingly seated, we set off to find this blasted hotel which seems blithely unaware of the fact that it is about to receive a very irate woman! A couple of hits ‘n’ misses later – which is largely due to the fact that almost everybody has either ‘Sukothai’ ‘Resort’ or ‘Heritage’ bunged into their name, but not all three key words in a row (like playing Scrabble, this!) we finally arrive at the right place.
I pay the mobike guy 200 baht and storm into the Reception area. Sure enough, the ladies have been caught napping (read, chatting) and haven’t paid attention to the phone. Getting to my room finally, I crash out in air-conditioned relief for the next hour.
Thus refreshed, I head out of my room. The hotel obligingly has quite a few bicycles for guest use…I haven’t ridden a bike since the last 20-years! Well, now’s the time to find out, innit. Figuring that the one main advantage to this Last Town God Made is that there won’t be any witnesses to my falling off, I appropriate a bright pink bike for myself and wobble off.
There is a cycle path along most of the way although it doesn’t matter much, seeing as how there’s barely any traffic even though we’re hardly ten minutes away from Sukothai airport. I’m thrilled to bits as I master the bike fairly easily and cycle along past two or three small Wats, acres of lush paddy fields, one or two small restaurants along the way that offer a very basic menu and – buffalo pastures! Most of the land around-about, including the hotel I’m at, these buffalo herds, some of the rice fields and three private museums, are owned by Dr Prasert Prasarttong-Osoth, the founder of Bangkok Airways.
I now decide to head the other way, as I had seen some local market en route to the hotel and I’m informed this is a weekly Sunday do. I find this is a produce and meats market, with a few tacky plastic items and T-shirts for sale. Those dead fish eyes staring vacantly at me are rather disconcerting, besides, all this unfamiliar activity has made me hungry and I head back to my hotel in the balmy evening breeze. This has been so much fun that I’m determined to set out next morning as well while it’s still cool.
And so I do. The hotel staff are quite bemused at this new, energetic me and so am I! The resort is amid a very rural setting and I cycle aimlessly on unpaved mud tracks around these acres of green rice fields singing loudly to myself a la some Bollywood heroine, with nary a soul except the odd heron clucking somewhere at the edge of a still pond (do herons cluck?) and the odd buffalo still chewing placidly on its cud as it watches this new disruption into its otherwise dull bovine existence.
I am now at the open-air zoo where it’s breakfast time! It really is quite marvellous to trundle undisturbed beside black swans, grazing zebras, giraffe who raise their long necks enquiringly at this stranger in their midst, baby camel who peer at me inquisitively and a little colt who gazes at me shyly and soon bolts behind his mama for a comforting suck. Mum ambles over to me and ain’t looking too friendly so I decide to climb back on to my own trusty steed.
I rest for a bit at one of those small cafes and order a refreshing lime drink. It’s time now for my litmus test on the bike and I head off toward the main highway. There are no 7Eleven’s – like a baby’s pacifier for us farangs, it is the ubiquitous, welcome Thai prop of modern convenience – no shops, no houses, no mobile phones ringing with manic tunes…it’s just vast open spaces, serene silence and greenery along the route. I cycle past fields of corn, tobacco and rice, over which loom swaying, shady banana palms all interspersed with glorious splashes of colour from yellow, cherry pink, mauve and coral red bougainvilleas. Of course, once I am actually on the highway I do begin to see representatives of the human race; I wonder why everybody stops what they’re doing to grin at me amiably. Have they never seen a mad farang cycle along in the heat before, or is it my hair??
This is as good a time as any to tell you that Sukothai (Sukhodaya) is a laidback place, still held captive by the memories of its past. The name means ‘dawn of happiness’ and it was the first capital of Siam roughly 800-years ago, followed by Ayutthaya and then Bangkok. The seeds of Thai democracy were sown here. ’Old’ Sukothai is in ruins and has been declared as a UNESCO World Heritage historical park (there is an entrance fee of 100-baht for foreigners.) Comprising about three kilometres, the remains of the royal palace and about 26 Wats, it also has moats and bridges; Wat Mahathat has an imposing Buddha figure set amid the ruins of a sala (open pavilion) while Wat Sri Chum has a massive seated Buddha figure. Most tourists hire a bike to tour the neatly-kept park on the premises.
Not too far from here is the Sri Satchanalai Park, also declared as a historical park. Every second and fourth Fridays and Saturdays there is a big market held outside this park which, as you can well imagine from the dusty descriptions I’ve been giving above, is a fairly huge hit with the good denizens of Sukothai!
All too soon, it seems home’s a-calling and it’s time to get on yet another bus. This time, I’m leaving in the afternoon and so I’m still awake as we pass through Nakhon Sawan and past the craggy mountain face of Khao No with its tall peaks. The nice conductor lady (oh, yes!) comes around predictably like the Cookie Claus and we get handed big-sized packets of coconut biscuits and water bottles. Pit stop is at the respectable dinner hour of 5.30pm (!) however, I find I still can’t decipher the coloured curries and vegetables with suspicious-looking meats in them, so I wander around while my fellow passengers tuck in with gusto.
It seems all I’ve done really is cycle my way through my time at Sukothai and yet, I’ve had such a relaxed and truly enjoyable couple of days in blissful solitude. Almost makes me want to invest in a bike when I get back to Bangkok but – I’ll hold that thought for now, given my fickle relationship with all things that scream ‘fitness’ and ‘exercise!’
Punam Mohandas asserts her right to be identified as the author of this work. Any views or opinions expressed in this review is that of the author. All copyright and pictures are the property of the author.