Of Temples and Trains: Thailand

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Bangkok three times prior, so I’d been to the usual tourist attractions: the Royal Palace, the Emerald Buddha, a cruise along the river. This time, I had two objectives.

First, I wanted to learn more about the history of Thailand. I booked a day tour to the ancient city of Ayutthaya, located about 90 minutes from Bangkok. The Siam dynasty succeeded the Khmer dynasty in 1351 and constructed Ayutthaya as its capital city, still mostly in the Khmer style which explains its resemblance to Angor Wat in Cambodia. Siam ruled the area for 400 years, battling the Burmese and Laotians. Finally in 1730, the Burmese ransacked the city and the Siamese decamped to the newly built city of Bangkok.

We went from temple ruin to temple ruin:

They were quite beautiful, but after the fourth or fifth one, they all started blending into each other. Our guide, with hard to understand English, offered little explanation and very few of the signs were in English so much of what I learned about the area was from Wikipedia.

My second goal was to visit the train market. I’d seen photos of one in Hanoi, where the train runs very close to market stalls, but as Hanoi is not on my current agenda, I wanted to make a point of seeing the Thai equivalent.

After an hour drive out of Bangkok, my tour group was dropped by some train tracks along with hundreds of other tourists in the middle of nowhere. A few minutes later, a train appeared, we boarded the rickety old commuter train and settled in for the half hour ride.

At the 28 minute mark, the guide yelled “get ready”and we all looked out the windows to see market stalls just inches away. Standing below were camera toting tourists anxious to take a photo and high-five the train passengers – we were that close:

It was jolly good fun and everyone laughed as the train inched its way along the track. After it stopped, we disembarked then stood behind the red line to watch as the vendors packed up their stuff as the train made its way back up the track:

A visit to the floating market, indulging in Thai street food, a foot massage and a $12 haircut completed my time in Bangkok. In my younger days, I would have taken the 12 hour train to Chiang Mai, but I’ve lost patience for that so I flew to my next city, Chiang Rai.

Chiang Rai is the northernmost city in Thailand, near the border with Laos, and having a population of about 200,000. One of its highlights is the Blue Temple:

As you can see from the photo, it is quite blue. Inside, it is also blue:

Not to be outdone by the Blue Temple is the White Temple. Construction began in 1997 by a local artist and it is absolutely gorgeous;

Both inside and out are intricate carvings, all in white:

It really is magnificent; a fitting memorial to an artist’s imagination and aesthetic that, in my mind, ranks with the Taj Mahal as one of the world’s most beautiful buildings.

Needing a change of scenery from all the temples, I went on a 30 minute hike to a nearby waterfall, the Khun Korn waterfall. As I started, I was greeted with this sign:

Fortunately I saw no green pit vipers, or any other snakes, and made my way to the waterfall without incident.

A comfortable 3 hour bus ride landed me in Chiang Mai. The second largest city in Thailand, it’s advertised as a quaint, quiet town with few tourists and an old town replete with walls and hundreds of temples.

Well, there is a wall and lots of temples, but I wouldn’t describe it as quaint or less touristy. The old city is a warren of tiny streets, a temple on every corner and impromptu market stalls on every spare inch of sidewalk:

As for fewer tourists, that’s debatable. Although there was an absence of Chinese and Russian visitors, there were plenty of Europeans and Israelis. Cheap massage parlours, express tailors and food stalls abounded. Touts hawked treks to the nearby mountains and elephant sanctuaries promising “no riding” were heavily promoted.

I choose to do a cooking class at the Simple Organic Farm. It started with a quick stop at a market, than a ride to the farm, actually a well organized cooking school with dozens of individual cooking stations. We each choose 3 Thai dishes and with the excellent instruction of Natty, chopped, pounded, diced and cooked the ingredients. I made Green Curry Chicken, Holy Basil Chicken and Hot and Sour Soup. I managed to eat most of it, but forwent the mango ice-cream for dessert.

Chiang Mai is famous for its plethora of temples. I found a “10 great temples list” on the internet and, with the help of Google Maps, started walking to each one. They were all beautiful:

But after finding 6 on the list, and dozens not on the list, the temples were becoming indistinguishable from one another and I was having a hard time appreciating each temple’s beauty. I’d had enough.

So I consoled myself with a $8 massage and a pedicure, had some pants made, got laundry done and ate too much delicious Thai food. It was time to move on.

Next up: Laos

2 thoughts on “Of Temples and Trains: Thailand”

  1. Hi Naomi…a most informative and enjoyable reading of your blog…..it’s as if I never visited that country notwithstanding I was there four times….got your latest email…be safe in Laos and look forward to your next blog…S.

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