DAY OF DEPARTURE: Thailand has been my sister's dream for many years. Today my sister, Diane, her husband Heinrich, Wanda, and I departed on a six-week adventure to see as much of Thailand as we could squeeze in.
Diane and Heinrich live in Bavaria, Germany. Wanda and I have been camping out at their house for the past couple of months. Well, we haven't exactly been idle for that time. The four of us spent three weeks RVing France and Germany, along with accompanying an official group tour through southern India for two weeks.
Anyway, back to Thailand, Diane planned the route: Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Phitsanulok, Sukothai, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Lampang, Nakhon Sawan, Damnoen Saduk, and Koh Chang Island. Wanda booked the Airbnb and Agoda accommodations along that route before departing. Lodging ended up costing each couple an average of (22 USD) per day. That basically left transportation, food, and admission fees. We knew that public transportation in Thailand was cheap. Food was a bit less than the US, but not dirt cheap like Spain was. For admissions to museums, temples, etc., we expected to fork out an average of (5 USD) for most places.
The day of departure finally arrived. We drove the 4 km from Langenreichen to Meitengen in Germany to catch the 10:13 am express train to Augsburg. It was crisp with a dusting of snow on the ground. Thailand promises to be very warm, so to save weight and room, I wore my sandals with two pairs of socks (I know, socks and sandals, kind of dorky). I left my shoes back at our base - my sister's home in Langenreichen, Germany.
Originally set to take a short 15-minute express train to Augsburg, we ended up jumping on an earlier, but slower train because it was too cold standing on the platform. The train was toasty warm. At Augsburg, it was a short wait for the train to Pasing, just outside of Munich. At Pasing, we caught the S8 subway to the Munich airport. It all went smoothly. Munich had an inch of snow.
Ten days ago, we flew back from India on Etihad Airlines, the official airline of the United Arab Emirates. This time, we were flying on Qatar Airlines. Etihad Airlines was OK, but Qatar Airlines was hands down the best airline we have ever utilized. The planes were brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliners. The staff was extraordinarily friendly and helpful. The food and wine on board were terrific. They even served Baileys Irish Cream whiskey with their coffee, if desired. Going to and from India required a connection at Abu Dhabi Airport, a typical ho-hum airport. This time we transferred to Doha Airport. Wow, it was top-notch, the finest airport we have ever experienced. It sparkled. We had to go through security again, but even at midnight, they had every security line manned for fast passage, and several agents standing about to connecting flight info to questioning customers. After washing my hands and face in the bathroom, the attendant practically dove to the paper towels to hand me a bunch. It was all about service.
DEC 3, 2019 BANGKOK
We landed at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport on time at 1:15 pm. After a speedy check at customs, we immediately picked up our bags at the baggage claim area. Time now to find the sky train into Bangkok. That was also easy. It cost a mere 35 THB (1.15 USD) to get to the Makkasan train station. We walked a short, well-marked walkway over a bustling highway intersection to the Phetchaburi subway train station. There we caught the MRT "Happy" Blue Line to the Thailand Cultural Center for another 25 THB (.85 USD). From the cultural center, we walked five blocks to our Airbnb, the Oriental Suites.
The planning for this venture was complicated, involving many moving parts on different modes of transportation, in cities we were not familiar with -- it went like clockwork. That, we hoped, was a good omen for the rest of the trip.
On our way to the Airbnb, we noticed the tangled mess of pole-wires everywhere. A quick Google search later, we found out that the wires are a combination of coax for cable TV, telephone cables, and fiber optic cables for the Internet, with the mains power cables, placed higher up with stand-off insulators. Service providers can string them up anywhere, resulting in thickets of black lines. Maintaining a service cost of (15 USD) per month is also a significant reason to keep wires overhead instead of underground.
We also noted that food vendors are everywhere.
It was mid-afternoon by the time we settled into our Airbnb, which, by the way, was pretty decent as a two-bedroom 7th-floor apartment located just two blocks from the dental clinic we would be visiting in two days. By this time, we had been awake for over 24 hours, so we gave ourselves a ten-minute rest. Two hours later, we finally got out the door to explore our new neighborhood.
Our Airbnb was located on a narrow side street two blocks from a major thoroughfare, lined with tons of street vendors and modern shopping malls. We found the street vendors to be surprisingly "non-pushy." Thai people seem to be quiet folks.
Bangkok is a modern city with a few depressed pockets. It is ultra-vibrant with an incessant flow of traffic and an abundance of street vendors. Unlike India, the traffic moves along silently, without all the honking. Also, unlike India, the streets are clean, and the infrastructure is in decent shape. Some buildings are a bit ragged with black weather stains, but there are many super modern tall buildings and market malls interspersed.
This first little foray into the neighborhood was an initial reconnaissance mission. First, we noticed the huge Alaina Massage Parlor; a 3-story exclusive looking building, just across the street from the big Lord Massage Parlor, and near the Black Caviar Executive Massage Parlor. Hmmm, is there a theme here? Next was a glitzy 24-hour mall called "The Street." Outside, the mall was a big lit-up bandshell with a terrific band playing a lively pop mix. Next door was another shopping mall, the Big C Mall, with a 24-hour Foodland grocery store and a large collection of buffet-style eateries. Just about every eatery seemed to be a buffet-style, where you can mix and match noodles, rice, and just about any meat and veggie topping.
Even more important, we found a sim card store for Wanda's smartphone. There are three main sim card companies in Thailand: AIS, TrueMove, and DTAC. All reviews claimed that AIS, at this time, has the best coverage and fastest data. We found an AIS shop at Big Cs, right next to a TrueMove. The data card cost 250 THB (8.25 USD) for 30 days of unlimited data with no phone calls. Like India, we needed to show a passport, but unlike India, the guy inserted and activated the sim card, waved a magic wand, and presto, instant internet. Lastly, we ran across a crowded outdoor market of trinkets and food. The street food vendors are deep-fried or grilled - I prefer the grilled. The food scents are lovely.
Starving, we settled on the Little Hong Kong Express, a food booth in the 24-hour Big C Mall. We ordered four different noodle dishes to pass around. All were delicious, with three of them spicy hot. The mushroom noodles were served with a mild white sauce and tons of tiny white mushrooms. There were fried chicken strips and noodles with a spicy-sweet and sour sauce, noodles with spicy bacon, something-or-other, and noodles with spicy grilled sausages. Each dish cost 75 THB and 85 THB (1.80 USD and 1.95 USD). By 9 pm, we were all dragging. Before heading back to our Airbnb, we stopped at Foodland to pick up some beer. They had big .620 liter (22 ounces) bottles of Leo beer for 55 THB (1.80 USD). We picked up two bottles and returned to our Airbnb. After sharing the Leo beer, which turned out to be good for "non-German" beer, we sacked out.
DEC 4, 2019 Bangkok
Today was another reconnaissance day as our time in Bangkok right now is limited. We are scheduled to spend six days in Bangkok before we head back to Germany in January. Tomorrow, Wanda has us scheduled for a standard dental checkup and cleaning, followed by a routine eye exam. Last year, Wanda had some extensive dental work done in Mexico at a fraction of the quoted insured cost in the US. It's been a year, and since we will be in Thailand, appointments for both dental and eyes seemed practical, especially since Medicare does not cover dental or vision. Friday, we start heading north. Therefore, today will be our only full day of exploration in Bangkok until we return in January.
Today started with confirming how to get to the train station for Friday, the beginning of our Thailand trip northbound. We were pleasantly surprised it turned out to be easy - take the MRT Blue Line subway from the Thailand Cultural Center to the Hua Lamphong stop. Then we follow the signs down a tunnel to the Hua Lamphong Railway station. The train station was cavernous, 1950'ish, and very clean. The trains looked ancient but not dirty or beat up as we had experienced train rides in India.
Our original intention was to ride the 8:30 am, No. 7 train to Ayutthaya on Friday morning. Thailand trains have three classes, with 3rd class being practically free. Diane wanted to ride the 3rd class because everything she has read recommended it. We found several morning trains to Ayutthaya, so we don't have to start quite as early. We could pre-purchase 1st and 2nd class tickets, but not 3rd-class tickets. 3rd-class tickets can only be purchased on the day of departure. Our train ride is a 1.5 hour trip and the cost for a 2nd-class ticket is 253 THB (8.33 USD) vs 20 THB for 3rd class (.66 USD). We are now confident about our plan for a Friday morning departure.
Armed with the info we needed for Friday, we set out to explore Bangkok's Chinatown. Wow, I've been in many Chinatowns before, but this neighborhood was extensive, thriving, frenzied, and wonderful. Vendors occupied every inch. On the main drag through Chinatown were many gold shops that also had currency exchange shops. We priced the exchange rate along the way, and it ranged from about 33.00 THB to 33.50 THB to the euro (we brought euros with us. Euros are close to US dollars in value). That is insanely better than the 27 THB we got from Germany before leaving.
We bought some fresh mango slices, tiny oranges, and sweet and tender pineapples slices from the street vendors on our route. We wandered off Main Street down a dark, narrow-tunneled alleyway, crammed with vendors and people that went on for blocks in all directions. The alley had a roof adding to the claustrophobic effect. As crowded as the narrow-roofed aisle was, there's a guy on a scooter slowly making his way through this morass of tightly packed shoppers.
When we finally found our way out of this rabbit hole, we google-mapped a route to the Chinatown Gate. Along the way, we stopped off for coffee. Diane discovered that an Americano Coffee was a quadruple expresso. It took about a gallon of milk and a bucket of sugar to smooth it out -- and she likes strong coffee. Wanda's latte was perfect. Asking for toilets in India was a real adventure. You usually were led to a porcelain hole in the ground. Here, even though this was a tiny shop with bathrooms down an obscure alley, the toilets were western-style and clean. Yeah, Bangkok is alright!
Unfortunately, the Gate was under reconstruction. To our surprise, just a short walk away was the Golden Buddha Temple. Indian Hindu temples are insanely gorgeous. In fact, in many Indian cities, only the temples were lovely. Buddhist temples are quite different from Hindu temples because Hinduism has Shiva and Vishnu and a plethora of other gods requiring statutes. And don't forget about the sacred cow. Buddhism seems to have, well, Buddha, and he looks like a very tranquil kind of guy.
The Golden Buddha was just as advertised - 5.5 tons worth of pure, high-grade gold. And does it shine! I couldn't get a good picture with all the lights glaring off of it. The temple that houses this golden bad-boy is three stories high. The bottom two stories house a museum. The museum explained the Chinese contribution to Thailand. The Chinese were readily accepted and honored for their hard work ethic and tenacity, unlike in the US, where they were historically exploited. In Thailand, the Chinese even got a special tax break.
The museum also explained the Golden Buddha. Buddha has been around for centuries, but it was displayed as a minor plaster statute. However, in 1955, this Buddha was moved to the Chinatown location where it sits today. The move was complicated. The plaster Buddha was dropped as it was being hoisted chipping away some of the plaster resulting in uncovering a solid-gold interior.
We have read that many temples in Thailand do not allow shorts or photography in the temples. There was a sign to this effect at the ticket office for the Golden Buddha. Even with my shorts, I purchased a ticket, and I wasn't the only person with shorts walking through the temple. Also, tons of people were taking photos of the Buddha, so I guess that isn't enforced either. But try to wear shoes in this temple - NO WAY, JOSE! (Note: if you are not dressed properly (women showing bare shoulders or wearing shorts, you'll be directed to a different line where you can pickup/purchase some pj-style flowing pants and tops to wear and keep as a souvenier. Dave did get caught with shorts at one temple and now owns a soft pair of long pjs.)
All temples are surrounded by food vendors. We discovered a vendor that made us a crepe with banana slices and egg cooked inside. After it was cooked, he drizzled sweet condensed milk over the crepe and sprinkled all with powdered sugar. It was yummier than it sounds.
By this time, the sun was getting low, so it was time to head back to our neighborhood. We quickly found the Hua Lamphong MRT station that took us back to the Thailand Cultural Center. For supper, we hit the buffets in the Big C Mall. I got a pile of rice with three different meat and veggie toppings for 60 THB (2.00 USD). It was delicious, but fire-engine hot. I love hot. I can take a lot of heat, but this dish was my limit.
After another Leo beer purchase at Foodland, we headed back to the Airbnb. A beer and a shower later, it was bedtime.
DEC 5, 2019. Bangkok Medical Day
This day started with appointments for a standard dental checkup and cleaning. The dental clinic was located just around the block from our Airbnb. Bangkok International Dental Clinic is a very modern 7-story international dental clinic. As soon as we walked in, there were about a dozen cute young ladies in uniform waiting to usher us through the paperwork, explain the cost, explain the procedures, and guide us up to the correct floors for our cleaning - Wanda was on level 4, and I was on level 6. Although we were a half-hour early - they got us in right away.
My dentist and assistant were also young. The office and the equipment were very modern. The young dentist could see that the typical technique was hurting me, so she immediately switched to what she called an air method. I had never experienced it before, but it didn't hurt a bit. Anyway, my teeth came out sparkling white. Wanda had one cavity. She made an appointment for a filling on the last week of the trip when we return to Bangkok prior to departing home. The total cost was 60 USD each.
Next, we had to figure out how to get to the eye doctor. Initially, Wanda had scheduled our appointments at a nearby clinic. However, that appointment was rescheduled due to the Father's Day Holiday. The Thai's always celebrate the birthday of their beloved former king. December 5 is a national holiday, and many places were closed, including our original eye clinic. Instead, we had been rescheduled to get a routine eye exam at the Yanhee International Hospital, which stays open on December 5 - way on the other side of Bangkok, a big sprawling, complicated city.
With google maps, it turned out to be less complicated than we feared. It showed us an MRT subway train route to the Hospital. For 35 THB (1.15 USD), we landed just one block away from the Hospital. We were an hour and a half early. No problem; another twenty cute young ladies ushered us through the paperwork, escorted us to the eye clinic on the 6th floor, and one stayed to accompany us as an interpreter throughout the exam. The doctor, a middle-aged, very professional lady, and her two assistants put our eyeballs through their paces.
What was impressive, was a machine that read our eyeballs' prescription.No looking at numbers and letters, switching to see whether number 1 or number 2 looked better. In the end, I was told that my glasses didn't quite match my eyes - the power was correct, but the astigmatism was off. So much for American technology. No worries, my glasses are close enough, for now, and there is no need to change glasses or prescriptions this year. Wanda's glass prescriptions were also fine and didn't need changing. Both of us have very early stages of cataracts. Other than that, our eyes look very healthy. That cost 45 USD for each of us. (Wanda noted upon reflection that she should have purchased a new set of glasses anyway to take advantage of the price differences. By the time we returned to Bangkok, and she thought of it, we ran out of time. A minimum of 3 days is needed to create progressive lenses.)
Medical tourism is big business in Thailand. Like we found in Mexico, these countries have top-notch medical facilities.
Since we arrived at our appointment early, we got out of the Hospital at 2:30 pm. Taking patients who come earlier than their scheduled appointment is a concept unknown back home.
Being done so early, we decided to go downtown to check it out. Google maps gave us a route that included a bus and a boat ferry. The bus stop was right out in front of the Hospital. Google maps directed us to take bus 110/18; was that either 110 or 18. The bus stop sign indicated eight different buses use this stop. The next bus to show up had 110 printed on it, so we hopped on. The bus was ancient, beat, belching, rattling, and terrific. One guy collected 10 THB for each of us. He seemed to ask where we were going - he spoke no English. I showed him the google maps screen. He pointed to the driver. I showed the driver - he also spoke no English. He sort of grunted, and I sat down. We followed the bus progress on google maps, and sure enough, at our stop, the driver points to us to confirm that we had arrived. So far, so good.
Our boat had to be 100 feet long and 10 feet wide. When we hit a wave, the entire boat twisted and flexed. The driver didn't play around. It was full tilt all the way. As we went down the river, the route stops alternate from one side of the river to the other. Each docking was an adventure as the driver seemingly missed the dock by a mile, only to throw it in a violent reverse to kick the ass-end into the dock tires. A young man jumped out to throw a rope around a squat wood pillar. Within 20 seconds, passengers got off, and passengers got on, and the driver stomped on the throttle to take off. I loved it.
Our stop was the Grand Palace, the premier visiting site in Bangkok. It was late, and the Palace was closed for Father's Day, so this turned out to be a trip for our return to Bangkok in January. While we were looking around, a tuk-tuk driver approached us with a "deal-of-a-lifetime," which turned out to be true. For 100 BHT, he took us to the Wat Intharawihan, the tallest Buddha in Bangkok. It was a standing Buddha that clocked in at 105 feet tall. There were several temple buildings with gorgeous ornate roof lines and trim.
Then he took us on a wild ride to Wat Benchamabophit, an incredible architectural beauty. It is nicknamed The Marble Temple. Most of these temples are a complex of buildings. Each building in this temple complex featured the ornate oriental high-gable roof designs with wonderfully curled up roof tips. While we were at the temple, our driver got us a mango over sticky rice dessert that was to-die-for. On top of a wad of white sticky rice was a thin layer of what I think was sweet condensed milk and then topped with thin slices of slightly cooked mango. We thanked him profusely when he dropped us off at the subway station and tipped him 50 THB.
The subway ride back to the Airbnb apartment was uneventful. We feel like semi-pros at this Bangkok transportation thing. We picked up Diane and Heinrich and went back to the main drag in our neighborhood to look for supper. On the fourth floor of The Street Mall was a huge cafeteria with 20 or so Thai food vendors. I got another rice with two toppings dish. Wanda found a booth that made the sticky rice with mango dessert to split. It was a bit different than the one we had earlier, but it was still a wonderful dessert. After a brief stop at Foodland to pick up a few Leo beers, we headed back to call it a night.
DEC 6, 2019 AYUTTHAYA
Today was our first foray into the hinterlands. We started off taking the MRT Blue Line to the Thailand Railway Train Station at the Hua Lamphong subway stop, using the route that we reconnoitered on Wednesday. At 8:15 am, it was a challenge getting into the subway train. We couldn't get on the first jam-packed train that could not accommodate the four of us and four roller bags. We had to sardine our way in the second one.l It was a relief when we got off, nine stations later.
We arrived early at the train station and bought 3rd class tickets for Train No# 71 for 20 BHT. Waiting at track ten, we watched other trains come and go. For a city that has world-class modern subway and skyway trains, these trains were old. I couldn't, for the life of me, see any difference in any of the passenger cars. They all looked third class to me.
When old No# 71 limped into the track ten platform, there ensued a mad-cap crush to get on and got more chaotic once we were on board. Some people had tickets with seat numbers. Our tickets only said, "Standee-Ticket." That sounded ominous. The nice seat that I had claimed was quickly re-claimed by another person. Soon, all four of us were left standing. There was a small baggage rack above the seats so we did manage to get our bags overhead.
The handles hanging down were for ticket holders like us with “Standee Ticket” stamped on the ticket. At first, it was standing room only. Fortunately, after 45 minutes and many stops, the train thinned out. What can you expect for a ฿20 THB/ticket (.66 USD)?
A loud diesel powered the train. To start, the engine had to wind up to a thunderous racket. Once up to speed, the engineer would idle the engine down and coast for a bit, rev up-coast-rev up-coast, and so forth. Our train was the express train, which meant half as many stops as the regular route. Our train departed at 10:05 am. It took about an hour to reach the countryside as we went through dozens of Bangkok enclaves. Some were poor, reminiscent of what we witnessed in India. Others were modern. For much of the way through the outskirts of Bangkok, we could see a modern overhead highway under construction. Thailand seems to have ambitions.
The countryside was mostly rice paddies. It is the dry season, and the area was starting to get that brownish-around-the-edges look. We lumbered past several gorgeous temple complexes. Like India, Temples get a lot of attention.
We knew our Airbnb was a hotel and just across the street from the station. However, across the street was a tangle of buildings and street vendors - no hotels in sight. Google maps pointed down the street but gave us different distances each time we looked it up. Wanda read that it was just past the 7/11. (Seven-Eleven convenience stores are everywhere in Thailand).
We were early for the check-in by 2 pm at the Ayothaya Riverside Hotel. So they held on to our bags as we went out to explore. We read that Ayutthaya was on the Chao Phraya River, which runs down to Bangkok, and several side channels of the river thread the city. I was keen on finding a long-tail boat tour. When we got off the train, we saw one sign advertising boat-tours pointing down a narrow street towards the river. That was the first place we headed. Halfway down the road, we saw another boat-tour sign and a friendly lady that pinned us down until we agreed to an all-day tuk-tuk tour of the historic ruins. The tuk-tuk was a streamlined looking vehicle, but don’t let that fool you. It was tough for Heinrich to fit in the back - but we wanted adventure, right?
Ayutthaya used to be the capital city. In fact, by the 1500s, it was the largest city in the East. Unfortunately, the city was destroyed in a war with the Burmese in 1767. Subsequently, Bangkok eventually eclipsed Ayutthaya. The once-great capital city was left in ruins. It was these ruins that we toured with the help of our tuk-tuk driver. From 1:30 pm to 6:00 pm, he took us from one site to another, at least a dozen in all.
The ruins were interesting, especially since a model of the original sites was provided at each entrance. That made it easier to envision what the ruins were showing us. What immediately struck Wanda and me, was that, like the temples in India, these ruins uncannily resembled the Mayan ruins we have seen in the Yucatán.
View from the top of one of the Chedis. The building on the left is a temple that was restored from the ruins. The walls were original. The front and roof is new.
The Mayans had tall pyramids inside walled-in complexes, the Indians had gopuram towers inside walled-in compounds, and the Thai had their Chedi towers inside walled-in complexes. All built for the practice of their religion. There's something about religion and tall structures. Look at all those ridiculously (but cool) tall cathedral steeples throughout Europe.
At certain places, we saw roosters and couldn’t figure out the significance. Then it dawned on us, 2019 is the year of the rooster. We believe that might be the reason. It is considered a lucky sign. I checked and 5, 7, 8 are the lucky numbers for the rooster. Get your lottery tickets in.
Altogether, we visited a dozen sites scattered over some 30 kilometers of the city. Some ruins were barely there. However, Wat Prayathlkaram's ruins had been restored. It was impressive with a gigantic pyramid-like structure that we could ascend the long stairway for a commanding view of the temple compound. Another site was Wat Lokayasutharam, or the reclining Buddha (actually, the laying down Buddha), a semi-restored Buddha about 100 feet long laying down with his eyes closed and a serene smile on his face. He looked very content. I started to imagine all sorts of stuff he might be dreaming of. One thing was for sure. In its heyday, Ayutthaya must have been quite a place.
Although the tuk-tuk was a blast to ride, they are not very comfortable. For Wanda and myself, it isn't too bad, but for Heinrich, at well over six feet tall and hefty, it bordered on the brutal. At 6 pm, he was ready to call it a day. So, after being dropped off at our hotel, we ordered supper. The hotel food was very affordable, but it wasn't our favorite. We washed it all down with another trip to Seven-Eleven for a few big 22 oz Leo beers. We are growing fond of Leo.
DEC 7, 2019. AYUTTHAYA
The day started kind of crazy. The electricity went out sometime in the night, so we woke up with no lights and no air conditioning. Opening the drapes gave us plenty of light, but the sun heated the room even more. We quickly dressed and took the stairs down to the lobby to see what was happening. The stairway was dark. We picked our way down eight flights very carefully.
Surprisingly, the breakfast buffet was being served. It was mostly Thai food with rice and stir-fries. There were fried eggs done perfectly with the dark orange yokes indicating free-range chickens. Since the dish warmers were off, the food was lukewarm. I wondered how they made anything without electricity.
In the parking lot, a utility truck was parked, and three guys in orange vests were up a pole laying new wire - adding to the rats' nest already stringing towards the hotel. The hotel manager was acting as a foreman. We noticed the crew didn't have a lift to reach the wires. Instead, they must have skinnied up the pole. After we finished breakfast, we saw the lights were back on, so Diane, Heinrich, and Wanda took the elevator to their rooms to pick up their backpacks. Between the 5th and 6th floor, the electricity turned off. They were stuck in the elevator in the dark. After some banging and yelling, they were rescued by very caring and concerned hotel staff.
With that, we took off to explore more of the city. A couple of doors down was a beautiful Japanese-style temple. There were fat Buddhas, dragons, three-headed elephants, and samurais with swords. The buildings were finely detailed and ornate.
The city map showed tons of waterways. A tuk-tuk driver intercepted us. We explained through hand gestures, head shakes, facial ticks, and broken English that we didn't want the tour of the ruins today, but that we wanted only a long-boat ride on the river. Once he figured what we wanted, he charged us 100 THB (3.27 USD) and signaled us to get in.
We watched him adeptly whip around the heavy traffic circles, cross the main bridge, whip around more traffic circles, cut off cars and motorcycles, make some insane U-turns and end up at a walkway to the river pier. It didn't look like a boat dock. It didn't look like anything. There were some rickety buildings on stilts in the water, lots of green floating water plants, and two cool-looking long-boats. One of the barely-standing buildings in the water appeared to be a bar, but we couldn't see a way to get to it.
Anyway, he walked us down to the river and connected us with a boat driver who offered us a 2-hour, river tour of the ruins for 1200 THB. Again, with our compliment of gestures and his broken English, we seemed to get across the idea that we just wanted the boat ride around the city's waterways. He offered a 1 1/2-hour boat ride for 800 THB (26.00 USD). (Our friend, Teri Eisberner, would have gotten him down to 300. Where is she when you need her?).
The boat driver took off with our cash for a few minutes and returned with a long-boat. We jumped on as he kept the nose of the boat tight to the tiny dock's lashed-on tires. He drove us across the river to a more commercial boat dock to pick up a younger boat driver in his early twenties to be our river tour driver.
The boat trip was everything that we expected. The river was alive with barges, tour boats, long-boats of all lengths, and beautiful junk-style boats. The properties along the river were mixed, with gorgeous homes, stunning temple complexes, restaurants overlooking the water, and a fair number of rickety shacks on stilts or up on the bank with precarious walkways down to the river.
We headed up narrow channels lined with houses, more businesses, and an endless number of Buddha shrines. You couldn't live in Ayutthaya without owning a boat. Most personal crafts were long-boats with shallow draft props. These used outboard engines with an insanely long shaft that ended with a tiny prop that barely scratched the surface of the water approximately 15 or 20 feet behind the boat. Sometimes the shafts were longer than the boats. Depending on the length of the long-boat, the engines ranged from small rowboat-sized outboard motors to giant V-8s sitting out in the open, looking like a radical hot-rod. I only saw one American style pleasure boat.
The barges were particularly interesting. When empty, the barge containers rode very high in the water. When loaded, they appeared almost to get swamped at the smallest wave. Each barge had a hut on the back that may have been living quarters. Usually, four barges were strung together and towed by a small tug. Another tug brought up the rear. This back tug hung on to the back of the entire ensemble via a rope. Its purpose was to kick the ass end of the barge around turns by putting stress on the rope one way or the other. When the river was straight, this tug dragged along. Only a thin-looking regular marine rope was used to tie everything together. The barges we saw were either hauling bags of rice or piled with clean sand.
The young driver gave us our full 1-1/2 hours worth. I loved every second. Just before we were dropped off, we noticed a large temple complex across from our landing dock. We decided to check that out. We asked around on how to get across the river, and sort-of figured out that there was a cheap ferry just down the road. That wasn't as easy to spot as it sounds. The distance between the river and the road was approximately 200 feet - that's 200 feet densely packed with shacks and an occasional narrow twisting alley.
Wanda spotted a coffee house. With the electricity being off at the hotel, Diane hadn't gotten her eye-opener caffeine yet. The coffee was hot and tasty. Diane tried another Americano, but this time with plenty of milk. Most of the staff didn't speak any English. One guy knew a bit and indicated that there might be a ferry just down the road.
We tried the first alleyway. It didn't end at a ferry, but it did end at a long winding makeshift boardwalk intricately made of wood scraps of all sizes and thicknesses winding through the woods and out to a bar on the river. We couldn't pass it up. Diane and Wanda practically walked on hands and knees as the walkway over the water creaked and groaned. The bar was absolutely the coolest-most-bestest establishment I have discovered. We ordered a couple of big cold Leos and got to know the owner - an amiable guy who knew a bit of English. His hair, tied up in a long 12-year old ponytail, reached the floor, and he was proud of it. His wife, father, and son all worked the bar. The restaurant part of the bar served a lot of seafood dishes. The bar, rustic and on the water, put grins on our faces that stayed all day.
The owner re-affirmed that the ferry was just down the road.
The temple was stunning and featured a giant shrine with a humongous golden sitting Buddha. This complex must have been a Buddhist monk campus of some sort. There were rows of ornate houses with several orange-clad monks milling about. On the far side of the complex was a food market with a long row of booths. Here we found some exotic and fun foods. We passed on the dried, roasted fish skeletons and fish skin. We tried an ultra-thin peanut brittle-like disk. It was so good that we bought some for the next day's train trip. A lady was making green crepes rolling them up with some stringy strands of something inside. She gave us a sample, and it was great. The strings looked like stiff strands of straw, but they were tender and delicious. I couldn't even begin to describe the flavor except that it was mildly sweet and a good texture. Wanda bought some dried mango and mystery fruit. These were steeped in ginger, making them hot. They were OK, but not my favorite.
The real action was back at the pier where vendors were selling "cheato-like" snacks, bread slices, and buns for 10 BHTS per large bag. These bags of food were not for human consumption - they were fish food. This resulted in a fantastic fish feeding frenzy. Thousands of enormous catfish fighting, rollicking, and rolling over each other for a mouthful of fish food thrown at them. With their wide mouths full open, they could swallow a slice of bread in one gulp. The second school of large perch-like fish also competed. The water was so thick with fish that we contemplated walking across the river on their backs.
Diane had read about a couple of restaurants in town that got good reviews. Unfortunately, Steak 29, turned out to be permanently closed, according to Google. Baan Kru Pa was within walking distance just across the river. We hooked up with our boat buddy again and he took us across the river. The walk to the restaurant was a pleasant kilometer stroll. The dining room was overlooking the river on the opposite side of our hotel. We could easily swim. I ordered a veggie stir fry and rice that was very good and clean tasting. Wanda had peppered chicken and onion plus rice. Hers was terrific.It was dark by the time we paid our bill, and the shops were closing. The Chao Prom Market was just up the street, so we planned to roam through it after supper. Sadly, the whole town, including the market, was shutting down. I guess Saturday night is an early night for shop keepers.
On the walk back to our hotel, we stopped off at a bunch of street vendors to sample some treats. We tasted grilled pork on a stick for 5 BHT each. My favorite was a packet of sticky rice, which I poured a little hot sauce on it. Back home in Wisconsin, the Hmong make sticky rice and a delicious hot sauce. This sauce looked just like the Hmong sauce. Whew, it was hot! But it was just as good as the Hmong version - maybe even a tinge better.
We also picked up on fried chicken legs. By this time, we were full. I didn't try the grilled brats carved into cute little eye-catching patterns on a stick that I've been eyeing up for the past couple of days. The grilled meatballs on a stick look interesting. I made a mental note to check them out soon.
We bought some more Leo at the Seven-Eleven and retired for the evening. The hotel had something going on. The parking lot was jammed with cars, and the banquet room was all decked out. I asked if it was a wedding. In limited English, a staff member indicated that it was just a party. We were bushed and just went upstairs to sip our Leos. While we decompressed, a small but very lovely fireworks display was shot off not far from our 8th story balcony.
DEC 8, 2019. PHITSANULOK
This morning went a lot smoother. We still had electricity, and the elevator got us all the way down without incident. Breakfast was hot and I enjoyed a great angel-hair noodle dish and a tasty orange-yoked egg.
Our train, the elusive No# 7, was scheduled to leave Ayutthaya at 9:48 am for our new destination - Phitsanulok. We are heading deeper into Thailand's north country. At the train station, we discovered the 3rd class section on train No# 7 was full. We could get 2nd class tickets, but they were limited. However, there was an earlier train No# 111 that still had 3rd class seats. This time we confirmed if these 3rd class tickets were actual seats or were they Standee-Only tickets. The agent laughed and got us four seats together. He spoke English and was very patient with our ignorance. Although train No#111 left earlier than 7 am, it was scheduled to reach Phitsanulok later - it was not an express train. That didn't bother us as long as we had confirmed seats. Each ticket cost 168 THB (5.53 USD) for a 4-1/2 hour ride northbound.
Train No #111 for Phistanulok arrived 13 minutes late. When we got on, our seats appeared occupied. Thankfully, the conductor quickly straightened things out. The people in our places had just misread their seat numbers. They graciously moved to their ticketed seats. Of course, someone was sitting in their seats, causing a bit more reshuffling. We had set off a giant game of musical chairs throughout the coach.
The train was the highlight of the day for me. The big windows opened wide, giving us a much-appreciated breeze. The weather was perfect - low to mid 80's and 100% sun. I don't think we have seen a cloud since we've been in Thailand.
Along the way, we noticed a lot of superhighway building going on. As I mentioned earlier, Thailand has ambitions. But, the existig trains are still in the stone age. Old No# 111 swayed and lurched and chugged along at a breakneck speed of about 50 mph. Private food vendors continuously walk the aisles with food, desserts, fruits, sticky rice, and drinks. They call out in sing-song Thai voices, like songbirds in the morning.
The countryside so far has been rice paddies with the occasional sugar cane field. Thailand is one of the leading exporters of rice in the world. No surprise there. We also discovered that it is the second-largest consumer of pickup trucks in the world, just behind the US. We have noticed quite a few big Ford Rangers and Toyota Hiluxs (I had never heard of that truck before). Car manufacturing is another huge export. Most vehicles built here are licensed by Japanese and South Korean companies, although India's Tata brand has factories here.
Our next Airbnb host, Pim, met us at the train station. The Airbnb is a two-bedroom bungalow with a deck and full kitchen on the porch. Pim and her Mom lived right next door.
Pim was an enthusiastic and soft-spoken young lady that got us settled in, gave us a city map, and offered to provide us with a ride to the Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat. We accepted her offer for a ride. She not only drove us around but turned into our much appreciated tour guide.
Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat's main temple was splendid. It's high-ceilings of deep red and intricate gold trim was a gorgeous setting for the magnificent, ultra-golden Buddha, Phra Buddha Chinnarat. Phra Buddha Chinnarat is considered to be the most beautiful Buddha in Thailand.
In this temple, you not only had to take off your shoes, but you couldn't stand up. Everyone including those that were praying or the visitors that wanted to take photos and selfies had to scoot and kneel toward the Buddha on hands and knees, or slide forward on their hinders, or walked on their knees. That was easier for younger people. My knees aren't as nimble. Fortunately, Pim got us a walking route around the side, so we snuck in with a much shorter knee-scoot.She talked to a monk and got us front-row kneeling - an excellent spot for photos. It's who you know, right?
After that, she left us to roam the streets. We found a market that was closing. However, one vendor gave us a sample of a brown gooey thing that looked like a 4-inch date. It turned out to be a semi-dried banana. It was scrumptious. Old brown bananas are pretty gross. I don't know how the Thai's dried their bananas to keep the texture moist and tasty - but there you are.
Thailand is loaded with these crazy tour buses. In fact the tour company's website is www.crazybusthailand.com. How they get under the low hanging power lines is beyond me. I asked the driver if they ever scrape the lines. He said, “Must very careful.”
Around 6 pm, we found ourselves at Topland Plaza, a shopping mall with a grocery store. We picked up some soy sauce. Diane stated that when she and Heinrich were in China, soy sauce was on the table at every meal. Not so in Thailand. Since we craved soy sauce here, we picked up a small bottle of Kikkoman Soy Sauce. We called Pim, as per the plan, and she called a cab for us to get to a restaurant on the Nan River. Taxidriver No# 21, quickly found us. The cab ride, which was a pretty fair distance, was 74 THB (2.44 USD). You couldn't get into a cab in the US for that cost. Along the way, we a fun looking night market. We never get tired of markets.
The restaurant was part of a row of riverbank eateries, and all were all lit up and down the riverbank this evening. Pim had picked out a seafood joint for us. Diane, unfortunately, is allergic to seafood - poor soul. She ordered one of the few non-seafood dishes on the menu, a pork dish that didn't excite her very much. I got shrimp and broccoli with a side of rice, and it was fabulous. A dab of our soy sauce was much appreciated. After supper, Wanda called Pim to arrange for a taxi. Within 5 minutes, taxi No #21 showed up. I'm beginning to think that Pim has a direct line to No #21. This was an even longer ride back to the Airbnb costing us 84 THB (2.77 USD). With that, we wound down for the rest of the evening.
DEC 9, 2019. SUKHOTHAI
It dipped down to a chilly 49º just before dawn but recovered to 59ºF by the time we were ready to leave for a day trip to Sukothai's Historical Park. Pim called a cab to take us to Bus Station No#1at 8 am. (There are two bus stations in Phitsanulok) Just before we left, Pim came over all bundled up and shivering. She proclaimed that it was winter. We Wisconites assured her that she hadn't experienced anything like winter.
Pim asked the taxi driver #21 to let the ticket agent at the bus station know that we were going to the Sukhothai historical park. We got the tickets -- to somewhere and hoped it was to Sukhothai. That set us up for an hour-long, 80 THB van ride in a meat freezer. The driver had the air conditioning set the arctic. When we reached the Historical Park, we just sat in the sun like reptiles for 30 minutes to bring up our body temperatures. The plus side was that the freezer-locker-on-wheels brought us directly to the Historical Park, which is 12 km from the present-day commercial city of Sukhothai. Normally, you have to take a bus from Phitsanulok to the new city of Sukhothai and then find a ride from the city of Sukhothai to the historical sectional of Sukhothai.
Old Sukhothai, founded in 1238, was the original capital of Thailand. Due to all kinds of complicated rivalries and a big battle in 1583, the city of Ayutthaya assumed dominance. Old Sukhothai faded into ruins.
It's the ruins that we were here to visit. The heart of the original city has turned into a gigantic well-manicured park with lakes, shade trees, and several well-preserved stone Buddha temple complexes. The weather warmed up to a perfect 82ºF with a light breeze. It was ideal weather for walking, and the park offered 2 hours of magnificent strolling.
It's the ruins that we were here to visit. The heart of the original city has turned into a gigantic well-manicured park with lakes, shade trees, and several well-preserved stone Buddha temple complexes. The weather warmed up to a perfect 82ºF with a light breeze. It was ideal weather for walking, and the park offered 2 hours of magnificent strolling.
Just outside the park, shops, restaurants, and a big market sprang up to service tourists. At The Historical Garden Restaurant we got to talking with the new owner, a retired Englishman who just opened up the restaurant. He said he was in the hospitality industry all his life, and always wanted a place of his own. He found an dirty-oily-closed-up-service-station in the center of old town that, had restaurant written all over. I'm not sure if he bought it, or rented it, or even just squatted, but he revealed obtaining a permit only took 30 seconds followed by assembling a crew of locals, and in four weeks turned the place into a very nice looking establishment with living quarters on top. We stayed to have coffee and ordered a couple of sticky rice and mango dishes. He offers a beautiful and shady place to rest with a delicous menu.
Down the main drag, a street vendor was making an odd-looking treat. He had six round griddles with a spiral of rounded indentations about 3 inches in diameter and 1 1/2 inches deep, kind of like tiny cupcake pans. He put a coating of batter in each of the indentations, added a creamy white sauce, and sprinkled some stuff on top. The topping was different for each of the six griddles. One topping was coconut, and one was chives, another was corn kernels, and so forth. The bottom batter turned crispy with a hot creamy center. Of course, we had to sample one and ended up buying a few dozen. The creamy middle was like a mildly sweet custard.
A large city market was all under a massive tin roof. There were rows and rows of small vendor booths with all kinds of crazy food items from different versions of dried fish skins, to yellow roasted chickens with their heads still attached, to grilled eggs on a stick even in their shells, to baby corn cobs peeled and ready to eat raw.
The ride back was uneventful. There wasn't any direct way of getting back to Phitsanulok. Instead, we climbed into the back of a songthaew, an open-backed truck with bench seats to get as far as the new Sukhothai bus station. The truck rattled something fierce, but it was only 30 BHT each. Halfway to the bus station, the driver pulled into a gas station and asked us all to get out for five minutes. Perplexed, we complied. He then banged open his small engine hood and attached a fat hose with a peculiar looking coupling to a nozzle under his engine hood. I'll be, the truck ran on natural gas. Apparently, as a precaution, no one was allowed in the vehicle while filling. Jeez, I'm not sure if that made me feel safe or nervous. I had read that Thailand has an abundance of natural gas, but imports two-thirds of its oil.
As soon as we reached the Sukhothai bus station, a lady screamed at me, "Where go? Where go?" Surprised, I spit out something like Pit-su-look. Evermore excited by my answer, she pushed me toward a moving van yelling, "Now. Now." I surmised that it was the van back to Phitsanulok and ran for the van. It stopped, and the rest of my entourage followed me into the van. It wasn't the same van as this morning, so it was a bit more comfortable as far as the temperature went.