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Back in Time in Old Sukhothai


After a four-night stay, we looked forward to departing noisy frenetic Bangkok – eastern city of angels and devilishly dirty canals. We were booked 2nd class express air con but were dismayed to see our train pull up. More like a worn out subway car, the seats cramped our long legs and the journey north was not the pleasant experience we had played ahead in our minds.

Eight long hours on – and 2 hours late- we arrived in Phitsanulok, yet had another couple hours of travel ahead of us. First, a TukTuk (or as we call them – souped up golf cart) to the bus station, then a mini van for the one-hour trip to new Sukothai city, and after protracted negotiations, a Songtheaw (pick-up truck taxi) to the Orchid Hibiscus, a charming small guest resort managed by our second congenial Italian proprietor Paolo (the first being Guido in Amman).

Our Guest House

In his surprisingly strong Italian accent, Paolo informed us that our timing was impeccable as the old city would play host to the Festival of Lights the very next day in honour of King Ramkhamhaeng, noteworthy as the founder of the modern-day Thai alphabet and Theravada Buddhism; it was meant to be an auspicious occasion.

Dawn broke clear and bright, with a cacophony of birds cawing away in the jungle. Upon further inspection of the grounds, I discovered Paolo had a collection of exotic birds in large cages situated near our room – hence the early morning serenade. Rather distressing to see rare hornbills caged within; one hopped over to me and complained bitterly about his fate.


Bikes were conveniently available for rent directly across the street from our guest house for $2.50/day so Elaine and I booked a couple for our two-day stay, then rode into town where we scored some fresh fruit from the local farmer’s market to tide us over before breakfast. We noticed an island temple a couple of hundred feet off the road; locking up our bikes we crossed the wooden foot bridge to explore our first Thai temple in the area. We were alone as it was still early; we encountered fellow travellers once we passed through the walls of ancient Sukhothai ($5 entrance fee) a short bike ride away.


Elaine on bridge with bike

The site was abuzz with preparations for the big festival: staging, lighting, audio and video equipment was being assembled; food and trinket vendors and sponsors booths were being stocked, while banners and lights were being strung. Clearly, we would have to come back that night to take in all the excitement.


Festival of Lights

While unlocking our bikes outside of one of the magnificent 800 year old temples on the ancient site, Elaine called out: “Elephants!” I turned around to behold two of these gigantic beasts, bedecked in sequins, with a Mahout perched atop each one. They were right beside us! They weren’t stopping for photos however, so we followed their progress on our bikes as they silently lumbered toward their hut about 400 metres away. Stopping a short distance away we captured some fantastic images of the great beasts being disrobed and fed by their handlers. Later that night, these elephants, plus one more, would reenact a great battle that looms large in the annals of Sukhothai’s history.


Elephant sighting

We spent an enchanting morning exploring the temples, with their magnificent Buddha statuary and chedis, until the temperature turned unbearably hot. Suffice it to say the site was absolutely stunning but as this is not a history blog, you can read up on Sukhothai at the UNESCO World Heritage web site here.


Old City

Returning to our guesthouse after a delicious and cheap western style breakfast in the town neyond the temple walls, our primary goal was to swim and then lounge in one of the two Thai-style open bungalows adjacent to the resort pool until time to depart for the festival. Luckily, one of the bungalows was vacant so we spent several hours snoozing, reading and purging our systems of jet lag, which continued to torment us despite arriving in Bangkok five days previous.

Feeling wonderfully rejuvenated after several hours of this much-needed R & R, we hopped on our bikes with the aim of arriving at the old city for sunset. As we biked toward the cluster of small cafes and food stalls near the gates of the old City, we unwittingly became caught up in a large procession, led by the elephants now decorated in full regalia. The parade included a life-size Buddha on a pedestal and hundreds of Thais, young and old, dressed in elaborate silk traditional outfits.

The street and sidewalks were jammed with people so we had to negotiate our way, careful to not run over anyone’s foot with our tires, or to be mowed down ourselves. Finally we made it to the old city gates. The site was in full on festival mode, and a large stage near the statue of the hero king was filled with dignitaries who watched the procession pass.

The ancient ruins were lit up for the occasion, and the entire scene formed a palette of sound and light that invigorated our senses. We pedaled through the largely empty site as the sun slipped behind the palm trees. A sense of calm and peace prevailed over the site and we felt imbued with the magic and spirit of Buddhism.

Many photos later we wheeled to the main plaza where we discovered that the reenactment of a famous battle was about to begin; what perfect timing! Enter stage right and stage left: swarms of sword wielding warriors who battled for the hearts and minds of Sukhothai (so we gathered as we could not decipher the Thai narration over the loudspeakers). Next, the elephants in full on battle dress, as the mêlée raged on. The whole affair was very impressive and the crowd ate it up.

Awe-inspiring Khom Loi (sky lanterns) were released into the night sky and appeared to float toward the moon, perhaps led by the hand of Buddha. Fireworks blasted nearby, and the throng was encouraged to march under the elephants’ upraised tusks, which formed an arch for good luck; of course we had to follow tradition.

After our minds were satiated with all the excitement, we filled our bellies with a generous and inexpensive meal of local noodles and other treats in the temporary night market, and then shopped in the instant open-air mall filled with handicraft and clothing boutiques. Elaine ducked back in to the vendor area to fetch some freshly made rice crackers drizzled with brown sugar syrup, while I ensconced myself next to two baby elephants in the care of a couple of young Thai boys who were selling small bags of sugar cane for 20 baht (about $1), which they proceeded to feed their charges.

The sounds of Thai boxing (Muay Thai) and the rhythmic drumming of the boxing musicians, mingling with singing actors reenacting the stages of the Buddha’s life, all set within the ancient royal stuppas, chedis and giant Buddhas of the old city of Sukhothai- a symphony of other worldliness and magic.

This was why we traveled – to feed our minds and our souls (and our bellies!) so that we felt fully alive and appreciative of this amazing and wonderful world we live in.

And we still had another 3 and a-half months to go.

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7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tom Marshall #

    Your story and photos are amazing. Looks like you are off to a great start on your adventure!

    January 23, 2013
  2. Julia #

    good writing and I love the photo at the top 4167-so peaceful and lovley. lots of elephants, noise, history, food and culture!

    January 23, 2013
  3. ed agnew #

    Very exciting. We are freezing our a–es in Windsor!! Enjoy your selves. ed

    January 24, 2013
  4. Murph #

    Sounds like you’re adapting well,,,, marching under the tusks of sequin adorned elephants is a decent night out in any part of the world. The jet lag will hang tough, you’re 180 Deg. off, awake when you should be sleeping and vice a versa. A small pittance to pay for all the great adventure!

    January 24, 2013
  5. Rick Hillgartner #

    Great snaps. Looks like a good time /memories is in the making!

    February 11, 2013
  6. Michael Edwards #

    Amazing stories and photos. Happy you are well and safe.
    See you soon,

    Love Michael and family

    February 19, 2013

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