Sukhothai's Old City
ow, they say that you never forget how to ride a bike. I beg to differ.
The last time we rented bikes, in 2007 in China's Yunnan province,
I ran into a parked car.
However, we decided to risk skinning my knees again, and ponied up 50 baht to get some old-fashioned girls' bikes and rode them into the Old City of Sukhothai
--a park-like area preserving the central ruins of the former Thai royal capital.
The Sukhothai kingdom
was dominant in the area for a few hundred years, before the time of Europe's Renaissance . It was during this time that the Thai script was invented. When Sukhothai fell, the important Thai capital changed to Ayutthaya
and then later to Bangkok.
Having just come from the modern capital, we were interested to see the historical one.
The ruins of Sukhothai are now a scattering of bell-shaped chedis
and enigmatic Buddha statues in a vast park of lotus-dotted ponds and shady trees. Several of the ruined temples are on man-made islands accessed by bridges. Many of the temples have been partially restored by the Thai government, while others lie in intriguing disrepair--the bones of their magnificence.
Our first stop was at the biggest of the temples, the Wat Mahathat. This wat is a cluster of chedis which sit among the shade trees and palms like giant brick bells. Large Buddha statues sit cross-legged at the base of the main chedi while small relief carvings dance between them. We liked it enough to cycle by twice, once again when the sun was setting and the golden light lit up the carvings against the blue sky. Sukhothai didn't need the gold and mirrors of Bangkok's royal structures to luminesce.
Dan and I have visited Roman ruins, European colonial ruins, Greek ruins, Egyptian ruins, Chinese and Central Asian ruins. This, though, was the first time we'd seen anything in these shapes and we enjoyed it enough to give it a second day's visit.
I felt confident enough on the bike by our second day of cycling to brave riding along the road (even harder for me because Thailand's traffic ride on the left!) and managed to resist running into any of the parked cars or even the moving ones.
The second day we checked out a temple supported by elephant statues, a monastery whose inhabitants had taken a vow of silence, Buddha's footprint, and a herd of white Brahmin cows grazing in the ruins.
We also spent two glorious days in Sukhothai doing basically nothing at all. The weather was great, we lucked into a huge discount on our hotel room and managed to steal a wireless internet connection from somewhere, and best of all, we discovered Thai street food. I don't mean the ants and fried noodles we tasted in Bangkok, either. We found a whole little street that, between 5 and 6 p.m. sold a huge assortment of extremely cheap eats.
Some of the things sold on the street were instantly recognizable--fried chicken, banana pancakes, sliced fruit. But other things we just had to try to understand what they were.
The little alien-shaped fried things? Sweet potato. The blue dumplings? Candied pork in rice dough. Our tip-top favorite, though were the banana-leaf packets. At 10 Baht per packet (about 30-35 cents US), a woman with a knowing smile (knowing we wouldn't just eat one, that is) spread sticky rice from a cheesecloth onto a sheet of banana leaf about the size of printer paper then grabbed whatever meat you pointed to with her hands and spread a little of that on top, wrapped it up and secured it with a rubber band. No forks, knives, spoons or chopsticks are given out, so Dan and I just sat on the curb watching the other food stalls and ate it with our hands. And quickly went back for more.
Finally, after we'd tried all the banana-leaf flavor combinations and spent four days in Sukhothai relaxing, seeing history and tasting Thailand; we set off for the Cambodian border.**Click here to see our photos of Sukhothai****Click here to see photos of Thai food**
Bangkok's golden palace
On a sunny day, the Thai Grand Palace
in Bangkok is more dazzling than a disco ball. With spires of polished gold (“Could it really
?” you hear tourists asking each other) reaching up to the deep blue sky, it conjures more dreams of royal fantasy than Cinderella's palace at DisneyWorld.
It's like no other imperial residence I've seen. The famous Hall of Glass in Versailles, France, was dull compared to Bangkok's multicolored mirror mosaics. Palace staterooms where foreign dignitaries are met were as airy and well-planned as the chateaux and castles of Central Europe, but with furniture so lavishly inlaid with mother-of-pearl, ivory and corals they make their occidental tapestry-and-velvet cousins look dusty and careworn.
The outside, a low white wall encompassing the 18th century palace, is more demure than the cold facade of Buckingham Palace or the Palacio Real in Madrid, but over the fence the sun's tropical rays extend right down to the gold spires and rooflines, elevating their contours to the heavens.
Like European ones, the palace is part residence (although the King and royal family actually live in a different one), part museum, and part spiritual home of the country. Much of the palace complex is devoted to religion: it houses the famous Emerald Buddha
, a foot-high sacred jade statue. Like the Infant of Prague statue of baby Jesus, the Emerald Buddha has different clothes (of pure gold and gems) for different seasons and a museum of offerings presented to him by the faithful.
Because the palace is holy ground, visitors are asked to cover up in respect: no naked shoulders, ankles or bellies allowed. This poses a problem for tourists not used to Thailand's hot weather but provides an opportunity for scammers who wait outside the palace gates selling more modest clothing and telling people they'll be turned away without it. In fact, you can borrow shirts, long pants and wrap-around skirts inside the palace grounds for a small deposit. And also to show respect, visitors are asked to take off their shoes and enter the Emerald Buddha's wat
(temple) and museum barefoot. The result: a more tactile visiting experience unmarred by tapping heels. Hospitals, hotel rooms and all homes are other no-shoe zones, it seems.
Next door to the palace is another important wat, the home of a 46-meter reclining gold and mother-of-pearl Buddha. Like the palace, Wat Pho
is another study in shiny-ness and we were lucky to watch the sun start to set behind the gold and mirrors.
Thai Buddhist temples have a much different layout than the Chinese ones we're used to. In China, you first enter a rectangular courtyard with decorative trees and plants. In front of the first altar are sandy boxes holding smoking trios of prayer incense. The more important altars are behind the first altar, or sometimes to the side through another set of courtyards. The Thai temples we have seen seem less linear. At Wat Pho, funnel- and syringe-shaped chedi
(free-standing buildings to house relics) ranging from six feet to the height of a several-story building dot the grounds of the temple while altars and secondary temples are often within the same courtyard. The forests of milk-candy colored chedi and swooping golden and red roofs of the temple outbuildings, the gnarled ancient trees and stone animals make Wat Pho a fairy's garden of unexpected turns.
When we weren't sightseeing at the big-name tourist attractions of Wat Pho and the Grand Palace, Dan and I wandered the streets taking in the smells and sounds as well.
Bangkok, as heard from our hotel room off of the infamous backpacker Mecca of Khao San Road, was a mixture of live cover bands, the staccato purr of motorized rickshaws (tuk tuks
locally), the sighing whistle of traffic around the corner and the unsettled coos of the pigeons on our roof.
Bangkok, as smelt from the alleys of Chinatown, is a perfume of engine grease, sweet but tangy fish sauce, char-grilled chicken satay and sweaty backpacker.
Bangkok, as seen at night in the smutty district of Patpong, is yellow lights spiced by neon bar signs, the sly glance of a ladyboy; the tired expression of sidewalk women selling kitsch, the ironed shirtfronts and eager advances of touts for the not-very-well-hidden ping pong shows.
Bangkok was fun, it was exhausting, it was gorgeous. It was a little bit expensive for us.
After three days we took off for a more relaxing Thailand up north—the former capital of Sukhothai. But, like magpies, we'll be back, looking for more shiny things. ** Click here to see photos of Bangkok**
“Don't go to this beach,” the tour guide instructed the 40 of us on the boat, all of whom were gazing longingly at the alabaster strip of sand nestled between soaring karst peaks.
“Why not?” he quickly heard, in five languages.
“There are crocodiles there.” he said readily, with a hint of a smile. “Big crocodiles. But they don't swim, so-- just don't go on the beach.”
“Crocodiles?” One of the non-English speaking tourists asked. They weren't getting the joke.
“Crocodiles,” he affirmed with a bigger smile, and then translated himself into Thai to relieved laughter. Obediently, we just went for a dip, and saved our beach-walking for later stops on the tour.
Under water, once the masks and snorkels were doled out, there were no signs of water-wary reptiles. Just hundreds of greedy little yellow-and-silver striped fish gobbling up the bread we brought them and dozens of other fish who ignored the splashing tourists above them.
We were on an all-day speedboat trip from the peninsular city of Krabi to the island paradise of Koh Phi Phi. After a lot of deliberation we had decided that actually staying on Koh Phi Phi was out of our price range, so we took a tour instead and stayed on the much-cheaper mainland.
The tour included stops at Koh Phi Phi for lunch, Maya Bay (made famous in Leonardo DiCaprio's The Beach
), three snorkel jaunts (with lifejackets for those non-swimmers—what a lot of splashing!) and a couple of pauses for photo ops with the famous limestone land- and seascapes. The islands stretch above the cerulean Andaman Sea, sheer cliffs stained by streaks of red and green mineral deposits and lichens.
Some of the cliffs house caves full of edible-nest swiftlet birds
. We stopped at one that is being worked by miners who sell the birds' nests for Chinese soup. The workers live in the caves for three or four years at a time, the tour guide told us.
Later, we stopped at a place called Monkey Bay, where monkeys come down to sit in the trees by a tiny beach and accept fruit from the tour guides. Our boat only nosed up to the beach, but we got close enough to see a few of the monkeys, completely used to human presence, sitting on the trees and looking down at the other boats' tourists' flashing cameras below them as if the monkeys were the ones sightseeing.
The best stop on the day though was a tiny island called Bamboo Island. This little flat island has a few tents and a park ranger station, a kiosk selling some beer and snacks, and a gorgeous expanse of beach on the Koh Phi Phi side. We stopped there for an hour or so, did some more snorkeling and took a stroll down the foamy sand to take pictures of Koh Phi Phi's coastline in the blue distance.
We were back at our hostel (The Blue Juice, highly recommended) in Krabi just in time for happy hour before the night market started up for our supper of curry, rice and cheap Chang beer.**Click here to see photos of our snorkeling excursion!!**
is the website of the tour operator, Chok Paisan Andaman. Recommended.
You've got to try this green thing.”
Dan's stepfather describes an icy drink with green noodles “like worms” in it. Later, before we leave, Dan's mom prides herself on her Penang-derived cuisine repertoire.
A few days later, on the plane, Dan waits for the bathroom and falls into conversation about Penang with a flight attendant. He comes back to our seats with a Malaysian Immigration arrivals card covered with suggestions of what to eat while we're there.
At a hostel we ask for a room but pick up a map dedicated to finding eateries in Penang.
This is Malaysia's Food City.
For years people have been telling us how good the eating is in Penang, but, after tasting the curries and stir-fries of Kuala Lumpur we had wondered--could it get better?
Well, it can.
Our first meal in multi-ethnic Penang consisted of something we'd had umpteen times. Dim sum, the southern Chinese snacking meal-- a breakfast or brunch of small dishes, for example dumplings or filled buns.
When we lived in our first home in China, Foshan, we went out for dim sum several times a month. But the cha siu bao
(barbecued pork buns), pai guat
(steamed pork ribs) and hai gao
(shrimp dumplings with transparent dough) were all better or at least on par with what we'd eaten in China proper. There was an added element to the flavors of the Mainland—a certain spicy sweetness that intensified as we sipped the licorice-infused Chinese tea.
Next, we were off to try Indian food.
At the Rosa Mutiara on Chiula St. we were coerced by very friendly wait staff into sitting down for some tandoori chicken. This is something on the menu of every Indian restaurant in the world, and we'd just had it a few months ago when we passed through K.L. However, this chicken was exactly the right balance between well-done and moist and the seasoning of the cheese naan bread and the mutton curry we ordered were also perfect.
Over our next few days in Penang we continued our adventures in eating rather than sightseeing.
When we weren't at the lunch table, we took in the Penang Hill train ride (and the candy-colored Hindu temple on top), visited the still-expanding Kek Lok Si Chinese temple in nearby Air Itam, and wandered the streets of Georgetown's Chinatown and Little India. We walked by the wharf where the Chinese immigrants had worked—were Dan's maternal forefathers among them?
But what lingers in the mind are the memories of sampling Colin and Marilyn's “green noodle” dish—chendul--at Penang's most famous chendul maker, in a little side street near the KOMTAR shopping complex, sipping fresh fruit juice in a night market, and queuing for our curries at the Line Clear side alley on Penang Street. We tried Hokkian Mee and Mee Curry, Char Koay Teow and searched high and low before finding an open outlet for Hainan Chicken rice.
Just when we realized we hadn't tried it all, it was time to leave on the early morning mini-bus for our next adventure—Krabi, Thailand.**Click here to see photos of Penang!**
Australia is big.
I know that like a fact, the same way that I knew before going that China was overpopulated or that Malaysia would be humid.
But taking the train out to Kalgoorlie from Perth, the facts of Australia's vastness (almost three million square miles of area; 24,000 miles of coastline) are set out like a personal lesson in geography.
The train from East Perth to the goldrush town of Kalgoorlie is called the Prospector, a sleek, air-conditioned three-car (sometimes only two) locomotive. Settled in the plush seats eating sandwiches from the buffet and watching the suburbs of West Australia's capital recede into farmland and bush, I wondered how the men the train was named after survived this journey as they pushed donkey carts or rode camels mile after waterless mile.
Now, the trip takes about seven comfortable hours, stopping briefly at some one-street country towns--easy to miss if you close your eyes for a nap or get engrossed in the movies shown on the screen above your seat. But back then, when the trip was a real ordeal, these small towns must have been oases to the gold-smitten travelers.
We crossed salt flats, groves of gum trees and plains of native grasses. Birds flitted away from the sudden approach of the train and I searched for kangaroos until my eyes hurt.
Kalgoorlie was founded in the late 1800s when some Irish prospectors noticed gold on the ground. It turned out to be a lot of gold, and soon gold fever had brought prospectors pouring in to the waterless desert to search the ground now known as the "Golden Mile."
City fathers figured out how to pipe water the 500 or so miles from Perth, brothels sprang up to accommodate the lonely miners and a large gambling and drinking culture grew in the scores of saloons built in the city's heyday.
Now, the water still flows from the coast, the brothels remain but also make money turning tours as well as tricks and the saloons still capture gold miners' attention with scantily-clad waitstaff. The Golden Mile has consolidated from many privately-owned mines into a huge operation known as the 'Super Pit,
' an open cut gold mine three and a half kilometers long and more than 350 meters deep.
To Dan's disappointment, the famous Hay Street brothels just looked like windowless motels (we didn't pay for a tour) and the "skimpie" waitresses weren't on duty on Monday or Tuesday nights.
But while in Kalgoorlie we did venture out to the Super Pit's free viewing platform to gape at the size. We also took an underground tour at a defunct mine, panned for gold with Dan's mother and stepfather, and watched the nation-stopping Melbourne Cup horse race on TV (and won a little money!) before heading back across the vastness to Perth. ** Click here to see pictures from Kalgoorlie!**