Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Thailand post #6: Sukhothai & Ayutthaya

This is my sixth post of nine, about my eight week trip to Thailand with my girlfriend Emily. You can read about our time in Bangkok here, Chiang Mai here, the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai here, Chiang Rai here and Pai here.

SUKHOTHAI


Sukhothai, meaning 'dawn of happiness' was the first capital of Siam and was established around 800 years ago. As Ayutthaya became home to the rich and powerful people in the country, Sukhothai was left to ruin and is now home to hundreds of beautiful and interesting ruins. The Sukhothai Historical Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

We travelled on a bus for around five-hours from Chiang Mai to Sukhothai. We then took a short ride in a shared taxi from the bus station to the main guest house area in the new city, where everyone else on our taxi was headed. We stayed at Ban Thai guest house, which is one of the main places the Lonely Planet travel guide recommends. As it turns out, there are very limited guest houses available and not a whole lot of things going on in the new city in general, especially not for tourists.

Arriving at the Sukhothai Historical Park

The old city is around a 30-minute drive away, with regular buses travelling to and from the new city. We got a tuk-tuk on the way there, as we had just missed a bus and it only cost a little bit more than the bus. The old city is split into different zones, including the main central zone, north and west zones. Each zone has a separate entrance fee, but this is a fairly small cost.

The central zone contains 21 ruined temples, surrounded by a large square moat. We decided we'd explore this one zone thoroughly, rather than travelling much further around the other zones. We hired bicycles for a small fee, which I'd highly recommend, as there is a lot of ground to cover! It was really lovely cycling around the park and we saw a lot more than we would have done had we been walking in the blazing heat. I'd definitely recommend taking a huge amount of bottled water with you to explore the old city.

Cycling around the Sukhothai Historical Park

The central zone is huge and we felt like we had the place to ourselves most of the time. We saw other tourists every so often, but for the most part, we enjoyed walking around quietly, taking in the incredible ruined architecture and stopping for lots of photos! One negative point to mention is that there are little food options once you are in the park and not a lot nearby. There is one small cafe in the central zone, but it only served drinks and cheese toasties. Not particularly filling or appetising after a long time spent cycling in the heat! 

One of many ruined temples in the Sukhothai Historical Park


After a great day of exploring the old city, we headed back to our guest house. There seemed to be very limited options for entertainment in the area and we decided to head to the night bazaar. This turned out to be around twenty small food stalls and certainly not tourist friendly. We went to a little restaurant recommended by the Lonely Planet guide book, called Dream Cafe. We had a tasty dinner here, but we were the only people in there, which was a little odd. We absolutely loved exploring the old city, but there is little else to do in the area and you only need to spend one day there. The next day we headed to Ayutthaya, on another bus that took over five hours.

AYUTTHAYA


Ayutthaya was once a thriving royal city, which was overturned by the Burmese army many centuries ago and left to ruin. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site

After travelling on this long bus from Sukhothai to Ayutthaya, we were annoyingly dropped at the side of a dual carriageway, which is actually the official bus stop. There was one taxi waiting, for which we got charged loads as we had no bartering power. We were dropped in the main guest house area of the city, which immediately seemed much more lively than Sukhothai, with lots of bars and restaurants.

We checked in at P.U Inn and got sold tickets for a river boat trip by the owner, which was due to depart just an hour later. We were squashed into the back of a pick up truck and taken to the river, where we got on a long tail boat with other people staying at our guest house. We stopped at several places along the way, where we got off to explore temples and ruins. Some of these were lovely, but some of them weren't particularly interesting and charged an extra fee for entering, which we had no choice but to pay, unless we wanted to sit and wait on the long tail boat.

Sunset behind one of the temples on the river trip

Whilst we were exploring the last temple as the sun was setting, which you can see above, we could hear a thunder storm in the distance. The long tail boat driver hurried us back onto the boat, to make the journey back to where we started. As the rain started hurtling down, our little boat was getting rocked around, with the water getting very choppy. As the light was disappearing, we could see fork lightning getting closer and closer to us, until it was landing just a few metres ahead of us. The journey can't have been that long, but it felt like ages! Even though the boat had a small canopy over it, we got absolutely soaked and were pleased to finally make it back to land, where we were told there would be a food market. When we got there, a lot of the stalls had packed up due to the heavy rain, which was disappointing. The boat trip was a strange experience and funny looking back at it, but quite scary at the time!

A huge Buddha in one of the temples on the boat trip. The photo doesn't do it justice

The next day, after a nice evening of food and drying off after the boat trip, we went to explore the many ruins in Ayutthaya. We lost our bearings, looking at the rubbish map our guest house owner gave us, so got a tuk-tuk to take us what turned out to be a very short distance to the main site we wanted to go to, Wat Mahathat. This is home to many beautiful ruins, but the main attraction is the Buddha head in the tree, which is said to be one of the most photographed things in the whole of Thailand! 

No one knows how the Buddha head in the tree came to be there, but some say that thieves tried to steal it whilst the temple was being ransacked, but dropped it because it was too heavy. The tree has grown naturally around it. Perhaps the picture doesn't do it justice, but it really was a magnificent thing to see in person. During monsoon season, waters often rise so high that started to cover the Buddha's head, as you can see in the photo below. Wat Mahathat is also home to many headless Buddha statues, which were damaged during the Burmese invasion, many centuries ago. 


Buddha head surrounded by monsoon flood water

After walking around lots of other ruins, we took shelter from the heat in the Million Toy Museum. This quirky museum was set up by a children's literature lecturer from a local University, who wanted to display the toy collection he has lovingly built up over many years. He aims to one day actually have one million toys on display. The museum itself is a modern building with lots of big windows, providing lots of natural light. There are so many interesting and awesome toys on display from over many decades, including some life sized models of Superman and other film characters. There was a small entrance fee and the museum was a great way to spend an hour sheltering from the sun. 

Exhibits at the Million Toy Museum

We spent the rest of our day in the swimming pool at P.U Inn, which was recently built and was very lovely. We ate here also and the food was tasty and reasonably priced. We had a funny encounter with the owner, where she was sat on the computer next to us in her lobby and she asked us to help translate some Trip Advisor reviews for her. Emily was helping her translate some, which turned out to be reviews saying how awful the guest house and the owner in particular were! We found the guest house to be pretty average, the owner a little strange, but not offensive and the swimming pool to be great. Overall Ayutthaya was a lovely place to visit and full of lots of incredible history. The next day we took a one-hour minivan to Bangkok, ready to catch a 17-hour bus down to Krabi, a beach resort in the South.

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