Friday, June 24, 2016

Part 1 - Chapter 4 -

Place: Lampang, Sukhothai
Time: September 1993


This little provincial town was a big change to Chiang Mai as it did not have much to offer for the ordinary tourist. My experiences in this city were so forgettable that I vaguely remember the visit. I wanted to move slowly southward and this was my first stop. After I had left Chiang Mai, I was still not in the condition to travel for a long time. I wanted to make only small steps. The city of Lampang was only two hours away. It seemed far enough to be my next destination. I wanted to see an even more extreme Western town eventually with saloon and real Thai cowboys. I was kinda disappointed as I saw that this town was mainly boring. There were no bars, only a couple of restaurants and the only Go-go club seemed to be closed on that day. Of course, I still wanted to move away off the beaten path but I had not expected complete boredom. But it had zero entertainment. It was also short on guesthouses but there were a few options of cheap hotels around the bus station. The most attractive thing to do was watching the carriages with their decorated horses. They drove the few tourists around in the city. I rented a motorbike to be a little bit more flexible. Still, it was not exciting even in the closer surroundings of the city. I could hardly see anything of interest. Maybe, I had been just too long already in the North. I had gotten used to the lifestyle and the nature. Chiang Mai was full of excitement and it was hard to get something comparable. Maybe, I was just even too tired for more adventures and did not look for it. Basically, I had already mentally finished with North as an episode of my journey. Lampang was not able to hold me for a longer time, maybe a good place to live but not good for holidays.


Before I came to this city, I had only experienced a little bit of Thai food culture. Lampang did not have options for western food or western restaurants. In this respect, it became my real entrance into Thai cuisine. I still smile when I think how naive I was before. I entered for the really first time a local restaurant. I had read and heard that you shall mainly go into restaurants which are frequented by locals. I had avoided this so far. this city helped me with the non-existing western food options to really get used to it.

I had some previous attempts trying Thai food but they were rather bizarre but not fantastic. In Chiang Mai, after the Khao Tom experience I had dined mainly with Thai friends or in rather western restaurants. I understand many people being misguided by their first experience with Thai food. People want to enjoy their holidays. I can emphasize with the people who tried local food one time but were disappointed. Instead of continuing having dreadful experiences with local food and spoiling their holidays, they might not try it again. I was forced on my course to just go the same way by my visit of Lampang. I am grateful, that I learned more about Thai food through visiting this city. Thai cuisine is fantastic! It might be difficult to get the right entrance into it, but rather try a few times before concluding an opinion. It might be difficult to really get hold of it at times. I had tried Thai food on the trekking tour and I could not really say that I liked it. My most bizarre experience in Chiang Mai had been the Chinese noodle soup with bits of ganja in it.  Now, this ganja soup did not have any poisoning impact on me. It was really tasty and so I had eaten it a few times. Ganja actually is a herb of Thai culture. Therefor, I loved the adventurous side of some of Thai food but did not value it yet.


Thai authorities had to allow ganja but didn't actually declare it as legal. It was at this time tolerated but not allowed to smoke it. The herb was used as a spice and for natural healing. Therefor, it was never a real surprise for me as modern science finally has been honest enough to speak about its medical advantages. In Chiang Mai, the ganja soup had the reputation of strengthening and good against cold and asthma. Yes, as Peter Tosh sang, the only cure for Asthma. There are quite a lot of urban legends around that getting caught with the herb could be punished harshly. In 1993 that was by far not the case. Probably, some stupid backpackers got caught in stoned conditions by police officers who scared them and so they paid too high fines. My general rule should be known by now - don't be an idiot! If you were smart enough, you could always find a grey zone where the officials could not act against you.


I began my journey into Thai cuisine, as above mentioned, rather accidentally in Lampang. I did not see any restaurant that I passed with a lot of people so I just went into one that looked quite nice. The menu was in Thai. One of the other customers helped and asked me what I wanted. Somehow, I wanted to eat fish. As I had heard, fish in Thailand is usually delicious. There are different seafood restaurants. At some of them you can pick your fish out of a tank and it will be prepared for you. Others just have a menu which includes fish that has been bought on the market.  Fish is not that expensive at the later ones. It is still tasty and I can suggest to try the fish first at these. I had no idea how Thais ordered their food. So, I just ask for one kind of fish where I saw from the price that it was not the cheapest but still in my budget. I got a nice looking fish but then I saw my mistake. I had not ordered any rice. In Thailand, whatever you order, you get it face value. You will not get any salad othe complimentories if they are not listed on the menu. You have to order the rice separately.Well, yeah, listening sometimes does help. I should have just agreed to get extra rice. I was not aware that extra did not mean that I got fish and rice and then one more time rice. It simply meant to order rice and the fish separately. There is a difference between the understanding of side dishes between Europe and Thailand. We expect the rice to be a side dish in the West. In Thailand anything that you order to the rice is the side dish. Rice is the most important part of a real Thai meal! Lesson learned, it never happened to me again that I overlooked to order the rice. Thais do not expect you to order rice but it is the main part and needs to be ordered additionally. There are so many different kinds of rice that this is even not a surprise. How shall the waiters know what kind of rice do you want? However, you will order first the side dishes and the rice at last item. The fish was fantastic. Thais as well differentiate between different parts of the country between Thai and Isaan food. This food from the Northeast of the country is usually spicier, hotter and does not feature the same dishes. After a few years I figured out that I had actually not eaten northern Thai but Isaan (Northeastern) food. It was my first really delightful local meal in Thailand and I started to love the cuisine.


My first experiences with a Thai approach to technology was a bit of a surprise as I traveled to Sukhothai. For the first time, I choose to go with an air conditioned bus in Thailand. I had made my reservation the day before and the bus started surprisingly for me on time. In this bus I got amazed by the Thai philosophy of turning the bus into a moving refrigerator. The only person not prepared for it was of course me. Well, I was the only foreigner on board. Fortunately, I had bargained on the night market in Chiang Mai a comparable thick hill tribe jacket. My bags, I had put into the luggage department at the end of the bus. I wanted to have more space and so I did not want to have too much space occupied by my bagpack. If it had not been the thick jacket, I had frozen the four hours of the journey. Next lesson learned, never travel in light clothes in the buses in Thailand. Always, have at least a jacket or a blanket that you can cover yourself. It is getting really cold in theses buses. After half of the way, we made one stop of around twenty minutes. There, I was up for the next surprise. The Thai passengers put on jackets to protect against the sun. This astonished me again. Most of them had a blanket over themselves in the bus. I had expected that everybody would feel similar like me and try to get some heat. This was based on a misconception. Thais do not like to get dark and try to keep out of the sun. Thais consider dark skin as not beautiful. It is pretty amusing for them to see the choice of girls of most foreigners. Many tourists in Thailand have dark skinned girls. Might that be because those women look even more exotic? On the journey to Sukhothai, I did not have the knowledge about a few things and so the Thai behaviour was something to wonder about.

My arrival in Sukhothai was not that nice as I had expected it from a town with very high cultural reputation.  I would have expected a town fully turned to the tourism and equipped with everything kept in pleasant conditions. I arrived in Sukhothai in the early afternoon. It was enough time to look for a good and cheap guest house. There is where the problem started, I don't know why people there did not care at all of providing well kept accommodations. I had expected to have a quite good selection opportunity. Sukhothai's Historical Park attracted people from all over the world. The site itself is one of the three most important Buddhist sites in the world. The guesthouse owners in Sukhothai, mainly with Chinese heritage, did not care about accompanying the cultural value with similar housing. They seemed to be eager representing dirt and greed. All guest houses and cheap hotels were stank in filth. They were not close to the standard of guesthouses in Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son. In some of these places it looked like somebody had smeared the shit from his hands directly on the wallpaper. In others the toilets were overflowing and the water stood in the entire guest house on the floor. It was disgusting! The owners must have estimated that visitors of the Historical Park could live up with staying in, literally, shit! This made my choice for staying only one night easy. Probably, most tourists or at least most back packers were forced to think the same. The people that provided accommodations were surprised by my remarks and critic.  They looked at me as they thought 'you want to stay here? go to the Historical Park and piss off again!' They did not give a fuck about the conditions of its hotels, and this included hospitality. I have rarely seen so many angry and impolite people then in this city. Clearly, they wanted money. Obviously, they did not want to give a fair deal to the visitors. In the end, I had luck not to have any bed bugs. Fortunately, I did not get any virus from sleeping there. This was definitely misunderstood hospitality. I was honestly disappointed from the conditions except the Historical Park itself.


I love Thai history and culture, I hope to bring it with the following short description closer to you. Thai culture as we understand it now, started in Sukhothai. At that time, it was not Thailand but Siam. Sukhothai was the first capital city of the Kingdom of Siam. However, it was not during Siamese reign that this city was built. Before the father of King Ramkhamhaeng started in this city the over 750 years long history of Siam and Thailand, he had to liberate it from the Khmer. Many people speak of Sukhothai as the first capital city of Siam. Well, indeed this is true. As said above, it was build by the Khmer during the Angkor Kingdom. Many sites such as also Pimai, near Nakhon Ratchasima, and Buriram were built before the existence of a Siamese Kingdom. Sukhothai had been a long time a vassal state of Angkor. This powerful kingdom declined around 900 years ago. In 1238, finally the first Siamese capital started to rule the region. It must have been an amazing time. In the Sukhothai Era Buddhism and called the religion's golden time. It was still free of influences from Brahmanism. These were introduced by the first kings of the following capital city, Ayutthaya. Sukhothai was in so far the cradle of Thai civilization as the third rule King Ramkhamhaeng introduced the Thai alphabet. This has beenknown as Lai Sue Thai. Witness of this are stone inscriptions which can still be seen in the city. Sukhothai quickly developed and had many vassal states. It expanded in the South to the Gulf of Thailand, in the North to Phrae and Northeast until nowadays Laos Luang Prabang. In the period of Sukhothai, Siam already started trading with China. After the death of King Ramkhamhaeng, the kingdom declined and was finally taken over by the kingdom of Ayutthaya. This new city established itself as the new leading kingdom of Siam. So far to the history of this city where the Historical Park features impressive buildings and statues from.

The Historical Park of Sukhothai has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site and this is more than justified. Now, the area is so large that there are different possibilities of transport to get around. In 1993, it was not yet divided into different zones. Therefor it is very different for the visitor nowadays, with its five areas. I would not be able to tell you which zone to go to, I enjoyed the pleasure of not being limited. I had to pay only one time and rented a bicycle to go around. I would not suggest to walk this area. It is too large, the distances between the temples, shrines and Buddha figures can be a few hundred meters. An additional factor which makes it difficult to get an impression by foot is the weather. I was in late September there and it was close to the rainy season in Thailand. Still, the sun burned so hot down that I had a super sunburn after two hours, even before lunch time. The park itself is wonderful. I think, there are over 50 sites on an area of over 70 square kilometers. Even, if you choose only to visit the closest sites, then you will have to spend a few hours. So, I cycled around and enjoyed until the early afternoon. It was fantastic to be culturally surrounded by the early culture of Thailand. It is just impressive. So, my suggestion, take your time to enjoy this fantastic site. 


 The only thing that was at the time of my visit outstanding was the Historical Park. I hope that Sukhothai has changed in the last two decades. There is nothing worse than not caring about the customers. The city lives from tourism and it is a shame that the people did not realize that already at the beginning, around forty years ago. The really bad conditions that I experienced have kept me back now for more than20 years of a second visit. That is a way to loose credit and not to make more profit. Some people think only about the fast profit. These are in Thailand mainly the Chinese Thai. I have made also further really bad experiences with them. If greed and fast money making overcomes real values of a touristic city, it can very fast loose its flair. The visit of Sukhothai finished my time in the North of Thailand, I departed with the night train to Bangkok and continued further to Surat Thani.

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