Chiang Mai, Thailand, May 21
Thailand (Part 5)
Today we made a very early start in order to spend the morning shopping for noodle bowls and chopsticks at the Chatuchak weekend market. Located in a park near the last northern stop on Bangkok's clean and efficient Skytrain, the market contains thousands of vendors selling just about everything. It is so big in fact that there are large mall-style floor plan information maps posted at major intersections of the twisting market alleyways. We spent a few hours in the market (well beyond my shopping threshold) contemplating various pottery designs. Eventually we decided to wait and see what we could find in Lampang and northern Thailand and, if necessary, Sue could return to the market when we came back to Bangkok in a few weeks.
After lunch at one of the many small market cafes, we rode the Skytrain back to central Bangkok to go to the mega-mall at Siam Center. Having enjoyed our previous air-conditioned cinema experience so much, we bought tickets to see another movie. While waiting for showtime, we did some more shopping in the mall where I bought a decent Yamaha acoustic guitar for about US$100 and then we really splurged for a meal of tasty cheeseburgers at Sizzler's.
This morning we undertook a lengthy bus and concrete jungle hiking adventure to attend church at the Evangelical Church of Bangkok. The service was in English, with the congregation made up mostly of expatriates and embassy employees.
After church we ate some great dosas, samba, and roti at a small Indian restaurant nearby and then spent the afternoon shopping and writing email.
Today we headed out of Bangkok's frenetic urbanity by taking a ferry across the Chao Praya River to Thonburi and then catching a train for a pleasant three hour ride west into the countryside to the town of Kanchanaburi. The town is best known as the site where the 'Death Railway Bridge' crosses the River Kwai. The bridge was originally built during WWII by prisoners and conscripted Asian workers to complete the Thai-Burmese railway under the direction of the invading Japanese. Approximately 16,000 POWs and 96,000 Asians died during the bridge construction due to forced labor and harsh conditions.
On board the train to Kanchanaburi a very friendly young woman was touting for a place called the Canaan Guest House. We agreed to stay there because she was so nice (not pushy as hotel touts usually are) and we liked the name (Canaan being the biblical Promised Land). The place turned out to be quite decent and cheap (150 baht (about US$3.50) versus the 600 baht we had been paying for our room in Bangkok). The food was good, and the women running things were helpful and friendly (also a switch from our place in Bangkok).
The guesthouse offered tour options of area sights but they were a bit pricey for our budget. Since all we were really interested in seeing were the River Kwai Bridge, the Allied War Cemetary, and the waterfall at nearby Erawan National Park, we opted to rent a motorbike for the day and conduct our own tour instead.
We rose early to eat and gas up our motorbike and made it down to the bridge before it was crawling with swarms of packaged tourists. The bridge was completed in 1942 but subsequently destroyed by British air raids in 1947. The bridge currently standing is a reconstruction built as a memorial to the POWs and Asian laborers who lost their lives. After part of the way across the empty bridge and back, we found our way up to the roof of a nearby building to take some photos.
Leaving the bridge we headed north along route 3199 toward Erawan National Park. After riding for about 60 kilometers through increasingly beautiful scenery, we turned into the park entrance. We paid the entrance fee, parked our bike, and hiked along the trail leading to the first tier of the seven-tiered waterfalls. There were only a few people swimming in the pools beneath the falls, all locals. At the guesthouse we had heard that trekking to the seventh tier was worth the effort so we began the ascent. Almost an hour later we arrived at the top to the spectacular sight of cascades splashing down through pale blue pools. The constant flow of the mineral-rich water had caused limestone deposits to form smooth slopes beneath each cascade. There were almost no other people around and we refreshed ourselves in the falls and the cool water of the pools below. We rested a while and ate the peanut butter sandwiches we had brought along, then headed back down to the bottom of the trail.
From Erawan we continued northward in hopes of getting to the Phra That Cave, but after riding for a few kilometers along a rough dirt road drawing quizzical looks from passing farmers, we decided to turn back and visit the more easily accessible Sri Nakharin Dam instead.
A popular tourist activity in Kanchanaburi Province is elephant trekking and although we had no desire to ride an elephant, we thought it would be nice to see some. Heading back south toward Kanchanaburi we saw some signs for an "elephant camp" so we turned off the highway and followed a side road. When we arrived at the camp we saw no signs of elephants except for some enormous metal gates. A man inside managed to inform us that the elephants had been taken down to a nearby river. Intrepid Suzanne, the real driving force behind our elephant search, convinced me to ride down an unmarked dirt trail across the road in hopes of finding the elephants' river hideaway. We rode for a few kilometers, spurred on by the occasional sighting of elephant dung. This prompted Sue to adopt the motto "Follow the Elephant Poop, Follow the Elephant Poop!" (to the tune of 'Follow the Yellow Brick Road'). Eventually we began to run dangerously low on gas and had to turn back. Although we didn't find any elephants, we were treated to some beautiful valley landscape.
We arrived back in Kanchanaburi late in the afternoon. We stopped by the Allied War Cemetary but it was already closed, so we were only able to look in from the large metal gates. From there we cruised over to Apple's Guest House for dinner in their guidebook recommended restaurant. We were considering taking a Thai cooking class at this guesthouse, but unfortunately the owner and chef (Apple) was out of town.
This morning we took a five hour bus ride further northwest to the small town of Sangkhlaburi located in the mountains along the western Thai-Myanmese border. The area is home to many migrants of the Karen and Mon mountain tribes who have at one time or another fled aross the border from political oppresion in Myanmar. We had some exposure to these cultures even before arriving in Sangkhlaburi as our bus stopped to pick up several Karen people along the way. These included a group of uniformed schoolchildren (who were highly amused by our presence on the bus) and and some elderly women returning from a market. One of the older women, to our surprise and delight, appeared to be smoking a large hand-rolled cigar. (We continued to see more of the Karen women's peculiar smoking habits over the next couple of days.)
Once in Sangkhlaburi we checked in to the P. Guest House and set out to explore the area. We walked down to the edge of town on the shore of Lake Khao Laem and crossed the longest wooden bridge in Thailand (400 meters), the self-proclaimed "bridge of Reverend Auttamo", to a Mon village on the far side. We wandered through the streets of the village for a while, drawing curious looks here and there and giggling "Hello!"'s from the children. We stopped in a small restaurant of sorts for some delicious Mon beef curry and then headed back to Sangkhlaburi as it was getting dark.
Our plan for the day was to rent a motorbike from the guesthouse and ride north to the border crossing at Three Pagodas Pass. Besides going simply for the really cool name, we were hoping to catch some great views of the mountains along the way. Unfortunately, we awoke to pouring rain. Undaunted, Sue reasoned that we had spent good money on rain gear for such occasions and we should put it to use. I had to agree and after breakfast we rode out of town wearing our high tech rain coats, rain pants, and ponchos to protect us from the cold, driving rain.
About 20 kilometers outside of town we came to a Thai army checkpoint on the road. I slowed as we approached (not that I was going very fast in the torrential downpour), thinking that we may have to show some identification and state our intentions. Instead, the guards just waved us through. In retrospect, I'm sure we looked more comical than suspicious in our brightly colored rain gear.
A few kilometers further on we reached Three Pagodas Pass. The area was fairly nondescript, with the views shrouded in clouds and the actual pagodas quite small. We browsed through some souvenir shops near the border crossing to dry off, then headed back to Sangkhlaburi.
We crossed over Lake Khao Laem into the Mon village by way of a vehicular bridge (not Reverend Auttamo's wooden bridge) and stopped in for a look at the Wat Wang Wiwekaram. The wat was not much to see, especially in the rain, so we wandered through the adjacent and nearly deserted handicraft market. Inside we found a food vendor who made us some hot noodle soup to warm our numb bodies. After eating we waited for a while in vain for the rain to let up and then headed back to the guesthouse.
We spent most of the day on the road travelling from Sangkhlaburi to the city of Ayutthaya about 200 kilometers north of Bangkok. The journey involved a 6:30 am mini-van back to Kanchanaburi, followed by a bus ride to Suphanburi, and then a conecting bus to Ayutthaya.
Thinking about all of this bus riding has made me realize something about riding buses in Southeast Asia, and Thailand in particular. I like riding the bus. I mean I have really grown to enjoy it. When travelling in the manner we have been (that is, independently and on a tight budget), making the neverending daily decisions about where to go and how to get there can become downright overwhelming. Sorting out routes and schedules at a public bus station in a foreign country where one cannot read or speak the language is almost always a nervewracking experience. But when your bus finally pulls out of the terminal, and you've got a decently comfortable seat near an open window, and you know that for the next few hours you can just vegetate while watching the scenery go by, well that's a good feeling. (This is all assuming, of course, that you're on the right bus.)
This simple pleasure is cheap as well. Today's bus rides, a total of about 9 hours worth, cost less than US$10 for the both of us.
I really like this state of public bus bliss but inevitably, as we near our destination, a feeling of apprehension begins to grow in my gut because I know that as soon as we walk off the bus, with our foreign faces and big backpacks, there will be a horde of taxi drivers, souvenir vendors, and hotel touts, all trying to give us their 'extra special friend' price. The adrenaline begins to flow. I start to get defensive and fall into an 'us vs. them' mentality, fully expecting everyone to be trying to rip us off. Then Sue helps me put things back into perspective by saying "Recuerdes tu sonrisa!" ("Remember your smile"). So anyway, despite the before and after hassles, I dig riding the bus.
We rolled into Ayutthaya in the middle of the afternoon and made our way through the crowds to the Ayutthaya Guesthouse where we checked into a large room overlooking the street. Ayutthaya was the capital of Siam for four centuries, until 1767 when the Burmese invaded and the capital was moved to Bangkok. These days the main attractions of the city are the many crumbling ruins of palaces and temples built in the distinctive 'Ayutthaya period' style. As it was too late in the day to start any sightseeing, we instead walked to a nearby market for a tasty meal of mee with mu (noodle soup with pork) and roti mataba (Muslim stuffed bread).
After gassing up our rented motorbike and acquiring a tourist map of the city we set off on a one day whirlwind tour of Ayutthaya's major sights. The skies were cloudy and let out some occasional light precipitation, but we were not deterred, being veterans of motorbike riding in the rain. Starting with the furthest sites across the river our first stop was at St. Joseph's, the oldest Catholic church in Thailand. We were hoping to find the church in operation so we could attend mass, but it was locked up tight. However, considering the lack of readable road signage and the obviously untouristed location, it was practically a miracle that we found the church at all. We questioned a man working on the grounds and concluded he was trying to tell us that the church was closed for a fumigation treatment. (This made sense considering the white smoke we noted escaping from vents above some of the windows.)
From the church we headed over to the easy to find and more popular Wat Chai Wattanaram. Located on the western bank of the Chao Praya River, the wat's well-preserved main chedi surrounded by four smaller prang were eerily picturesque. The wat was built in 1690 by King Prasat Thong in memory of his mother and in glorification of himself. How touching.
We crossed back over the river and rode around for a while in confusion before finding our way to the Wihan Phra Mongkhon Brophit temple. I stepped inside briefly among throngs of worshipping Thai tourists to check out the largest bronze Buddha in the country at over 12 meters in height. From there we walked north to the site of the ancient Royal Palace and the royal monastery, Wat Phra Si Sanphet. We wandered through the ruins for a while, observing the three large chedi which at one time contained the remains of a king, his father, and his brother.
After stopping off at a market for snacks, we came upon a strange sight near the center of town. Several elephants decked out in royal colors were gathered in a corral on the side of the road shovelling heaps of vegetation into their mouths with their trunks. We pulled over and saw that this was the staging area for a company running tours of the ruins via elephant. Sue was very excited to finally see some elephants up close. We watched the elephant breaktime for a while and found it amusing that some of the "drivers" were perched atop the elephant saddles napping while their respective pacaderms were chowing down.
(A few weeks later I saw an article in a newspaper saying that the elephant riding tours in Ayutthaya were to be shut down because of the traffic snarls they were causing.)
Our last stop was at Wat Mahathat to see a stone carving of the Buddha's face entwined in the roots of a tree. We spent the rest of the afternoon checking email at a cafe as a heavy rain fell outside. After the rain let up in the evening we headed over to the night market for dinner and then we again made the rounds visiting several of the ruins to see them illuminated by floodlights.
We were up with the roosters this morning to pack up and catch a tuk-tuk to the long distance bus station a few kilometers outside of town. From here on out our route through Thailand would take us continually northward until we could exercise our recently acquired visas and cross the border into Laos. Our next major stop along this route would be the country's second largest city of Chiang Mai, but before that we had some important business to attend to, namely pottery shopping for noodle bowls in the town of Lampang.
At the terminal we boarded a 6:30 am bus and by midday were riding a songthaew from Lampang's bus station into the center of town. We took a very basic room at the TT&T Guesthouse, treated ourselves by having our laundry washed for a dollar, and after Sue had the guesthouse owner remove a huge spider from the communal bathroon, we headed into town in search of the pottery market.
Our guidebook didn't mention anything about pottery in connection with Lampang, but we were doubting it's credibility on the subject as per our adventure in Nonthaburi and Ko Kred. We were going on word-of-mouth information and a map of Lampang that Sue had found in a tourism brochure which highlighted a section of the town labelling it as the 'Ceramics Market'.
Well, to make a long story only slightly shorter, we explored the streets of this alleged ceramics market area for a couple of hours and all we found were a few small shops selling mainly cheezy ceramic trinkets. We decided to ask for help at the town's tourist information center where a woman who spoke some English explained that Lampang's ceramics industry was geared towards large scale manufacturing with several factories located far from the city center. She gave us a better tourist map with the factory locations indicated and directions to a factory showroom in town.
We thanked her and walked a few blocks to the showroom, but found only more trinkets and ornately glazed pottery, not the simpler earthenware style we were looking for. Tired and a bit frustrated we wandered around for a while, looking for an Internet cafe or a cheap, decent-looking place to eat. Eventually we stumbled upon a large night market which turned out to be the saving grace of the day. Amid some curious looks, we settled down at a table in a busy food vendor's stall and feasted on fried rice with squid and vegetables, chicken satay with a phenomenal peanut sauce, melon shakes, and a couple of big bottles of Beer Chang.
We considered renting a motorbike for the day and touring Lampang's ceramics factories in hopes of finding more showrooms and the bowls we wanted, but instead decided that one day was more than enough time wasted there. We would continue our search as time allowed at the marketplaces in Chiang Mail and cities further north.
We hired a songthaew to drive us down to the bus terminal just outside of town and then, as our bus was not leaving for a few hours, checked our bags into the terminal's luggage storage room. We decided to kill some time by walking to one or two of the ceramics factories which were nearby the bus terminal according to the map we had picked up at the tourist office the day before.
After walking for about half an hour through an obviously very untouristed area we realized that our map was not to scale in a big way. Finally, after almost an hour, we reached one of the factories and to our delight found that it contained a large warehouse filled with finished products. It was staffed by a few women half-heartedly engaged in the neverending task of dusting all of the pieces on display. We spent a good while searching through the warehouse and found some interesting bowl sets, but not quite what we were looking for.
Having some more time to spare, we decided to take our chances on walking to another "nearby" factory. After another long hike which involved walking along the shoulder of a busy highway and down a narrow road past a meat processing factory, we found the entrance to the NGB Ceramics Company. Two large water buffaloes were lounging in a big mud puddle in the dirt road just outside the gate. You get the idea. We walked up to a group of factory workers on lunch break and they directed us to the factory office. Inside we met a very nice woman named Ningnong. She was the managing director of the factory and spoke very good English, having worked abroad in the past. We explained that we were looking for earthenware noodle bowls. Ningnong told us that the factory was currently configured to produce ceramic figurines (piggy banks and such - we saw a few), but after the arrival of some new super-duper manufacturing equipment from Japan next month, they would be able to produce as much earthenware as we wanted. She showed us into the manufacturing area and we observed a small army of workers clad in white smocks and surgical masks busily operating equipment cranking out cute little kittens and giraffes.
"So, how many bowls are you interested in? 5,000? 10,000? More than one freight shipping container?"
Uh...what?? It suddenly dawned on me what was happening here. The only foreigners silly enough to make a trip all the way to Lampang, Thailand and beyond that to a ceramics factory buried down at the end of a narrow dirt road out in the suburbs must be large volume buyers looking to make a deal. I laughed on the inside.
I tried to answer without sounding utterly ridiculous. "Hmm, not quite that many I think. Maybe just a few?"
Ningnong seemed unfazed. "Yes, very good! I will call the owner and he can come down and talk to you."
We were a bit unsure what to do at this point, but figured meeting the owner might be fun. While waiting for him to show up, Sue and I walked a little farther down the road to look for a place to eat lunch. (Even in this unusual location, we had noted some side-of-the-road food stalls along the way.) We noticed another ceramics factory down the road and stopped in for a look, but their specialty was huge jugs and planters. Returning back toward Ningnong's factory we passed by two elderly women in the front courtyard of a house. They were cooking up some tasty smelling soup. I'm not sure if they were actually running a business or just making their own lunch, but as soon as we expressed interest, they were more than happy to sit us down at their table, serve us some really good homemade noodle soup with pork, and then take 40 baht off of us.
We went back to the NGB Ceramics Company and talked some more with Ningnong. She showed us a catalog produced by the local ceramics industry association and pointed out some other factories that we may be interested in visiting as well. She even offered to drive us around and then drop us at the bus terminal. We liked the idea.
The factory owner showed up a short while later and we chatted for a while. He also seemed quite agreeable even after learning we only were looking for a few bowls and happily told us about the factory equipment upgrade project. Having pressing matters to contend with as all factory owners do, he had to leave after a few minutes.
We got into Ningnong's truck and headed over to another factory concealed amidst a maze of twisty alleyways in another part of town. Ningnong spoke with some people working in the factory and they led us into a tiny showroom. They had some nice earthenware bowls, but were not taking any orders for now because of a backlog. We left the factory and Ningnong suggested we go to meet a man named Barry, an British expat now living in Thailand and running a productive ceramics exporting business. She thought we might be interested in doing business with him.
Having nothing much better to do, Sue and I agreed. We arrived at Barry's residence, a suite in a Lampang hotel, and he greeted us exuberantly. His living room contained oodles of ceramic products which he was involved in exporting to various customers around the world. He happily explained how he had lived in Thailand for the last fifteen years, made connections with the local factories and developed a successful business. He showed us various products, including noodle bowls, and described the manufacturing and shipping costs involved. Basically, anything we wanted to manufacture and export, he could arrange. I was impressed. Sue looked bored.
Not wanting to rain on his parade, I tried to ask some intelligent questions like, "Hmm, is this piece made from titanium silicon carbide?", tossing around some raw materials terminology I had read in the ceramics catalog back at the factory.
"Yes!", answered Barry and continued his explanation in more technical detail, prefaced by "I can see you know a bit about ceramics!".
After an hour of ceramics industry edification, we parted with Barry, but agreed to contact him if we decided to follow through on our plans to possibly open up a ceramics shop somewhere down the line. A short while later Ningnong dropped us off at the bus station. We thanked her for her help and promised to keep her in mind when considering future factory orders. We collected our backpacks from the storage room and boarded our bus heading north to Chiang Mai.
Late in the afternoon we rolled into Chiang Mai and checked into a nice room with a bathroom, fan and satellite TV at the Rendezvous Guest House. After a cheap meal from a street vendor, we spent the evening wandering through the huge night bazaar along Chang Klan Road, and then made it an early night, exhausted from our day's amusing adventure.
The River Kwae Bridge (1), Kanchanaburi
The River Kwae Bridge (2), Kanchanaburi
Erawan Falls (1), Erawan National Park
Erawan Falls (2), Erawan Falls National Park
Oh no! More monkey pictures! (Erawan National Park)
Smiling for the camera, Erawan National Park
Forest spirit house and shrine, Erawan National Park
Forest spirit house interior decorating, Erawan National Park
Elephant Crossing, near Kanchanaburi
Allied War Cemetary (for soldiers who died during the contruction of the River Kwae Bridge, WW II), Kanchanaburi
Longest wooden bridge in Thailand, Sangkhlaburi (Mon village opposite)
Mon village on the shore of Khao Laem Dam lake, Sangkhlaburi
Mon children walking home from school, Sangkhlaburi
Inside the Mon village, Sangkhlaburi
The monk's houseboat, Sangkhlaburi
Suzanne demonstrates clever improvisational skills during a sudden rainstorm, Sangkhlaburi
Saint Joseph Church, Ayutthaya
Wat Chai Wattanaram (1), Ayutthaya
Wat Chai Wattanaram (2), Ayutthaya
Wat Chai Wattanaram (3), Ayutthaya
Wat Chai Wattanaram (4), Ayutthaya
Wat Chai Wattanaram (5), Ayutthaya
Wat Chai Wattanaram (6), Ayutthaya
Wat Chai Wattanaram (7), Ayutthaya
Wat Chai Wattanaram (8), Ayutthaya
"Please DO NOT take a picture of the Buddha Sculpture like this."
"Buddhave", Wat Chai Wattanaram, Ayutthaya
I did not see the sign in the previous photo before taking this picture. Honestly!
Wat Phra Si Sanphet (1), Ayutthaya
Wat Phra Si Sanphet (2), Ayutthaya
Wat Phra Si Sanphet (3), Ayutthaya
Wat Mahathat (1), Ayutthaya
Wat Mahathat (2) (Buddha in a tree), Ayutthaya
Elephants on break (1), Ayutthaya
Elephants on break (2), Ayutthaya
Elephants on break (3), Ayutthaya
Elephants on break (4), Ayutthaya
Elephants on break (5), Ayutthaya
Elephants on break (6), Ayutthaya
Searching for stoneware at the ceramics factories, Lampang