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Andy’s Travel Diary

Thursday, 09 Nov 2006

Location: Sukhothai, Thailand

MapSUKTHOTHAI AND AYUTTHAYA - SAME, SAME BUT DIFFERENT
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From one temple-studded city in Thailand to the next - Sukhothai. This time via VIP bus.

Sukhothai is a small, provincial town of 30,000 where tourism has not forced daily life into the backseat. The market, for example, still served the local population. No fake Thai memorabilia, no counterfeit shoes or bags. Baskets of fresh and dried fish, salted meats, whole chickens and squashed pig’s heads lined the streets. Old women with red teeth sat cross-legged on the road behind banana leaves covered in bright red tomatoes, pink dragon-fruit, yellow pears, mounds of cocunuts, bunches of bok choi and other veg. Other women ground pungent herbs and spices into curry pastes in huge pestle and mortars ready for those making their way home from work. Flowers on ribbons, to protect against spirits or danger are equally not standard backpacker ‘fare’.

Even walking the streets i was reminded that few backpackers bother to stay in new sukhothai and prefer to take a day trip from nearby Phitsanulok. Middle-aged women would giggle and whisper and then call out “hi”, laughing excitedly like a schoolgirl who thinks they have just been particularly naughty.

The ‘wai’, a traditional thai greeting (hands are placed in front of your chest, palsm touching each other, and the head is bowed slightly - so civilized!) is also more common here. Generally the people seemed friendlier, no doubt because the rampant tourism afflicting the south, with too many culturally insensitive travellers, has not penetrated here (no beaches!). At present I can say a few words in thai: hello, goodbye, chicken, chicken soup with cocunut milk, delicious, not delicious, very delicious, diamond (will explain in my next post), spicy, not spicy and a few more. Here i found if i spoke any of these the population were very appreciative, the only trouble being they then proceed to speak only in thai…

But onto the reason for my visit - the temples. Listed by UNESCO in 1991. The Khmer empire (forerunner of modern day Cambodia) was a dominant force in south-east asia during its golden age. Its power and reach extended far into the contemporary borders of Thailand before a rival emerged in 1257, chipping away at the Khmer frontier. This rival power, the first Thai state, established its capital in Sukhothai (Rising Happiness). Militarily and culturally successful, its achievements ranged from expansive conquests into naighbouring states, the development of a uniquely Thai alphabet and experimentation with distinct and beautiful art and architecture; the reason for my visit. After 150 years the state and city were superseded by Ayutthaya (see previous post). Lonely Planet suggests if you have time for only one of the two cities/ruins Sukhothai should be your choice. I disagree. Ayutthaya’s temples were the more impressive - though Sukhothai had much to offer.

After a good nights sleep, now defined as lacking bed bugs, i got a ‘two bench’ (an apt name for transport involving two benches on the back of a truck) to Old Sukhothai where the temple ruins are situated. Like a recaltriant donkey refusing to budge the vehicle remained stationary for half an hour, slowly but steadily filling up. The pace of life in provincial Thailand is a relaxed, sedate affair unhurried by the dictates of package tourists and tourism. The population is moved by slower rhythms that can’t be rushed. Fine by me. Travel is so much more than the simple act of changing geographical locations.

The main difference distinguishing Sukhothai’s ruins from Ayutthaya’s is their location and surroundings. The latter are urbane, part of and intimately mixed up with the new city. Round a bland, concrete monolithed street corner and i would suddenyl stumble on a crumbling chedi! The latter, or at least the central parts are in a designated park, 10km or so from ‘new’ sukhothai. Few cars, lots of trees and numerous ponds and lakes providing a tranquil, complimentary backdrop to the ruins. Wats were located down small, leafy lanes, surrounded by lotus covered ponds or amongst wide fields full of grand old trees.

Got to ticket booth where i soon discovered the park seemed full of forgetful workers.

“Sawadee Khap (hello), one special ticket please”

“We don’t do one”

“But it says here on the board…” pointing to the ‘Special ticket’ sign in front of me. This seemed to jog his memory.

“Oh yes!”

“One special ticket then please”

“We don’t do them here, you need to go elsewhere.”

“Do you have a map?”

“No”

“What’s that behind you?” pointing to the pile of maps.

Finally arriving at another, identical booth i tried to pay with a 1000 baht note.

“No change!” the women said, while hundreds of 100, 20 and 50 baht notes lay in front of her. Slightly agitated by now I politely pointed to them.

Eventually i hired a bike and began my explorations.

The first temple i happened upon was Wat Mahatat, the jewel in the Sukhothai crown, a majestic example of the architectural trends and fashions of the time, typified by the lotus bud spire gracing the top of the main stuppa. I later learnt the lotus represents spiritual purity - lotus flowers emerge from dirty murky lakes and ponds closed and protected by outer leaves. Reaching the surface they blossom immaculately. Metaphorically speaking the human mind lies pregant with the same possibility. Theravada Buddhism, the main buddhist school in South-East Asia holds that the transendence of impure and muddying material desires reveals an unblemished human nature - a blossoming if you will. Again buildings are more than just bricks and mortar, but signify important beliefs, ideas and theories.

Another example Wat Sorasah was unremarkable except for the elephants surrounding the base, reflecting either the belief elephants support the religion or a representation of the animals populating the foothills of Mount Sumaru (the residence of the gods).

The other temples ranged from large, sprawling complexes packed with different sized, red and black, crumbling or collapsed chedi’s. Less claustraphobic, simpler temples were designed around raised walkways of tall columns leading to statues of buddha or bell shaped towers.

Elsewhere temples were packed with detailed and intricately carved prangs guarding the back of cosy walled courtyards. Lazy cats were sprawled snoozing in the midday sun. Everywhere plasterwork reliefs were slowly succumbing to erosion, revealing ill fitting and thin bricks. From these nooks and crannies small plants had sprouted forth from rooftops or the side of walls, and moss covered damp walls and dank alleyways.

Wat si Uhum was the most impressive however. It contained a huge seated buddha with one hand draped over its knee. Conforming to the 32 rules governing the depiction of buddha in sculpture this pose represented his subjugation of Mara (the evil one). It was all the more imposing in that it was squeezed in an open walled building just inches from the walls. A thin entrance through the front wall allows the statue to peer out from the confined space. It looks rather comical from a distance - two eyes gazing out at you like a giant jack-in-the-box ready to pounce.

In the middle of a large lake, itself situated in the middle of the park lay a small island with insignificant yet shaded temple ruins on. Sat for lunch and admired the view - a lake dotted with pink and white lotus blossoms, and beyond more impressive temple ruins with a statue of buddha peering over the water at me. Not too shabby! The image was, i believe one of a number of Celonese inspired Buddha statues (a 9m one stood in a corner of Wat Mahatat) reminding me that just as religious images and artwork can be indigenised and nativised Buddhism, along with Christianty, Islam and Judaism (and most likely the other major religions) are often interpreted and internalized through national or local cultures, adopting and adapting.

On another island was Wat sa Si. If this had been the first wat i had ever seen i would have gaped in amazement. Compared to others it was run of the mill. I now understood the travellers i had met who, already seeing more impressive temples in Cambodia, were far from overwhelmed by temples i found fascinating.

My last day i spent the afternoon perusing the nearby museum. It was interesting in a mostly lethargic sense. However i did see a stucco from Trapang Tong Lang which showed buddha descending from Tavatisma heaven flanked by Indra, Brahma and a host of other gods. Buddhism remains clouded to me but i am increasingly intrigued at how similar some schools of belief are to other religions, especially in light of the distinctness so often attributed to it vis-a-vis Islam, Christianity and so forth.