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Andy’s Travel Diary

Monday, 13 Nov 2006

Location: Phitsanulok, Thailand


“Enough of traveller VIP buses” thought to myself as i boarded the local bus to Phitsanulok. As such the one hour journey was filled with numerous erratic swerves onto the side of the road to pick up passengers. Who needs a bus stop when you can flag down transport along route?! Another momentary stop to buy a flower chain. After a ritual involving bows and prayers it was hung reverentially on the front mirror to bless the coming journey.

Filled with confidence! No chance of a head-on collision now, not with Buddha on our side. Alas according to a recent article “of all regions, the traffic accident death toll has been consistently the highest in Southeast Asia” - about 30 percent of global traffic fatalities! Yet few here connect the dots.

Onto Phitsanulok, a largely unattractive town of over 100,000 with little to see or do. Lacking the motivating force of mass tourism the town has scant need to speak the global lingua franca which i discovered on arrival, needing a bus to the centre of town. In the end i trusted my instincts and joined a throng of locals surging onto a small, tin-box contraption and hopped off at a busy junction after trying unsuccessfuly to charade “centre of town”. Try it - difficult! I soon discovered that ’sounds like’ resonates little in Thailand. Vertically wiggling my fingers to portray all the buildings and then making grand circles with one hand and pointing to the middle with my other drew blank faces from commuters deciding i was mentally unstable, and fixed averted gazes from those who deemed me positively dangerous.

Luckily my instincts proved correct and i landed right where i hoped. Who needs a Lonely Planet guide eh?!

However, no one could identify the hotel i wanted to lay my head at. I tried asking around but once again came up against the Babelian problem of differing languages. This was demonstrably not the southern islands or Bangkok. Further hand gestures and exaggerated mouthing of the words again failed to work.

With help from a kindly women who took pity on my pathetic attempts to communicate i jumped into a tuk tuk. They come in all shapes and sizes. This consisted of one small seat pulled by a decrepit old man on a pushbike. After one metre i felt i should get off and help but after five metres he stopped. Right outside my guesthouse.

The last few weeks passed by alone. Meeting fellow travellers becomes significantly more demonading away from the main backpacker haunts of the South. This was hardly ‘off the beaten track’ but i hadn’t spoken to anyone in two weeks. I’m not complaining - individual travel is liberating. I enjoyed the sense of freedom and solitude. Still, on the way back from the internet i spotted two travellers (easy to identify in such a town) and on the spur of the moment crossed the road and struck up a conversation. Evidently i was through with backpacking by myself - for the time being.

So ten minutes after my intial introduction I found myself in a nearby bar with Layla and Alice who were both from England undertaking a universal backpacker tradition, the so-called ‘five questions’.

1) Where are you from?

2) What do you do back home?

3) How long have you been travelling?

4) Where have you been?

5) Why do we all ask the same questions? Sorry, that should be - Where are you going?

I don’t take issue with this tradition. It breaks the ice and is in fact interesting to see other people’s perspectives of travelling or the destinations they have been to. Plus it’s great to exchange tips on places and activities.

We soon broke through to more convivial and engaging conversation and Layla and Alice would become my travelling buddies for the next week or so, making Phitsanulok more enjoyable than it should be. “Vibrant” and “charming” gushes the Lonely Planet. Hardly. Dull and disagreeable more like. Amongst the mediocrity however sat the second most reverred buddha sculpture in Thailand; a beautiful image called Phra Phuttha Chinnarat and the reason for my visit.

It was housed in a richly decorated temple of white, red and gold. The prang (you should all know what this means by now - if not see this previous post) was similar to those found in Ayutthaya but complete with dulled gold leaf ’scales’.

Inside the temple was decorated in deep and sumptuous maroons, purples and blues. Intricate golden dharma wheels and floral designs adorned the ceiling and pillars.

To the side a the statue a monk sat chanting and blessing those who kneeled in front of him by flicking water over their heads.

The buddha itself symbolised the subjugation of mara (a prize to anyone who can describe what that should look like. If you’ve been reading my posts it should be easy) and is re-covered in gold every few years. Luckily it was recently finished and appeared luminescent, occassionally with hints of orange and even red. In front of the statue were placed a picture of the king and queens on either side. All this came together in a resplendent image of religious and national importance.

Hazy as it is, i recall spending the rest of the evening in the same bar as the night before though the group had now expanded to five. On my way out i began chatting to three israelis called Yalon, Ohad and Ronan on the street (Phitsanulok has a strange way of introducing random strangers to one another).

By the next day, the group now numbering 8 or 9 embarked upon a day-trip to Sukhothai. If the name sounds familiar it is - i had already visited. I tagged along if only because it was refreshing to be around people after so long alone.

So I have no need to describe Sukhothai except make clear that races around the park and playing chicken made a change to my peaceful and introspective first trip.

Another night, the same bar! We were practically regulars. The locals in Phitsanulok were incredibly friendly. An old Thai chap joined our table to chat. He was an absolute legend who sings at the bar and loves (and looks similar to) John Lennon. Later on he would wow us all with a clog dance whilst singing “wooden shoes, wooden shoes” over and over after someone mentioned Holland. We were then all invited over to the table of a young local couple who would later give me my Thai nickname (see my next post).

Phitsanulok could have been much less enjoyable for me - the people around me were the difference as it so often proves. Layla and Alice invited me to join them and travel to a national park up north-east. So i tagged on. Arriving in the town by myself, i left as part of a trio.


Blog of the week:
Alice’s blog! It’s a corker. Go here -