Ruins, Temples, Monkeys and Bridges

Since my last blog post we’ve found the beautiful beaches of Thailand’s islands, which hopefully explains the delay in this post. Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, Lopburi and Kanchanaburi were the four places we visited as we began to make our way down South from the cities of North Thailand. There were lots of temples, ruins and monkeys involved. Some museums, and one bridge. We didn’t spend a huge amount of time in any of the places, just enough to explore the main sights and move on. This was good for us, and although it was necessary to work to a time frame on this occasion due to us meeting up with some friends in Bangkok on the 8th of May, it worked fantastically because it meant we didn’t waste time, and rather handily means I can summarise them all (fairly) quickly. 

We bid a final farewell to Chiang Mai and boarded a coach, which 6 hours later dropped us off at Sukhothai new city. Sukhothai is a city that is split completely in two; the new city where you’ll find almost all of the guest houses and hotels, and the old city which is a 12km drive away (luckily there are cheap and regular buses between the two, and the drive is one straight road so it’s easy to navigate). Aside from places to sleep and a few to eat and drink, there’s nothing of real note or interest in the laid back new city, so it’s not somewhere to dedicate much time to. The reason people come to visit Sukhothai is the old city, which in the 13th century was the capital of Thailand, but is now filled with the ruins of hundreds of temples. To be exact, there are 193 ruins spread over 70 square kilometres of historical park. This is separated into five separate zones; North, East, South, West and Central. All of them require a separate admission fee (or if you’ve got the stamina to do all of it in one day you can by a 350 baht one day pass for all zones.)

After being caught in an apocalyptic downpour and diving into a nearby restaurant for brunch to wait for the rain to stop, we made it to the ruins in the late morning, and headed to the central zone, which is where the majority of the most well known ruins are. There are a few options in terms of how to explore the park. The first is walking, which due to the distances involved, and the likelihood of high temperatures, is not advisable. Another option is a small land train which takes tourists around the park, but based on what we saw does not give much of an opportunity to get off and actually explore the ruins, so again we weren’t interested in that. The best option by a mile is to rent a pedal bike (motorbikes and scooters are not allowed to enter the park) from one of the rental shops that are across the road from the entrance to the central zone. This is what we did, and for 50 baht each we had two (slightly old and rather uncomfortable) pushbikes for the day. Although the bikes were not the best, covering the distances is sill much more comfortable, whilst exploring the ruins at your own pace, with the freedom to get off and explore every nook and cranny is fantastic. There were several occasions I was convinced I’d found a secret entrance to a room of treasure within, but each time it proved to be nothing than a small opening in the stone. One time I did discover and disturb a flock of pigeons, sending them pouring out of the opening in the direction of Fran. I felt like Indiana Jones, she wasn’t impressed. 

The park itself was actually thoroughly interesting. Despite being in the most popular zone, the place was largely deserted, and we were free to explore the ruins to our hearts content. The ruins are mostly fantastic, in particular Wat Mahathat with its towering Buddhas and spires. The park itself is also beautiful, the gardens are green and tidy, and there are a number of ponds covered in lotus flowers. Even when you’re not looking at anything, it’s a blissful experience cycling around the peaceful surroundings. It remained peaceful for most of the day, the exceptions being a couple of occasions in which we broke out into a short bicycle race. At one point Fran burst off in completely the wrong direction, thinking we were racing, leaving for me to wait for her to sheepishly return having realised her mistake. Although we really enjoyed the day, we only explored the central zone and a couple of the outlying ruins, as we felt we’d seen enough, and being on a backpackers budget didn’t think it would be worth paying entrance fees for the other zones after we’d spent hours exploring the temples which would, to our eyes, all look very similar. 

The next day, very tired and grumpy (I’d woken at around 3am to watch the Anthony Joshua v Wladimir Klitschko boxing match, so hadn’t had a lot of sleep), we boarded another bus, this time heading roughly 350km south to Ayutthaya. After catching up on some sleep, the bus dropped us off on the side of a motorway, quite far outside of the main city, so we jumped into a taxi to complete the final leg of our journey. Ayutthaya is very similar to Sukhothai in the sense that its main draw is a historical park, again filled with hundreds of ruins. Ayutthaya actually replaced Sukhothai as the capital in the 14th century, and now-a-days it is seen as the better (or certainly more popular) place to explore ruins in central Thailand. There is one major difference, which is where Sukhothai was a quite sleepy town with not a lot going on, Ayutthaya is actually a fairly busy town. Outside of the historical park, there’s still not a huge amount to do, but there are far more bars, restaurants and hotels, many more cars on the road, and the whole place just feels more alive. 

Our first bicycle excursion had been such a success that we decided the best way to explore the ruins of Ayutthaya would also be by bike, so we rented out two bikes, this time helpfully directly from our hostel, and were on our way. We had decided to ride around and explore the town a little before heading into the historical park, but due to the volume of cars on the roads, this became much more of a chore than it had been in Sukhothai. We decided to scrap the cycling around the city plan and made a beeline for the historical park. Once we got into the park, I’ll be honest and say we were very underwhelmed. I put this down to a combination of three factors. First of all was the heat; everyday is hot in Asia at this time of year, but this day was a particularly hot day, and we were already struggling with it when we arrived at the park. It was so overwhelming that is was making everything hard work, and both of us where a little more short tempered than usual. The second factor was how busy it was. Where Sukhothai had been virtually deserted, Ayutthaya was crawling with tourists, sometimes making it hard to look at things properly, and certainly dispelling the lone-exploration feeling we had enjoyed before. The third factor was that we may well have just been all-templed out, as I mentioned above, we’d found that temple fatigue sets in quickly for us, and as we’d only recently spent a day exploring temple ruins, it may have just been too soon to spend another day doing so. It was a shame that it ended up that way, because Ayutthaya is clearly a fantastic site, a lot of the ruins were actually more impressive than those at Sukhothai, but the day just didn’t work for us. If I were to go back (and I would) it’s one that I’d get there earlier for; before the crowds gather and the heat really gets going. 

Our second day in Ayutthaya saw us taking a short train ride north to the town of Lopburi. We had only headed to Lopburi for one reason, as generally speaking, there isn’t that much to see or do (there seems to be a bit of a theme developing here.) However the one reason was a good enough one for me to warrant the 45 minute train journey; the town is inhabited by hundreds of monkeys (macaques to be more specific.) Excited for a day of monkey spotting, but feeling slightly apprehensive after reading stories of boisterous monkeys online, we arrived at the train station, and made our way to the temple ruins of Prang Sam Yot, which is the main area the monkeys congregate. We spotted our first monkeys as we passed a group of three or four sat on the pavement, and we were slightly surprised to see them drinking from a plastic water bottle, exactly like a human would. As we got closer to the temple the number of monkeys was steadily increasing. They run down the streets, climb up ledges of buildings, scamper over cars, in parts it feels like the monkeys run this town more than the humans do. Wandering through a real life planet of the apes at first felt slightly uncomfortable, but we found the the monkeys were paying us little attention, so we quickly became more comfortable in their presence. 

We arrived at the temple and it became clear that this was indeed the monkey headquarters; hundreds of them climbed and clung to the ruins and wandered the surrounding area. We explored the whole area, again initially slightly nervous and overwhelmed by the sheer number of them, but quickly found that as long as you’re sensible, the attitudes of the monkeys was fine. We both took literally hundreds of photos and we spent well over an hour looking around the area (including entering into the temple, which has the windows caged off, allowing you to get very close the the monkeys gathered around the outside walls of the temple.) Both thoroughly enjoying our time watching these such entertaining creatures, we decided to take a short break for lunch before doing another lap or two of the temple grounds. However this didn’t go entirely to plan, as when we returned, not only had the amount of monkeys in the area substantially increased, there was a noticeable difference in their attitude. This first became noticeable when Fran, who was videoing a group of monkeys bathing with her Go Pro, had a small monkey run and jump onto the camera. Luckily the Go Pro itself had been extended on a selfie stick, so Fran was able to keep the monkey far away enough, and eventually shake it off, despite it being determined not to let go. We initially laughed it off, and the footage made an entertaining watch, but it made us on edge more than we had been. 

Things didn’t get much better as it didn’t take long for Fran to fall victim to another monkey attack, this time as she crouched down attempting to capture a selfie with the monkeys. Sitting slightly too close to the wall of the ruins, a monkey ran along the wall and jumped onto her backpack. Thinking my calls of “Fran there’s a monkey coming!” was me suggesting another picture opportunity, it was only once she had a monkey’s paws tightly gripped around her backpack Fran realised what had happened. Of course, there were lots of screams, and a fair amount of wriggling around to try and shake it off. Not sure what else to do, I even tried to assert my dominance as the alpha male and hissed at the small creature as loudly as I could. He saw straight through this and wasn’t interested. Eventually, he let go and scampered off, at which point another monkey targeted me. Luckily I had seen him scampering towards me in time, and knowing that we hadn’t had rabies shots before travelling, I kicked at the monkey. I’m glad to say I didn’t actually kick him, it was more of a precautionary swing of my leg that just avoided him, and thankfully did enough to scare him off momentarily. Fending off this latest attack, we looked around us, and found that we were surrrounded by monkeys. At this point, we decided we’d had enough of monkeys, and made a very swift move for the exit. 

So Lopburi was eventful. The time in the morning was some of the most fun we’d had on the trip, but it changed so quickly later in the day and soured the expereince for us. I wouldn’t say don’t go, because of how much we enjoyed it initially, but I would urge caution. And remember my top tip; hissing at them might not work. We departed Lopburi and made our way back to Ayutthaya, from where we took a train for an hour back into Bangkok, and from here immediately caught a train west to Kanchanaburi, where we’d be visiting the Bridge on the River Kwai, as well as some of the war museums. The train ride was an experience in itself, as the train (of which there only 2 per day) is only 3rd class, meaning it’s open windowed views of the magnificent scenery for the whole 2 and a half hour journey, some of which is on the train tracks built by POWs in the Second World War. We arrived in Kanchanaburi, and immediately realised we’d made a mistake with our choice of guesthouse, as we were advised multiple times that all of the guest houses were in one direction, and of course we had booked a place a couple of kilometres in the opposite direction. It didn’t prove to be a major problem, it just meant we did a lot of walking. We visited a local market that evening and after a quick stop for Fran to stroke some goats, made our way around the food markets for dinner. 

The next morning we set out on a carefully planned day of historical based exploration.  A very short history lesson just in case you’ve never read or seen The Bridge on the River Kwai; during the Second World War the Japanese army had a railway constructed from Bangkok, Thailand to Rangoon, Burma to support the war effort. This railway was built under forced labour by a combination of prisoners of war and civil servents drafted in from all around South East Asia. Due to the nature of work and the awful conditions the men were living and working in, thousands died. This particular area rose to fame through the fictional tale told in The Bridge on the River Kwai (although interestingly the river was incorrectly named in the book; the river here was named the Mae Klong until the 1960s, when it was renamed to the Khwae Yai River to capitalise on the huge success of the novel and accompanying film.) Now-a-days there is a lot to see in the area on the subject.

The first place we visited was the JEATH War Museum, which is a small museum laid out in bamboo huts made to recreate a POW camp. Lining the walls are a series of photographs and paintings by POWs, that are eye opening in giving an insight into the living conditions they endured. There are some other items on show, such as letters from the prisoners and news clippings. The museum doesn’t take a lot of time to walk around, but was fairly interesting and inexpensive so is worth a visit. Our next stop was another museum; the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre. This one feels more cared for, and is certainly more substantial in terms of information; there’s a lot to learn here and we spent a fair amount of time walking around reading all of the information and examining the exhibits. I’d say this is the best museum in Kanchanaburi, so if you only have time for one, make it this one. It’s location is also convenient, as it’s just over the road from the War Cemetery. We walked around the cemeteries, visiting the Thai-Chinese Cemetry before moving onto the Allied Cemetry. The first thing that struck us was the complete contrast between the two. The Allied Cemetery is impeccably kept; the grass is a dark green and well watered, the plants and trees are all kept tidy, and it’s clear the whole area is well looked after. The Thai-Chinese Cemetry is the polar opposite; completely disorganised, messy, dirty, and not at all cared for. Packs of stray dogs sat amongst the rubbish of the grounds, whilst some of the tombstones had been broken, without much apparent chance of repair. The difference between the two cemeteries was shocking and frankly rather disturbing, and made me feel slightly guilty as we walked around the beautiful gardens of the Allied Cemetry. My feelings at the time were worsened when we witnessed a group of tourists posing as they took selfies in the cemetery. There’s a time and a place for tourist photos and selfies, and a war cemetery isn’t one of them.

We continued in the direction of the bridge, stopping off at the confusingly named Word War 2 & JEATH Museum, a completely separate museum to the JEATH War Museum we had visited earlier. This third museum was my least favourite, as the war exhibits offered little we hadn’t already seen, but also had a strange collection of other exhibits, for instance a wall showcasing all of the winners of the Miss Thailand beauty contest, or a collection of precious stones. The random nature of the exhibits and the confusing way they are laid out makes it difficult for me to recommend this one, other than to experience the strangeness of it. Our final stop was the main one; The Bridge on the River Kwai. Large parts of the current bridge have been rebuilt since the war, so it’s not completely authentic, and the amount of tourists in the area and sheer beauty of the scenery around you means it can be difficult to remember the signicance of the bridge as you cross it. That being said, with the knowledge of what we’d learnt throughout the day still fresh and heavy in our minds, it is a sobering walk across the bridge. As we made our way across we had to duck into one of the side balconies to allow one of the few trains that crosses the bridge every day to pass before continuing on our way. There’s little to see at the other side of the bridge, so once we reached the end we turned around and walked back. Although it is essentially now just a tourist spot, when visited alongside the museums, so you’ve got the information to know the signifance of the bridge and railway in general, a visit is fascinating, and certainly worthwhile. We finished our day with dinner and drinks in a beautiful restaurant along the river. 

Leaving Kanchanaburi, we returned to Bangkok for a few days, a place neither of us enjoyed last time, so I’ll pick it up from there in the next post to let you know if we found it any better the second time around, and of course how we found our first taste of southern Thailand. 

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