Two weeks in Central and Northern Thailand

After two incredible months in India we decided it was time to move on and discover the wonders of Southeast Asia. First stop: Thailand!

Bangkok

From Mumbai we flew to Bangkok, one of my favourite cities in Southeast Asia, but completely different than anything in India. It’s still busy, but so organized, clean and just so much fun! I’ve been in Bangkok many times before and it felt great to be back! The flight was only 4 hours but ‘overnight’ and we landed at 5am in the morning very tired after no sleep at all. Unfortunately we couldn’t check-in to the hotel until much later that afternoon so we tried to kill time and catching up on some sleep by going to Lumphini Park. But very soon it got way too hot and we took a taxi to the shopping mall area where we enjoyed the air-conditioning. Eventually we were able to check-in to the hotel and although we planned on only sleeping one hour or so, we slept almost the whole afternoon! We had some dinner and went back to sleep again until the next morning. Unbelievable how much you can sleep sometimes…

Good morning Bangkok! One advantage of arriving early in the morning, you get to see the sunrise.

Believe it or not, even after having been to Bangkok quite a few times, I have never really seen any of the tourist sights. I just enjoy being in the city, walking around, eating all the good food that’s on offer, getting massages, going out, etc. This time I was determined to see a bit more of the city.

Our hotel was located near Chinatown and very near the Temple of the Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit so a good starting point for some sightseeing. As it was the 31st of December, most of the city was pretty much deserted (except for Chinatown) as all the locals leave for a few days holidays. I had never seen the city this empty and many restaurants and shops were actually closed for a few days as well. This is something I thought would never happen in Bangkok as to me it always seems like everything is open 24/7 and the traffic is always busy too. The temple was open as usual though and it was not just a temple, it also had a very interesting museum about Chinatown and the Chinese immigrants who came to Bangkok. But of course we came for the big Golden Buddha that made this temple famous. The Golden Buddha is more than 3 meters tall and is made of solid gold and weighs around 5.5 tons! The Golden Buddha was most likely made in the 13th or 14th century but only in the 1950s did they discover it was made from solid gold. They moved the Buddha to a new temple and during the move some of the plaster chipped off and then they saw the gold! Can you imagine being the person who wasn’t careful enough and chipped the Buddha and then being the hero because you discover it is made of gold. I wish I had been there when it happened to see their faces.

The Golden Buddha.

From the Wat Traimit temple we walked through Chinatown to the Grand Palace. We weren’t sure if we wanted to go in as it was already almost the closing time (we spent a lot more time at the temple and in Chinatown then we thought we would) and the entrance price is quite high and people told me before it was not that spectacular if you have seen a lot of temples/palaces before. We did walk around the complex a little bit and saw the thousands of Thai people wearing black who came to pay their respects to the King who died in October 2016.

Chinatown is just always busy.

The Grand Palace is on the riverside and we took a short ferry across the river to the Wat Arun temple. We couldn’t walk around too much as they were preparing for a New Years Eve praying ceremony to remember the King. So we took the ferry back across and walked to Khaosan Road, probably the most famous street in Bangkok for tourists. This is the area where I used to stay when in Bangkok and I have had many late night and crazy parties here and Harry was quite curious to see this party street. During the day there isn’t much party, there are just lots of people trying to sell ugly souvenirs or elephant pants (loose trousers with elephants on them, part of the backpacker uniform). We had a drink and did some fun people watching. We took a taxi back to the hotel and got ready for New Years Eve.

Wat Arun.

We didn’t really make plans for New Years Eve and just decided to go to the Sukhumvit Soi 11 area. This is a very lively area with lots of bars and restaurants and I would say you can compare it to Khaosan Road but without all the drunk young teenagers on their gapyear. The one downside of the area are all the sexpats (men coming to Southeast Asia for the beautiful Asian girls), the prostitutes and the sex bars.

From our hotel we took the metro to Sukhumvit and we found a restaurant that still had a table free for our New Years Eve dinner. During dinner we started talking to a German guy on the table to the right of us and a little later to another German on sitting to the left of us. They were nice enough guys and we went to a bar after dinner to see in the New Year. None of the parties were too crazy and absolutely no fireworks as the King only died in October and the country is still in mourning. All the major firework displays in Bangkok were also cancelled and replaced by midnight prayers and singing. We hung around for a little longer and took a taxi back to the hotel.

Happy New Year!

The rest of our days in Bangkok we didn’t do many touristy things. We just enjoyed being in a big city where you have everything you can wish for. We met up with some friends that we knew were in the city for lunches and nights out and just had fun! The plan was as well to leave Bangkok after 3 nights but we stayed for 5. That’s just what happens to me every time I’m in Bangkok; I love the city too much to leave after just a few nights. Thankfully Harry likes Bangkok too as most people seem to hate it…

Kanchanaburi

Although we could’ve stayed much longer in Bangkok, it’s not the cheapest place to stay and of course there is more to see in Thailand! We chose to go and explore the Northern and Central part of Thailand rather than straight to the islands that most people associate Thailand with.

A place I had never been to but really wanted to go to was Kanchanaburi. A town quite close to Bangkok and well known for the bridge over the river Kwai and its WWII history. From Bangkok you can go there by bus but a much more interesting way to get there is by train. Part of the train journey is on the ‘Death Railway’, a railway built for the Japanese by prisoners of war (POWs) in WWII. After a fight with the taxi driver that took us to several wrong train stations in Bangkok we finally got to the right one and boarded the train to Kanchanaburi. There is only 3rd class available but the ride was fun and took only 2,5 hours. When we got to Kanchanaburi it was already late in the afternoon so we just had some dinner and drinks and enjoyed the views over the river.

Inside the train from Bangkok To Kanchanaburi.

The next day we started with a visit to the Death Railway Museum and Research Centre. A very impressive and important museum that explained how the Death Railway was built and mainly focused on the exploitation and stories of the POWs from the Netherlands, USA, Australia and Great Britain who were forced by the Japanese to built the railway. The Death Railway was a 415-kilometer long railway built during WWII between Thailand and Myanmar and more than 12,000 POWs died during the construction as well as thousands of locals from all over Southeast Asia who had to work on the railway. The museum had an excellent audio guide and it is probably one of the best museums we’ve been to on our trip so far since the end of September.

Next to the museum is a large war cemetery where most of the POWs who died during the construction of the railway are buried. To be honest, I knew about the Death Railway but I never realized that so many POWs died here and that even Dutch POWs were used for forced labour. So it was strange actually to see Dutch names on a lot of the gravestones at a cemetery in Thailand, something I didn’t expect.

The war cemetery and Death Railway Museum in Kanchanaburi.

In the afternoon we walked to the other side of the town where the railway crosses the river and the famous bridge over the river Kwai is located. Technically it’s not really the bridge over the river Kwai as the river was called differently, but then the movie ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ was made and people wanted to come and see the bridge. So to make life easy for everyone, they just changed the name of the river to Kwai so the bridge in Kanchanaburi is on the river Kwai now. At the bridge is a bit of a tourist circus these days and it was very busy with tourists crossing the bridge on foot. I wanted to wait around for a train to cross the bridge while being on the bridge tucked away in one of the safe passages that they have made for pedestrians. It was worth the wait! The train was going very slow but decided to blow its horn just as it was passing us which made me jump and I almost dropped my phone in the water. Quite fun to be so close to a passing train on a railway bridge but a little bit scary too.

At the River Kwai Bridge station. 

The famous bridge.

There is the train. 

The railway from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi continues to Nam Tok these days, but originally went all the way to Myanmar. Near Nam Tok there was a section of the railway built in particularly rough terrain and the POWs called one of the railway cuttings the ‘Hellfire Pass’. The Australian government has opened The Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum here and it is dedicated to all the POWs and Asian labourers who suffered and died at the Hellfire Pass and elsewhere in the region during WWII. From Kanchanaburi it is easy to reach this museum by bus in about 1,5 hours. The museum itself is again very moving especially because they have a lot of personal stories from survivors or family members of POWs who died during the construction of the railway. As part of the museum you can also do the Hellfire Pass walk. The walk goes through the Hellfire Pass and continues for a few more kilometers on a path where originally the railway was. The museum and the walk are both covered by an outstanding audio guide and the whole experience is free but donations are welcome. The walk had beautiful views but was very hot! And to go through the Hellfire Pass itself was definitely an experience, especially if you think that there we no machines used to make this railway cutting and how many people died to built it. It’s hard to believe that POWs and the Asian labourers were made to work up to over 12 hours a day in this heat and environment. They barely had food and very minimum medical facilities. This was a museum and walk that definitely gave me the chills.

The Hellfire Pass. 

Another railway cutting along the walk.

Message to all POWs.

After the museum we wanted to take the bus to Nam Tok to take the last train from Nam Tok back to Kanchanaburi as it takes you over the Wang Pho viaduct, an original wooden trestle bridge that clings to a steep cliff-face high above the river. Unfortunately the buses don’t really have a time schedule and when a bus finally turned up (four buses at once actually) it was already too late to make it to Nam Tok in time. So we decided to stay an extra day in Kanchanaburi and take the train the next morning from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok (2 hours) and then stay in the train and take the same train all the way back to Bangkok (almost 5 hours). The train ride from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok is beautiful! And the Wang Pho viaduct is definitely the highlight. The squeaking noise the trestle bridge made when the train passed it didn’t sound particularly safe but I guess someone is keeping an eye on it and replaces wood that is rotten. With a slight delay we arrived in Nam Tok, enough time to buy the return ticket to Bangkok and some food and hop back on the train and arrive in Bangkok that evening. 

Wang Pho viaduct and everyone is trying to the best picture.

At some places you could touch the rocks, so close those the train go.

Sukhothai

The original plan was to go from Kanchanaburi to Sukhothai, a city in Northern Thailand. But after doing some research it turned out that it would take several buses and changing buses a few times and with no information if it was doable in one day, we decided that it was easiest to go back from Kanchanaburi to Bangkok (I never mind going back to Bangkok anyway) and take a train/bus from there the next day.

So after coming back from Kanchanaburi we stayed one night in Bangkok next to the main train station (Hua Lamphong) and took a train the next morning to Phitsanulok and from there it’s a short bus ride to Sukhothai. We could’ve taken a bus but getting to some of the bus stations in Bangkok is a bit of a hassle and the buses are also not as safe or as comfortable as the train.

Food was served on the train, vacuum packed boiled egg that tasted like the smell of wet dogs. Mmmm!

In the late afternoon we got to Sukhothai and the guesthouse we stayed at provided free bicycles for their guests so we cycled into the new part of town for some dinner. Sukhothai has a new town and an old town and the old town is what you go to Sukhothai for. The old town was the capital of the Sukhothai Kingdom in the 13th and 14th century and it’s now the Sukhothai Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage where you can see the ruins of this old capital.

The next morning we took a bus to the Sukhothai Historical Park and rented bicycles for less than 1€ per person for the whole day! The park has the perfect size to explore by bicycle in one day. We cycled around the whole day and stopped at many of the beautiful temples and ruins. One of my favourite things to see in the park are the walking Buddha statues. They are very rare and very well preserved in the park. All the temples and ruins are really worth a visit, but after the whole day we were definitely ‘templed out’ and went back to the guesthouse.

Our beautiful 1€ bikes for the day. 

Cycling around.

The ruins of Sukhothai.

Beautiful walking Buddhas.

Chiang Mai

We stayed one more day in Sukhothai to organize the next few weeks of our travels, to get laundry done, and to do other ‘travel admin’ as we call it. If you have ever been backpacking or travelled for a few weeks/months you know what I mean.

With a plan for the next few weeks and with clean clothes we took the bus the next day to Chiang Mai about 6 hours north of Sukhothai. Chiang Mai is a big city with over 170,000 inhabitants and it has a nice old city part within the city walls. We stayed just outside the city walls in the Dutch Guesthouse. This was one of the cheapest places for a private room within walking distance of the city center and the night market. That I’m Dutch and the guesthouse was Dutch was really just a coincident but good for Harry to practice his Dutch a bit with the Dutch owner and many Dutch guests. They also sold Dutch snacks, which was just an added bonus. The night we arrived we went to the night market, which is great for food and souvenir shopping. We are still travelling for a long time (hopefully) so we couldn’t really buy any souvenirs as we don’t wan to carry them around but we did try a ‘fish massage’ at one of the stands. Hundreds of little fish nibbling the dead skin of your feet. They let you pay in advance for the 20 minutes, which is a smart move as I had enough of it after 10 seconds. Such an unpleasant feeling, but I managed to keep my feet in the tank for the full 20 minutes and as a reward they were softer than they will ever be after a pedicure.

Harry enjoying the fish massage.

I had been before in Chiang Mai and many people love this city because it’s more relax than Bangkok but I find it a little bit boring and too touristy in the old center. So we only spent one full day in Chiang Mai and to do something different than the usual sightseeing, we went to Art in Paradise, a 3D art museum. It also helped that this all inside because it rained non-stop since arriving the night before. The museum has big wall paintings but often they continue on the floor so you can stand ‘inside’ the painting. If you stand on the right spot ‘in’ the painting and take a picture from the right spot you get great pictures. It was very fun and took lots of pictures.

3D art fun!

Miraculously it stopped raining while we were at the museum and we walked to the old center within the city walls to see some of the main temples and just explore the city a bit. One of the temples is completely covered in leaf gold and when the sun started shining it just hurts your eyes. We also came across an abandoned women’s prison and walked around the grounds, spooky! In the evening we met up with friends that we know from back home. Great to see some familiar faces on the other side of the world and to talk about things other than where you have been, where you are going to, how long you have been travelling for and the other usual travel talk.

Abandoned women’s prison in Chiang Mai. 

Temple covered in gold leaf.

Pretty Pai

With a slight hangover we boarded a mini-bus the next morning to Pai, a small hippie town 3 hours north from Chiang Mai. These mini-buses have a very bad reputation as the road is very windy and they drive pretty fast, which doesn’t make it more comfortable or safe. However, I thought it was absolutely fine and actually quite scenic (even with a hangover) and have done bus journeys a lot worse so I’m not sure what everyone is complaining about.

Once in Pai we knew straight away why a lot of travellers get ‘stuck’ here. It is so relaxed and everyone is smiling and friendly. We rented a scooter for a day, which is really cheap, and drove around Pai all day. We stopped at a waterfall, a WWII memorial bridge, a beautiful canyon but the best thing was just driving around and enjoying the views and freedom. When we got back to the town we heard music coming from a field next to our hostel. We walked over and there was a market/mini festival where locals were playing music and selling homemade goodies and souvenirs. The locals in Pai are Thai but there also a lot of western people who came to Pai and never left. A lot of them where young Thai – Western couples (and not the usual old-man-with-young-Thai-girl, but ‘normal’ couples) and it was clear they just liked having an event where everyone in town could catch up with each other and enjoy music, drinks and food.

Me on my motorbike in Pai. 

The waterfall.

Pai Canyon.

Soaking up the beautiful views. 

The WWII memorial bridge. 

The next day we spent all day at a beautiful pool. It was so good! I found out about it by just looking on Google Maps in search for something that looked like a nice place for a drink and some food near the river. Then I saw ‘swimming pool’, I checked the website and it turns out it’s a bar/restaurant open everyday until 6pm where you can relax by the pool with music and good food and drinks. Great way to end our time in Thailand as the next day we would travel back to Chiang Mai for one night before taking a bus to a country that has been on my bucket list for a very long time: Myanmar!

Fluid Swimming pool Pai. 

 

2 thoughts on “Two weeks in Central and Northern Thailand

  1. Indrukwekkend om de geschiedenis van de tweede wereldoorlog op deze manier te ontdekken. Prachtig verhaal weer, ik kan me helemaal voorstellen hoe je ruzie gemaakt hebt met de taxichauffeur in Bangkok die het goede station niet kon ‘vinden’. De foto’s zijn ook weer geweldig, je laat ons echt meegenieten van jullie reis.
    Liefs Antonio en mama

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *