Northern Thailand is awash with history
By Jean Miller Spoljaric
Thailand’s wide range of activities and attractions makes it a premiere tourist destination in Southeast Asia. You won’t run out of things to do while visiting Thailand!
I spent a week traveling around the lush, tropical landscape of Northern Thailand. It’s compelling, exciting and tranquil, all at the same time. Its abundant natural resources are complemented by its rich cultural and historical heritage.
In a wave of nationalism in 1939, the country’s name was changed from Siam to Prathet Thai (Thailand), which translates to ‘Land of the Thai People’. They might have called it the “Land of Smiling Thai People” because everyone that I encountered was friendly and helpful.
Bangkok, the capital and largest city, is a study in contrasts. There are soaring skyscrapers next to tin-roofed shacks, skinny and homeless dogs alongside cute, well cared for purebreds in colorful doggy outfits, and poor people side-by-side with the wealthy.
The Chao Phraya and Two-Headed Monsters
When I was a kid, I remember flipping through the ‘Guinness Book of World Records’ and seeing photos of the world’s tallest man, the tiny lady that fit inside of a teacup, and the famous conjoined twins named Chang and Eng.
The twins were born in Siam (modern day Thailand) on May 11, 1811, to a Chinese father and a half-Chinese, half Malaysian mother. In 1824, when the boys were just 13, a Scottish merchant named Robert Hunter discovered the twins while swimming in the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok. At first glimpse, he thought they were a two-headed monster! The rest is history.
As I traveled on the Chao Phraya River in a long-tailed boat, I thought of them and I found myself thinking about river monsters, too. Lucky for me, the only monsters I saw in the river were the huge Monitor Lizards that make their home on the river’s edge and in the adjacent canals.
Don’t miss out on this adventure! Make your way to any riverside pier and either hire a long-tail boat for 400-600 Baht per person per hour ($16.- $22.US per person per hour) or you can choose to join an organized tour on a larger boat for more money, less privacy, and a formatted trip.
The long-tail boats are colorful and super cool and they have giant car engines in them with a long-tailed propeller. My friend and I negotiated 400 Baht each and our customized trip lasted about 90 minutes. Plus, unlike the trip-formatted bigger boats, the captain dropped us off wherever we wished.
Canal Life: Where Life Never Seems to Change
Marco Polo discovered the canals of Bangkok when he visited the Far East in the 1200s. It’s believed that the canals of Venice were based on the canal life in Bangkok. Yet, history written by Europeans refers to Bangkok as the “Venice of the East.”
Today, most of the canals to the east of the Chao Phraya River have been filled in to create new roads. However, the area to the west remains much as it was in the 19th century.
The canal trip allows visitors a glimpse of everyday Thai life on the water. Kids swim in the canal with the catfish and the monster-like Monitor Lizards. Also, the canal tour gives you an up-close view of traditional Thai homes.
Like Venice, the houses are built in the water, but to avoid flooding, they stand on stilts. The day’s laundry blows in the wind and people gather on the riverbanks under a shade tree with a fishing pole, as if waiting for the clothes to dry.
Most homes have open verandas and steeply pitched roofs that allow the inside heat to rise and the summer monsoon rains to run off. Many appear to be shacks, but others are neatly and lovingly decorated with colorful flower boxes and brightly painted facades.
Most of the authentic floating canal vendors have disappeared, but the long-tail captains know just where to slow down and stop so a smiling local vendor will paddle up next to us.
They’re selling cold drinks, straw hats, postcards, and bread to feed the ravenous catfish. I bought a can of Leo (local beer) for 40 Baht.
I knew I could negotiate a 3 for 100 deal, but I was desperate. I was on a canal tour in a private long-tail boat, it was hot, and I would’ve spent 100 Baht for one can. Ahhhh! Nothing like being on the water on a hot day and sipping a cold beer!
The Thai Buddhist
It’s estimated that 95% of people in Thailand are Buddhists. The ultimate goal of all Buddhists is to reach Enlightenment; one with the universe. And, the Eightfold Path leads them away from material wants and into a spiritual existence where they can reach the Enlightenment stage known as Nirvana.
Siddartha Gautama was the Buddha and each person creates an image of their own making. In Thailand, most homes have their Buddha image displayed on an altar. The home altar comprises the Buddha image, a pot for incense sticks, a pair of candlesticks, and a pair of flower vases. Practicing
Buddhists worship twice a day; in the morning and again at night. In the morning, they go through the ritual before leaving home and taking part in their daily routines.
First, they light the candle situated to the right of the Buddha image and then the candle to the left. Next, they light three incense sticks and sit very still with the body straight and firm. They bow down in the yoga-like “Ben-jang-kha-pradit” manner with the forehead, palms, and knees flush with the floor and meditate, chant, and pray.
After visiting many different temples in Thailand and taking part in these rituals, I felt a sense of peace and calm in honoring the Buddha image. It was a cleansing of the soul and a clearing of my mind. I felt relaxed and at peace.
For a fun twist, the Thai people play a game called Ziam Zee to find out what their future holds. All temples have the game and if you think about the American game of “Pick-Up Sticks,” you’ll get the idea.
In Ziam Zee, one person shakes a container of wooden sticks with numbers printed on them until one stick manages to work it’s way out and fall to the ground.
Then, match your stick number with the same number on a piece of paper and it will reveal your fortune.
Monks: Less is More
In Thailand, monk-hood (sangha) is a respected institution that comes just below royalty in the social hierarchy. Monks are subject to many taboos when it comes to women.
For example, monks are prohibited from touching women or to receive anything directly from them. As a result, when traveling by public transportation, women should avoid sitting near or next to a monk.
During my trip, many of the monks I encountered made no eye contact with me, but others would nod in my direction with a gentle smile. The founder of Buddhism, Siddartha Gautama (Buddha), is said to have worn a humble monk’s robe made of patched pieces of donated cloth throughout his life.
He is depicted in paintings and sculptures with such a robe draped over his body with his right shoulder bare. In emulation of the Buddha’s humble garb and to represent their own detachment from the physical world in their pursuit of enlightenment, Thai monks wear reddish-yellow saffron-colored robes. Less is more!
My Favorite Hillside Golden Temple
Of all the temples I visited in Thailand, my favorite was Doi Suthep Temple, located in the heart of the Doi Suthep-Doi Pui National Park close to the northern province of Chiang Mai. I loved its remote location nestled on top of a twin-peaked mountain.
I walked the steep, dragon lined mosaic, 304 step ‘Naga’ staircase to the top. (The less energetic opted to take the gondola ride to the top.) Shoes were scattered in the temple complex entryway as you must remove them before entering. The smell of burning incense wafted through the smoke-filled hot air.
In the middle of the complex is the Central Chedi, a 16th-century structure that is covered in gold leaf paint that is blinding in direct sunlight. In the temple center, the Main Wihan, are the golden Buddha images. Buddhist consider these to be the most important images within the temple complex.
It was here that I received my ‘indirect’ blessing from the monks. It was a cotton hand-braided bracelet. I still wear it every day. Then, it was back down the staircase and into the streets where The Hill Tribe people were selling treasures, old and new.
Here I bargained for a hand carved Buddha mask made by the Karen Tribe and his and her Akha Tribal coin headdresses. Conversation pieces perfect for Happy Hour!
There were children beautifully dressed in tribal outfits walking around the area with big smiles and posing for photos. Be prepared to offer them a tip if you snap their picture. Their mothers sat nearby under the shade of a tree waiting for the children to bring the picture money back to them.
I wanted to stay longer in this peaceful area with its natural beauty. Make sure you have plenty of Baht when you visit this place as the shopping is plentiful.
Ayutthaya – The Original Capital
The kingdom of Ayutthaya was founded by King Ramathibodi I in 1350. Over the next four centuries, the kingdom came to dominate the region now known as Thailand with the exception of the northern area where the kingdom of Lanna maintained its independence.
Early European traders visited the area, returning home with tales of a highly organized and sophisticated society. The kingdom’s ending was as sudden as its inception.
After 400 years of being one of Asia’s most powerful empires, the Kingdom of Ayutthaya was attacked and it’s capital abandoned after being sacked by the Burmese in 1776.
Though the Burmese were expelled within a year, the Ayutthaya capital was deemed unsafe, and Thonburi was chosen as the capital of the new Kingdom of Siam. Ayutthaya was never re-inhabited.
Today, Ayutthaya is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its ruins give a sense of its former glory and insight into Thailand’s cultural heritage. Among the sites, I visited Wat Phra Si Sanphet, once Ayutthaya’s most glorious temple.
All that remains of Wat Phra Si Sanphet are Sri Lankan-style chedis and the ruins of the former palace. The chedi contains the ashes of Ayutthayan kings and is the main attraction of the park.
The photo ops are incredible, so bring your camera.
It was very noticeable that all statues remaining at the ruins had been beheaded, a result of the vengeance of the Burmese invasion. Women were raped and the area burned. The destruction of the area by the Burmese is somewhat confusing as the Burmese were also Buddhists where non-violence is the norm.
The People of The Hills
There are six main groups of hill dwellers living in Northern Thailand: the Akha, Hmong, Lisu, Karen, Lahu, and Mien. These semi-nomadic people, some 500,000 in total, began to arrive in Thailand at the end of the 19th-century. They were pushed out of their native Tibet, Burma, and China by civil war and political pressures.
Though widely referred to as hill tribes, the label is rather general as each group has its own heritage, language, and culture. The future of the hill tribes is uncertain. Traditionally, most use the slash-and-burn method to grow crops, abandoning the land once it’s exhausted.
Competing pressures on land are drawing them into the Thai market economy. Many of the hill tribe teenagers have moved to the Chiang Mai area to set up craft workshops.
I visited the Lisu Tribe during my visit to Thailand. I trekked about a mile uphill to reach the village. There are about 60,000 Lisu, but the village I visited housed only 80 people. There was no electricity, no running water, and only dirt floors in the dwellings.
Mainly, farmers of rice and craftsmen, the men are allowed two wives. Six or more people are crammed into a one bedroom shack with a makeshift stove made from a large pot hanging over a fire pit. The insects were everywhere, so don’t forget your bug spray! And, although there are snakes throughout Thailand, luckily, I didn’t run into any.
It was so easy to travel in and around Thailand. I experienced many different forms of transportation while I was there. I mostly used Tuk-Tuk’s (a three-wheeled motorbike taxi).
The upside: they’re fast, fun and inexpensive. The downside: they’re loud and smelly as they use high sulfur content fuel.
Be sure to negotiate and agree on the fee before you hop in as the Tuk-Tuk drivers make up their own prices. Be aware of that before you agree to go anywhere.
Taxis are abundant and are regulated by Thai law to standardized pricing, so there are no negotiations and no price worries when you hail a taxi.
I did catch a ride on a local motorbike taxi. I hopped on the back of the motorbike and we zig-zagged through the streets of Bangkok, and without a helmet! Not the safest form of transportation, but fast and a lot of fun!
I negotiated a fee (before hopping on) of only 50 Baht (about $1.50 US) for a 15-minute ride.
The safest, most inexpensive and efficient way to get around on land is the Sky Train. It’s very easy and accessible. Ride it once and you’ll have it figured out. And, of course, when traveling by water, you must check out the long tail boats on the river.
Amazing Thailand is an Amazing Value
Thailand is a proud Buddhist nation in transition. As the economic boom in tourism creates more services, attractions, and entertainment, the nation recognizes the richness of its cultural heritage.
The diversity of life will keep your attention, the rich geography will stimulate your senses, and the historical preserves will amaze you. And, Thailand will leave you wanting for more.
Other Useful Information
I would like to say a special Thank You to TAT, (Tourism Authority of Thailand) They are extremely helpful and knowledgeable about all things Thailand.
For more information on travel in this area of Thailand contact the Thailand Tourism Authority at the following link: www.touristhailand.org/USA
Where to Stay
The Grand Centre Point Ratchadamri
153/2 Mahatlek Luang1, Ratchadamri Road, Lumpini, Pathumwan Road, Bangkok
Le Meridien Chiang Mai
108 Chang Klan Road, Tambol Chang Klan, Amphur Muang, Chiang Mai
Siam City Hotel
477 Si Ayuthaya Road, Phayathai, Bangkok
To and From
I flew EVA Air from Newark International Airport with a brief stopover in Alaska and Taiwan to land in Bangkok, Thailand. Click on this website for more information on EVA Air ~ http://www.evaair.com/html/b2c/english/ and book your flight today.
Eva went out of their way to make me comfortable, the staff was friendly and the seating was spacious. I flew EVA’s Elite Class and I was very happy with the expanded seating and legroom.
For more information about the BTS Sky Train in Thailand click on the following link ~http://www.bts.co.th/en/index.asp
People and Places
For more information about the Doi Suthep Temple click on the following link:
For more information about Wat Phra Si Sanphet click on the following link:
For more information about Ayutthaya and the ancient ruins click on this link:
To learn more about the Hill Tribes of northern Thailand click on this link:
For more information about boats in Thailand click here: http://www.thaiworldview.com/travel/travel7.htm
Food and Beverage
Check out Jim Thompson, Bar and Restaurant in Bangkok for a great meal, and you can also tour his house and museum while you are there.
6 Soi Kasemsan 2, Rama 1 Road, Bangkok 10330
Telephone ~ 02-612-3601 when in Bangkok.
Jirung, The Ultimate Life Retreat and Health Village offers healthy food and a place to stay. For more information about Jirung Health Village click on the following link: www.jirunghealthvillage.com
Also, check out The Gallery Restaurant and Art Gallery when in Chiang Mai. Click the following link to learn more about The Gallery
Also check out The Whole Earth Restaurant in Chiang Mai, with over 30 years of experience with Thai and Indian vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes served in an elegant ambiance, overlooking spacious gardens.
88 Sridonchai Road, A Muang, Chiang Mai (phone) 053 282 463 when in Chiang Mai
Make sure you make it to Cabbage and Condoms when you are in Bangkok. Click on the following link to get directions and more information about Cabbage and Condoms