Veils of History and Modernity: Sukhothai and Udon Thani

The past few days have been an utter contrast…evocative ruins and ancient pathways in Sukhothai, followed by a very modern (and Western) shopping malls and British bars in Udon Thani.  In between, there was also words-fail-me gorgeous scenery on the 8.5 hour bus ride in between.

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We arrived in Sukhothai on the last day of Songkhran thinking we would be safe from the mad splashing that still had Chiang Mai in its throes.  Oh how wrong we were!  On the main street of the Old City, there were hoses attached to roofs spraying the partying Thais below.  On the 4 minute walk to our guesthouse, we both got soaked and smeared with handfuls of powder and paste.  We checked in, taking a room in the creaky 350 year old house on stilts!

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By the time the street calmed down, darkness was falling and we could finally venture out without fear of yet another dousing!

The next morning, we awoke at sunrise and were the first persons waiting at the ticket booth for the 6:30 opening time.  There are three paid zones of the Historical Park, but we opted to only go to one of the three, the Central Zone.  Within a small parklike area, there are several wats, mostly between 700-800 years old.  Sukhothai Buddhas are also well-known for the beautiful shapes of their hands, so we paid special attention to all the mudras.

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In the place of honor is the huge complex of Wat Mahathat.  We wandered along through a labyrith of pathways that led between the pillars, chedis, Buddha images, and along the surrounding moat.  Around each corner we spotted carvings that hinted at the original detail and grandeur of the temple.  Here, we could also still see ghosts of the gold that once covered the skin of the Buddhas…glimmers here and there, catching in the early morning sunshine.  On one of the huge standing Buddhas, we also spotted another surprise…a giant beehive!  It was easily the size of 2-3 basketballs and hanging from Buddha’s wrist.

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To the southwest of Wat Mahathat, we also found Wat Si Siwai, which has a very different flavor from the other temples in the Central Zone.  The carvings of nagas and hints at Vishnu that remain suggest that this was originally a Hindu structure during the Khmer empire…which explains a bit why it looks like the architecture you would see in Angkor Wat.  It was converted to Buddhist uses around 1274, but now it is home to hundreds of birds.  Pigeons and wild mynah birds called to each other and fluttered between the towers.  Also, next to the temple, there was an amazing tree, with Buddhas set into its ancient roots.

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After that, we left the park gates and headed further south.  Outside of the ancient city walls, there were more wats, hidden away in the countryside.  It was certainly a hot, exhausting exploration, but so worth it!  We were the only people venturing out this far, and both the temples and the local hospitality were wonderful.  As we walked through the country lanes, we spotted lizards, snakes, and scorpions!  We bought grilled bananas and coconut cakes from friendly families, and stopped for lunch at a rickety roadside stall.  The ruins were well marked, despite their remoteness…and some of them had intense stories.  Built by the king’s consort, who appointed her monk brother to be abbot…raided by invading armies because they were not protected by the city walls…history whispered from the wrecked stones tucked away in the paddy fields.

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Our next stop, Udon Thani, required an entire day on buses, but as I said, we passed through some stunning scenery, where the colors deepened and cave-riddled hills thrust up from the surrounding plains in bursts of karst.  As we arrived in Udon Thani we had a moment of disorientation…shopping malls, chain stores, and big box superstores?  In northeastern Thailand?  But this is the 4th largest city in the country and has a long history of immigrants making their own communities here.  During the violent wars in China during the mid-19th century, many Chinese merchants came to Udon Thani and established stores and made it a major trading area.  Many years later, it hosted Ho Chi Minh and his training troops in the 1920s…then the American Air Force for the duration of the Vietnam War.  As a result, many GIs settled here, and later there was also an influx of British and Australian expats.  The results are a very curious mix of Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, and various Western populations and styles thoughout the city.

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We found a wonderful museum and Chinese cultural center next to the Ancestral Shrine, built by generations of Chinese families who have integrated into the community here.  The museum focused half on the history of the Chinese in Udon Thani and half on Confucius.  Outside, there were lovely gardens, a lake park, a music hall, exhibition halls, and a sports area.  Nearby, we also found…vegan food!  Ate at a couple of these cafes around town.  We also headed out to the large lake on the west side of town to watch the local joggers, juice drinkers, and rubber duckies.  There is certainly a lot of quirkiness in Udon Thani.

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We rested and relaxed in the air conditioning of the shopping malls when the days got too hot, chatted with several expats, hunted for delicious meals, and just generally enjoyed our days in a place with little sightseeing, but lots of people watching and little surprises.

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Our next adventure is a village stay in the remote, rural corner of northeastern Thailand.  Treks through the jungle of the national park, visiting cliffside monasteries, and all the lychees we can eat?  We can’t wait!

 

 

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