Our endless search for authenticity reaches northern Thailand

“It was a shame how he carried on,” Boney M scathingly opined of Rasputin in their seminal 1978 Euro disco hit of the same name, which we’d heard seemingly dozens of times since setting off from Bangkok. And, in a more literal sense, it was a shame that – after three days of cycling and temple-spotting – we also had to “carry on”, by leaving sleepy Ayutthaya behind and heading for the greenery and mountains of northern Thailand. We’d already used up almost a third of the time we’d allotted to exploring Thailand on this stretch of our grand adventure, and had so far made it a total of 90 km north of Suvarnabhumi Airport, where we’d touched down eight days previously.

As with most things in life, everything I knew about Thailand prior to leaving Manchester was learned from the greatest tutor of all – Sid Meier’s turn-based strategy masterpiece Civilization. The Siamese empire, from which modern-day Thailand was spawned, appears in Civilization V. According to the game-playing platform Steam, I have personally spent 473 hours playing Civilization V. As an interesting aside, if I’d chosen to spend that time driving, at a fairly conservative average speed of 50 mph, I could have travelled 23,650 miles – just slightly less than the circumference of the world.

Now to weave this meandering non-anecdote back into the narrative of a travel blog. In Civilization V, the capital of Siam is the ancient city of Sukhothai. This basically made it a must-visit for me. Having already endured my scintillating, 20-minute-long Civilization V-based explanation, Caroline was in no condition to argue. Sukhothai here we come!

 

Sukhothai

Sukhothai in Civilization V

Civilization V captures the majesty of Sukhothai more beautifully than my words ever could

Caroline described Ayutthaya as “sleepy”. She wasn’t wrong, but it might as well have been Magaluf during stag do season compared to Sukhothai’s Old Town. One road runs the length of the Old Town, incorporating a couple of hostels, half a dozen Thai restaurants, a small handicrafts market and a 7/11. All apart from the 7/11 closed by 8pm each night, including our hostel’s beer fridge. As we sat outside sipping shop-bought Chang and using the free Wi-Fi at half 9 one night, it seemed like the rest of the town was already fast asleep. Where was everyone? I thought backpackers were a bunch of fast-living, hard-drinking, loose-moraled rogues? Or was I thinking of pirates?

The one person we did meet proved, sadly, to be an utter dick. He was an obnoxious 20-something Australian man (let’s call him “Brett”) with whom we mistakenly engaged to find out if there was a bar open nearby. After five minutes of listening to “Brett” explain Brexit to us, accuse of being ‘Corbynistas’, and hit on some supremely disinterested Thai waitresses who were just leaving work, we decided that solitude was preferable.

A lively bar scene wasn’t the only thing hard to come by in Sukhothai; veggie food was pretty scarce too. Given that Caroline and I are both staunch herbivores, I attempted to learn the Thai for “I am vegetarian” – C̄hạn mạngs̄wirạti, if you’re interested. Despite my best efforts, that eye-watering four-consonant stretch between the “N” and the “W” proved unconquerable. I gave it a couple of airings; at best it was greeted by blank looks, at worst by unbridled laughter.

But what Sukhothai – capital of the first kingdom of Siam around 800 years ago – lacks in gourmet vegetarian cuisine and Khao San Road-esque nightlife, it more than makes up for in sweet, sweet temple ruins. The Historical Park (a UNESCO World Heritage site) was just a few hundred metres from our hostel, so we armed ourselves with two bikes – hired for 30 baht (70p) apiece – and set off to explore.

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What time is it? It is Wat time!!!

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Whereas Ayutthaya’s ruins sprawl over a 700-acre island that also contains dozens of (relatively) busy residential and commercial streets, the ancient temples of Sukhothai – each seemingly more jaw-dropping than the last – are mostly located within a walled-off park separate from the town itself. Surrounded by lush manicured lawns and expansive angular moats, it feels a bit like a theme park for history nerds (albeit without the visitor numbers – we probably saw no more than 30 people in the four hours we spent cycling and strolling around the park). The centuries-old structures are so spectacular in their decrepitude, it’s hard to imagine that people ever lived and worshipped here.

Sadly, by this point, we’d found ourselves becoming disgustingly blasé about the ancient wonders before our undeserving eyes. Towering prangs and tumbledown chedis (both potential band names?) that would have provoked us to exclaim “SHIT, LOOK AT THAT” just a couple of days ago were now barely receiving a second glance. We realised it was time to leave. The only alternative was to ape the faux-spiritual philistines who only visit these incredible sites to take Insta-worthy photos of their friends pulling yoga poses in front of the Buddha statues (we had seen several of these people). Hitting the road again meant a six-hour bus journey to Chiang Mai, northern Thailand’s largest city. It would be like getting back to civilisation (the concept, not the game).

 

Chiang Mai

In some ways, the journey from Sukhothai to Chiang Mai highlights the contrast between “travel Thailand” – with its ruins and trekking and raucous nightlife – and “actual Thailand, run by a military government”. Everyone on our bus was either a backpacker or a young soldier. I was going to attempt some ill-informed social commentary here, but I’ll save that for my soon-to-be-commissioned column in the Observer.

While a fraction of the size of Bangkok, Chiang Mai was a veritable metropolis compared to our last two stops. It felt weird arriving in a city in late afternoon to see market stalls and restaurant tables being set up, rather than slowly cleared away.

It may be firmly on the backpacker trail, but Chiang Mai is a fully functioning city. You rarely have to walk for more than a couple of minutes in any direction to be in the heart of a “proper” Thai neighbourhood, where every building houses a shopfront and Western script is noticeably absent from road signs and menus. As such, it looked a likely place for us to achieve the ultimate travel goal of Being Authentic. Ayutthaya and Sukhothai had, if anything, been too authentic. Admittedly we were staying in a very pleasant air-conditioned hotel with a swimming pool (complete with inflatable unicorn), but so does Bear Grylls in between episodes of drinking his own piss, so why should that stop us? Striding into town with this single-minded objective, we immediately happened upon what appeared to be an Authentic Street Food Market. Visibly aroused, I insisted to Caroline that we enter. Sadly, it was all a lie; an illusion; a mirage. The market was an extension of a huge shopping centre – we’d basically stumbled upon the Thai equivalent of the Arndale Food Court.

With its huge mall, sprawling marketplaces and copious luxury accommodation, Chiang Mai has the feeling of a booming city – albeit one that’s still a little rough around the edges in parts. En route to the Old Town during a stiff morning breeze, we approached an empty office building, just as the wind blew a slim but substantial metal panel off the wall and onto the roof of a passing car. We swiftly crossed the road.

The vision of Chiang Mai as a functioning city (remember when I said that earlier?) applies just as much to its temples as to its shops and markets. They’re very much working monasteries that have adapted to the city around them, rather than being left to slide into graceful ruin. One of the most beautiful – Wat Inthakhin Sadue Muang, a tiny wooden structure decked out with gold-leaf pillars – sits incongruously in the middle of a busy road. Others can be found on busy streets lined with bars and restaurants. There are so many, in fact, that several don’t even appear on the tourist maps. It’s like the city has swallowed them up.

For reasons that I’ll never truly understand, we struggled to find a really decent bar in Chiang Mai. If anything, much of the city was too swanky for your average backpacker; we lacked the budget or wardrobe to be cavorting at Hard Rock Cafe (the undisputed height of glamour) or one of the many high-end hotel bars. Evening after evening we found ourselves back at Kalae, a tiny rum bar next to the sprawling Night Bazaar, playing cards and watching old white dudes hit on the young Thai bartenders.

After three nights in Chiang Mai we had passed the halfway point in our meandering jaunt through central and northern Thailand. Ahead of us lay the hippy enclave of Pai; a place I’d heard Caroline wax lyrical about on numerous occasions. The violently twisty and uneven mountain road connecting Chiang Mai and Pai famously drives all but the most seasoned traveller to bouts of violent motion sickness. Given that I have the resolve of Blanche Dubois at her most delicate, it’s fair to say I wasn’t thrilled at this prospect. Tune in next time to find out if I vommed everywhere (now THAT’S how to lure back an audience).

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