Central Thailand: Family Road Trip to Chiang Mai

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After a couple days exploring Bangkok with Caryl and Allyson, we were eager to explore more of the country as we marched north. Working in the mysterious way the universe always does, Caryl had been connected with a local Thai woman shortly before leaving for this trip. A friend of a friend had booked a place on Airbnb for a few days at the Oregon coast. Due to some changes, the Airbnb host backed out a few days before leaving the renter (Soda, the Thai woman) without a place to stay. A friend of Soda’s happened to be friends with Caryl. When the friend explained the situation to Caryl, she offered to let Soda stay in her guest room free of charge. When Soda then found out later Caryl was going to Thailand she offered to have someone drive us up toward Chiang Mai. It was perfect timing and was a wonderful way to get to see the beauty of Thailand as we made our way north.

We met our driver, Golf, in the morning when he picked us up from our hotel. A nice, quiet younger man, Golf did not speak much English, but was still very helpful and gracious. We would spend the next four days with him as we found our way to the ‘capital of the north.’ It was a good setup traveling with Golf: we had a large plush van all to ourselves. With a mini-ice chest of waters and a car charger at our disposal, we had space, comfortable seats, and connectability in our space ship to the north.

Day 1– Erawan Waterfalls of Kanchanaburi

On our first day, we had chosen to head toward Kanchanaburi. This area is not very far north, but actually mostly west of Bangkok. Again, it took a while for us to feel we had actually cleared the Bangkok area – the roads are continually lined with large cement two and three story buildings and shops as you exit the city. After a couple hours, though, we started seeing stretches of green Thailand hills, plains filled with rice paddies, and the overgrown terrain that is everywhere once you’ve managed to break away from cities. The Kanchanaburi District is most well known for the site of the infamous WWII battles over River Kwai. The bridge on the river Kwai is still a major tourist attraction. In the end we chose not to go to the bridge, however, as some of us hadn’t done our homework and the significance would have been lost. Another 30 kilometers beyond is the Erawan National Park, which is centered around a large, 7-tiered waterfall, Erawan Falls.

Tree Offering - Erwin Falls Thailand

Erawan Falls is named after Erawan, the hindu mythological elephant with three heads, which it supposedly represents, though we didn’t quite see that in it. The national park is large, but most locals choose to picnic and hang out below the large waterfall at the base, where food and drinks are sold, or you can bring your own, and there are bamboo platforms set up to lounge on. We did not stop at the bottom when we arrived at 2pm though. We marched our way into the park and up the trail. We had read that they close off entry above the midway point at 4pm. So with this knowledge and an excitement to see all we could, we trounced our way in and up.

It is about a two mile hike up to the top of the falls, which includes some pretty hairy terrain after the midway point. Along the way, we were shocked by how many tourists there were, but specifically the fact that seemingly all of them were Russian. Fortunately for us most of them seemed to be going the opposite direction, so we didn’t mind. After the 2nd mini-waterfall of the 7, there is a checkpoint. This checkpoint is used to ensure you are not bringing food or water up to the rest of the falls. There is a lot of space around the lowest waterfall, and it is common for Thais to set up picnics here. But above the 2nd level, they are concerned about litter, so they do not let you bring in any food. In order to bring up our water, we had to pay a deposit on the bottles to make sure we didn’t just leave them behind when empty. It was not our favorite thing to do, but it did seem to be effective – there was almost no litter along the trail or in the waters.

Duo End of Trail - Erwin Falls Thailand

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After we passed the 4th stage of the waterfall, the crowd had mostly thinned out. We still opted to go to the highest point first and work our way down and by the time we reached the top there were just a couple other small groups of people around us. Having just hiked for an hour and a half, having a dip in the cool crystal blue waters didn’t sound half bad. It was not particularly hot out, and the water was a bit cooler than expected, but the bright blue and turquoise water was too good to resist. All four of us got in the water (at least partially). Amanda and Allyson were the first to experience the harmless but strange feeling of the many fish eating off the dead skin cells of their legs and feet as they stood in the water. We all got to share in this experience at one point or another while in the water. Since the fish were harmless we would try to stand still as long as we could and just let the fish do their thing. But the feeling was too strange (and slightly ticklish) to resist not squirming after a minute or two.

We took our time descending the falls, this time in no rush and taking in the beauty. By the time we reached the bottom we were fairly wiped and Caryl was ready for some dinner. We met Golf back at the van, and asked him to find us some good food. Being Thailand, this was not a big request, and it seemed to be something he was accustomed to as a driver. Taking a backroad toward the guesthouse we had booked, he stopped at “The Chef” Restaurant, where we were the only guests. The place was fairly large and the family was all eating together, and we managed to get some delicious soup and noodle dishes here while admiring the enormous dogs they had. Tired and satisfied, we made our way to Ban Sabai Sabai Guesthouse. This is where having a driver came in handy, especially at the end of a long day when we were all tired. Finding this place wasn’t easy. Golf seemed to doubt his directions, but when he called the number we found out we were 20 feet away.

 

The guesthouse was run by a mixed couple (a Thai woman and foreign husband), which became a recurring theme. We were cheerily greeted by the small frenchman when we arrived, and they showed us to our oversized cottage for the night. We knew we had arranged for a ”family-style’ room, but this place was huge. We had two double beds, a large balcony, and upstairs loft with two more beds. The guesthouse itself was more quaint and charming overall. The grounds were absolutely beautiful and the vibe of the people was relaxed and inviting. They had an outdoor kitchen and dining area, with another hangout room to the side with books and DVDs to borrow. Bamboo huts raised off the grounds that couples could stay in. Overall it was like a little oasis. If we had stumbled across it on our own with more time it would have been easy to stay here a few nights. But the road was calling us onward.

Ban Sabi Sabi - Erwin Falls Thailand

Day 2 — Bang Pa-In, Ayutthaya & Lopburi

The next morning, we headed to the famous site of Ayutthaya. This city is the former capital of Siam, and is steeped in history. Since Bang Pa-In was on the way from Kanchanaburi we decided to make a stop here first. Bang Pa-In was created by King Rama the 4th in the 1850s as the ‘summer residence’ for the royal family. It was immediately obvious that Rama the 4th was a big fan of western culture.  He had a French architect design much of the summer palace, so the site is a bizarre mixture of French architecture contrasting with the adjacent Chinese style gardens and homes, with a dabble of Thai-style bridges, houses on stilts and other smaller and uniquely styled buildings. As we walked around it was easy to forget we were in Thailand.

Architechure at Bang Pa-An Thailand

Despite the strangeness of the mixed elements the grounds were beautiful and we took our time exploring the palace grounds.  Our favorite part of Ban Pa-In was the Wehart Chamrun, or “heavenly light” building, which is designed in a traditional Chinese style, and had ornate carved wood and bone. They claim some of the carvings are made from camel bone, but we have little doubt it was made from ivory, but it is now not PC to admit it.  

After an hour of walking the Bang Pa-In grounds we continued up toward Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya was founded in the 1350s and is the former capital (during the times of Siam), before the capital was moved to Bangkok in the 1780s. Surprisingly, in the year 1700 Ayutthaya was the largest city in the world, with a population of 1 million! The city was said to be one of the grandest cities in the region up to 1767 when the Burmese invaded and practically burnt the city to the ground.  This invasion is the cause of the many ruins still seen in the city today.

Our first stop in Ayutthaya was for lunch. This happened to double as a quick (and free) viewing of the lying buddha at Wat Yai Chai Mang Khon from the parking lot. Since we had good views of the main attraction (the lying buddha) we opted to forego the entry fee to see the interior of the temple. Instead we headed on toward the more open and airy part of the town with scattered ruins from the many ancient temples from the 14th and 15th century.  

Lying Buddha Sneak Peak -- Ayutthaya

Buddha Head Tree - Ayutthaya

 

 

Many people opt to bike around the town which is basically one large open-air historical site. This is definitely the best way to see the town and the ruins among it. We however were only here for a few hours and instead arranged for Golf to drop us at the well known Wat Maha That (or the “Monastery of the Great Relic”) ruins and pick us up about 2 km away on the other side of town. This allowed us to take our time and take in the views along with the history as we explored this area.  

Wat Maha That was supposedly one of the most important monasteries of the Ayutthaya kingdom, not only because it was the religious centre and enshrined relics of the Buddha, but also because of its proximity to the Grand Palace.  The grounds of the ruins were fairly large and contained many ancient (usually destructed) buddhas.  The tourist highlight of this particular ruins is the head of a buddha that is now entrapped in the roots of a Banyan tree.  It is said that the head had fallen to the ground during the destruction of the Burmese invasion and left untouched mother nature forever captured it.  

Wat Phra Si Sanphet is located at the other end of the park/town and is probably the best preserved wat of the area.  Distinct because of the three bell-shaped chedis which were originally constructed in 1448.  

Wat Phra Si Sanphet - Ayutthaya

Viharn Phra Mongkhol Bophit -- Ayutthaya

 

Viharn Phra Mongkhol Bophit (“Buddha of the Holy and Supremely Auspicious Reverence”) temple is located right next to Wat Phara Si Sanphet and seemed to be ‘the place to be’ with many locals pouring into the temple.  Curious about what was going on we flowed in with the many local visitors.  Unlike the other ruins, this buddha image has been repaired several times over the years following the destruction to the original.  Today you will find a very large golden seated buddha image in this temple.  When we visited the buddha had an odd series of strings shooting from him in many directions. At first we thought they might be there to disrupt your photos of the 35-foot buddha, forcing you to buy postcards. But it turns out they are there to bring the benefits from Buddha directly to the praying patrons of the wat during festivals and holy days according to the Buddhist holidays. This was probably the reason for the flood of people we witnessed as well, each paying their respects to the buddha. There were many other ruins between these that spotted the town and we got to take in while strolling through the central park of the town.  These above were the highlights for us and gave us a better understanding to all the history we had soaked up just a few days before at the National Museum in Bangkok.  

Ayutthaya is a definite must-see even if it is just for a few hours (such as our case). The history of the place is key to the country and the ruins are….. Needing to keep our momentum in the northern direction we pressed on to Lopburi where we would be spending the night.

 

 

Monkey Statue - Lopburi

 

The highlight of Lopburi is monkeys. There are so many monkeys in one section of town that hotels, homes, and businesses have to have bars on the windows to keep monkeys from breaking and entering. We soon learned that in Lopburi monkeys are king and Khmer temple is their throne. Located in the center of town this temple is ozzing with monkeys, none of which whom are shy. Caryl and Ben braved the monkey hoards jumping out of the van and into the madness which Amanda and Allyson watched safely from the interior of the van. Having had negative experiences with monkeys in the south of Thailand already, we were weary and kept our distance, but still caught some great moments of monkeys climbing on monkey statues, fighting, playing, and doing other monkey things. Very entertaining overall, but a couple of minutes was enough to see the scene. Our hotel for the night, Benjatara (which we chose because of the awesome namesake), was conveniently located outside the monkey areas of town.

We arrived at Benjatara and after checking in, went to find some food. Not seeing anything initially on the street, we opted to go toward The Big C. The Big C is a megastore, comparable to a Wal-Mart in Thailand. It is a huge store, and we marveled in it and took our time. Somehow, we all managed to find cheap and comfortable t-shirts, and Allyson was able to complete her quest to find bizarre Southeastern Asian snacks. We found squid-flavored cuttlefish snacks, Lays potato chips flavored like Nori Seaweed, and corn and cheese flavored rice crackers from Japan, among others. After all this, we still didn’t have a dinner from our findings, so being late, we gave in and went to a southeast Asian favorite — KFC.

 

Day 3 — Khao Kho National Park, Phetchabun, and Wat Pha Sorn Kaew Mosaic Temple

Sunflower Dance - Northern Thailand

Love Swing -- Northern Thailand

 

Our third day of our road-trip would be primarily through the Phitsanulok province. A quick little factoid: Phitsanulok means ‘Vishnu’s heaven’ in Hindu language.  Of all the days on the road, this was probably the one that we saw the least roadside development. Not long after leaving Lopburi, the roadside scenery changed from the normal shops and restaurants that we were used to seeing to large green fields with the occasional yellow sea of sunflowers.  This didn’t seem to change throughout the day either. In fact, the roads actually began to wind more up into mountainous regions and the views only got more natural and beautiful as we went along. We continued to ascend into the Phetchabun mountains of Khao Kho National Park until finally reaching a viewing area near the top.  Locally this part of the country is referred to as” Little Switzerland”, because of the mountains, scenery, and cool weather.  We haven’t been to Switzerland yet but it was hard for us to imagine naming a place in Thailand due to it’s similarities with Switzerland.  Either way, we were able to not only soak in the views in the refreshingly chilly yet sunny air, but we also got to play on the extra large swings the government had installed apparently to encourage some LOVE. That’s right, although we couldn’t read the signs we were able to decipher the images of the boy and girl seated side by side in the swing kissing. With some coaxing, Allyson was able to get Ben and Amanda to mimic the scene in the images. We all took turns playing on the swings for a while before Caryl called us over for an informational session. She was standing before some signs that talked about the various parts of the region and the park. We soon realized that she actually was imparting some entertainment into our lives as much as knowledge. The English translations of the signs were very interesting and made for some entertaining reading.

This trail wasn’t exactly on the tourist route so we weren’t bothered that some of the translations made no sense. We were just happy to have English translations at all. Each of us took turns reading off our favorite phrases we spotted on the sign before turning again to the amazing views. There was also an army base here that has now been turned into a military open air museum. The area in these mountains was once the hideout for communist insurgents (between 1968 and 1982) that would fight occasional skirmishes against the Thai army.  We decided to skip the museum (again, thinking maybe they wouldn’t have much signage in English). 

Funny Translations - Northern Thailand

Our final stop for the day before we made our way to our guesthouse would be Wat Pha Sorn Kaew. Amanda had stumbled across this on TripAdvisor by chance the night before when doing research on the area. This was unlike any other wat we have seen in Thailand or anywhere in the world for that matter. In fact, the clostest thing we can think of to this style of art mixed with architecture would be the works of the well known and eccentric Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí. Color, glass, mosaics, pottery, marbles… these were only a few of the elements used to create this meditative wonderland we had stumbled into.

As we drove on a small windy road, we thought for sure that Golf had missed it. In a roundabout way, though he took us slowly up a hill that led to the new temple-in-progress. We weren’t 100% sure what to expect from this remote wat, but when we showed up our jaws nearly hit to floor. First of all, the complex was huge. In addition to the two main temples there were gardens and what appeared to be many nice living quarters probably for the monks and possibly accommodation for visiting retreaters. The wats themselves weren’t completely finished but there was enough done to keep us in awe for a couple hours as we walked around. The first thing you see when you come to Wat Pha Sorn Kaew, is a tall yet somewhat decorated building with what could be most aptly described as a series of five enormous and perfectly white “nesting buddhas” that are still under construction. 

Mosaic Temple Buddha Duo - Northern Thailand

The five ‘nesting buddhas’ are enormous – the largest about the size of the 45 meter tall buddha at  Wat Theppitak Punnaram we had climbed up to with Jay in the Korat area, and the other four just about 20% smaller each. Below appeared to be the main prayer hall, which looked more like a conference room at this stage of construction. There was a large courtyard entryway in front of the building, and it faced outward and overlooked the valley from the edge of the hill. The stonework ground was inlayed with spirals of tile mosaics, and half-buried reflective orbs. The whole place had a cosmic and somewhat mystical feel developing, which, judging by the detail being put into the work, will be totally accomplished when the work is done.

Nearby there is a castle-like tower with another large courtyard in front. From the courtyard, you climb the spiral staircases that flank either side in a flowing mosaic style that has undoubtedly borrowed much from Gaudi’s Park Gruell in Barcelona. As you walk up the stairs, you can see the pillars of the tower have tops and bottoms of teapots in the center of circular patterns of colored glass. On this main building there are also a couple mosaics with obvious depictions of the solar system and other planets.

On the other side of the building, we found a couple mini monastic villages of monks that were already inhabited. One had a serene pond, and stretched into a lush garden with beautiful smelling roses and other plants and flowers. Here Amanda found a little structure that looked like half of James and the Giant Peach’s dwelling, but this was made of tile of course, and was in the shape of a pomegranate–much more appropriate for Thailand. We sat here for a few minutes to meditate, watch the birds flutter around and enjoy the serenity of this amazing discovery. We have no doubt that in less than a year when the entire complex is complete, this site will put the region on the map as a must-see on the way from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.

Breathtaking views and a perfect mediation spot in the garden.
Breathtaking views and a perfect mediation spot in the garden.

We spent quite a bit of time here, as it was large and there was something unique and beautiful for each of us to appreciate. After a couple hours we had to move on so we could get to our hotel before it got too late. Fortunately, it wasn’t far. We were the only guests at the Poocome Guesthouse (gotta love the names in some places), which was comprised of many 2-unit houses along a main path. After Golf had headed out for the night (to where, we have no idea), we discovered that there was no kitchen at the hotel, and we too far to walk anywhere for food.  We settled for cup of noodles and distracted ourselves for the evening with a game of Spades.  Before long we were all sleeping soundly in our cozy room and awake and ready for day four of our roadtrip.

 

Day 4 — Sukhothai Noodle, the Buddha Factory, and Wat Phra Kaeo Don Tao

On our fourth and final full road tripping day, we headed toward Sukhothai (meaning “the dawn of happiness), a region known for more ruins from the Siam era and their special Sukhothai noodles. We’d planned a very ambitious day, but after all the planning, when we woke up we found the last couple days on the road were starting to tire us more than we realized. Instead we decided to scale back our stops. On the way to Sukhothai, just outside the city, we opted to do a little geocaching for an alternative activity to help get some more movement and exercise into our day.

See that little scroll of paper -- that is what we were seeking.  Found!
See that little scroll of paper — that is what we were seeking. Found!

Ben had looked up  the GPS coordinates the night before, and had an idea of where they were. The first one was supposed to be on a pedestrian walkway above the 6-lane avenue. With the GPS on and the coordinates plugged in we spotted the site, and asked Golf to pull over, telling him we wanted to go for a walk. His english prevailed to the point that he stopped a few hundred meters later, but he was confused why we would stop here on the side of what appeared to be the equivalent of a six lane highway. Ben thought he’d communicated when he said we just wanted to go for a walk, and would be back in an hour. But then as we were unloading from the van, Golf handed Ben his phone. He had called his native-English speaking friend because he didn’t know what we wanted to do here. Ben explained to his friend that we just wanted to explore the area a bit by foot for an hour, and we then would return to this exact location. His friend then communicated this same information to Golf again, who was fine with this, but still didn’t get us crazy farangs.

The geocaches were along a road leading to a new park, and after wandering through some rice fields and backyards with angry dogs, we found the right path. We took more time doing this than we wanted to (as is usually the case with geocaching, finding yourself a bit lost is part of the game) so we headed back to the van before making it to the park (still getting 3 successful caches on the way)!

On our next stop in Phitsanulok we checked out the Buranathi Buddha Factory. The factory is located just across the street from the next to a buddha museum. We were more interested in the process, so again we skipped the museum and headed directly to the factory. We were richly rewarded in our choice. The factory/workspace was open to the public, but not touristy at all. They had two points as you entered where they first described the steps in making a cast for a buddha statue, and another with some newspaper articles on their work. After that, it was a no-frills, honest workplace, with a staff of about 10 people working on the different stages of making the statues, from 10 inches to 10 feet tall. It was really neat to see the different stages of casting the statues, and the differences in how they are made when of stone, wood or metal. We were able to see how different buddhas and other statues of varying materials and styles were made, from pouring cement with rebar into a mold, to metal that is melted over clay. The space also had a bird sanctuary in the back, with many exotic birds. It was a great find, and we were happy enough to see the creation of the great buddha images found all over SE Asia.

We were able to watch the staff work on all different stages of creating buddha images
We were able to watch the staff work on all different stages of creating buddha images

From there we went into the proper town of Sukhothai, arriving around lunchtime. We first went to get some of the acclaimed ‘Sukhothai noodles.’ Golf drove around to a couple places trying to make sure we had the best experience possible in our quest for Sukhothai noodles. When we found our place, it was a low-key local place, which is always promising. We ordered four Sukhothai noodle dishes (with the help of Golf) and all enjoyed a tasty lunch. Was it that different from our other Thai dishes? Not really. Is it worth the fuss? Probably not, but it was a good meal.

This statue depicts the story of how the elephants insisted on bringing the emerald buddha to Lampang instead of Chiang Mai
This statue depicts the story of how the elephants insisted on bringing the emerald buddha to Lampang instead of Chiang Mai

After our stop in Sukhothai, we chose to skip the historical park just north of town we had planned to see. It is supposedly very similar to Ayutthaya, but less “restored.” Instead, we chose to head further north toward Lampang, where Golf said he knew of a temple for us to check out. Knowing the distance much better than us, Golf bombed his way up north. We arrived at Wat Phra Kaeo Don Tao at about 4:45pm, and had the place almost exclusively to ourselves, sharing only with the young, “novice” monk boys that were having a good time playing around in the main prayer room. This wat was made famous because according to legend, King Sam Fang Kaen had commanded the emerald image of buddha to be delivered to Chiang Mai (the capital at the time), but the elephants came to this point in Lampang and refused to leave. The king therefore conceded, and they housed the emerald buddha here in the 1430s , before moving it to Chiang Mai in the 1470s. Nowadays, it can be found in Bangkok , although there is a replica of a small green buddha on an elephant back at the temple.

By 5pm the temple was closing, and we exited to meet Golf at the car. From here, he took us to the C2 Boutique Hotel.  We had read that the town of Lampang is known for the horse and buggy carts that you can get a tour around the city in.  Caryl and Allyson were looking forward to an evening tour but when we went walking about the town there wasn’t one horse (or cart) in sight.  Instead we strolled into a local night market and after surveying the goods for sale (mostly veggies, fruits and flowers) we found some soups, fried squid, and rice dishes for dinner.

Now only a morning’s drive from Chiang Mai our road-trip was nearly at an end.  We had enjoyed the scenery and seeing some of the lesser visited places of Thailand, but we were ready to relax in one place for a few days.  

Dig deeper into our Thailand road-trip photos HERE.