When last we left our intrepid explorer, he was on a bus from Chiang Rai to Sukhothai, the first capitol of Siam, and the place where the Loi Krathong festival originated. Loi Krathong is a lovely festival of lights which takes place on the 12th full moon of the year, and this year the big night was November 16, but at the ancient capitol they were celebrating all week.
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Friday, November 11
The bus trip from Chiang Rai was longer than it had to be by almost 2 hours because this bus, which is supposed to be a non-stop "tour bus" turned into a local almost as soon as we left the station. We picked up lots of passengers along the route, and the closer we got to Suhkothai, the more stops we made to let off locals. This would often mean not only stopping the bus, but having the conductor get out, open the baggage doors and dig out people's luggage. Very frustrating, because I was counting on the promised 4 pm arrival time to get to the old city and see the opening night festivities at the national park.
We finally arrived downtown at 6:30 pm, and I hired a tuk-tuk driver to bring me to a reasonably priced hotel. Sukhothai tuk-tuks are unlike the ones in the rest of the country - they are motorcycles which have a basket attached in front of them, so the passenger rides in front of the driver. And that's how I found out first hand how bad the evening insect problem is in this city. I had to keep my eyes closed for most of the ride. Talk about picking bugs out of your teeth.
The first hotel we tried was fine, 600B ($15) a night. I told them to put two nights on my VISA card.
Walked back to the center of town, looking for a place to eat. Finally found the night market, after about two hours of walking. Worst pat thai ever. The noodles were not entirely cooked, there wasn't much protein (I ordered the seafood pat thai) - just a couple of shrimp and a few squid rings.
I also found the big festival market. It was HUGE! Maybe 10 blocks of stuff. The bad news is all the neon lamps were attracting millions of bugs - it was impossible to shop or eat or even buy snacks because there were bugs everywhere, clouds of them. Photos 58-59 shows how bad it was at one of the brighter lights behind the rock concert stage. The band was playing in the dark, the audience danced in the dark. Some of the stalls had orange neon lamps, and a few wrapped their lights in orange cellophane, which helped, but not enough.
One of the places which is naturally lit by orange lamps and set back from the market street was the post office, where they were selling not only commemorative stamps, but also religious amulets. Thais usually wear at least one amulet of an abbot or monk, sometimes it is their local religious leader, sometimes it is a particularly holy person from some place they have visited. Women tend to only wear one at a time, but men may wear a whole string of them on a neck chain. Getting into the amulet business is not a bad idea, though one wonders how appropriate it is for the post office. I chatted for about 20 minutes with three of the postal workers, and they said they had been surprised when the program was started earlier this year, but the amulets are about the size of a stamp, and it makes money for the postal service, and it's good luck to work amongst all those amulets so why not? I thought it was pretty weird, but the US just doesn't have a religious hierarchy which would lend itself to amulets. It would be like the USPS selling amulets of Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, Pat Robertson and Cardinal Roger Mahony.
Back to the hotel, with a stop first at a hotel restaurant to rehydrate - soda water and ice. Talked with a very cute waitress for the whole time, until they closed. I asked her out but she said she had a boyfriend who was on his way to pick her up. Oh well.
To my room, unpacked, showered, and updated my journal. Also looked for options for the day after tomorrow. I'm still a day ahead of schedule, and I want to get to Bangkok during daylight (I'd missed all the scenery on the trip north by taking the night train). I need to be at the Pitsanuloke RR station by 10 am, and that's an hour from here. Many options. I could stop in Nakorn Sawan or Lopburi for a day. Nakorn Sawan is where I spent my first two months in Thailand, learning the language. Lopburi is famous for having wild monkeys everywhere.
Tomorrow I'll have breakfast at the hotel (it's included), buy flip flops, walk around, get to the ancient capitol/national park around 3 pm for the parade and stay the evening for the big celebration performance and light show. I've already practiced with my camera at the 1600 ASA setting (okay, ISO), and available light. That should be okay. The folks at the hotel said they don't think there will be any krathongs loi-ed until the 16th, but I'll be in Bangkok for their big celebration anyway.
Saturday, November 12
Up at 7, out by 8, found breakfast and flip flops - two pairs actually, The first pair seemed a little tight compared to the second. Went to the morning market and bought four pakamas for 60B ($1.50) each. A pakama is a man's version of a sarong - about two yards of cotton print which ties at the waist. I like to wear them around the house, but the ones I bought in '89 are long since worn out.
I dropped my shoes and the pakamas off at the hotel, grabbed my camera, two extra batteries, an extra compact flash memory chip and headed for the Loi Krathong festival for lunch. Someone at the market had told me there was a lot of food at the national park site, so I changed my plans to get there earlier.
I was planning on walking, but the folks on the street said it was 12 km, and pointed me in the direction of the song-taews (these are pickup trucks which have been converted into jitney taxis with two rows of seats - they hold about 10 people and leave as soon as they have a full load. On my way I was intercepted by a tuk-tuk driver who offered a ride for 100B, which is 4x what I would have paid a song-taew, but I figured it would save me some walking, and I was there to help the local economy anyway. Honestly, though, Sukhothai didn't look like it needed much help.
During the day the insects were not a problem, so it was a comfortable ride. I was dropped off at the main gate, but saw that there were a lot of people on bikes, and across the street there were a bunch of bike rental places. I got a 1-speed for 20B, and rode it to the main gate, paid for admission and a small bike fee, and also bought a map. On the bike it was not as big a park as it looked like on the maps, but the bike was worth it. After I had gone around the park twice, I returned the bike and spent the rest of the day on foot.
There was plenty of food, whole restaurants had set up there. And the bad food continued. Bland, tiny portions. I drank too much Coke and sweet drinks - but it was so hot even my fingers were sweating. Even the Thais were complaining about the heat and humidity - Loi Krathong is supposed to welcome winter, and here it was 95 degrees and 99% humidity.
The park did a great job of attracting merchants. There were lots of food stalls, maybe a mile's worth if you put them all on one street. Ditto the handicrafts. They also had several stations where they were demonstrating spinning, weaving, iron mongering, and other crafts. They have a national co-op called OTOP - One Tambon, One Product. A Tambon is the next smaller political division after city. The idea is each tambon chooses a single product to specialize in, that way they get a wide variety of craft work nationally, and avoid too much competition. The tambon supports that one item, and OTOP helps market it. One of the OTOP services seems to be helping design products, so if you go to a village and see their stuff there, everyone is selling the same designs in similar colors and patterns. Boring. But easy on the marketing group.
The park is all 700-year-old ruins (photos 90-156). Unlike Europe, where there are some buildings built 700 years ago which are still in use, I don't think there is anything that old in Thailand. Sukhothai was destroyed, I think, by the armies which moved the capitol to Ayudhaya. And Ayudhaya was destroyed by the folks who moved the government to Bangkok.
The Big Deal was the 3 o'clock Parade of Changwats (changwat=province) and the big Loi Krathong show at 8 pm. The parade started on time (photos 160-222), which was something of a miracle, what with special speeches by the governor and some of his entourage, and translations into pseudo-English. Every changwat had a person holding their name sign, a row of people holding a banner, and a float with the queen of the changwat and her princesses. And they each had a dance troupe or mime troupe or other performing unit which had worked all year for this event, and each troupe insisted on doing its full 10 minutes in front of the reviewing stand. This made for a very slow parade. The MC kept reminding them that there were 17 changwats to see, and if everyone took 10 minutes, we would be there all week, but they all ignored him. After all, they had worked long and hard for this. After two hours they were less than halfway done, and it was way hot - they had not put up anything in the way of shade along the parade route - so I left for about an hour, found some shade, rehydrated, looked at crafts and checked back on the parade every half hour or so. At 6:30 or so I went for dinner, then at about 7pm I headed for the lawn outside of where the show was going to be, sat down and pulled out a book.
Thais have an amazing ability to endure noise. There were at least three loudspeakers blaring anywhere you went in the park, all yelling about different things. Gave me a headache.
At 7:45 they let us into the performance area, which was the central part of the ruins. I had a very good seat just behind the VIPs (the Hungarian ambassador was three rows ahead of me) near the center.
The show was a valiant effort by about 300 students from arts schools. (photos 258-263) Very professional Thai-only narration over a superb audio system, lots of stage smoke, lovely costumes and choreography (it was all mimed), but it was mostly wasted because the audience was way far away from the actors, the lighting was mostly too weak, and the way the seating was arranged the heads of the people in front of you blocked your view unless you were seated at the front of a section. They used the main temple ruins as the main stage, which may have looked great on paper, but in reality it was horrible. They did some neat lighting effects, and the fireworks (photos 256-270) were pretty good too. The part I liked best was when they launched about four dozen hot air krathongs as part of the climax of the show. Big ones, which went into the sky to form a new constellation (photo 257).
After the show, all kinds of people had lined the streets selling all manner of krathongs (photos 243-244). Most folks were buying them to take home for the big day, but a few tried launching theirs in the small ponds set aside for the purpose. Lame. No wind, no current, the boats just sat there (photos 245-255).
I suppose I should explain the festival. A krathong is a little boat made from banana leaves (and sometimes with some help from styrofoam) decorated with flowers and featuring a lit candle in the middle. You take your boat to the river and float it, and watch it till it is out of sight. If the candle stays lit, that's good luck, and if the boat stays afloat, that's good luck too. You can also do this at the ocean (in '89 I was at Phuket for Loi Krathong) but this is possibly more challenging than it is worth, and usually involves wading out past the waves and getting very wet.
The show being over, I found a song-taew back to town, and got hopelessly lost trying to find my hotel. It took about an hour. In my room I inspected the new holes in my feet put there by the flip-flops, and went out for a pineapple shake, hoping to read till midnight, but they closed at 11.
The plan for tomorrow was to get to Pitsanuloke by 10 am, board the train for Bangkok and arrive in the big city at 3-4 pm.
And that's another installment.