Tourists are visiting Thailand in increasing numbers, but some communities remain stuck in a time long passed. In pursuit of the “old Thailand”, Alex Robinson shuns the tour buses and takes local’s route, the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.
We’re waiting on the road, huddled together with locals who’ve risen in the pre-dawn dark. “Kneel,” whispers my guide Poj, “and press your palms together”. I do so and wince as a piece of gravel digs into my kneecap. In the distance, hundreds of saffron-robed monks spill out of the monasteries that surround Chiang Mai’s Doi Suthep temple and down the snaking staircase that cuts through the thick forests shrouding the mountain.
I try to stay quiet as the monks approach, holding out their big stainless steel alms bowls. Poj drops bags of warm, sticky Thai rice, wafer biscuits and fruit into the bowls and the monks begin to chant. But not in Thai – they speak the Pali language, a dead dialect that was once used in many of the earliest Buddhist scriptures.
To me it sounds as ancient as church Latin, rich, rolling and redolent with the sacred. It’s mesmerising. Meditative. I’m trance-like for five minutes and it’s only after they’ve moved on that I remember the pain in my knee and the pins and needles in my legs.
Tourist Thailand seems far behind. I’ve entered an older country, where monks speak a bygone language and collect alms in the dawn light – as they have done two-and-a-half thousand years. This Chiang Mai isn’t a travel stop for hill tribe handicrafts and elephant camps, but the old capital of the Northern kingdom of Lanna. At least for the next hour. Until the tour buses arrive.
"Tourist Thailand seems far behind"
I began this journey four days earlier in current capital of Thailand, Bangkok. Wanting to find an older Thailand I decided to take the twelve-hour slow train north to Chiang Mai. Most travellers take the overnight train and sleep right through, choosing not to visit the country’s former capitals, Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, at all. But I chose to go by day, staying overnight to explore these overlooked destinations.
Leaving Bangkok, I was glad of the peace and calm of the train to my next stop, Ayutthaya. Most tourists squeeze into minivans. But I was one of a handful of foreign faces with a compartment all to myself. Feet up, camera at the ready, I watched the heat and highways of central Bangkok fade into crane-spiked concrete hinterland and then lush green paddy fields, dotted with tractors, workers in conical hats and the occasional languid water buffalo.
I woke with a start as the train jolted into Ayutthaya. This city was once so covered in glittering mosaics that it was said to dazzle visitors from kilometres away. Sadly it was ransacked by the Burmese in 1767; temples were smashed, the houseboats and houses, where almost a million Thais lived, were burnt to husks and thousands were forcibly repatriated across the border.
Off the train, I took to two wheels, cycling past Ayutthaya’s network of canals, which was once bustling with boat trade. I could almost hear the vegetable sellers haggle as they yelled for trade from tiny canoes; now the canals are coloured pink with flowering lotuses. When I reached the city itself – a graveyard of crumbling brick palaces, mould-stippled stupas and Buddhas – I found a statue at Wat Phra Mahathat engulfed by a strangler fig, only its serene face remaining exposed among a swirl of roots.
Image by Alex Robinson
"With so few foreigners on the train, I was a curiosity"
There were so few foreigners on the evening train to Phitsanulok that I was a curiosity. Thai people stopped to ask where I was from. The family opposite shared their rice and curry. As night thickened a guard turned my seat into a couchette, covered it with a crisp white sheet and I slept soundly all the way, and when I arrived in the 600-year-old city I was met by my smiling guide, Poj.
The next day we visited Sukhothai, Thailand’s capital in the early thirteenth century just 60km from Phitsanulok. Ransacked Ayutthaya was a forlorn ruin, but the long erosion of time has turned Sukhothai into an eternal monument – a Thai version of Angkor Wat.
In Ayutthaya, Buddhas sat in serried ranks – soldiers against samsara (the material world) – but in Sukhothai, they were veiled by temple walls, serene and as tall as tower blocks, gazing across 800 years of history to a point beyond time. Brightly-coloured tropical birds played among the ornate stupas and perched on the stucco, and nuns and monks meditated at the feet of centuries-old effigies lost at the end of sweeping colonnades.
Image by Alex Robinson
"Instead of tourist crowds, there was the bustle of everyday life"
Before Poj and I embarked on the final leg of our journey and caught the night train to Chiang Mai we visited Mahathat Woramahawihan – a stroll from Phitsanulok railway station. Hidden inside the temple is Thailand’s second most venerated Buddha: a magnificent, three-metre-tall gold statue, crowned with a lotus-flower halo and shimmering in the light.
Instead of the crowds you find at the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, there was the bustle of everyday life. Expectant mums with bags of groceries, school kids, and monks in robes shuffled in through the temple doors and prostrated themselves at the Buddha’s feet. They chanted, prayed, then went on their way, and aside from me – one lone awkward intruder – there wasn’t a European in sight.
But I saw them when I reached Chiang Mai the next day, stuck in tuk tuks in the traffic-choked streets around the city’s old royal moat, clustering around the ancient temples and crowding the tiny bars around the night market. It was fun to join the throng for a while, before slipping off for an early night. To see Chiang Mai as it used to you need to awake for the golden dawn, when monks fill the streets and tourism sleeps.
Alex Robinson travelled with Audley Travel who organise bespoke trips around Thailand, including by rail. Explore more of Thailand with the Rough Guide to Thailand. Compare flights, book hostels for your trip and don't forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.