It was time to head North. After 5 weeks of exploring Thailand’s islands and South coast, it was time to venture back to the capital before stumbling towards Laos.
With Toby and Emily’s trip ending soon, we headed to Ayutthaya to absorb some Thai culture from the ancient city. We jumped on a 60 Baht (£1) train to Ayutthaya, which sat about 90 minutes from Bangkok.
Declared a World Heritage Site 25 years ago due to the high density of ancient temples, Ayutthaya was always going to be worth the visit. In a constant battle against the elements, the crumbling ruins of the temples are in a continuous state of repair. Scaffolding wrapped many of the brick structures, and most of the cross legged sculptures were left without heads or limbs. The burmese armies had apparently sacked the once royal city 300 years ago, leaving with the gold and much of the city in ruin. Still, it was great to see the variety of all of the buildings on show, baked in the hazy midday heat.
In late afternoon, we hopped on a longboat to see some of the temples on the other side of the river. Bathed in soft yellow early evening light, it was amazing to explore the three main sites. The modern temples, painted in red, white and gold, would generally house giant ornate Buddhas surrounded by rich clothes and decorations. In contrast, the old red brick structures were left as they were to stand in the open.
During the evening we splashed out at a famous restaurant on the riverside, overlooking the activity below. Smalls boats would ferry locals from one side to another, whilst huge barges would carry materials down the river. As we settled in, gusts of wind blew by and lightning cracked in the background as a storm brewed nearby. Whole fish, crab, soups and various other dishes filled the table, whilst Chang beer bottles stacked up next to us. We talked into the evening, before heading towards a few finals bars to finish off the night.
The next day Toby and Emily left, leaving me with a familiar hangover that often befriends me when Toby is around. It would be the last time I would see friends from home for a while. I decided to take an extra night in Ayutthaya to take stock and plan the next leg of my journey, before buying my ticket for the long bus ride to Chiang Mai.
9 hours of gazing out the window saw the large towns disperse, replaced by wild trees and rich foliage covering the rough orange ground beneath. Across the horizon, silhouettes of mountains started to appear, shrouded in thin white cloud. Amongst the sea of wild forest, there existed islands of desolate fields. No doubt, the local farmers were desperately waiting for the rain to come. It was still very hot and mostly dry. The “biggest heatwave in 60 years” I heard on multiple occasions throughout my time in the country. It definitely felt it, I thought.
On arrival in Chiang Mai, I was greeted by two familiar faces. Henry and William, who I had left on Koh Phangan, had decided to also travel north. Chiang Mai has its own charm, where the relaxed nature of the northern hills meets the buzz of a big city. Temperatures are high throughout the year, and most days hovered around 40 degrees whilst we were there. The “Old Town” is held within a square moat, and houses many of the famous sites, restaurants and local haunts. The area is also famous for housing many elephant sanctuaries which lay in the surrounding hills, so we booked a day trip, eager to get up close with the majestic asian elephants.
After 90 bumpy minutes in the back of a truck, we were arrived at a village which was also home to 8 elephants. The elephants had previously lived in Railay where they were used carry heavy loads (presumably to help build the resorts in the area). Fortunately, they had been moved to live out a happier life in the North, where tourists would come in bus loads to feed and bathe them.
Our guide, who seemed most enthusiastic to make dirty puns throughout the day, energetically walked us around the village to meet the elephants. He stated many times that he was an elephant expert, although other than telling us elephants eat 300kg of food each day and that Asian elephants have four toes, there wasn’t much other information on offer.
The friendly elephants would wander around whilst we fed them bananas and other treats, and we would follow them in awe. Although the elephants were undoubtedly living a happier existence at the elephant sanctuaries, it still felt like a very touristy experience, rather than seeing them in their natural environment. However, I definitely won’t forget the first time I tentatively reached out and felt the rough grey skin of this beautiful animal.
Following some time with the elephants in a mud bath, we were guided towards a stream to wash them from their new mud coats. The younger elephants seemed especially happy to have water thrown at them as they rolled around with their legs flailing in the air. The elephants bustled around for attention, as we wildly splashed and scrubbed the mud away.
We returned to our hostel filthy and in desperate need of a shower, but happy from an overwhelming day. A large powercut which wiped out most of the city forced a quiet final night in Thailand, although the prospect of a 20 hour bus ride to Laos the next day made a good night’s sleep an excellent idea anyway.
Goodbye Thailand, it’s been one hell of a ride!