As we wander along the tourist mecca of Khao Saan road in Bangkok with our new Intrepid group, the street food vendors are selling everything from chicken satay to fried scorpion! We are now more than 2,500 miles east of Delhi. The roads are busy, but well maintained and there’s no horn honking, there are proper pavements, minimal litter on side streets and our guide has allowed us out on our own, without any warnings about where not to eat! There’s no hassle from the street vendors and the toilets are ‘beautiful’ and not ‘amazing’ (code for it must be seen to be believed). The food is different, lovely sweet basil, lemongrass and plenty of chilli. I’m smiling…. we are in Thailand, land of smiles and everywhere all the gorgeous Thai people are greeting us with a smile, ‘sawadee ka’, palms together and a bow.
The next morning, we walk through the streets to meet our boat guide for a cruise along the Chao Phraya river and its famous canals (khlongs) where local people continue to live in traditional wooden houses built on stilts. I’ve been here before, many years ago but somehow the shock of eastern culture I experienced back isn’t as acute as it was then, after being in India for 6 weeks. We visit Wat Pho, one of the many stunning Buddhist temples of Bangkok, with its 46-meter gold plated reclining Buddha and then Wat Saket, situated on a low hill crowned with a gleaming gold chedi which houses a relic of the Buddha himself (more about him later). The temples are full of gold glinting against the bright blue skies and throngs of Chinese and Japanese tourists.
Our second night in Thailand and we board an overnight train for a 13-hour trip to Chang Mai, the jewel of Northern Thailand. After our overnight train experience in India, I’m ready for anything. This time it’s a completely different……it’s almost luxurious! There’s extra padding for the beds and bed boys make up our beds for the night, there’s a buffet car and the toilets are spotless. An interactive board informs us of our next stops, estimated time of arrival and whether the toilets are free and when they were last cleaned! The next morning, we arrive in Chang Mai refreshed and head to its most famous temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which is positioned on a mountain top, providing impressive views of the city. Legend has it that a white elephant, carrying the sacred relics of the Buddha originally chose the location of the temple and this temple remains an important pilgrimage site for Thai Buddhists to this day. The road up to the temple and the temple itself were originally built entirely by local monks. High above the city of Chang Mai, paper lanterns are drifting in the wind and the views are stunning. Despite the throngs of tourists, I feel a peace and serenity here. Inside the temple the gold glistens, the monks robed in orange are blessing those queuing with water, donations of money, food and flowers are being made and the chants and bells ring out across the hill top.
The next day on our way to Chang Kong, which borders Laos, we stop at Wat Rong Kun, also known as The White Temple, which is the creation of Chalermchai Kositpipat a famous local artist. This temple is not traditional and is unlike any other temple I have seen. Even those feeling a little ‘templed out’ are bowled over by the spectacle. Representations of the Buddha and mythical creatures are intertwined with unexpected pop culture heroes. Ironman sits outside on a park bench and everywhere there is white and tiny mosaic mirrors which make the spectacle appear more fairy-tale princess/ Thai style castle, than temple. Outside the main temple one must overcome hell (the cycle of death and rebirth) by crossing the bridge to reach heaven and nirvana…….it really is quite bizarre, but stunning and utterly magical.
Our final night in Thailand before we cross the border into Laos, and we have dinner in a local restaurant overlooking the hypnotic Mekong river. Our guide, Natthachai, himself a Buddhist monk for 14 years, tells us that Buddhists believe that happiness comes from within and that the middle way is the path to happiness. After a green Thai curry and a few Singha beers, I’m not sure if this is the middle way but I’m feeling happy and look a bit like the Laughing Buddha, the one with big tummy!