One of Mr. J’s servants picked us up at the guest house and took us to Doi Suthep, a wat from the 1300’s on top of a mountain. You walk up 300 steps to get to the complex. Very nice views, lovely cloister, but it’s another wat. An Asian tour bus came and its people were more fascinated by us than by the wat. We actually went into a gem store there, which was frustrating because Dilek, me and Elif are at least one and probably two too many people to buy something. Elif had sold some silver in Turkey and wanted to spend that much, period, on a gem. Dilek wanted to pay for everything. I wanted her to spend a little more if she saw something she liked. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t pretty ugly, but she didn’t buy anything.
We then went to Doi Inthanon National Park. There we saw Phra Mahathat Naphamethanidon, a pair of chedi built by the Royal Thai Air Force to commemorate the king’s 60th birthday in 1989. The area is lovely – gardens with flowers of every color, magnificent views of mountain peaks, but the chedi are just plain spooky. It’s a his and hers tomb-to-be, each facing the other, each requiring a walk up many, many stairs to get to. His is austere, with a single Buddha in the middle. Hers is insanely ornate – carvings of her in action all over the inside walls, plus perfectly awful carvings of great architectural highlights from all over the globe, paid for by various governments.
The rest of the park was lovely. We saw three waterfalls, starting at the one on the top of the mountain. Elif and I hiked down from the 3rd one to the 2nd one, which was the largest, and the hike back up was a killer in the heat. The driver then drove us from the 3rd one to the 2nd – we didn’t know it was accessible by car – we felt a little silly.
The driver got us to the church on time and we caught a bus south to Sukhothai. It was advertised as a 2nd-class bus. Imagine sitting on a crowded school bus for 6 hours, but much less comfortable. Not only did our backs and tailbones hurt, but our asses were killing us. We arrived in Sukhothai at 12:30AM. Immediately we were hit up by the motorcycle taxi mafia. There we were, us four surrounded by a dozen of motorcycle taxi people wearing pink jackets trying with brochures of guest houses they wanted to take us to. We said, no, we want to go to one we already had in mind. We argued for awhile; a guy from the Balkans (!) with a handlebar moustache came up and told us that we would love the place his “friend” was recommending, and we went to the customer service window of the bus station to ask for help. They had a sign “Report problems and scams, get help” but the guy inside was quite nasty and wanted us to go with his good friends at the motorcycle taxi mafia. We asked him which way was our hotel and he said it’s over 5km down the road. We said that’s impossible and showed him our Lonely Planet map. Turns out, they’d built a new bus station way out of town and that’s where we were. So we said we wanted a tuk-tuk or taxi, as Dilek and Cos wouldn’t get on a motorcycle taxi. The guy said there was no transportation at 1AM except motorcycles. We asked Cos and Dilek. Dilek was not getting on a motorcycle. So we hitched up our packs and started to walk.
We’re walking down the main road for maybe 20 minutes without seeing one car of any sort. Nothing. Then some lights come from way in the distance, getting bigger, getting bigger, and then I see the scariest face in the world bearing down on us – it looked like the guy at the beginning of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre – twisted, mouth hanging open, eyes bugging out – and driving a sawngthaew tuk-tuk which was mounted backwards: it was like a motorcycle pushing a cart. He was a mute, with spastic twitches, but he had a great smile. We told him where we were going; he made 50 with his fingers, we said 40, and he was happy. I didn’t think you could negotiate after 1AM in the middle of nowhere, but we did. The hotel was another 5 miles – much further than what the guy at the bus station had told us! He dropped us off at our hotel and then took out a card printed in block letters: “I will take you all over Sukhothai for only 500 baht. At least 3 hours. Over 14km of ruins.” I told him no thanks. He then made lots of grunting noises and twitches and held up four fingers. I told him thanks, but no, we wanted to walk around ourselves. Then he made the numbers 3 and 5 and a circle for 0, and I figured, let’s hire him. He was so happy. He asked me what time and I said 8AM, and he showed me 8 fingers twice and then made me shake his hand to seal the deal. We had ourselves a driver.
He was the first driver to show up on time. Sukhothai was the first capital of Thailand and was big from the mid-1200’s to the late 1300’s; it has the peak of Thai art and architecture. There were 21 different sites and 4 ponds. There was a large lotus pond with a bridge in front of Wat Mahathat, whose stupa spires feature the lotus-bud motif. Inside its walls were 200 chedi! The 15-meter brick-and-stucco Buddha at Wat Si Chum was our favorite, but all the different sites – about a dozen – were lovely. Although it was as hot as Ayuthaya and the ruins at Ayuthaya were in better condition, Sukhothai was more enjoyable, mainly because of our driver – not having to walk around in that heat from place to place was a good idea, and it was really too large to walk around in any weather. What I liked about our driver – I forgot his name but it was something like Pai – is that he would try to explain what we were seeing. He’d point to the Thai on the inscriptions for what he found interesting, and then we’d find the corresponding English. We fed him breakfast but what really made his eyes light up was whenever we asked him to get whatever he wanted to drink – he ordered a frozen fruit shake and other cool stuff. He also seemed to know exactly where we wanted to go even before we told him, and he didn’t leave anything out.
At the end he wrote on a card “Si Satchanalai-Chaliang Historical Park 60km” and then took us to a friend of his. His friend looked like a real badass – muscle shirt, loads of tattoos, and we would be riding in the back of his pickup – but Dilek and Elif had had enough. I whined a little – it was supposed to be spectacular, and we’d planned to see it and it was so close – but it’s supposed to be similar to Sukhothai and they’d really had enough. It was too hot and they didn’t believe I’d ever really take them down south to swim, and I decided to choose not to ruin my marriage by seeing some ruins. So our driver takes us to the bus station, where we get harassed by some sleazy bus company operatives. Elif says she wants a VIP bus to Bangkok and this guy says we have a wonderful 2nd-class bus. Elif says she wants to see it first and he says, if you buy the tickets, when the bus comes if you don’t like it, I’ll refund your money. We laugh at him and a bus arrives to Phitsanulok, a larger town of about 100,000 less than an hour to the east. We take a bus there, as transportation options from there to Bangkok are supposed to be much better. The bus was 3rd-class, no air-con, and oh did we sweat. At Phitsanulok we found a bus to Bangkok – no VIP, but nice enough. We slept on the bus and woke up when the bus stopped at the Bangkok airport. The airport is north of the city and we were coming from the north – we had no idea that the bus would stop there and thought it would only stop at the central bus terminal, so we started yelling and jumped up and grabbed our stuff and hopped out.
We went into the airport and asked if there was a flight to Krabi and they said the daily Krabi flights are sold out for weeks, but there’s a flight to Phuket in a half-hour, the last one of the day, at the domestic terminal 1km down the road. We ran out and caught a cab, told him domestic terminal, and the driver says OK and then drives right past the exit ramp. We start yelling and say domestic, domestic, and point behind us, and then the driver has to drive to the next exit and turn back, and we get there, run on line, are standing behind these Sikhs that are taking forever, get our tickets, run to the gate, and the plane is late anyway.
We land in Phuket and the Phuket airport is about 35 minutes outside of town, so we take a minivan into town to a recommended hotel, which turns out to be a shithole. We walk all around downtown Phuket, go into six other hotels, and they’re dirt-cheap, or expensive, and they all have shithole in common. Dilek is getting loopy. She wants to walk to the bus station – it’s 1AM again – and try to find a bus to Krabi. I tell her that there will be no 1AM buses to Krabi. It takes some convincing; I’m glad we packed light, one backpack per person. Finally we give up and stay in an expensive one ($20) that turns out to be dirty anyway. I feel satisfied that I got them south to swim ahead of when I promised I would. I don’t know how many more days of stupas and bots and wats Cos could have taken.