So a week out of our journey through SE Asia for a trip to Melbourne was always going to be disorienting – first time wearing shoes since last November, Melbourne weather (17C one day 34C the next), consumer profusion, no mossies, rapid friends catch up (thanks Tom and Wen), Frank in and out of hospital, Airbnb, Werribee and of course the amazing wedding of young Niall and Gin. It went by in a fun-filled, exciting blur.
And then back to Bangkok. But not the Bangkok of early February. Now it was the airless, humid, eye-wateringly polluted, exhausting, 36C Bangkok of old. We huddled around the hotel internet and air con, planned our next diving liveaboard in Myanmar, a journey to Ko Phayam, flights to Manila and then left by third class train to the ancient southern capital of Ayutthaya.
I have no idea why we’d never visited Ayutthaya in our previous times in Thailand. It’s a couple of hours by train from Bangkok (30 baht 3rd class) and is one of those places where history comes alive. With wide streets, very little traffic, canals and three rivers it’s easy to wander about, especially in the early morning, and we had a great few days exploring the Thailand of old.
Staggeringly in 1700 Ayutthaya was the biggest city on earth with a population of one million and was the trading hub between China, India and the Malay peninsula. The ruined Wats, Stupas, Cheddi and palaces that remain show just how elaborate this capital once was and also tell the story (through evidence of looting and decapitated Buddha statues) of the conflict when Myanmar invaded burnt and ransacked the city in 1767. Only the stone/brick buildings, wats and palaces survived. One 16m high Buddha in Wat Phra Si Sanphet was burnt in order to melt down and steal the 340 kilos of gold that covered it’s surface, worth about $15 million today.
The pictures show the general building style of thin, kiln fired red bricks and render that was originally painted white or covered in gold. The thin bricks allowed for elaborated and stylish designs and also account for how many of the ruined cheddis and stupas remain standing, even when now tilted at seemingly impossible angles, often looking like a haphazard stack of books about to, but not quite, fall over.
On to Ko Phayam
Back in a still muggy Bangkok, after a night’s sleep we boarded a night bus back to the West coast and then a morning ferry over to Ko Phayam, and in many ways a return to our Thailand of old, the one remembered from 35 years ago.
Fishing and Cashew farming are the main industry in Ko Phayam. Everything goes in and out by ferry. The picture on the right shows the Cashew harvest heading to the mainland.
Without permanent electricity, cars, or roads to speak of, Ko Phayam is a few decades behind the tourist development that has transformed (or disfigured) so many idyllic Thai islands. There is no western development, no McDonald’s, 7 Eleven, Pizza Hut or ATMs. The majority of islanders make their living from the Cashew crop and fishing, all essentials are shipped in every day on the ferry. Tourism is catered for by huts on the beach with various degrees of style and comfort (mostly how long you have electricity for during the day). Noise consists of a wide variety of birdsong, waves rolling onto the shore and the always unexpected chorus of cicadas.
You can travel the island by motorbike – the ‘roads’ are too narrow for TukTuks, and the motorbike taxi service is organised and pretty much rip off free. We ventured into town for the Cashew festival with street stalls and an inter island five a side football competition on a sand pitch, half the island was closed down to get involved.
Tourism has changed over the decades, so now alongside backpackers and hippies you get other demographics. It’s a while since we’ve come across anyone from the UK (maybe a hostel in Koh Lanta at the end of January?) but you find families with young children, mostly German, with generous holidays and kids who don’t start school till 6 or 7. There are Europeans of all ages – the new artisans – taking time out for six or seven weeks because their lifestyle or job mean that they can. And then the grey nomads with an open travel plan, or a winter escape agenda. We bump into and talk to all the tribes as we go, and of course every now and then travel tales become conversations and you are suddenly talking to someone who is a joy to meet. The international Women’s Day sign on Long Beach came out of just such a conversation with Deniz, a wonderful woman and artist from Germany and it was great to see it photographed and shared on social media all day.
Of course our common purpose is to seek the idyllic island life and no doubt we are contributing to its future downfall/development as we go (cue Joni Mitchell).
For now though, with a breeze across the bay, sea eagles circling, geckos frozen, but eyes never still, and the tide slipping out as another glorious sunset and cold Chang approach, it will have to do.
I’ll try to get a quick update on the Myanmar dive trip in the next day or two, then it’s off to the Philippines. You can click follow below to get updates. 👇 🌴