We took an overnight bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, which was sort of out of our realm of experience (it involved a few straightfaced announcements by the attendant that we mistook for “this bus is going back to Bangkok and you’re all out of luck” as it was shortly accompanied by a giant u-turn, but it turned out we were just stopping at a rest stop; seats that reclined all the way back to the point that your legs were pinned and you couldn’t actually move them; and a woman behind us who took the opportunity to spend the entire night on the phone) but overall was pretty comfortable, and another passenger even gave up his window seat to let us sit together. When we arrived in the city, we managed to find ourselves a tuk-tuk driver who dropped us off on a random corner in the city when we declined to stay at the guesthouse they drove us to, and the first guesthouse we stayed in had a resident drunk, possibly mentally unstable, family member who sang loudly and unintelligibly directly into our screen window while watering the garden from 2am to 9am–we were fairly certain we were going to get watered as well in the middle of the night.
For the rest of Chiang Mai, we stayed on the second floor of a beautiful teak guesthouse with tall ceilings, a huge mattress on the floor (it was actually three small mattresses lined up in a row), and a private bathroom. We spent most of our time inside the walls of the old city, visiting sparkling wats covered floor to ceiling in gold leaf, and green, blue and yellow bits of mirrors, occupied by young monks in yellow-golden robes chanting surrounded by beautiful murals depicting Buddhist and Hindi mythology.
We had some wonderful food in Chiang Mai, like the rest of Thailand. Tom Kha Gai, a coconut soup with kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal (related to ginger but quite different), chicken and chiles. Khao Soi, a curry and egg noodle soup served with a chicken thigh, with pickled veggies and fresh dry green beans on the side. Tom Yum, a clear tomato-y lemongrass and kaffir lime soup that was by far the spiciest thing I ate in Thailand. Beef, pineapple and pepper kebabs from street food vendors, fresh ripe mango with sticky rice and thick coconut milk, fried wontons filled not with cream cheese, but a hardboiled quail egg (surprise!), lemon and strawberry “ancient” ice cream. Of course, we had to have more spicy basil stir fry, green curry with thai eggplant, and pad thai, and a few mystery snack foods including some crackers we’ve come to refer to as “angry exploding hotdog snacks” because of the picture on the bag.
One morning as we were lying in bed, we heard megaphone announcements, cheering and honking, and ran out to follow on foot a motorcade of red-shirt protesters snaking out of the old city. We followed them to the provincial democratic party headquarters where they were rallying, megaphoning protest chants in Thai, dancing on pickup truck beds to recorded music, and burning a coffin representing the current Prime Minister Abhisit; the red shirts are more or less in support of the former PM Thaksin who was ousted in 2006, although from what we can tell the protesters were not only pro-Thaksin, but also against the military coup that dissolved Thaksin’s party and awarded the PM position to the opposing party. The protest’s mood was excited and positive, and supporters included young men in bandannas and aviator glasses, songthaew drivers, and groups of smiling grandmothers with red, heart-shaped noisemakers; and the police, while in riot gear and at the ready, were pretty relaxed during the whole affair. It was a really interesting thing to witness, we feel pretty lucky to have been in the right place at the right time.
From Chiang Mai, we left on a train for a town called Phitsanulok near Sukhothai, another former capital of Thailand with beautiful ruins spanning the entire old city. However, the train we took left hours later than it was supposed to, after many delays and mysterious intercom announcements that we didn’t understand and a very extensive train-washing process. We sat across from an elderly couple squatting on the floor of the train, eating balls of sticky rice and salted meat from a banana leaf; food vendors come on the train to sell meat and rice, hardboiled eggs with mini handpacked inflated bags of soy sauce, crunchy, green apple-y jujube fruits with a mixture of salt, sugar and chile for dipping, quartered pineapple on a wooden skewer, or translucent glutinous rice balls filled with peanuts and chiles. Because of the delay leaving, we arrived in Phitsanulok at 2am, tired and sticky and covered in chaff from the still-burning fields that blows steadily in the open train windows, stopped on the side of the road for some glass-noodle soup with blanched mystery meatballs, and after wandering around looking unsuccessfully for a guesthouse while dodging cockroaches the size of small mice (that’s not an exaggeration, by the way) we decided to just walk to the bus station and wait for the first bus to old Sukhothai.
When we got there, we had hot coffee with sweetened condensed milk and rice for breakfast, and rented bikes to explore the ruins (not unlike, apparently, hundreds of other tourists crawling the ruins in droves–going early to avoid the crowd is a failed venture in Thailand). The ruins themselves were really interesting; the fascinating Wat Sri Chum houses a massive, legendary talking Buddha. An early Thai king brought his forces to the statue that spoke to the men, commanding and inspiring them to fight bravely in battle. Later, an echoey secret passage was discovered which led up and behind the statue. We watched the sun set over Sukothai historical park–it was beautiful. Check out our photos from Chiang Mai and Sukhothai at http://picasaweb.google.com/mradyfist/ChiangMaiAndSukhothai.