Northern Thailand

Great Escape to Northern Thailand

I have travelled to Thailand many times, and it’s somewhere I never get tired of exploring so this feature on exploring the country’s northern reaches was a particularly rewarding trip.

We began the adventure in Bangkok, and then headed north to delve into jungles, ancient temples, hill villages and rice paddies, travelling all the way north to the Myanmar border.

One of my highlights was meeting Uncle Puk, a local legend in Khao Yai National park, and a man who really makes you understand what real bushcraft is all about.

Bangkok

IT’S THE MORNING RUSH HOUR in downtown Bangkok, and the city’s streets are wall-to-wall traffic. Buses and mini-vans loaded with commuters are heading from the outer suburbs into the city centre. Tuk-tuk drivers tout for business and streams of scooters whine along the boulevards, the high keen of their two-stroke engines blending with the throaty grumble of truck exhausts and the incessant blare of car horns. It’s gridlock, and no-one’s going anywhere fast. But a few blocks away on the wide Chao Phraya River, the great brown waterway that flows through the heart of Bangkok, there’s no sign of any traffic jams. Barges and passenger ferries are chugging along the river banks, packed with schoolkids and office workers, and fleets of long-tail boats skip and surf on the choppy swells, dropping off their fares at jetties before buzzing off downstream in search of new business.

Since the capital’s foundation in 1782, the river has been the artery that’s kept Bangkok’s circulation flowing. But, in fact, the Chao Phraya is just one of many waterways snaking their way through Bangkok. Hundreds of miles of canals, or khlongs as they’re known locally, spiral through the little village neighbourhoods that radiate like a spider’s web around the city centre. Though many have now been paved over or filled in to 1. Bangkok It’s a city infamous for its traffic jams, but there’s another way to explore – the web of khlongs, man-made waterways, that stretch out to the capital’s furthest corners make roads, they remain a vital part of the city’s infrastructure – as well as a glimpse of an older Bangkok, far removed from the modern-day, 21st-century city of skycrapers, shopping malls and office blocks.

‘Bangkok is a city of islands,’ explains boatman Pae Visut, as he steers his long-tail into the maze of canals in Thonburi, a residential neighbourhood west of the Chao Phraya. ‘In the past, the khlongs were the only way to reach areas. They’re still quicker than the roads.’ He chuckles gruffly, resting the long-tail’s rudder on his knee as he sparks up the cigarette dangling from his lips, and guides his boat though a lock-gate into Khlong Bangkok Yai, the Little Bangkok Canal. Lines of tin-roofed houses glide past, teetering on wooden stilts above the murky water. Golden-topped temples rise alongside the banks, framed by drooping willows and jacaranda trees. Tangles of electricity cables and telephone wires hang overhead, and local residents tend forests of potted plants festooning their waterfront verandas. Occasionally, a white egret swoops down to strut along the banks, dipping for fish in the shallows, or a monitor lizard hauls itself from the tea-brown water to bask in the sunshine.

‘Many people in Bangkok have no idea these khlongs are even here,’ Pae says, as he cuts the engine and moors up by a riverside temple, its finials flashing like beaten copper. ‘But I’ve been a boatman here for 35 years, so to me they’re as familiar as the streets around my own house.’ He beckons to a passing boat – a floating shop stocked with food, drinks, trinkets and temple offerings. He buys a garland of marigold and jasmine flowers, and adds it to several others draped over the long-tail’s prow. ‘Good karma,’ he explains, rolling a fresh cigarette on his knee, and saluting another long-tail as it buzzes past.

Some canals are as old as the city itself. When King Rama I moved his capital here from Ayutthaya in the late 18th century, he built his opulent Grand Palace on the island of Rattanakosin, and established the city’s first canals to link it with the Chao Phraya River. Canals proliferated as the city grew, serving as moats, aqueducts, thoroughfares and flood barriers. Even today, the city’s locks play a key role in managing water levels during the monsoon rains.

Clattering back onto the Chao Phraya from Thonburi’s backwater khlongs, Pae steers his boat towards the golden spires of Wat Pho, one of the city’s oldest temples. It’s now nearly midday, and fleets of boats are bobbing around the temple’s jetty, depositing cargoes of monks and pilgrims carrying floral wreaths and bundles of incense to make their afternoon offering. Cascades of fallen petals float in the water, and the sound of rhythmic chanting rises above the buzz of boat engines. It’s another sign that, for all its status as a restless modern metropolis, Bangkok is still a city that’s deeply entangled with its past.

Khao Yai National Park

‘SHHHH,’ WHISPERS PUK Manchaona, as he cocks an ear skyward and peers into the forest canopy. Milky sunlight is piercing the treetops, underscored by the gentle tinkle of a stream and the reedy trill of unseen birds. Then, further down the valley, a long, looping hoot rings out, rising like an ambulance siren before dying out in an eerie echo. Moments later, it’s answered by a return call, then another, and another – and before long, the treetops are filled with whoops and wails, a jungle choir in full-throated voice. ‘Gibbons,’ Puk advises. ‘Hard to see, very easy to hear.’ He adjusts his pack and pads off silently down the trail, picking his way past knotted roots and giant ferns as he searches for more inhabitants.

Puk – or Uncle Puk, as he’s known – is a legend in Khao Yai National Park. He’s been a ranger here for 53 years, the last survivor of the original cohort of rangers recruited when this vast stretch of rainforest became Thailand’s first national park in 1962. Now in his mid-seventies, Puk has dedicated his life to exploring the jungles of Khao Yai, and knows the forest trails better than anyone. He is one of the park’s senior guides, training other rangers in forest skills, from tracking wildlife to identifying jungle plants.

‘You must use different eyes in the forest,’ Uncle Puk explains, as he steps down a steep, muddy slope with the grace of a mountain goat. ‘There are many secrets to see, but first you must learn how to look.’ He pauses at the edge of the trail and points to a tree where several deep gouges have been scored into the trunk. To an untrained eye, they simply look like marks in the bark – but Uncle Puk knows exactly what’s caused them. ‘Black bear,’ he says. ‘Very good climbers.’

Covering 837 square miles in the western part of the Sankamphaeng Mountain Range, Khao Yai is Thailand’s most popular national park. It’s renowned for its diverse terrain and varied wildlife, with more than 3,000 plants, 320 birds and 66 mammals, including the Asian black bear, Indochinese tiger, pig-tailed macaque and several families of wild Asian elephants. Unsurprisingly, the park is a favourite holiday spot for Thais and foreigners alike, who spend their time hiking the trails, cycling the forest roads and taking night-time wildlife safaris. It’s also spectacularly beautiful, and regularly features as a movie location – notably in Danny Boyle’s 2000 adaptation of The Beach, when Leonardo DiCaprio took a death-defying plunge down the waterfall of Haew Suwat.

As he picks his way through the forest, Uncle Puk demonstrates his intimate knowledge of the forest. He points out the giant webs of orb spiders strung between the trees, huge termite colonies as tall as a man, and the tracks of a wild gaur (a type of bison) imprinted into the muddy trail. Nearly every plant has a use, he explains: the leaves of one tree yield a natural antiseptic, while the bark of another exudes a toxin that local tribes once used to poison-tip their arrows. He ends his walk with a visit to a massive strangler fig, spiralling a hundred feet into the forest canopy, its great black roots creeping out like fingers across the jungle floor. There are many like this in Khao Yai, he says, leaning against its twisted trunk; this one is probably 200 years old, he thinks, but he knows others which could be twice its age.

By the time Uncle Puk emerges from the trees and begins the trek for home, evening is falling over the forest. He’s standing in grassland on the edge of the tree-line, not far from an observation hide. The sky is blazing orange and a line of karst peaks pierces the skyline, their spiky tops picked out by the sinking sun. As he treks down towards the hide, he points to a trail of flattened stalks trampled into the head-high grass.

‘Chang,’ he says, trumpeting softly as he mimes a pair of tusks with his hands. ‘Elephant. Maybe we will see tonight,’ he says, before adding, ‘but maybe not. In the jungle, you never know.’

He grins and vanishes into the grass, as a fresh chorus of hoots, whoops, honks and screeches heralds the gathering dusk.

Sukhothai

IN FRONT OF THE GREAT ruined temple of Wat Mahathat, a pilgrim kneels before a giant Buddha and prepares to make his evening offering. He lays a lotus flower before the seated form, then lights a candle and a bundle of incense before bowing his head in prayer. Above him, the Buddha is depicted in the attitude adopted by most of Sukhothai’s statues: the ‘subduing Mara’ pose, symbolising safety from evil – one hand resting in his lap, the other pointed towards the ground, eyes half-closed, a beatific smile on his lips. Having completed his prayers, the man rises and unwraps a square of gold leaf, which he applies to the Buddha’s right hand before bowing his head and shuffling off. As he walks away, thousands more golden squares glint in the breeze, a mosaic covering the Buddha like chainmail.

The great complex of temples at Sukhothai is more than 800 years old. It’s a cityscape of shrines, built by the kings of Siam between the 13th and the 15th centuries. Now a World Heritage site, in all there are more than 200 temples dotted over 27 square miles, making this Thailand’s largest religious complex. The variety of temples is astonishing – the structures here are the crowning achievements of Thailand’s religious architecture. They range in style and complexity, from humble stone shrines to great conical stupas topped by sculpted lotus buds, the symbol of enlightenment. Some shrines are guarded by bas-relief figures or sacred animals: magical dragons, warrior monkeys or guardian elephants. Often, the traces of ancient murals can be glimpsed in the stonework, once vivid with colour, now fading into invisibility. Between the temples, clipped lawns sprawl under palms and tamarind trees, and still pools filled with water-lilies reflect images of temples on every side.

Given the site’s size, the best way to get around is by bike, which allows access to the more remote temples outside the old ramparts – like the great Buddha of Wat Si Chum, which at three times the height of a double-decker bus is by some margin the largest statue in Sukhothai. Sadly, Sukhothai’s golden age wasn’t to last. By the early 1700s the complex had been all but abandoned, eclipsed by the rise of the rival city of Ayutthaya, and its monuments were left to crumble into ruins. When King Rama I established his new capital in Bangkok in 1782, many statues and artefacts were moved to furnish the king’s newly built temples.

But Sukhothai is far from a forgotten ruin these days. Around the old temples sprawls a busy, modern tourist town, where horse carts clip-clop along the streets, and fleets of tourists on push-bikes stop at stalls to browse for souvenirs or snack on portions of sticky coconut rice. Sukhothai’s religious importance remains – especially for the communities of monks and nuns who still call it home.

‘Sukhothai means the Dawn of Happiness,’ explains Phra Athkarn Suradhej Kittiyano, who serves as the abbot of Wat Saiyath, one of the newest monasteries, re-established on the site of an abandoned temple just 12 years ago. ‘It is special because it marks the start of our spiritual awakening,’ he continues, proudly showing off the interior of his temple, decorated with stories from the Buddha’s life. ‘One could say it is here in Sukhothai that the story of Buddhism in Thailand began.’

He walks outside and closes the temple doors. Outside, his fellow monks are preparing for evening alms. They set off down the road in single file, heading for a line of temples on the horizon that glow like embers in the evening haze.

Chiang Mai

JUST OUTSIDE THE southern gate of the old city walls, Chiang Mai’s street vendors are getting ready for the dinner rush. Charcoal barbecues are sizzling and steel vats are bubbling, sending clouds of smoke and steam into the hot evening air. At one stall, a woman is chargrilling huge pink prawns over a wood fire. At another, a vendor is barbecuing strings of sausages, his face blushed from the heat of the flames. There are stalls selling green papaya salad and plates of pad Thai, and others dishing out bowls of rice noodles and pork dumplings, doused in meaty broth and laced with piles of bird’s eye chillies. Greengrocers are yelling for trade, surrounded by pyramids of colourful fruit – crimson rambutan, creamy durian, purple mangosteen, pink dragon fruit. It’s chaotic, smoky and deafeningly loud, but for the city’s residents, this is the best place in town for a post-work snack – and judging by the queues already forming, it’s set to be another busy night.

Food is a crucial part of everyday life in Thailand. The majority of families still sit down together for a meal at least once a day, and the phrase ‘Gin khao reu yang?’ (Have you eaten rice yet?) remains a common greeting. With its emphasis on fresh ingredients and fiery, tangy tastes, Thai food has become one of the country’s most popular exports, but strictly speaking, Thailand actually has many cuisines.

‘Every region in Thailand has its own style of cooking,’ explains chef Krit Apithumachot, as he strolls around the kitchen garden of his cooking school, 15 minutes outside Chiang Mai’s centre. ‘In the south, dishes tend to be spicier and use lots of different flavours, while here in the north, the cooking tends to be simpler and uses mainly homegrown ingredients. Even today, most families still harvest herbs and vegetables from their own gardens.’ He picks a big bunch of Thai basil and adds it to his basket of ingredients, all picked this morning – red chillis, green chives, curly kale and a couple of coconuts – then heads inside to start preparations for lunch.

For the things he can’t grow himself, Krit, like most Thais, goes to the market every day. He greets most of the stallholders by name – from the farmer who supplies his chickens to the butcher who makes his sausages. Wooden stalls are arranged in haphazard rows, laden with produce from local farms: sacks of jasmine rice, freshly cut bamboo shoots, stalks of lemongrass and wild galangal, piles of cabbages, oyster mushrooms and pak choi. Shoppers ride their scooters straight down the market’s lanes, stuffing ingredients into plastic bags dangling from their handlebars, before stopping for a strong black coffee to fuel the journey home. It’s like a village hall, community hub and moped convention, all rolled into one.

Back at the cooking school, Krit is preparing a classic northern dish – nam tok moo, a spicy salad of herbs, shallots, roasted rice and barbecued pork. He works fast, shredding the meat, toasting the rice and chopping the herbs, before preparing a zingy vinaigrette of lime, chilli, palm sugar and fish sauce. With a flash of flame and a toss of the wok, the dish comes together and is plated up, ready to eat. It’s the classic Thai combination: sweet, spicy, salty and sour, with just the right blend of chewiness and crunchiness from the garden-fresh ingredients.

‘Aroy mak,’ Krit says, tucking into the salad with relish. ‘Just like grandma would have made it.’