Jan 062010

Sukhothai (January 6, 2010)

Our day began in a small corner shop with a bowl of richly flavored noodle soup featuring a single chicken leg. This is light eating by our standards, so there probably will be some snacking on the way to the ruins. We made our way to Sukhothai Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site that houses the most significant temples of the first Thai kingdom. Beginning with Wat Mahathat, the central temple of old Sukhothai, we visited four different temple sites before retreating to our air conditioned vans and heading out of town.

Most of Wat Mahathat’s brick underpinnings appear to have been restored, but of course with the loss of stucco/plaster, the deterioration of lava rock columns, and the removal of some Buddha images over the years during which the site was abandoned, it can only approximate its original grandeur. Even today, the graceful design and spectacular scale of the structures remains evident. The Sukhothai-style Buddha images departed from earlier designs in emphasizing a “flame” atop the Buddha’s head, very wide shoulders relative to his waist, very long arms and fingers, high-arched eyebrows, and elongated earlobes. These elements, based in Buddhist sutras, give the Buddha images in the park, particularly the walking Buddhas, a more feminine form. Variations on these themes at Wat Mahathat probably arise from the artists’ imaginations. The numerous chedis and other structures also are characteristic of the period.

We walked to Wat Si Sawai, which has a dark history: apparently virgin sacrifices were made, in a continuation of Hindu practices. Tourists lined up for photos of the Bodhi tree, but unlike Ayutthaya’s Wat Mahathat, there is no head to be seen among the roots. We took a brief van ride to Wat Traphang Ngoen. Situated by a large pond, you can see the back side of Wat Mahathat in the distance. At nearby Wat Sa Si, there is a famous and unusually feminine walking Buddha image. We skipped Wat Si Chum, which, for the record, features a remarkably tall Buddha image known as the “talking Buddha” because a general inappropriately used a cut in the wall beside the Buddha’s head to urge his troops to persevere.

About 40 minutes out of town, we arrived at Sawanvoranayok National Museum in the Sawakhalok District of Sukhothai province. This was an important pottery-making region, with fine ceramics having been discovered from the 13th and 14th Centuries. Denoted the Sangalok style — apparently as a more easily pronounced corruption of “Sawakhalok” — there are a variety of colors and techniques, including some very early celadon. Scholars dispute whether China or Sangalok first developed celadon, but either way, the patent ran out a long time ago and we will shop for celadon when we get to Chiang Mai.

The museum also housed a collection of Buddha images and offered an interactive exhibit explaining style differences between the Sukhothai style and those that preceded and followed it. This was a bit awkward to read on screen and would make a nice little booklet. (Unfortunately, the museum prohibits photography.)

For lunch we drove around a few corners and stopped in at a noodle shop specializing in Sukhothai style noodles. A small portion of thin rice noodle are drained and dropped into a bowl, and topped with green onions, peanuts, thinly sliced roast and/or BBQ pork, a generous lump of palm sugar, and a good sprinkle of ground dried chillies. The first step is to melt the palm sugar; you can start by squeezing a segment of lime directly on it and mixing and mashing with your soup spoon or chopsticks. Then you mix all the ingredients together and, if you like bit more heat or sourness or saltiness, season to taste from the usual assortment of noodle shop jars, bowls, and bottles. Really, really good noodles, if a bit sweet. I’m not the only one who ordered seconds.

We stopped in at the Sathorn Gold Textile Museum in Si Satchanalai to view very old examples of the weaving of gold and silver thread into fabrics. But the museum is only a brief diversion from several adjacent shopping opportunities. In back, two older women worked at their outdoor looms on a wide variety of intricately patterned fabrics. I still have some of my purchases from 2008, so I focused on things I think will be popular with my colleagues. On the back fence, freshly died fabrics, destined to become clothing, dried in the sun. In the clothing store, the menswear either was too formal (shoulder pads? seriously?), or too small for me. Across the parking lot was some attractive gold and silver jewelry, but these are not on my shopping list.

Main Buddha Image at Wat Mahatat, Sukhothai

New Residents at Wat Mahatat, Sukhothai

View Across the Reflecting Pool, Wat Mahatat, Sukhothai

Walking Buddha, Wat Sa Si, Sukhothai

Delicious Sukhothai-style Noodles

Hand-weaving Behind Sathorn Gold Textile Museum, Sukhothai

On the way back to the hotel, we paused at a row of gold jewelry stores. The central one allowed us to walk through their workshop, where the fine work included twisting together nearly pure strands of gold. Many of the workers wore masks over their mouths, and based on the air quality, this seemed like a good idea. We returned to our vans for the ride back to town, and made one stop at the market to purchase a particular kind of red chillies that are essential for authentic red curry. I wanted a few ounces for myself, but the minimum was a half kilo. Back at the hotel, when a woman from housekeeping returned my laundry, she nodded toward my bag of chillies with a knowing glance. I guess they’re the real deal and I will have to learn to make red curry.

View interactive GPS track on GPSed

For dinner, we crossed the street and headed a block toward town. A sidewalk restaurant with about a dozen tables waved us in. While we waited, I walked through the kitchen, which consisted of a prep area, four woks (two for deep frying, two for stir-fries), and a big cauldron of stock. Our first dish was a soupy jungle curry with chicken and green eggplants. Jungle curry has no coconut milk to cut the heat, so it can be quite hot, and this one was no exception. Next was a stir fry of shrimp, squid, and fish balls mixed with little pieces of baby corn and green beans (or are those chillies?), green peppercorns, basil, and garlic. We cooled off with snow peas and shrimp in a mild Thai oyster sauce, while fish slices in an unidentified (but hot) sauce sparked the fire once again. For our final dish, we got a couple of fried frogs, with excellent (chicken-like) texture but a slightly too salty marinade. We finished up with well ripened (perhaps over-ripened) long kong, similar or identical to longan, and a few other fruits.

Tomorrow we depart Sukhothai for the Mae Sa Valley, just Northwest of Chiang Mai. Along the way, we will stop at one significant temple. The weather will be much cooler in the North than it has been the past several days. Time will tell whether we packed the right cold weather gear or whether we will need yet another trip to the market in order to make the rest of our trip comfortable.

  One Response to “The Earliest Thai Kingdom”

Comments (1)
  1. The photos are wonderful, Jefferson. And I like the GPS track!!

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