January 23rd, 2015
I wake up early up, although not incredibly motivated to take on the day, given my squalid surroundings. Well before the alarm rings on the laptop the deafening torrent of simian pattering and banging washes across the corrugated metals rooftops. I clean up and pack desultorily, then wander into the bright sunshine with my heavy packs toward the train station, the streets of old Lopburi still relatively empty. I buy the ticket for the local 9:44 am train and broach the platform, a handful of locals and tourists in evidence as Julie waves to me in the distance. We find a bench to sit down on and chat, she maintaining a more matter-of-fact stance while I slide into my typical coy rejoinders that don’t necessarily gain traction with everyone, and no less with her. The morning is quiet, the small train station evoking a sense of peace and contentment, the few vendors setting up their food stands on the platform. My breakfast at the stand behind the stations consists of a Coke and greasy fried pork, pork in any form being a huge staple in Thailand.
Julie speaks again about her work volunteering with conservation groups, how she worked earlier on in her stay in Thailand with an elephant conservation group in the Hua Hin area, and how she will be going back to the U.S. to be working for a wolf conservation agency in Indiana. She has been working regularly in a camp in northern Ontario that her father was apparently instrumental in building, which went far beyond a regular summer camp for kids in terms of the educational opportunities and personal development. Somehow the conversation turns to travel preparation, and then onto the subject of the electrolyte salts I have made a point of taking regularly when I realize suddenly that I don’t recall having packed the container into my pack.
A wave of anger momentarily consumes me, thinking that it just can’t be, considering the expenditure I went through, the point I made of taking the large canister, and how little would be involved in ensuring that everything was in my packs – after all, it would have been sitting on the single nightstand, right in front of me as I was packing! Yet the recollection of packing crystallizes in greater detail – the canister would have been sitting at the back of the nightstand, partially concealed by the pile of garbage erupting from the wastebasket, which hadn’t been emptied because the cleaning staff never bothered cleaning the room.
A train inspector points us to the correct seating area on the platform, then when the train shockingly arrives on time, guides us to the correct car, a degree of service I can’t imagine getting in some other countries. The loss of the electrolyte powder bothers me through the trip to Phitsanulok inasmuch as I try to be as organized as possible, manage my money as much as possible, and you just can’t get quality products of this type as easily in Southeast Asia, although Chang Mai will probably be the last stop prior to having no hope of getting anything of quality in the wilds of Burma. Julie and I sit on adjacent benches, and it looks like she would rather be doing something constructive rather than chatting, so I hunker down with my travel guides, researching upcoming destinations in Thailand.
Once I have exhausted those, I review the entirety of the Myanmar Lonely Planet, since I had not yet even bothered giving much thought to my travel itinerary in the country. Travel to remote areas of the country is still dicey, and Sittwe/Mrauk U, which was largely the motive of my trip to begin with. There may not be road access to Rakhine state, given the violent confrontations that have taken place between Buddhists and Moslems.
The passengers on the train are typically polite and accommodating, just as Thais are elsewhere – not gushing overly at being able to meet you, but very nice nonetheless – of course that has to do to some degree with your looks, age, desirability, and so on. Vendors continually troop back and forth through the cars of the train, a brief synopsis of the kind of the food you get on the street, grilled cold wieners hardly being a winning proposition, neither the splayed dried eel, although I will go for the deep fried chicken. In general, the cold deep fried meats represent such a risk of contamination, but they dominate the foods that are offered on the street here. Julie looks askance at me as I bite into the deep fried drum stick, my own memories of getting incredibly sick from eating some cold fried meat on a train years ago in Myanmar still painfully clear.
The landscape slides by us, the train regularly pulling into small towns en route with stations that have some amount of architectural charm, few people disembarking or getting on at any particular station. The train is not very full, no one standing, most passengers with their own benches, windows wide open, letting the warm air in, albeit filled with the smoke belching out from the locomotive in front. The landscape is uniformly flat agricultural land, covered by a muted haze, the newly planted rice paddies greener. The ride seems very pleasant and bucolic, not remotely like the ride I experienced from Bangkok to Ayutthaya.
We disembark at Phitsanulok, and this is where our paths part, as she is catching a bus to Sukhothai, while I am staying here. She is not sure whether she wants to eat or not prior to leaving, but beyond her doing one last perusal of the Lonely Planet for Sukhothai, she is on her own, having consumed my dose of caffeine at the little cafe nestled amongst the train station food stalls, now off to the P1 hotel located somewhere to the north of the train station. Comically, in one shop where I ask for directions to the hotel, a woman with pink motorcycle helmet gesticulates for me to follow her as she putters along, her brilliant pink helmet a beacon leading me to the glaring brown and yellow sign on the building. Inside the posh and modern-styled reception area, a young woman comes to the reception to tell me the hotel is full.
I confirm that I have a reservation, to which she responds that I will have to wait a while for someone else to check me in. ‘No’, I tell her, ‘I want to be checked in now.’ Confusion arises as to how I should be processed, as the young woman is obviously just sitting in for her friend or colleague who had to run some errand. I motion for the now two women to make a copy of my passport and give me a room key – they can take care of the check-in later, although I think that the copy of the passport should be sufficient for an online reservation that has been paid already. She is confused and hesitates, and yet I just want to move on. The other young woman comes to her assistance and hands me an electronic key card for the door.
While I admittedly don’t expect incredible consistency amongst hotels, what I see before me in the room I am assigned is as luxurious as the room in the Nett hotel was not, replete with patterned tiles, dark stained wood cabinets, desk and doors, with a large, queen size bed, air conditioning, excellent wifi, wide-screen TV, all immaculate and new – for $25 a night? That seems unlikely – even it is Phitsanulok, which is not a remotely shabby. I disgorge the toiletries and electronics from my backpacks, arrange them on the shelves and in the bathroom, set up my laptop, access the wifi, which works admirably – hallelujah! Just as I am checking my email, a uniformed young woman appears at the door, presumably the receptionist that wasn’t present when I arrived and had wanted me to wait for her, informing me that I need to change rooms. But I have already unpacked here – no, she confirms, this is not my room – the room I have been assigned is in fact better, and is at the end of the hall. It may be somewhat bigger, and I appreciate the gesture, but it really is no different – so why even bother?
It’s just more time I am bound to waste trying to settle in here. I need to get to the tourist information office to get some sense of how I can take in the extra-urban attractions in the area of Phitsanulok using public transport, since I have no intention of renting a taxi to drive far out of town or rent a car of my own for that matter. Walking around town I am impressed how impeccably-presented and clean a lot of the retail establishments and buildings are – the only way I could explain it is that this is essentially the new town, where old towns are usually shabbier.
The effort of looking for the tourist office sets off a classic chain of absurd events that leads absolutely nowhere. I walk briskly past the surprisingly smart shops and restaurants in town in the direction of where the tourist information office is intended to be, at least in terms of the address provided in the Lonely Planet guide and also on the official Thailand tourism web site. Despite appearing prosperous and modern, the town doesn’t really have any underlying character – not that Thai towns are remotely memorable in the first place. At the traffic circle where the office is meant to be, there is nothing but a row of shuttered offices – obviously the tourism office is not here, and closing time is fast approaching.
After asking several people futilely whether they speak English, I enter an English school of sorts and am greeted by two uniformed schoolgirls who insist on helping. They excitedly discuss my predicament amongst themselves, checking maps online, then looking at my book, then continuing to discuss amongst themselves. Finally I motion to them that I should get going to wherever the tourism office is since it is bound to be closing soon. They indicate that they could happily drive me there, but I decline forcefully, not wanting to impose on them, although I am not really sure how clear I am being with them. It turns out that the tourism office is now located next to the primary attraction and the most sacred historic temple in town, the Wat Phra Sri Ratana Mahathat – well, at least I have an added excuse of going!
The temple looks relatively close, at least according to the map, although access calls for a number of brazen attempts to wade directly into traffic since there are no clear means for pedestrians to actually cross the busier streets in town. The riverfront and the vicinity of the temples is immersed in a morass of market stalls, making navigating the temple complexes even more complicated. I wade through the market area and the temple buildings, looking for anything that may resemble a tourist information office, but see nothing. I stop some passing tourists to ask them for any clue they may have as to the location of the office, but their response is somewhere between baffled and utterly disinterested. The few locals I address speak little or no English.
Finally, I stop an older man emerging from what looks like some sort of institutional structure, and he guides me to a group of monks, who jovially lead me to the public outhouses. ‘No, no, the tourist office, not the toilet!’ I exclaim. The monks and I engage in polite chatter as we weave through the morass of vendors and temple structures, finally arriving at a small wooden hut that is in fact what I was looking for, the Thai tourist information office, although at this point fully shuttered for the day. I remember the drill with the monks from Cambodia and Laos, as they typically want to practice their English with you, and even connect over social media if they can. Rather than being devoutly religious, becoming a monk may provide an alternate access to resources not otherwise available to poorer people, although in Thailand monkhood is not necessarily considered a lifetime commitment.
The Thailand tourist agency shares an office with the tourist police, large signs in front of the office describing the attractions that may be seen in the area. A tourist police officer appears and attempts to help me, but with virtually no linguistic overlap the best I can glean from the contact is that the office is closed, in fact for rest of the weekend. He hands me a pamphlet describing the marvels of the area, and then I am off amidst the stands selling tamarind candy and other exotic delights. Seated inside the temple enclave, I review the pamphlet for Phitsanoluk province and compare it to the description of the area in the Lonely Planet guide. At least the pamphlet indicates what bus to take to the attractions, if such a bus service even exists, and it seems that the only attractions accessible by bus are far away. Certainly, I didn’t need three days in this town to see the attractions, given how not necessarily compelling the few primary attractions are, at least in terms of evident historicity.
Leaving the evening temple market, the dusking sky explodes with the cacophony of starlings erupting from the green canopy overhead. I am noticing that despite its status as major world tourist destination the average person on the street in Thailand doesn’t have the vaguest knowledge of English, and if you are traveling locally on your own and on a budget, you really are on your own, what with the utter paucity of people who can be of help or even signage in Roman script. Walking back in the direction of the hotel I see another tourist information office, in front of which a guard is sitting, who motions invitingly to me to sit down next to him. No, no, I think I have enough of the tourism office right now … In fact, beyond getting something to eat, I really am not motivated to do much else at the moment, the entire afternoon seemingly having been wasted.
I enter a small-scale mall and run into a French woman, left to her own devices from the tour she is on. Apparently traveling on her own, in early middle age, from the Paris region, very sweet and measured, she assures me that no, she did not see any foodstuffs on any of the floors. She follows my convoluted monologue with unwarranted degree of attention, but concedes in the end that she is not completely happy with her visit to Thailand – she did expect more, and doesn’t quite understand why everyone would want to come here.
The traffic snarls give rise to another less pleasant reality of Thailand – the fact that while cars may drive in a somewhat orderly fashion, there are simply marginal provisions for pedestrians, and you really risk your life just to cross the street here. And now that I am actually looking for a restaurant to eat in, I see nothing other than the usual market stalls and a small overcrowded gym. The trip back to the hotel is relatively short, since it is actually located directly east of the temples on the river, but since I am as always searching for any interesting place to eat or have a coffee, I follow the lights visible in the side streets across from where the P 1 hotel is situated.
Small lanterns dangle in front of cubbyholes, or neon in Thai lettering artfully scrawled over entrances to somewhat dilapidated settings, women lounging expectantly in various states of undress, the ostensible brothels mixed in with modest families homes whose simple dwellings remain open for all to see. I continue down Thanon Singhawat and see that there is another large night market sprawling around a parking plaza, roughly half clothing and half food. Deep-fried pork or greasy pork cracklings, cold fried meats and fish sushi that have been lying in the sun for untold hours, surimi and fish meal formed into flavorless balls or cubes, tasteless and indistinguishable meat chunks thrown into generic soups amended with the usual synthetic Asian sauces, friend shrimp, crickets and worms, numerous variants on oily and bland grilled pork wieners, probably the only things I could justify eating the pastries or cut fruit, which hardly constitutes a meal.
It’s beginning to sink into to me several weeks into my trip in Thailand that the food on the street is in no way preferable to the fairly miserable offering I have witnessed in other Southeast Asian countries. I was hardly wild about the Chinese street food in Malaysia, but when you did hit the Malay street stalls, you were in heaven. What I see on the streets of Thailand is anything but inspiring, however. I am thinking that perhaps I should just head back to the P1 hotel’s restaurant, as it promises live jazz and bossa nova music. A few young local waitresses in relatively slinky outfits attend to several groups of older and cravenly obese tourists who look like they may be on their last gasp, cheering wildly to the numbingly mediocre wheezing of what seem to be an older Swiss duo knocking out 50s and 60s classics.
At least I am glad to be staying on the 4th floor, far away from the music – and so much for the jazz and bossa nova advertised in bold fonts in the windows. Perusing the menu, there look to be a variety of Italian-themed pasta dishes in addition to a surprisingly large selection of understandably pricey craft beers. Defeated, I order a pasta dish in red sauce, which amazingly amounts to admittedly reasonably properly cooked pasta in essentially a ketchup sauce. I expected little, but this is pretty atrocious. I guess anything would be cutting edge for the area – if you get tired of the night market and the low budget brothels, this would be a good place to enjoy the spinoffs of geriatric tourism, and I could conceivably quite soon be joining their ranks in the next room celebrating their slide into aged oblivion on the umpteenth trip to Thailand.
The P1 hotel looks splash but somehow dodgy, given that it is completely empty. I hear no one here except myself, although I was told when I arrived that the hotel was full. When I look up the hotel on Google Maps, though, it is listed as closed. I really can’t believe I have opted to spend three days here … there really is very little to see or do here, with no real atmosphere, other than the fact that the town is a typical view into small-town nice and modern Thailand. Oh well, hopefully I can just get a good coffee, hang around town a bit and catch up on my writing ….
January 24th, 2015
Being in no particular rush to get anywhere today, I spent the morning lounging in the very posh hotel room, leaving for a short while to take in a simple pork and rice dish at a roadside stall further down the road, accompanying a beaming young French trio, ready for their next adventures in Sukhothai, where I really should be heading myself, rather than dawdling in this town. Although sometimes spending time in places of no consequence has the benefit of imbuing a trip with the more pedestrian aspects of the country you are visiting, rather than always focusing on heavyweight attractions.
The street is somewhat of a reflection of Phitsanulok at large, a mix of small and medium-sized commercial and retail, offices, residential housing, small restaurants and humble roadside eateries which I am not necessarily fond of, although they fuel the locals going about their business. Unusual in Southeast Asia is the preponderance of coffee kiosks, even here. Out of place is the relatively posh Japanese eatery at which the buffet is 380 baht, which corresponds to what we would pay back home, not that I have a huge desire to eat Japanese food to begin with. But in the culinary desert that small-town Thailand can be, it represents a fallback position.
Later in the afternoon, a walk down the number 12 highway towards the temples, to the Enjoy Coffee house where I enjoy exactly that, enjoy a nice coffee in a simple, humble place with incredibly friendly owners. I cross the overpass to the temple site and into the sprawl of market stalls that surround the Wat Phra Sri Rathana Mahathat temple, a crescent of tables offering what looks like small sapote fruit or large plums with a somewhat rougher rind, omelets, prepared fried rice dishes, grilled wieners, liquid aromatic stews with indiscernible ingredients, fresh tamarind of various sizes, baggies of brown powder that looks like Spanish paprika but probably isn’t, the food vendors busily chopping or pounding chili, garlic, ginger and other spices in their mortars, fat bamboo tubes filled with a syrupy custard that eventually congeals and hardens, dried fish and eels, deep-fried giant prawns, tables covered with cockles, crabs, and the vegetable and fruit preparations that are served with the prepared shellfish, crisp miniature crepes stuffed with custard-like preparations, and deep-fried pastries that seem somewhat obscure in nature.
The presentation of the food stuffs here is as good as it is going to get, very clean, the vendors very sweet and polite, the food more appealing and tasty-looking than the greasier and more regrettable counterparts founds elsewhere. A tiny section of the market is dedicated to fairground-style shooting games. The market is rendered more picturesque by the backdrop of the buildings of the Buddhist temple and monks sauntering slowly through, enjoying the market with the rest of us mere mortals. At least there is ample photographic subject matter – I took no photos here yesterday, and can’t say the town is otherwise very inspiring. Unlike yesterday, I open up the pocket book and buy things here and there, since I like to snack when I am in the hotel room.
Walking by the tourist office, I peer into the open doorway, the men lounging inside leaping to their feet and pointing me eagerly in the direction of the tourist police side of the building. ‘No, no’ I protest, and already I am inside the building, meeting the same tourist police officer I consorted with yesterday, and while there may be precious little we can converse about, I settle on taking his photo in various poses, initially serious, befitting his apparent role, and then smiling. Shortly thereupon, taking some photos of a capped woman intent on the presentation of her grilled wieners, I am beset upon by an older local woman who seems to want to instruct me in some fashion, yet I wouldn’t have a clue as to what she is trying to tell me. But the strange looks that some of the passers-by flash me suggest I should probably move on …
One of the back rows leading to the back temple features particularly interesting merchandise, include lots of fresh and candied tamarind, white fish filets being fried and diced on the grill, a table of identical rows of ceramic astrological figurines, all in brown, straw brooms, pastries that look like Indian papadam that are grilled to the point of inflating and growing crispy. The temple itself apparently has a very important statue of Buddha whose presence would mean little to the layperson, and otherwise the temple just seems very standard, its alleged age not evident in the buildings you can see.
At the front of the central pavilion where the Buddha figure is venerated throngs of people have gathered in a carnival-like environment, praying with bundles of burning incense joss sticks clutched in their hands, lighting candles, coloured balloons being inflated, floral offerings being sold and contributed, and so on. The group of young children in traditional costumes that present a makeshift traditional dance attracts a crowd of prosperous-looking Thai, mostly women, seated in the plush chairs lined up under the garlanded canopy.
I seem to be wandering aimlessly in and out of the temple grounds. I am not quite clear as to the positioning of the temples, not that the clutter of the market helps distinguish what the principal buildings are. Re-entering the temple grounds, looking at what I think are packages of pork rind puffs laid on a table, I purchase a bag and confirm that they are the authentic thing. Suddenly the tourist police officer is next to me, insisting that I try some of them, not realizing I just bought a bag. In sampling from the baggie that the vendor proffers, one piece falls to the ground. I make a move to pick it up and eat it, but the vendor and police officer are horrified.
He fills a little container of what looks and tastes like tomatillo salsa, passing it on to me. Actually, I am happy eating the bacon puffs as they are, but the nuances of my preferences for eating bacon puffs fall on deaf ears. Further into the market again, I find that 250 baht for the Phitsanulok T-shirts would seem excessive, not that anyone in the world out there would ever have such T-shirts. How about a plastic container stuffed with dried bananas from the beaming family, and then an Asian-style omelet, stuffed with seafood and bean sprouts, which I consume on a bench facing the river.
Now time to cross the bridge and see what other delights await me on the far side of the town centre, although this proves to be a mistake, as the road that allegedly runs along the western river bank on the Lonely Planet map is in fact nowhere to be seen, and I have to walk some ways further inland before finding some road that runs along a canal towards the southeast. There is absolutely no benefit scenically to walking here, as innocuous residential housing runs along the far side of the canal and on my side of the canal simply nondescript architecture.
I look out from the trees crowding the walkway and realize I will be walking some distance. Eventually the road arcs towards a bridge featuring stylized golden peacocks holding lamps in their beaks, very picturesque, although I still don’t really know where I am. My destination is the area of the hospital, where the receptionist at the P1 Hotel told me a gym is located, but trying to find anything here is problematic, to say the least, given that very few people speak even the remotest amount of English, and street signs are in Thai script.
I have to do some sleuthing to get a sense that I make be heading in the right direction, and continue asking locals as to whether they speak English, although my efforts are invariably futile. I am thinking that once I find myself in the vicinity of the hospital, presumably workers will be more educated and in fact speak some English, although shockingly, in the computer stores near the hospital no one speaks English. Finally, in one establish, a young woman calls a colleague from the back of her store, and indeed, we are in the vicinity of the hospital, and not only that, she can confirm the location of the fitness centre.
First I explore the unusual grid of colourful bars, restaurants, cafes and bubble tea shops prevalent in what seems to be a trendy pocket of Phitsanulok. The town is actually far larger than the very core that I have been walking through – not that I have any intention of venturing further afield. Even if I wanted to get to know more of this town, without speaking the language, the effort is largely pointless, as interaction would be limited to smiling at people and perhaps greeting them in Thai. Around the corner, the hospital entrance on one side, a municipal library of all things on the other, and sandwiched to the back a plaza, a children’s playground. Behind it, the municipal fitness centre! For a mere 50 baht I am welcome to use the gym, which consists mostly of elliptical machines in reasonable form, the smaller weight section being utterly dilapidated and attracting a handful of aspiring jocks to forage through the broken equipment.
But for now it will do – and I am still surprised finding the gym ended up being relatively painless. No worse is the trip back to the other end of the city centre where the hotel is located, past the bright lights of the businesses shuttering for the Saturday evening, the night markets flowering in the budding darkness, a few pieces of deep fried chicken and a baggie of diced watermelon pretty much all I can muster the courage to swallow at this point. I follow the traffic flowing down the brightly lit boulevards past the pharmacies, stylish clothing shops and cafes, and there it is already, the train station, with its characteristic architecture, the hotel not lying far beyond.
I can’t say I haven’t enjoyed the walk around town today, yet have little idea as to what exactly I would be spending the day doing tomorrow in this relatively characterless town …
January 25th, 2015
The morning is spent catching up on my journal with generous breaks on Facebook. I run across the street to eat some fried meat on rice, hardly very inspiring, a stark counterpoint to the enthusiasm of the young Thai man only too eager to be of assistance in translating for me, teaching me a few words of Thai, excitedly asking me questions and telling me about himself all but made up for it. A quick coffee in the bar of the P1 hotel, and now back to the room to finish my writing efforts. Now the hunt for Thanon Wisut Kasat, which should take me to the folklore museum that is one of the attractions in town. Weaving through the dry field behind the hotel, I continue down the first street I find, and it turns out I am already on the road. Even today the air is thick and hazy with pollution.
At a funky cafe on a side street, it turns out that the Ban Flok restaurant that was highly recommended for Thai food is now shuttered. The entire area around the Ayara Grand Palace hotel looks quite funky in fact, the bars, cafes and restaurant enshrouded in as much foliage as whimsy. I guess you learn things about a country when you travel, and stores just close in this country on Sunday – in Malaysia it was Fridays. I just had the bad luck of coming to Phitsanulok on a weekend.
I finally reach my destination, the Sgt.-Maj. Tawee Folk Museum, the collection of a private citizen who collected folkloric artifacts pertaining to all aspects of local rural life over a number of decades and garnered prizes for his efforts to document the Thai culture.
The limited larger-scale signage at the museum is for the most part devoted to extolling his virtues. The effort is appreciated, although a formal public anthropological museum would do a far better job of curating the displays. The lower floor of the principal building is open-faced, containing every manner of farm implements, tools, baskets, baskets and more baskets, not to forget signage explaining all the different ways local animals would be hunted and trapped, cows castrated, and so on. On the upper floor, the display continues with self-massaging tools, midwifery and birthing traditions, royal memorabilia and photos, locally-made and imported, ceramics, glassware, silverware, puppets and masks, children’s toys, kites, coins, fire starting devices, musical instruments, carpentry tools and farming implements, weapons, contemporary household objects, lamps, and brass urns.
In the adjoining building, I chat with an older French couple from St. Nazaire, the man elaborating on the changes he had observed in Cambodia on his numerous visits over the years to the country as well as Thailand. Being so passionate about this area of the world, why not come back and visit Myanmar, and even some parts of Indonesia, although these are also potentially more difficult places to travel – traveling off-the-beaten track in Myanmar is just not for everyone!
We walk back into the town subdued by the Sunday afternoon, eventually arriving at their hotel, the glistening facade of what looks like a dodgy Asian casino, next to the Cafe Vegie that I had passed by on the first evening in town, but it all seems like a blur to me. Perhaps I will return later to eat at the sleek-looking cafe, but as with so many things to do when traveling, it’s all very conjectural – and of little importance if I do or don’t. I continue to the end of the road, past apropos cafes, interesting restaurants, and fanciful boutiques, largely closed, but nonetheless giving the idea that the centre of town is far more interesting than I would have expected – only sadly, I am finding out now.
At the waterfront, I see the same bridge with the golden peacock lamp holders I crossed yesterday, eateries setting up for the evening on the sidewalk on the riverside, then passing to the far side of the street under the effusive ‘Happy New Year’ sign, the Coffee Mania cafe with its outdoor terrace overlooking the heavily treed grassy embankment. Joggers amble along the recessed riverfront walkway as far as the next bridge, cross over, and run back on the far side. Brightly painted and somewhat dilapidated old elliptical running machines as well as rowers are set up in a workout area alongside the river that people occasionally stop off at to compliment their running routine. The late afternoon light streams magically through the thick foliage, revealing the soaring rooftops on the opposing side of the river reflected in the water.
Thai women relax next to the mattresses laid out in rows on the grass embankment, some slowly massaging clients, most waiting for customers, lending the idea of authenticity to the innumerable dubious-looking massage parlours you see throughout the country. Next to a small kiosk selling coffee and other drinks is a square-shaped, flower-draped bed surrounded by small tables with palettes which are being used by women teaching their children to paint, which just strikes me as incredible. Somehow the stay in Phitsanulok has turned out to be surprisingly engaging and endearing, although I realize towards its conclusion that I seemed to have skirted the essential spirit of the town precisely by not doing what I had so automatically done elsewhere, which is pound the pavement through the town, irrespective of how low my expectations were.
I really want to get to the Wat Ratburana temple before the light descends too low. The temple comes across as a somewhat random grouping of buildings, an ancient rounded stupa adjacent smaller viharas with large statues of golden Buddhas, flanking and facing much smaller gilt versions of the same, the inner walls frescoed with scenes of Buddha’s life and smaller representations of Buddha and bodhisattvas proliferating throughout. The large Buddha in one of the buildings is allegedly 700 years old, in front of which sit a handful of beaming orange-wreathed monks, gesturing for me to buy some of their votive candles set up in front of signs, each of the rows corresponding to a day of the week. Mangy dogs weave amongst the cars expectantly as touts shout and wave at cars entering the large lot, directing them to their designated spot. To the side of the small hall with the 700 year-old Buddha, a row of smaller stupas, and to the other side of the lot, a large and elaborately decorated vihara. Tables are set up with all manner of offerings of incense and money to various temples, liberal garlands of carnations, bright ribbons wrapped around the bodh tree, and so on.
Since I am already across the street, I may as well return to the Wat Phra Sri Rathana Mahathat temple, since the market offers such a delectable array of snack food. I may as well make it my Phitsanoluk evening ritual, since I have come here twice already, once on each of the preceding days I have been in town. I definitely must be a familiar sight to some of the vendors, although the throngs are as thick as ever. The first stop is the vendor selling not just fresh strawberries but fresh juice, which is a bit of a luxury, and is very refreshing and tastes great. Rather than worrying about the cost of the items being sold, I just go for whatever compels me, since the presentation in the market is as clean and as easy to oversee as anywhere.
I think of buying some of the sapote-like fruit, but the few of the various sizes that I feel in my fingers seem very hard, and are probably not ripe. To make matters more complicated, I have little way of conveying my concern to the vendors, given the language barrier. I start with a baggie of what look like shortbread macaroons but actually later turn out to be oversized palm sugar-flavoured toffee, which is too hard to bite into without breaking the teeth, a bag full of peanut and sesame brittle, and two little containers stuffed with delicious-looking salad rolls.
I could always cross the overpass and then head back in the direction of the clock tower to rediscover one of the interesting restaurants I had set my sights on earlier on today. Unfortunately, as I walk east on highway 12 towards the train tracks, there is no road that crosses back into town, and I will have to satisfy myself with the offering in the area of the hotel, which I am not looking forward to, to say the least. Traffic is as busy as ever, throngs of parking touts yelling and waving at passing cars. Glancing in the direction of train station on the road running to the west of the tracks, I see a few neon signs lit that may point to eateries, although most are small retail outlets selling children’s toys, stationery and clothing, the few eateries the typical single-wok operations I would rather avoid. Maybe I will just continue to the next illuminated sign, I tell myself – and lo and behold, the rare food buffet with all manner of prepared meats and vegetables in different sauces, exactly what I was looking for. For a delectable chicken and then pork curry later, both on a bed of rice, spiced slightly differently and amended with curry, I am 40 baht lighter, which is about as cheap as any food I have had in the country.
I wave to the headscarved girl at the Pakistani restaurant near the railway tracks, realizing that I had meant to eat here in the morning – perhaps I will remember tomorrow early before I leave for Sukhothai. The south side of the street is lined with outdoor eateries with tables, most of which are full, and from brief inspection of the food on customers’ plates, it looks there is in fact some variety to what is being offered. Immediately next to the P1 hotel the female attendant is asleep at her food kiosk, which never seems to get any business, since she offers very little variety, never seems to have any food prepared, and is situated immediately next to far more organized competitors. Not that most street vendors are pretty much doing the same thing everywhere – there is definitely not a huge amount of diversity in terms of food offerings available. And yet beyond her immediate competitiveness lies the stark reality of how difficult survival is for the more humble citizens of this country.