Thaton, a small town that is most famous as a launching point for the boat trip on the Maekok river to Chiang Rai. One of all these boats rides that resemble the karst mountains of Guilin. But it is a very scenic ride, normally you will stop on the way to explore some of the hillside villages along the river.

Thaton or Tha Thon is not to confuse with its namesake in Myanmar.

Not a bad place to overnight though, there are a few nice resorts and guesthouses in town. I have stayed at the Maekok Village Resort that also can provide shorter boat trips on the river. Once we went just to the border of Myanmar on The Mae Nam Kok river. Most of the time this is a place where I have stopped with groups for a cheap and decent buffet lunch, the restaurant offers nice river views and there is a small garden to stroll around.

This is a nice break from the winding mountain roads between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai.

Wat Thaton

The viewpoint at the temple offers 9 different levels and provides some stunning panorama of the landscape and the river. If you are just travelling through, make sure you go to the temple for the views. You can see the hills of the Burmese Shan State from here. Myanmar being just some kilometres away. The highlight of the structure is the building itself, with a touch of purple and a green spire.

The Crystal Pagoda of Wat Thaton

For last year’s road trip up to Doi Maesalong and the Akha Mudhouse, we stayed just briefly for lunch in Thaton. There was a nice Muslim Jin Haw Chinese restaurant just by the 7/11 that served ok food, the Khao Soi wasn’t five star but ok.

Long tail speed boat on Mae Kok
For this ride we came from Chiang Rai, many people go from Thaton to Chiang Rai.

In my mind, Thaton is not much of a destination in itself. But with the location it has it deserves some of your time when you are travelling through.

If you want to get out from the hustle and bustle. Get closer to nature, or just explore a bit as a change from Chiang Mai. Here are five ideas normally just around two hours from Chiang Mai, and that are suitable for staying over the night. Click on the blue coloured links in the list for more details about each place.


Mae Kampong

Main street in Mae Kampong,
Popular Main Street in Mae Kampong with small eateries and coffee shops.

Mae Kampong embedded in greenery on steep and narrow mountain roads this little village is like a fairytale. Working hard on preservation It is also crowded with nice cafes and Bed and Breakfasts. Extremely popular among the Thai crowd during the colder months of the year, an Instagram – hotspot.

Mae Klang Luang

Mae Klang rice fields
Green and turning yellow in early October

Once mountain forests and in more recent history the slopes have been turned into rice fields by the hill tribes. Not exactly Ubud or Longji but still scenic. Mae Klang Luang is easily accessible from Chiang Mai by car, it is on the way when you drive to the top of Thailands highest mountain Doi Inthanon. Stay at a local homestay relax your eyes on the rice paddies and do some local hiking.

The Rabaeng Treehouse

Treehouse resort of Rabaeng in the teak forest
Stay high up in the trees or closer to the ground

The Rabaeng Treehouse is by a small stream surrounded by teak forests, not far from cars stone caves, red dunes, the sticky waterfall and the Mae Ngat dam. Plenty of things to explore, the colourful Wat Ban Den temple is also nearby and well worth a visit. But if you just want to relax, you can very much enjoy this place by itself. Unique accommodation in Northern Thailand.

Chiang Dao

Inside the cave in Chiang Dao
One part of the cave system in Chiang Dao.

With a few cosy resorts, nice panoramic views of the Doi Luang Mountain, hiking opportunities and caves to explore. Chiang Dao is a nice getaway for a night or a good starting point for a scenic drive over the foothills of Himalaya to Chiang Rai.

Ob Khan National Park

Camping grounds in Ob Khan nationalpark

Head towards Mae Wang or Doi Inthanon. Here you find a relaxed small canyon with a small river beach and cool and freshwater. Free entrance, some hiking chances, and the possibility to camp for a night.

Roaming the areas around the earlier so vibrant Night Market of Chiang Mai at Chang Klang Road and surroundings is a rather depressing sight at the moment. The pandemic made the whole area come to a standstill and hotels so reliant on tourists in the area are empty or closed. Some hotels are trying to survive from their buffet arrangements on weekends or from selling croissants with all kinds of exotic stuffing.

One hotel with a great track record is the Imperial Mae Ping hotel. Now closed, hopefully just for the renovation they announced, perfectly situated just a few minutes walk from the market on Sridonchai Rd. The hotel has been receiving guests since 1986. This is one of these hotels where there is a solid hotel culture in the walls. Even though there are fancier or more modern hotels around, you always know what you are going to get here and the service would be flawless. This is also the hotel where Taiwanese born singer Theresa Teng(邓丽君; pinyin: Dèng Lìjūn) would come to let herself be inspired and write new songs. She would stay in a suite with perfect views of the Doi Suthep mountain, and the hotel preserved her room like a museum.

Theresa Teng (Deng) suffering from heavy asthma had an attack in this hotel and unfortunately, she couldn’t make it. So she passed away in the Chiang Mai Ram hospital.

A few years ago, we went to inspect this suite for Chinese tour groups that we would host. The hotel started a program they called the Theresa Deng Afternoon Tea experience.

A short introduction to her life, a visit to the suite, some of the story about the tragic day when she passed. And followed by afternoon tea in the lobby bar. This has been a major attraction for many Chinese visitors to Chiang Mai.

High Afternoon Tea at Imperial hotel Chiang Mai
Many delicacies on the table for the afternoon tea

From my years of working in China/Taiwan, I have come to comprehend her popularity and position in peoples life. Her success wasn’t limited to China either, she became grand in Japan singing in Japanese. She was also a superstar in countries like Thailand and Indonesia.

The Theresa Teng Suite in Imperial hotel Chiang Mai

My local guides in Taiwan used to say that Taiwan would smuggle tapes of recordings with Theresa Deng to the mainland as a kind of propaganda for a more free and fair life. In China I often heard the expression saying something about her popularity:

Deng Xiapoing rules in the day and Theresa Deng rules in the night.

邓小平执政于白天,邓丽君掌权于夜晚。

When she passed away she even earned state honours for her funeral in Taiwan. Normally reserved for presidents and high statesmen.

I have been on so many tours in Taiwan where the selected music in the bus during long drives would be Theresa Deng, and I had local guides in both China and Taiwan wanting to sing a farewell song for clients, often their version of The Moon represents my heart. It has been called one of the most beloved Chinese love songs of all time.

It is hard to say if the Theresa Teng theme will return, but before all the Chinese tourism closed down you could see the sign at other places in Chiang Mai like in Mae Hia about a Theresa Deng experience.

The Tian Mi Mi mega-hit is as some commentary concluded on YouTube a song with a rhythm that transcends all cultures in Asia. This song was translated into many languages including Thai. Therese Deng referred to as Asia’s Eternal Queen of pop, extremely popular in the 1970 and 1980s.

She was 42 years old when she passed away on her vacation in Chiang Mai on May the 8th 1995.

Footage from the funeral of May 28th 1995.

Due to the somewhat joyful atmosphere from happy tourists and the scenic aspects of the territory. It is sometimes hard to imagine the gruesome events that took place here during the Second World War. When people come to Kanchanaburi (The Golden Land), a lot of focus is on one bridge. This is very much due to a movie that owes it to a book. Yes, I am talking about Pierre Boulle’s Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï and David Leans Hollywood blockbuster starring Alec Guinness from 1957.

This movie premiered on Swedish television in 1986 and had been shown on 3 occasions before my arrival to Thailand in 1994. I had seen it and I could whistle The Colonel Bogey March,” the soundtrack.

At the time of my first visit to Thailand, it just accorded to me that the story took place here. So I felt a lot of interest and came to visit. At that time I didn’t have any clue at all that I would be back here operating tours to this place for more than 20 years.

Pierre Boulle(himself a prisoner of war in Malaya) couldn’t quite get the name right. The river’s real name is Kwae and it is divided into two estuaries. Kwai in the Thai language translates to water buffalo and is often used as a derogatory word about a less clever person. The main river was at the time of WW II named Mae Klong.

The attention should go to the whole situation, sleepers and bridges and the construction of the Death Railway. A Japanese initiative to connect Singapore to India via Thailand, (Siam) and Burma through dense jungles on land. After the Japanese lost the important battle of Midway to the US navy, they were no longer in control of the seas.

Allied prisoners of war, and not to forget numerous Asian labourers were brought here to work under horrific conditions to build railway and bridges in the scorching hot sun. Prisoners died from malnutrition, tropical diseases and Japanese torture. And some were unfortunate to die from allied bombing.

The railway was to be built no matter how high the cost, in human lives or money. The numbers for how many deaths differ from source to source but an estimated 15 000 – 20 000 allied soldiers and up to 100 000 Asian workers paid with their lives for this Japanese War effort. The railway is 415 kilometres long and with 15 kilometres of bridges. 260 kilometres of rail is on the Thai side and the remaining on the Burmese/Myanmar side.

The railway was functioning between October of 1943 until June 1945.

Things you have to experience in Kanchanaburi

  • Visit the bridge on the River Kwai
  • Visit Hells Pass
  • Take the train from Nam Tok to Thailand
  • Overnight in a Floatel or Hin Tok River Camp
  • Visit a War Museum, JEATH or/and the Hellfire Memorial Museum.
  • Enjoy a meal in a floating restaurant
  • Visit a War Cemetery

The Bridge in Kanchanaburi over the River Kwai

What about the bridge you see as a visitor in Kanchanaburi?

The bridge was bombed in the spring of 1945.

In 1944, the bridge over the Khwae Yai River began to be subjected to systematic attacks by heavy bombers. It took until the spring of 1945 before a direct hit threw the central span down into the river. So when bridges were hit, the Japanese would transport goods with barges across the Mae Klong river.

The bombed bridge was restored after the war and got a new centre span, delivered free of charge by Japan. That is why the bridge that can be viewed today has a truss span in the middle while the other sections are built as arch bridges. The railway itself was after the war for long distances in very miserable condition. Some sections were torn up and rails and sleepers were used in other railroad works.

Despite the grisly history, the terrain here is stunning, and to stay here two nights is in my mind a minimum to see the main sites and have a chance both to reflect and also enjoy the landscape and nature.

One of the more pleasant experiences we have had through the years has been to get on a floating restaurant after the visit on the bridge and let a small long-tail boat pull the raft – restaurant on the river for an hour or so and then get off at the Chung Kai War cemetery.

This used to be one of the Allied POW camps. The cemetery holds the graves of around 1800 soldiers from the Commonwealth and of Dutch origin. It is smaller than the War Cemetery in Kanchanaburi.

The train ride from Namtok to Thakilen

It is hot, but only an hour ++ of your life. All your senses are with you when you take the train on the railway. Vendors enter to sell doughnuts, samosas, tapioca crisps, postcards and t-shirts. Have some nice Thai food at the small restaurant run by the stationmaster himself and wait for directions from him as when the train is arriving. It is often late 15- 45 minutes. One of the highlights is passing the wooden construction by the so-called Death Cliff.

Passing the Death Cliff

Where to stay?

For many years I always stayed with groups at the classic River Kwae Hotel, but after a certain tour company became too dominant with too many clients at the same time, we changed to the Hin Tok Glamping site, which was a great experience. Every night there would be a BBQ buffet in the middle of the campgrounds and a small bar.

The movie was recorded in Sri Lanka. But it is worth seeing because it is this story that created the modern “legend” surrounding the River Kwai. There is a full version on YouTube.

Pristine river views
Sign at the River Kwai building site.
Sign at Mahaweli Ganga River in Sri Lanka, It was across this river that the makers of “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, constructed their bridge. The largest movie set ever built up to that time. The movie bridge took eight months to construct costing over $250,000. It was longer than a football field and as high as a six-story building.
Hell Fire Pass Memorial. 69 men were beaten to death by Japanese guards while building this passage that took 6 weeks to construct. During the nighttime, the pass was light up by torchlights, with the red light shining on them like a Dantes Inferno.

The Real Colonel Nicholson from the The Bridge of River Kwai.

Alec Guinness character Colonel Nicholson in real life was Philip Toosey. He was born in 1904 outside Liverpool. As a teenager, he was sent to a boarding school, where he excelled in sports but not in terms of studies. Perhaps as compensation for a general impracticality, Toosey developed an extraordinary social ability.

First, he worked as an apprentice at a company in the textile import industry, he graduated as an officer for the army and he also worked for a major bank.

In August 1939, he was called up for active duty. He was appointed commander of an artillery battery that was shipped over to the British Expeditionary Force in northern France and took part in the battles in May 1940. His experiences during this catastrophic time for the British profoundly affected him.

After undergoing senior command training, Toosey was assigned in the summer of 1941 as commander of a three-battery field artillery regiment. In October of that year, the unit was shipped to Singapore and participated in the defence of the Malacca Peninsula in early 1942. Toosey’s leadership here attracted the attention of his senior commanders.

He was decorated for his courage and when it became clear that Singapore would fall, he was ordered to look after an evacuation transport. Efforts were made to save as many important officers as possible for efforts on other fronts. Toosey refused with the motivation that he preferred to follow his soldiers in captivity.

As prisoners of war, Toosey and the men of his regiment moved to Thailand, where they were stationed in the Tamarkan camp, about five kilometres outside the town of Kanchanaburi. Together with 2,000 other prisoners of war, they were forced to build bridge 271, which would later gain fame as the bridge over the River Kwai. This was the largest river crossing in the Japanese’s major railway construction and crossed the Khwae Yai, an approximately 150-meter-wide tributary of the greater Mae Klong.

Toosey and the other prisoners had a difficult situation. On the one hand, by working with the bridge, they did not want to contribute to the Japanese war efforts, on the other hand, this particular work was a prerequisite for survival. Anyone who did not want to work was beaten by the camp guards, sometimes to death.

Toosey, as the highest-ranking British officer became camp commander. He fought to make the lives of the prisoners as bearable as possible.

Toosey’s method was to administer the camp with its staff and with maintained orders, partly to reduce friction areas with the Japanese, to achieve a functioning and fair distribution of food, accommodation conditions, workload and access to health care and so on.

Toosey was beaten by the Japanese many times but eventually won their respect. His main argument for the Japanese to treat prisoners humanely was that they worked better if they were healthy than if they were sick. In this way, the bridge could be completed more quickly, which was in the Japanese self-interest. Toosey consistently defended his men in conflicts with the prison guards, visited the camp hospitals daily and attended every funeral.

The contrast between Tamarkan and other camps along the “Railway of Death” was striking. In camps, further west, anarchy and the power of the strong sometimes prevailed, but Tamarkan was well managed under Toosey’s leadership.

When the bridge was completed, Toosey was kept at Tamarkan. There he was given the task of reorganizing the camp into a central hospital for prisoners. The Japanese later placed him as a commander in other concentration camps. Toosey survived the war, he lost a to of weight but regained much of his physical health. Like many other prisoners, he suffered from post-traumatic stress for the rest of his life though. He died in 1975.

Locomotive for the Death Railway seen at Yasukuni museum Tokyo
A locomotive from the Death Railway exhibited at the Tsukiji Shrine museum in Tokyo.

The Railway Man

Not as famous a story as The Bridge over River Kwai. The autobiography The Railway Man is also a true story. I have read it many times in the shorter version in Readers Digest. And it was filmed in 2013, just a year after Eric Lomax passed away, a Scot that also worked here to build a railway after the mass capitulations of fortress Singapore. The movie was directed by Jonathan Teplitzky.  Colin Firth and Jeremy Irvine play Lomax at different ages. Nicole Kidman plays Patti, the nurse who befriended and also married Eric Lomax. Lomax suffered major ordeals at the construction of the railway, torture such as waterboarding and he was interrogated by a Japanese Takashi Nagase that had no choice but to follow his officer’s orders but was very reluctant to do this work for the Japanese War Machine. In his heart, he didn’t agree with the methods the Japanese were using. Before the war, Takashi Nagase was an English teacher in Japan. Lomax book is about the reconciliation with his captor and it is very gripping. How he first constantly is on the search to find the interpreter that was present during all the torture because he wants to punish him, and finally end up in a lifetime friendship with him instead.

A statue of Takashi Nagase also wrote about his experience at Kanchanaburi in the book Crosses and Tigers. The Japanese interpreter also suffered from his experiences at the Death Railway. He tried to drown himself at one point. Nagase did a lot of work to get former guards and POWs to meet and reconcile. He was on a constant mission to Kanchanaburi visiting the town no less than 135 times. He met Lomax in 1993 and 1998 here.

The Narrow Road to Deep North, a story of impossible love and mateship among Australians during WWII, by Richard Flanagan and James Clavell’s King Rat about the POWs in Singapore’s Changi prison are also good reads about this time in history.

Bombing the new bridge every year

The yearly festival of bombing the bridge takes place at the end of November or early December yearly. It is a sound and light show that reenacts the World War II bombing of The River Kwai Bridge.

Other places to visit

The ancient Khmer ruins called Prasat Muang Singh is a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, the most western ruins from Khmer Empire discovered in Thailand. Prasat Luang Singhs construction dates from the 13th and 14th centuries.

Erawan waterfall in the Erawan National Park has seven separate tiers. One of the prettiest waterfalls in Thailand. In the park, you also find caves in Limestone rocks to explore.

If you have time continue to Sanghkaburi for a quite picturesque and unique feeling of a small Thai town.

Forgive but don’t forget

That is the mantra at Kanchanburi today. Five million people visited this area in 2015, so if you one time feel it is rather hot on the train or somewhere else. Please remember the prisoners and laborers that worked here during the WWII.

The name is translated as The Golden Marsh. The story goes that: A peasant named Imohori Togoro earned his living looking for potatoes. He washed gold dust from the potatoes into a well, presently called Kinjo Reitaku, so marsh of gold.

The city has a historic reputation for making Buddhist altars, various wood carvings and using gold leaf for decorations. Even today, Kanazawa supplies 99% of Japan’s gold leaf.

Thanks to being so close friends to the Tokugawa Bakufu, the feudal lord, the Maeda daimyo developed a rich city, a castle town that lived in peace and with the different districts of an old Japanese town. Well preserved behind a dull modern facade until today. Here you can find a preserved samurai area, an outstanding landscape garden, geiko districts and some of the best sashimi and sushi in Japan.


What to do in Kanazawa?

  • Visit Kenrokuen Garden
  • Go to the Nagamachi district for a feeling of samurai life in the city
  • Visit an Okiya/Geisha house in Higashi Chaya
  • Try some local seafood from any of the 160 local vendors at Omicho fish market
  • Drink coffee made to perfection at Higashides drip coffee shop.
  • Spend time at Kanazawa station named by the magazine Travel and Leisure as one of the worlds most beautiful train stations.

Kenrokuen Garden

Kenrokuen garden used to be a part of the castle area, so reserved for the Maeda lord and his family. But an open, public park since 1871. It is adapted to be strikingly beautiful all year round. Following the seasonal changes.

It is a garden created out of ancient wisdom, modelled on the great landscape gardens of China. Kenrokuen is ranked as one of Japan’s three most delightful gardens as it incorporates the six features of a garden expressed in Chinese literature: spaciousness, solitude, artifice, antiquity, use of water, and panorama.

The Traditional Districts

Traditional alley but modern housing

Nagamachi Samurai district with the Nomura family museum

Even though the area is modern when it comes to housing, you have a traditional city planning with the walls and the alleys. At the house of the Middle-Class Nomura family, you can see how a bureaucrat samurai lived in the age of peace. The Nomura House has a Samurai garden that won a lot of prizes.

The samurai district is just behind the main shopping street in Kanazawa.

The Nomura house samurai garden
The samurai-style garden in Nomura’s house. Introverted with moss and water mirrors. Koi carps and decorations from daily life.
Okiya Higashi Chaya district in Kanazawa
Traditional Okiya style architecture

Higashi Chaya District

A district where the electric cables are placed underground for once. Traditional Geiko houses are named tea houses or Okiyas. Generally with a reception downstairs and entertainment on the second floor. The doors on the second floor could be opened on hot summer days.

We always visit Kaikaro Okiya with its exclusive and unusually strong, contemporary colours and a golden tatami! The Kaikaro Okiya functions as a museum during the daytime and as an active geiko house at night.

Sashimi, Sushi and Coffee

Omicho Fish Market

Seafood from Kanazawa fishmarket

Omicho, not exactly Tsukiji. But there are no less than 160 vendors here that will keep you from starving. Sashimi, sushi or just grab something on the market. But please sit down. Don’t walk and eat. There are many chances just to grab a bite. Check out the yakitori corner. I enjoy this place mostly for lunch, and after eating here I will head over to…

Higashide Coffee

Drip coffee brewed to perfection. The owner will take his time, he will sip the coffee, make sure that you get the taste you desired. I normally go for an Italian blend a Caramel Custard cake, or two. Those cakes might just be the best Creme Caramel in Japan! The cafe is located just outside the market in a brick house. Nice retro/vintage style.

The downside is that you are allowed to smoke inside. This is Japan after all. No walking and smoking outside, but inside coffee shops, it is not unusual that you are permitted to smoke.

Adress to Higashide Cafe on Google maps here.

Kanazawa Station

The new station opened in 2005. This is a complex full of shops and restaurants. Railway stations are often designed to be meeting places in Japan. Like a city centre in itself. This is a great example of that. When you enter from the modern new side, you will see a fascinating water clock and the robust wooden Tsuzumi – mon gate. From a distance, the station has the shape of a samurai helmet.

If you take the escalator up to the second floor inside the station and turn left there is a very popular and good Kaiten Sushi at Sushitama restaurant. You might need to wait a little bit to get seated. The sushi on the carousel is good, but if you want to order some specials you have a digital screen to order from. The plates will be collected and scanned when you pay your bill. Golden plates are more expensive.

With the relatively new Hokuriku Shinkansen you can reach Kanazawa from Tokyo via two services:

  • The Kagayaki Shinkansen takes 2 hours and 30 minutes.
  • The Hakutaka Shinkansen 3 hours, makes more stops..

So suddenly Kanazawa has become a day trip from Tokyo.

The Maeda clan

They were the most powerful and rich clan after the Tokugawas themselves. If you were friendly and an ally in the great battle for Japan at Sekigahara on October 21st in the year 1600 you would walk out of this war greatly rewarded. Maeda’s rule of Kanazawa is considered to be a prosperous time. But Kanazawa wouldn’t play the same role in an industrial and modernized Japan, but the lack of heavy industry saved the city from bombs during WWII.

See the dramatic documentary about the control over Japan to understand the background of the Tokugawa shogunate better. The history of three great warlords, Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu: The Age of the Samurai, Netflix.

A documentary not for the fainthearted. Beheadings are common.

Kanazawa is in the North-Western Ishikawa prefecture by the Sea of Japan. You are just 1 hour 15 minutes from the UNESCO World heritage of Shirakawa Go or a 2-hour train ride from Kyoto.

Where to stay? I like the location around the Korinbo commercial shopping street, it is nearby many of the attractions. Walking distance to the fish market, samurai area and of course the station.

Chumpon(sometimes Chumporn) is one of the places waiting to happen in Thailand. Since the country is just full of world-class beaches and islands to explore, the convenience of Phuket and the long-stay tradition in Hua Hin, it is easy to forget that there are so many other beautiful places out there. For us, Chumpon also became a nice stay over on our route from Hua Hin down to Phang Nga and Krabi. But the place deserves better and we will for sure be back again. Not only is it laid back, but we also had some of the best seafood ever in Thailand here. Trying African pompano (ปลาผมนาง) was a very memorable experience.

Chumpon is a province with a province capital with the same name on the Isthmus of Kra. It is located west of the Phuket mountain range and its northern continuation the Tenessarim Hills. To the east it is facing the Gulf of Thailand with a 200 km coastline and the Mu Ko archipelago has more than 40 islands. In the west, it is directly bordering Myanmar. The name Chumpon is either related to a tree or “to accumulate forces”.

Part of a more rugged coastline

The great seafood with the African Pompano as highlight, all that bonefree white meat we indulged in a restaurant called Thale Tong Seafood located on a beach that probably is very nice during daylig,ht as well.

Our stay was at The Beach Resort and Residence which was convenient and not expensive.

The next day we started the day with some delicious noodles before continuing to Khao Sok national park. Read more by clicking the blue text.

Sadej Tia, Prince of Chumphon

On the way we drove in for some panorama view at a viewpoint. Where also a revered Thai admiral is commemorated. One out 200 shrines to the Prince of Chumphon, in Thai known as Sadej Tia.

The man is referred to as the ‘Father of the Royal Thai Navy’. It is said he could treat patients because he was educated in medicine. He was also believed to possess supernatural powers. People who work at sea, carry amulets of the Prince for protection. People bring nine roses and nine incense sticks when they pray to him.

The reclining Buddha Ayutthaya

I paused frequently to admire the great city, cited upon an island round which flowed a river three times the width of the Seine. There rode ships from France, England, Holland, China and Japan while innumerable boats and gilded barges rowed by 60 men plied to and fro. No less extraordinary were the camps and villages outside the walls inhabited by the different nations who came trading there, with all the wooden houses standing on posts over the water, the bulls, cows, and pigs on dry land. The streets stretching out of sight, are alleys of clear running water. Under the great green trees and in the little houses crowd the people. Beyond these camps of the nations are the wide rice fields. The horizon is tall trees, above which are visible the sparkling towers and pyramids of the pagodas. I do not know whether I have conveyed to you the impression of a beautiful view, but certainly, I have myself never seen a lovelier one.

Abbe De Choisy, (1644-1724) Jesuit priest with the first French embassy to Ayuttaya 1685, Journal Du Voyage de Siam /Paris 1687.

I can very much imagine what it must have looked like coming sailing up the Chao Phraya River, through dense jungle and the occasional village and rice paddies and then suddenly this city of gold and gemstones appears in the middle of nowhere, with the smell of exotic spices from cooking and languages from both near and far, holy Indian priests, Chinese traders, Christian Japanese samurais that escaped the Tokugawa purge of Christians, and Europeans.

The Buddha head in Ayutthayas Wat Mahatat.
The iconic Buddha head in Ayutthaya entwined in the roots of a strangler fig. The location is the temple of Wat Mahathat. A temple constructed in the 1400th century but destroyed in the Burmese invasion of 1767.

Today Ayutthaya is a modern industrial town, more or less a sub-district to Bangkok but the city still holds the ruins of a golden era, 1350-1767 when Ayutthaya was one of the regions most important cities and kingdoms.

Ayutthaya Historical Park is on the UNESCO world heritage list since 1992 and is well worth exploring for a day. Today tourists are story living in the park by dressing up in historical outfits. The park has been experiencing a local tourist renaissance after a popular historical drama series called Love Destiny.

Of the different hotels I have stayed at, my favourite is the boutique hotel by the river called iUdia by the river with some great views of the historical park at night. Individually designed rooms with good space.

Historic timeline for Ayutthaya

  • 1350 Ramathibodi founds the kingdom that is named Ayutthaya just as the kingdom of Ayudhoya from Ramakien/Ramayana. One legend says that he escaped an epidemic by moving to this island. First Ayutthaya was a small vassal kingdom to the Khmers.
  • 1431 Ayutthaya invasion and puts the nail in the coffin of the superpower of its time Angkor Wat
  • 1438 The kingdom of Sukhothai becomes a part of Ayutthaya
  • 1516 Trade relations with Portugal
  • 1560s Ayutthaya falls to the Burmese, but then King Naresuan defeats the Burmese Crown prince in a famous elephant battle and liberates Ayutthaya after a 15 – year battle.
  • 1604 Dutch trading station in Ayutthaya
  • 1612 British trade relations
  • 1650 Cosmopolitan Ayutthaya has a population of over a million citizens.
  • 1662 French Catholic Mission to Ayutthaya
  • 1684 Siamese delegation to France followed by the French embassy in Ayutthaya 1685
  • 1758 new wars with the Burmese leads to the fall of Ayuttaya and the destruction of the capital in 1767 King Taksin will establish a new capital 70 km south of Ayutthaya down the Chao Phraya River in Thonburi.
Wat Phuttai Sawan. A temple ruin in Ayutthaya.
Wat Phuttai Sawan seen from iUdia hotel at night. Stands out with its white prang, khmer style temple tower founded at by king Utong/Ramatibodi the first king of Ayutthaya in 1350.

Sakdina Hierarchy

The Ayutthaya version of feodalism was different from the European way. In Sakdina(saktina), “the power ver the rice fields” the King owned all the land and let his subjects cultivate it. But they could not directly own the land.

Sakdina was a strict hierarchical system that granted the citizens different positions, rights and duties. The subjects had points in a complex numerical system and if you had fewer points and committed a crime towards someone with a higher rank the punishment was worse than if the case was the opposite.

Free men were obliged in a system of rotatation to serve as soldiers and build for the crown. When they were free from their duty they could grow rice and work for themselves. This gave the theoretically lowered rank women quite a lot of power in practicality since they had to run the show while the men worked or served the crown.

Administration in the Sakdina system

Under the King was a viceroy, a son or a brother the different high ranking groups at the top.

1. The ministers handling Royal issues and the crowns rice and concerned with everything in the capital

2 Military handling minor states and regulations in the smaller surrounding cities.

3. Traders and merchants also I charge of relations to foreigners.

4. Brahmin and holy men, responsible for astrologi and book keeping.

Close up, Buddha’s hand.

The non – free citizens were called “that“. They were slaves caught as prisoners of war, or previously free citizens that offered themselves to become slaves to pay off some family debts. In some cases, slaves had certain rights when it came to agreeing to move from one owner to another.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet
Wat Phra Si Sanphet. Dating from 1491, this temple used to be inside the kings palace and had the function as a royal chapel just like Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok today. The three chedis hold the ashes of three of Ayutthaya’s kings.

Trade and economy in Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya was open to the world during a time when some other great kingdoms were not. It was multicultural with some estimates putting the total number of foreigners at 400 000. Foreigners had their settlements outside the main city. Ayutthaya had this strategic position between the South China Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Chinese citizens are mentioned by the number of 300 000 at one stage. Chinese goods brought in could be porcelain and copper coins. Chris Baker mentions in his History of Ayutthaya that coconuts and salt were sold by Mon people, foodstuff and wooden products were brought in from areas not far away for exports. Mining products came in from the north on boats on the Chao Phraya.

There were silk and cotton producers. Sugar was brought from Chinese , Cham and Kaeks(Indian). Kaew from Malayu and Java bring good quality rattan and betel nut and so on. There were many areas devoted to craft, and certain settlements produced whatever that was needed for religious rituals such incense and coffins. Ayutthaya was a great producer of wooden boats and barges.

Esthetics of teeth in the Ayutthaya kingdom

One thing that the Siamese ladies cannot endure about us is the whiteness of our teeth, because they believe that the devil has white teeth, and that it is shameful for a human being to have teeth like beasts. Therefore, as soon as the boys and girls reach the age of fourteen or fifteen, they start trying to make their teeth black and shiny.

Nicolas Gervaise (1662 -1729), A French missionary to Ayutthaya.

The Mark of Empire

See the well-researched documentary by Peter Lee

Great documentary that cover many aspects of Ayutthaya

Snack time in Ayutthaya

Try the Roti Sai Ma, Ayutthayas own cotton candy that comes in all kinds of colours. See how you eat it in this video.

Bang Pa In and Bangkok seen from the river

Bang Pa-In the Royal Summer palace nearly is also worth a visit on a day trip to Ayutthaya. Another favourite is to take a lunch cruise back to Bangkok and see the river life along the Chao Praya and the palaces and temples, Grand Palace, Wat Arun, and Wat Pho from the river.

Bang Pa In
Part of the Bang Pa In Royal summer residence.

Books and films about Ayutthaya

The cartoonish Tuk Tuks in Ayutthaya

We are one day from a harder lockdown again. The kids are back at online studies. Everything is the screen – based and basically, all sport-venues are closed. Then I came to think of how we could break the monotony of the house walls and get out while still keeping a distance from people. Last year I took I bike ride to Wat Ban Pong. Now, remembering the stairs of 900 steps or so up to the White Pagoda. This area is open but still under construction. So off we went!

Driving the short ride up towards Samoeng. It turned out to be better than expected, Chiang Mais cloud bank delivered dramatic cloud porn that no other place can compare with. The tropical green hills resplendent after large amounts of rain, and in the landscape dots of purple Pride of India trees and Golden Shower trees. We parked at the base of the hilltop where the actual temple is located, some novice monks were cleaning the temple grounds, and an announcement could be heard. The monks informing the villagers about our present covid situation and that elder people had to be careful not to get the virus. Chiang Mai is a red zone now and all that. Not wearing a mask outside could lead to a fine of 20,000 baht. We quickly walked through the actual temple which is also a meditation retreat. The grounds here are yet unspoiled and untouched from tourism. I have a strong sense that when the stunning white pagoda is completed that this will be at least as popular as the Wat Doi Kham temple in Chiang Mai.

The History of the Ban Pong temple

Ban Pong translates as on the ” water’s edge” maybe a bit like a swamp in the local dialect. Since being Royal ordained in 1958, the official name is Wat Aranyawat – the temple in the forest. It is just by the Tha Chang River and with hills surrounding it. A legend mentions a northern lord hunting a golden deer through the area and this was a place of rest. Another story talks about Ban Pong as a village where you stopped to let your horse rest on a journey.

Frescos and the use of indigo in them is proof of wealth in this temple and despite it being a temple in the countryside the temple must have had some significance. Indigo in the old days was expensive and an import from China. There might have been a case that merchants donated and patronised the temple since local villagers wouldn’t have had those amount of money themselves. All the main old parts of the temple have been torn down though, but beautiful new ones are being built in classic Lanna style.

Originally built in 1843, the temple and the pagoda are experiencing a real uplift and a lot of money are currently donated to the temple.

Wat Ban Pong
Traditional but newly built hall. Seems to be a small Viharn.
Buddha outside Wat Ban Pong
Seen outside the temple
Some hmm lectures and moral teachings on the way up. This was a rather unique one.
The staircase to Wat Pan Pong
Actually I didn’t count, but there are a lot of steps. Someone said 900. Very small steps and so far no Naga staircase. There is a meditation centre on the way. And the last part nearest the pagoda there is construction going on. A lot of rubble.
The stair up
Golden colored Buddha welcoming you.
Wat Pan Pong on the hill
The contrasts of white and gold are really wondrous especially with the background setting of dramatic clouds and lush hills.
Wat Pan Pong, White Chedi
The view when you arrive and look up to the pagoda. The sound of temple bells ringing, and the small talk of workers enjoying their sticky rice.
Wat Ban Pong, white Pagoda
Last sun rays of the day. The view from the road. The pagoda is lit up in the evening.

I think we will hear more about this place in the future. For now, it is still a quite well-kept secret here. It is not that long time ago when I used to ride my bike up to Wat Doi Kham. But now it is one of the most popular temples in Chiang Mai. The belief is that you can get lucky in business by donating there or getting a job. But here is still just tranquil anyway, just the sound of the workers chatting and having their sticky rice, and the occasional visitors ringing the bells. The sound of a broom raking. And I must mention, there’s a road up. You don’t have to walk the stairs.

A link to Google Wat Ban Pong on Google Maps here.