Table of contents for Thailand - Self-drive trip
- Self-drive trip across Thailand (7 days, 2000 kms) : Part 1 – Dreams Delivered
- Self-Drive trip across Thailand (7 days, 2000 kms): Part-2 Preparing for the trip
- Self-Drive trip across Thailand (7 days and 2000 kms) : Part 3 – Bangkok to Bang Saen
- Self Drive Trip across Thailand (7 days, 2000 kms) : Part 4 (Bang Saen)
- Self-Drive trip across Thailand (7 days, 2000 kms) : Part 5 – Bang Saen to Kampaeng Phet
- Self-Drive trip across Thailand (7 days, 2000 kms) : Part 6 – Chiang Mai
Kamhpaeng Phet (Diamond Wall) is one of the provincial capitals of Thailand. It is a historical town some 350 kms north of Bangkok, roughly midway between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. The Historical Park here is a UENSCO World Heritage site with royal palace and old temples.
It is almost noon when we drive out of Bang Saen. Our destination is Chiang Mai, located in northern Thailand. Chaing Mai is approx 800 kms from Bang Saen and do-able in one day. We have, however, split the drive to schedule a night halt midway at Kampaeng Phet. The overnight break is aimed as much at taking care of uncertainties as adding one more destination to our travel log. The road to Kampaeng Phet is via Bangkok. Since we are moving from south-east of Bangkok to its north, we plan to take the Eastern Outer Ring Road of Bangkok to avoid the city traffic.
NH 1 is the main highway from Bangkok to Chiang Mai but it takes a circuitous route. We would take Highway 32, which is almost a straight run northwards from Bangkok and meets up with NH 1 in the province of Nakhon Sawan.
Before starting, I read-up my map and feel confident about finding the way. Soon after getting on the road, however, I realise that my confidence was based on collapsible foundations which are already acting up. Road unto and a score of kilometers beyond Bangkok is a motorway. The motorways are now getting on my nerves. These elevated, parapetted roads, for all their glassy surfaces and wide passages make you feel so motorised, so restricted! Once on the motorway, there is no stopover, no place to compose oneself, nothing to see but concrete fence on both the sides and nothing to do but to drive on. After crossing Chonburi, I am less driven by sense of direction (which I have lost), more by the thrill of zipping across the smooth motorway. I am averse to opening the map midway – would rather cover some distance, even if in the wrong direction.
There is more confusion near Bangkok. The Eastern Outer Ring Road marked clearly on map, I discover, does not read that way on the signboards (for instance, Delhi ring road does not read as ‘Ring Road’ but this road or that). Driving on motorways also tend to get confusing due to clover-leaves and bifurcations. Sometimes the sign board at the point of bifurcation may have a display only in Thai. The disorientation continues till about Ayuthya, some 40 kms north of Bangkok. Thereafter the motorway thankfully gives way to the usual, wide lane carriageways.
Drive now is pretty smooth and straightforward. Highways are well laid, 3-4 lanes wide, divided roads. There are provisions for U-turns at regular intervals. Such U-turns may either be a cut across the divider with a wider collar, to be taken from the right lane or there are elevated U-turns originating from the left lane making a loop overhead to join the left lane of opposite side.
While driving on the highways, it is a good idea to keep a track of highway number. The signboards, apart from names also display highway numbers in English and thus easy to follow. Highway numbers usually follow a pattern here. Single digit indicates the main highway (viz. NH 1 starts from Bangkok and goes beyond Chaing Mai in north). Second digit indicates a highway within/branching off the main highway. In this manner the numbers may extend till four digits, which are usually inter-state (province) highways. A signboard with blue background indicates motorway.
Highway traffic in Thailand is better than ours – vehicles are somewhat more disciplined and road conditions do not offer much to carp about. This observation is at variance with that of westerners who blame Thai traffic for being chaotic and lacking in discipline. Well, it can be safely inferred that people making such observations about Thai highways are yet to experience the bliss of driving on Indian highways.
Thai script has its origin in Brahmic and is therefore related to Indian languages. Suvarnabhumi does mean golden land. Wat Arun is a temple named after Sun God. Sukhothai, a northern city and first capital of Thailand draws its name from the meaning ‘rising of happiness’. ‘Ratchadaphisek’ (an area in Bangkok) originates from Raj+abhishek. There are many such words which can be associated with their Indian counterparts. Similarly Thai script follows Indic convention wherein vowels are placed before/after/above/below the consonants, etc.
The similarity, well, ends there. Thai is a tonal language – the spoken word often conveys its meaning by the way it has been spoken; and a variation in tone can give different meaning to the same word. In Indian context, Mizo is a tonal language and we found spoken Thai sounding similar to Mizo (to our unqualified ears, which do not comprehend either of the languages).
Like, for instance, if I say ‘Suvarnabhumi’, no one would understand me here – Thai pronunciation of the word is something like ‘swun-pumm’.
In simple words, spoken Thai is complicated.
Getting back to the roads – now the highway is more user friendly, running thankfully over mother earth rather than elevated concrete pillars. The view mostly comprises of extensive farmlands. There are stalls on margins of the road at regular intervals, selling various wares, fruits and food stuff. Thai homes traditionally have a temple at the entrance (they could be as small as the ones hung on walls or as big as 8-10 feet high). We have seen these temples being sold along the highways. Though we would like to take one home, the weight deters us from buying them.
Formal transit/rest facilities are available at petrol stations, which are usually part of a larger compound housing eateries, grocery shop, wash rooms and other such amenities.
Traffic volume on the highways here is lesser. The car drives unhindered at 120 kmph (or more, if speed limit is not a consideration) for long durations. Traffic increases as one approaches townships, though in almost all cases there are well placed detours/bypasses/flyovers to avoid the local traffic. The highways also have their share of tractor-like-vehicles, rogue lorries and bikers driving on the wrong side but they are not as rampant or as vexing. Thais planning highway drive usually base their drive time @ 100 kmph i.e. distance between A & B which are 300 kms apart can generally be covered in 3 hours.
135 persons live per sq km in Thailand.
364 persons live per sq km in India.
Iceland, the figure is 6 persons per sq km. I wonder if SilentSoul has something to offer here.
I must point out that traffic condition within cities is a different story altogether. Driving in our Lutyen’s zone is certainly better experience than driving in central Bangkok area. City traffic in Thailand is chaotic, undisciplined, rogue and lacking in parking facilities (many places in Bangkok, the traffic reminded me of Kolkata).
Something I am sorely missing on the highway is the basic, stand-alone ‘chai shop’ (kam cheeni, medium doodh, jyada patti; special) back home. They are so handy – offering quick stopovers, opportunity for a small chat with the shop-walla, stretching of legs with minimal wastage of time. Here, like everywhere else (except perhaps our subcontinent), masala chai is not to be found anywhere.
The highway passes through places like Ang Thong, Singburi, Chainat, Nakhon Sawan, etc. We take frequent breaks to fill petrol, to eat, to see things around, to explore a local grocery shop and sometimes to simply watch the world passing by while we sit inside the car. This being our first proper highway drive here, we want to take in all that is possible.
By the time we approach Kampaeng Phet, it is nearing sunset. Here we are booked in a homestay arrangement run by Mr Charin with whom I was in contact over e-mail, skype and also on phone after landing here in Thailand. Since his place is located inside the city, I was anxious about finding directions. Mr Charin, while responding to my queries, would say – YOU don’t worry, just call me when you are near Kampaeng Phet. Now that I am 20 kms off, I call him up. He gives me a simple rendezvous – ‘wait on the main road in front of the central bus station’. Easy enough for me to reach this point. No sooner than I park the car at the edge of the road and my passengers burst out of the car to explore the environment, this smiley lad, younger son of Mr Charin appears in his pickup van, identifies us and tells us to follow him to home. We trail his van across the town – crossing the bridge, negotiating turns and traffic lights – some manned and some not, to reach our night halt.
We have made it a point to stick to homestay/b&b/guest house (family run establishments), as long as we are driving in Thailand. There are many advantages apart from economics – homestays are personalised affair, you deal with the owner directly before arrival and during the stay you have an entire family fawning upon you. You get to talk to the locals (owners and in extended version, their neighbours) about culture & tradition, local sightseeing and any other relevant issue. Another point is that you would not expect response from an impersonal hotel reception if you were to get stuck in an unwanted situation and needed help, or say, needed information about directions from some faraway place. And not forget a lasting friendship that you establish with the hosts.
Mr Charin’s guest house is an extension of his sprawling bungalow, which has been tastefully redone to accommodate guests. Mrs Charin is a friendly lady, who, despite her limited English abundantly conveys a feeling of warmth and affability. The house is located in a central, neighbourly location of Kampaeng Phet. Mr Charin has two sons and also runs a farm-house stay accommodation farther away from Kampaeng Phet, apart from organising guided tours to nearby tourist points viz. hot water spring, waterfalls, tribal villages, etc.
We had plans of visiting heritage sites and local night market, but lassitude takes over as soon as we arrive. After strolling around the neighbourhood, spying on local shops and outlets, we are back to the guest house.
There are number of cosy sit-outs within the house. In the evening, guests have gathered here to relax and chat-up. Soon I connect up with Bill, an Austrian from Vienna and Shoo, a Thai traveller. Yes, they tell, they are also travelling across Thailand. While exchanging notes I discover that both of them (though travelling separately) are very special Ghumakkars. Bill (actually Bills, a couple) has arrived here Cycling all the way from AUSTRIA! Well, the story goes like this. They are avid cyclists. They have covered large parts of the globe cycling. Bill roughly cycles for an year in one go! By end of the year long loop, he is back in Vienna to earn his livelihood. After earning for about 6-8 months, he is again out for the next trip. He tells us that he does not own a car and has a very small house in Vienna. He works just to make enough money for the next trip. Same is the story of his partner. She is from the same place and they share the same passion. They are 6 months into the current trip and plan to cycle north to China and then through Kazakhstan and Eastern Europe to Vienna. Their belongings, typical for cyclists, comprise of two rucksacks (strapped to either side of the carrier) and a sleeping bag cum tenting equipment.
Shoo has an equally remarkable story to share. Cycling is his passion and one fine day (some 4 months back) he stepped out of his office and corporate life to embark on this venture. He belongs to the northern part of Thailand and intends to touch various border points of Thailand during this trip. He has his family back home and also a girl friend who visits him at various transit points. In fact, she was also here and left today, since he has to cycle out tomorrow.
Passion for Ghumakkari – does it often transgresses the limits imposed by possibility?
Next morning I am awake before the household. While walking through the quiet streets, I witness the ceremony of alms-giving. Each morning, monks (bhikshuks) go around seeking alms. Giving of alms is an honourable duty in this Buddhist country. In Bangkok, large groups of monks move in a procession for alms and on some special religious occasions, the groups consist of thousands of monks. Today, here in Kampaeng Phet it is a group of 3 monks. A lady with alms respectfully bows down on one knee and pours the offerings (looks like rice) into the extended bag of the monk, taking care not to touch him. In Thai tradition of Buddhism, ladies are usually not supposed to touch monks!
Soon, it is time to say goodbye.
Shoo leaves early, he has a long way to cycle.
Bills leave thereafter. They are going to take our route and he talks about meeting us on the way.
By 10, we take leave of Charin family.
As we part ways, we secretly acknowledge a bond that invisibly connects us – the bond of ‘Ghumakkari’, the spirit of travel – an unsparing yearning to seek the new, to reach over yonder.
A passion that will continue to bestir humankind as long as it is…….
And no, we are not able to meet up with Bills on the way.
Today’s drive will take us 300 kms north to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand.
In the next part, I will cover Chiang Mai.