The Last Days of 2012
“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” – Buddha.
An interesting assignment would be the compilation of a list of soothsayers, clairvoyants, fortune tellers and dooms day cranks who’ve predicted since the beginning of human kind's recorded history the end of the world. It would no doubt run in to several pages. The Mayans – excellent observers of astronomical movements in the heavens above not withstanding – were, compared with the levels of knowledge that currently exist on our planet, a largely ignorant lot who’s day to day world was most likely confined to a fairly small geographical area. Superstition and fear of the unknown was an ever present constant in their simple, agrarian based lives.
Location – Pattaya: 2300 hours, December 21st 2012. The day came and went, the world hadn’t spun out of orbit and we were still here in one piece. The dooms day cranks and conspiracy theorists were safely bottled up in their dugouts licking their wounds – until the next cataclysm prediction at least – and for the locals scrambling each day to make a living along Beach Road they were largely oblivious of the count down to the end of time or life as we know it.
High season in Pattaya; no time for thoughts of the end of the world
After all it was the high season in Sin City. There were tourists to hustle and the next helping of som tam to look forward to; doomsday would have to wait. I hadn’t been in Pattaya for a while – 9 months to be exact – but things seemed more chaotic and crowded than ever. The traffic congestion along Beach Road and right through to Sukhumvit was approaching Bangkok proportions and the pace of development appeared to be just as relentless as the locals zeroed in on the tourist dollars with unbridled enterprise and zeal. More building projects had been completed and new businesses had appeared in place of others. As it was once said “time waits for no man.” The past is consigned to the forgotten pages of history, reinforcing another unarguable Buddha quote: “Impermanence is constant.” Times change, circumstances change, people change. Life, situations and humanity evolves; that which once was, no longer is. This, of course, tends to make a mockery of those who claim they can predict the future; their reference of predictive knowledge always tends to be based on the past. The past has interest but only insomuch as it serves as a teacher; that mistakes previously made aren’t repeated. This, of course, is all well and good but life in the LOS is never that simple and even though many of us have tripped up with a little dark skinned charmer from a gogo bar, we need to keep our personal defense mechanisms on full alert lest we succumb to the same trip hazard again.
But as some of my good Australian pals are often heard saying, “Therein lies the rub.” The great paradox for many of us who’ve taken up residence in this land of honey and vinegar and who are retired or nearing that age is that we want the feel of sweet female flesh next to us but we’re not too enthusiastic about any junior versions of ourselves arriving on the scene. It’s the great game and those wily little charmers would like nothing more than to sink their hooks into a reasonably affluent retiree by any means, fair or foul. For those of us who’ve decided to stay single, it’s all about remaining emotionally detached and keeping your wits about you as you make your choice for the night at one of the chrome pole palaces. Eventually one becomes a shrewd operator, zeroing in rather quickly on that which catches the eye, paying the bar fine and leaving with the night’s entertainment package before 10 PM. The best operators are in and out the purple curtains within an hour, while others sit indecisively ogling, drooling and nursing drinks. Some, the unwitting and unknowing, trying to convince themselves there might be something meaningful in there. And as much as some may wish it to be; there isn’t. It may come as a shock but we count for very little; we are, realistically, simply a means to an end. They’re doing their job and we are the job. It’s all just a fantasy world where the illusion is created that, if you want, they could be your girlfriend; for however long you are willing to pay of course. Time and experience create a barrier; it’s called cynicism. It serves you well in understanding that it’s simply a transaction, sex for cash. Eventually cynicism gives way to nonchalance and the idea one really doesn’t give a hoot. It’s all just a bit of a laugh. It’s a circus, a carnival and completely meaningless in the big picture. And as you sit there watching another group groveling around on their hands and knees for those bouncing ping pong balls you know you really should be doing something more substantial with your time.
Location – Phitsanulok: 2100 hours, December 27th 2012. After a very long day behind the wheel of a rental car I checked in to the Topland Plaza Hotel, Phitsanulok. I’d set out from Bangkok at 0900 that morning with the plan being to make an easy 6-hour drive up to Thung Salaeng Wang National Park in Petchabun Province. The Google maps I’d printed out before departure showed a direct enough route going straight up highway one and then veering left onto 21 all the way up to Lom Sak. My target destination was the aforementioned national park. Located somewhere along the road between Lom Sak and Phitsanulok, Google Maps had pinpointed it as being closer to Lom Sak. Unfortunately for me, Google Maps will only ever give you an average. Localized variations are never taken into account when you’re printing out your Google direction finder route. After pulling up in what I assumed was my intended destination, I was given the bad news by the staff at the information kiosk. “I was on the wrong side of the mountain range. The cave I was looking for, although still in the same national park, was another 200 kilometers further on.” She pointed it out on the map. I’d be retracing my steps back up onto the highway and then driving towards and beyond Phitsanulok.
I thanked her, took the map and began the 40-minute trip back to highway number 12. Thung Salaeng Wang National Park covers a substantive piece of territory. It is in fact, at 1,262.4 square kilometers, the largest in Thailand as it straddles an expansive mountainous area – more commonly known as Khao Kho – between Petchabun and Phitsanulok Provinces. Looking at the map I could see clearly that it would’ve been far quicker to have come up from Bangkok via Ayutthaya, and then go up highway number 11. The road between Lom Sak and Phitsanulok is National Highway number 12 and it winds its way through an undulating series of peaks which top out at about 1000 meters above sea level. The area of Khao Kho is approximately at the mid-point of this highway with small towns and resorts dotting the landscape. The area is very popular with the locals and most of the tourism is predominantly Thai based. It also has a bit of a checkered history with a communist insurgency active in the area from 1968 – 1982. The road which I’d just driven down – number 2196 – branches off highway 12 and is the most built up in the Khao Kho area with plenty of chalet style accommodation, on many of the high points, offering dramatic views of valleys below. There is also the usual attractions that the Thais love, waterfalls with picnic areas. Probably the most interesting attraction in the area, particularly for any military history aficionado, is what’s called the weapons museum where field artillery, small tanks and Hueys – used by the Thai army during the fight against the communists – can be seen. If anyone venturing up this way, the weapons museum is near Siridit Waterfall.
Two and a half hours later with the sun well and truly down and darkness covering the landscape, I was winding my way down a narrow rural back road – number 1295 to be exact – pushing on to my intended target; Wung Dang cave. I passed through the final village – Ban Chom Phu – and was eventually bouncing over an even narrower, winding dirt road. Some may think this completely absurd, particularly as I had no intention of going into a cave at night, but there was method in my madness. I could’ve easily gone straight through to Phitsanulok, and been resting up in a hotel at that very moment, but I didn’t want to be scrambling about wasting precious time in the morning trying to find the route; I wanted recce the way in now. Unfortunately, as it turned out, that’s exactly what happened; I took a wrong turn and got lost for an hour. After roughly five clicks of rumbling over dirt road I went through an open check point; I was getting close. A few minutes later I made the last turn and coasted down to the parking area in front of the temple; the cave was beyond. Satisfied with the reconnaissance of the way in, I turned the car about and headed for Phitsanulok.
Phitsanulok River; just a 5 minute stroll from the Topland Plaza hotel
After a sound night’s sleep and a solid breakfast I ambled down to the river front – just a 5-minute walk from the hotel – to check out the sights. In what appeared to be a focal point for the locals in Phitsanulok there are 3 temples – wats – in close proximity to each. All are in a short stretch either side of the bridge along the river front road. The largest and busiest was Wat Si Rattana Mahatat where crowds of Thais could be seen making merit in the lead up to New Year’s Eve. Through one of the building’s open doors I could see a rather imposing looking black Buddha statue. I thought this quite unique as most Buddha statues are either gold or white.
Along the river front concourse there was the usual brigade of hawkers, and street vendors, catering to the needs of the hungry hordes. In a strange twist on the opium birds there were rows of plastic bags, suspended off bamboo poles, with live eels squirming inside their small liquid prisons. When I asked one of the vendors if they were for eating she gave me an odd look and said “No, you put in river, it’s good luck.” Fair enough but it still seemed like a waste of money even if the cost is miniscule in real terms. Unlike the opium sparrows, at least the freed eels would get a decent chance of freedom. After taking a breather in the shade provided by the trees it was time to head over the bridge and take a look at King Narasuen's Palace and Temple ruins.
Making merit in the lead up to the new year in Phitsanulok
Live eels waiting to be released; “it’s good luck.”
One of the great things about the cool / dry season in Thailand apart from the fact that we obviously get a short respite from the constant heat, is the blue, cloudless skies. This isn’t so obvious if you’re in Bangkok as the grey haze is still very much in evidence but in outlying rural areas the heavens above are generally clear, providing great light for photography in the mornings. It also begins to get rather warm towards midday and with the direct sunshine beating down one is well advised to take a good supply of water if you’re planning on covering a bit of ground on foot. After a steady 15-minute walk across the bridge and along the river front road directly across from the temples I’d just been looking at, I found myself standing in front of a rather disappointing spread of ruins overgrown with long grass. There was a board with a map depicting what had once been but, for all intents and purposes, it looked more like a decaying pile of brickwork. King Naresuen was one of the more famous Thai kings who reigned over the Sukhothai Kingdom approximately 400 years ago. I’m sure he wouldn’t be too impressed if he was around to see what remained of his palace. Under the shade of large tree, and probably the main attraction of the site, was a pile of brickwork resembling a miniature Mayan pyramid. There was a stairway up the center to the top. Without further ado I made the ascent to the top to get a better view of the entirety of the site.
King Narasuen's Palace and temple ruins
Resembling a miniature Mayan temple; a bit disappointing
As I was banging off a couple of shots a tourist bus pulled up and disgorged a load of Thai package tourists. They probably got a bit of a shock to see a lone farang standing atop one of their historical sites but, with not much more than a few seconds given to check the farang, they got on with the serious business of snapping pics of each other with the ruins some way distant in the background. It has to be said, in my experience at least, Thais are a fairly unadventurous lot in terms of having a look at their own country. They never seem to stray too far from anywhere that doesn’t have a good supply of Thai food and booze available. A few minutes later and with all the obligatory photos taken, they were back on the bus and away. It was getting close to lunch time; the som tam and kao neaw beckoned. After a few more minutes spent wandering around the site it was time for yours truly to head back to the hotel for some shade and a bit of chill out time.
Location – Wang Dang Temple and Cave: 1100 hours, December 29th 2012. After getting detoured, for an hour or so, I was finally here. I’d done it the hard way but as it’s often said, worthwhile pursuits sometimes aren’t achieved easily. I parked the car in front of the temple and readied myself to explore what is currently listed as Thailand’s longest cave.
Looking back up to the Buddha statue at the far side of the entry chamber
The full trip report, on my excursion into Wang Dang Cave, can be seen on my blog. Please use the following link.
Nice. Phitsanulok is a nice town and while I have only been there once, I have fond memories of that visit.