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Sukhotai, Birthplace of Thailand

This is part of our Window on Southeast Asia series.

A few weeks after I had settled into my new job in Lampang, Thailand and had gotten a feel for the town, I decided it was time to make my way to Thailand's birthplace, Sukhotai. The trip taught me a number of things, including a few lessons about blessings in disguise. That Friday I went to the train station to meet my friend Mon as we were planning to go to the nearby city of Phitsanalok (pit-san-AH-lohk) together. When she didn't show up I bought the ticket for 88 baht, about $2, in a second-class air-con car. I had taken second class to Chiang Mai and it seemed very comfortable. Well, when Mon did show up she'd bought a ticket and told me that my seat number didn't matter, we could sit together anyway. Her fiancee showed us to the right car and we got on. (He stayed behind in Lampang.) It turned out that her seat was in third class. "Oh great," I thought, "Third class for the price of second." The car was less than inviting, the seats were not as comfortable, and there was no air-con, just fans and open windows. As soon as the train started moving the third-class seat turned out to be a blessing-in-disguise #1. From the open window came the pleasant evening air of rural Thailand. That was preferable to any air-conditioned car! Having the fresh air blowing through the car made the trip much more enjoyable, though it would have been miserable in the hot season. The trip lasted five hours, and it was light for about the first hour and a half. The scenery was lovely with rice paddies, jungle, and mountains.

I've always been aware that in Thailand, as anywhere, you have to be sensitive to people's beliefs and try to not put people down for them. That proved to be the case on that train ride. At one point we went through a wild banana grove. Mon pointed out that they were an inedible variety. She warned me that if I am ever in a grove of that type of banana at night, I should watch out for a beautiful woman and stay away from her. Need I say that her warning aroused my curiosity even though I'm really not likely to be in a banana grove at night? She explained that the woman is a ghost who tries to seduce single men. If they don't get away from her, they die (or so she assumed, what could a living man and a ghost do together?). I was about to laugh at the story thinking she was just telling it for fun, but then I remembered that I'm living in a land where people make offerings to the spirits and keep small houses for them. As far as I could tell she really believed in the ghost. Belief in ghosts is very common in Thailand, belief in ancestor spirits is almost universal. Before you think this makes the Thai ignorant, keep in mind how profitable psychic hotlines are in the United States. About two hours into the train ride, Mon started nodding off. At one point while she was asleep we went through another banana grove. I have to confess that for a few minutes I did stare out the open window, just in case...

When we reached Phitsanalok her parents were there to greet her. They drove me to a very nice and reasonably priced hotel near the train station. The bus to Sukhotai went through a lovely stretch of road passing rice fields and small villages. The rice fields are a lush green in October. With the rainy season over by two weeks, the rice was just starting to grow. After checking into a guesthouse with the charmingly simple name "Friend Guesthouse," I took the mini bus to the ancient city of Sukhotai. Sukhotai is sacred to the Thais; it is the place where their nation was born, a nation that has never been ruled by any other country since 1278. (That's if you don't count the far north, the Kingdom of Lanna which evolved separately from the rest of Thailand. It was ruled by Burma for 200 years before becoming part of Thailand in 1775.) From the 800s AD, Thailand had been part of the Khmer (Cambodian) empire, ruled from the great city of Angkor in Cambodia. Sukhotai was founded somewhere during that time. It started as a minor base for the Khmer, but grew in importance over the centuries. By the mid-1200s, the Khmer empire was collapsing, and several independent Thai kingdoms came into existence. Two of them joined together when it looked like the Mongol Kubla Khan, who had just taken much of China, might move into Thailand. They seized Sukhotai from the Khmer and prepared to use it as an outpost to defend against Kubla Khan, but Khan never made it to Thailand (lucky for them). So instead, Sukhoti became the heart of a newborn nation.


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