Exploring of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya temples
Sukhothai and Ayutthaya are two ancient capitals of Siam (Thailand's former name) where more or less well preserved vestiges can still be found and explored. Ayutthaya is located only 85 kilometres from Bangkok while Sukhothai (also known as Dawn of Happiness) lies further North, 5 hours by bus from the city of Chiangmai.
If you are after some history and old temples - some of them date back to the thirteenth century - you must definitely go there and visit both sites by bike. You will travel in time imagining what these opulent cities would have looked like moving around palaces, statues and buddha's faces
Buddha's head at Wat Mahathat
If you've been to Thailand, you've probably already seen this picture on guidebooks or postcards. In Ayutthaya, in the grounds of Wat Mahathat temple dating back to the fourteenth century stands a fig tree whose roots envelop a Buddha's head. This sight is rather surprising since the Buddha's head almost seems to be part of the tree itself. It's said that after the invasion of the Burmese army the temple was abandoned for many years. It's assumed that the tree simply grew up around the head during this period.
Morning pause at Wat Sa Si
Wat Sa Si is located in the middle of a lake. The particular location of this temple makes it one of the most beautiful places to visit in Sukhothai. This is one of the first temples I could see as I was entering the ramparts of the old city in the early morning to avoid the large groups of tourists. As the sun rises, the stones of the temple take a very bright orange colour.
15 meters high buddha at Wat Si Chum
The peculiarity of Wat Si Chum is undoubtedly its giant Buddha named Phra Achana and measuring more than 15 meters high! I spent about an hour admiring the Buddha, amazed by its sheer size. Many children went to the bottom of the statue and it was amazing to see that the hand of the statue was so much bigger than them!
The place has been damaged a lot by war and time. Over the years many buddha's heads have been stolen which adds on to the mysterious aspects of its remains!
Completing the Mae Hong Son Circuit by motorbike
If you're looking for an adventure the Mae Hong Son loop is definitely for you! I drove 600 kilometres on that popular road in North Thailand by motorbike over 5 days.
This circuit allows people to explore the most mountainous province of the country and discover the most authentic aspect of the country away from the tourist crowds that you can't really avoid in places like Chiang Mai. The great number of temples, caves and waterfalls found on the road make the exploration of this region really exciting.
Rice fields in Mae Sariang
One of the first stops can be done in Mae Sariang, a charming little town. The setting is really nice with endless tea fields and rice paddies dominated by imposing mountains. It's really worth it to stay there at least half a day to soak up the beautiful scenery. It's possible to climb the surrounding peaks that are home to magnificent temples overlooking the valley. On top of one of the mountains is a statue of a rather impressive giant Buddha who seems to watch over the town.
Giant buddha on top of a mountain in Mae Sariang
En route to Mae Hong Son, the city that gave the name to this circuit, I made an accidental detour. In no time I found myself on top of a mountain with a beautiful views over some fields and hills.
On the road to Mae Hong Son
In Mae Hong Son, I met Nathalie, a French girl living in Canada who had left for a long trip around Asia. I asked her to join me and I continued my adventure in Northern Thailand with her. We left our backpacks at the hostel and we decided to go to visit a village inhabited by the Padaung, an ethnic minority from Burma, whose women wear a huge spiral collar around their neck. The road was not bad at all but at some point we ended up in front of a stream crossing the road. I crossed it without taking any special care and I felt the bike slip, we almost fell. A few meters further, another stream was flowing across the road. This time I focused so much not to fall that I did not see the huge elephant dung that was on the road a couple of meters further! We crossed without difficulty when suddenly I saw the elephant dung, I applied the brakes, completely lost control and the motorbike went into a skid. The fall was brutal and a little painful, but fortunately none of us got hurt and we managed to get back on the bike. Markus, my traveling companion in Laos had told me that in Asia anyone who get on a motorbike fall a least once. I was no exception but after all it's not every day that you made a slip on an elephant dung! It was not really worth it though as the long necks village turned out to be a bit of a tourist trap worth no interest and which we don't recommend the visit. However, much more enjoyable was the visit of Ban Rak Thai which is a charming Chinese little town with just 800 inhabitants, located two steps – literally! - to the Burmese border.
Ban Rak Thai, a pretty Chinese town
Pai is definitely the most touristic city of this circuit. Indeed the town is a popular base for exploring the natural attractions of the region. A significant population of Western hippy backpackers and Thais rastas live in Pai. So you can imagine that this is not really a traditional place but the atmosphere remains relaxed in Pai and one can easily end up spending several days or even several weeks there.
Chilling in some hot springs near Pai
The area is known for its numerous mountains and rivers. Many waterfalls can be found near Pai as well as many hot springs. Sai Ngam hot spring is supposed to be a "secret" hot spring mostly visited by locals but with the word of mouth it seems to attract more and more tourists. The setting remains idyllic in the forest, we could bask for hours in the transparent water of this hot spring.
Tham Lot cave and its large opening
55 km away from Pai is Tham Lot cave which is actually a series of three caves that can be visited on a raft accompanied by a local guide. These caves are rather impressive and one of them is home to old teak coffins. Tham Lot cave is often photographed because it is recognised as the largest cave opening in South East Asia. In the evening you can see - hear and feel! - thousands of bats flying out of the cave. The show is stunning!
Sunset at the top of Pai Canyon
Finally, the best place to admire the sunset over the surrounding mountains is probably the top of Pai Canyon. The views on the forest and surrounding countryside are spectacular. This is where we spent the last night of our short stay in Pai, the last stop on the circuit before returning to Chiangmai.