Alone Amongst Ruins: Biking in Sukhothai

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I am a tourist who hates other tourists.

Tom and I spent much time this trip rolling our eyes at backpackers and talking about authentic experiences. What does that even mean? What kind of tourist am I? And how authentic is my experience? 

I arrived at something of an obvious answer a few mornings ago while biking through the ancient ruins of Sukhothai Historic Park on our last day in Sukhothai.

There was no one about, you see, except for Tom and I on rickety bikes rented from the hotel, the lovely Thai Thai Sukhothai Guesthouse (an absolute steal with their gorgeous bungalow rooms and buffet breakfast(!) for $30 a night).

By Thai tourist attraction crowd standards, the park wasn’t busy at all. The best way to see its 70 sq. km. is by bike and the main part of the ruins do get a steady trickle of visitors – mostly French and Germans who are interested in world history – but compared to the Grand Palace in Bangkok, all the Kohs (islands) and what felt like the entire city center of Chiang Mai, Sukhothai seemed almost empty.

Our last morning however, having stayed up late the night before watching “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” (why not? All these ruins put us in the mood), we woke up late and considered staying at the hotel before our airport shuttle bus arrived. It was hot and sunny – not ideal biking weather at all.

But our better selves emerged.

“Let’s try a different road,” said Tom.

And I, grumbling just a bit at having to leave our air conditioned comfort, pedaled at a snail’s pace behind him.

But I’m so glad we did.

Because I’m a tourist who hates other tourists and that day, we were alone amongst the ruins.

We biked past ramshackle farmhouses with three generations of women sitting outside on raised bamboo beds, chatting in the heat amidst laughing children and stray dogs. We biked past upturned fields and dirt roads from which old men driving tuk-tuks and beat up trucks turned in and out of, waving to us as they passed.

We biked past sleeping dogs, clucking chickens and a few bony brown cows. Each time we looked up we saw more fields, some green, others yellow, most with the tip of the odd crumbling Wat in the distance rising above low tree lines. We saw faded signs telling us which Wat was which and if we felt like it, we turned in, zoomed down dirt paths into ancient, dried up moats and then out again, carving lines in dead grass around the feet of broken Buddhas.

We could have packed wine, sandwiches, a slice of cake. We could have sunbathed in the nude. We could have smoked weed (well, maybe not), but we could have stayed for as long as we wanted, climbed to the top of the chedis and toasted Buddha’s broken facial fragments with Chang beers. No one would have been there to see or stop us.

It was as though all the tourists in Sukhothai had gone home that day.

It was also the hottest part of day, when the hotels advise tourists to stay indoors, but we had a hunch most tourists didn’t bike out so far. But we didn’t mind. We were blessed with clouds and sunscreen, sunglasses and for Tom, a hat. We had the trees, we had our bikes. It was, for me, one of my favorite parts of any trip.

We did not become experts. We cannot tell you the names or intended purpose of any of the half dozen Wats we visited that day. We read the signs and promptly forgot them all, but what I will always remember is the feeling of visiting a place that is, at least intended by UNESCO, to be seen by the world and yet discover with selfish delight that the rest of the world was milling around elsewhere (The Grand Palace, for instance).

Anyway. Photos, while they capture Tom’s enthusiasm for appearing in them, don’t quite capture the ruins’ magnificent quiet. But I had to try.

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And below, a few photos taken at Sukhothai airport later that afternoon. It is one of the most beautiful small airports I’ve ever flown from. There were giraffes and zebras frolicking in a distant large pen – part of the airport grounds – fountains, sparkling ponds, and a fresh smelling breeze from their lush gardens. As you wait, free coffee, tea and Thai snacks for everyone. Clean bathrooms with fresh orchids, smiling ground personnel. The perfect way to depart from the perfect tourist attraction: no tourists except for me.

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