Discovering the world on $20 per day ......................

Post 355: Phitsanulok ...

The bus journey to Phitsanulok took almost six hours. That’s an hour longer than the timetable suggested but for these parts, that’s pretty much on time. It wasn’t the VIP coach that I’d promised myself, but at least I had the luxury of a seat. The ‘undeclared’ passengers who boarded the bus a few miles outside of the official bus stations didn’t, but the driver was a little richer from their trade. The same thing happens on every long-distance bus journey in SE Asia and as the illegal’s board you can almost hear the blind eyes blinking back at Bus Company HQ. I guess it’s just a way of getting people to work for a minimum wage where ’minimum’ means exactly that …. mai pen rai kap

The bus kindly dropped me in the centre of Phitsanulok where the local tuk-tuk drivers were waiting to transport me to any place that I really didn’t want to visit. The Toyota Corolla Taxi hasn’t reached Phitsanulok yet and thankfully, nor has the attitude of Bangkok tuk-tuk pilots. Of course they wanted to take me to places where they’d receive a small commission for their services; a gem factory, a tailors shop or a family members restaurant, but after a little persuasion and the handing over of 50 Baht, I was transported in swift but cramped discomfort directly to my hotel, The Riverside. A good friend by the name of ’Nongnoo’ just happened to come from a village close to Phitsanulok and when I’d mentioned my travel plans she’d offered her services as my tour-guide. Of course I could have declined her kind offer, but although I might be slow at times I’m certainly not stupid. Her first act had been to select the hotel and hotels of The Riverside’s standard shouldn’t be cheap. But this one is, £9 per night for a room large enough to hold a dance and with great views across the river.

The first act was to visit the Temple of the Beautiful Buddha. Legend suggests that this is the temple that inspired King Naresuan to his great victories against the Mon, who I think were actually the Burmese. It was indeed a fine temple, and amazingly busy with people. They seemed surprised to see a Westerner in their temple but by now I’m getting used to that. With a genuine smile, I let them touch and poke me, answered their questions and falsely promised to ‘add’ them as my friends on Facebook. Curiosities completed, I’d approached the young monk for a blessing and repeated the standard Buddhist mantra three times .... ‘’na mo at sa, pa ka wa toe, ah ra ha toe, sam ma, sam pud at sa’’ … I’d absolutely no idea what I was saying but the monk seemed happy to see that I’d learned some of the ways of his chosen path. He’d grinned an abundance of gold, bowed his head and begun another chant expecting me to respond in the right places. Ok …. you win dude.

Mantras completed, he’d showered me with water from his holy brush, tied a white cotton band around my wrist and it was time to make way for the others who had gathered behind me.

I moved to the centre of the Temple and could see that the golden image of Buddha was beautiful, but whether it was any more beautiful than any other statue I’ll let others decide. I shook the small container of sticks and waited until one fell to the ground. The stick had a number on it which corresponded to a number on a range of different ’horoscopes’. It was all written in Thai and I didn’t understand a word. Nongnoo offered to translate but I knew that she’d only tell me the good stuff ….. It’s the Thai way, mai pen rai kap

Outside beneath the searing sun, I joined the line of people waiting to cleanse the smaller statues in the courtyard. Tomorrow is the first day of the Song Kran Festival. Traditionally Song Kran marks the end of the dry season and the coming of the rains. People took the remains of their stored water and used it to clean the temples and statues in the hope of receiving good fortune for the coming year. In more recent times Song Kran has become a festival more noted for water fights and partying ….. and I’m certainly not against progress.

Back on the main walking street in Phitsanulok, the pre-Song Kran party is in full swing. Amazing aromas fill the air, food of every kind is being cooked on the streets and every person in the city is joining in the fun. I buy a dancing ticket for 20 Baht and as the music changes, I choose my grandma to dance with. It’s fun but I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing. Every turn of the hand or foot has a different meaning and I’m probably being amazingly rude, but the money goes to the temple and I’ve had much more expensive dances in my time.

At the end of the street, the grounds of the monetary have become a fairground. The saffron robed monks are in charge and above a shallow pool of water, kids are knocking the crap out of each other for the entertainment of their parents. Well, really for the entertainment of their fathers who are taking bets on the eventual champion. Money is changing hands, thick wedges of Baht are being wagered and in the best out of three contests, fathers are acting as coaches and scolding their beaten off-spring. I’m sure the losers don’t really get hurt, at least not until they get home …. Mai pen rai kap

As the clock ticks well past midnight, the crowds slowly start to leave, but not before a final tasty snack. Tak-A-Tan, otherwise known as deep fried cicada or cricket. The trick is to just crunch into it and swallow after the minimum number of bites. The cicada are quite easy but the legs of the stick insects get stuck everywhere and are really well worth avoiding. Apparently a daily serving of such insects is good for a mans desire and virility, but then they say the same thing about oysters. Hopefully I don’t need any help in either of those areas …… but when in Phitsanulok !!! ….. Mai pen rai kap