Shining a light on Phitsanulok, Thailand’s hidden vintage gem
Hidden in the shadow of the World Heritage Site next door, Phitsanulok is a five-hour drive north from Bangkok, a short plane trip or a wonderfully scenic train ride through sleepy stations and countryside.
This beautiful historic city tends to be ignored by travellers heading to UNESCO-listed Sukhothai, Siam’s first capital and a major magnet for both Thai and foreign tourists.
But those who do stop here are rewarded with sights and sounds of one of Thailand’s oldest cities, complete with palaces and ancient religious sites which can easily be explored in a day.
This gem of a destination gleams with scenes of Thai life and traditions that are seldom found during beach or island stays.
And travellers wearied by the neon glare of Bangkok will find two or three days in Phitsanulok shines a mellow light on the Thailand of yesteryear.
Visitors here can look forward to a warm welcome from the friendly locals, coupled with heritage treasures to explore on every corner. Among the highlights are folk museums offering rich insights and outstanding temples such as Wat Aranyik and Phra Buddha Chinnarat.
If you’re lucky enough to visit during one of the frequent temple festivals, try the fabulous feast of street food. Gastronauts in search of authentic local flavours can pop a fried insect or a crunchy grub into their mouths.
Don’t worry if the alien sensations start to overwhelm: monks are on hand to offer spiritual balm in the form of blessings at the town’s many temples.
Locals’ pride in Phitsanulok traditions sparkles brightest during the holidays, when girls and women of all ages step onto outdoor stages to dance and perform.
Looking for something a little different?
Try the quirky Sergeant Major Thawee Museum, a treasure trove of tools, textiles, weapons, kitchenware and more that tells the story of local life here through the ages. When you’re done, the alfresco coffee shop is a peaceful haven to ruminate on this history of Phitsanulok in 1,000 objects.
Phitsanulok Night Bazaar by the Nan River is the city’s nightlife hub, brimming with great food, entertainment, and cheap clothes and goods on a thicket of stalls.
Just 70 kilometres away, Sukhothai Historical Park makes a fascinating day trip by car or taxi. Entry for non-Thais costs 100 baht (US$2.70) for each zone or 350 baht for a pass to all five zones. Entry for Thais costs 30 baht.
Sukhothai’s 800-year-old ancient temples and palace are much more accessible than Angkor Wat in Cambodia – with which it shares ancient Khmer roots. After purchasing their ticket onsite, visitors can hire a bike, self-drive jeep or hop on a bus to tour the extensive ruins and enjoy the space and freedom to really explore. Siam’s original capital is also a popular destination for school outings and a fun trip for all ages.
Food stalls and outlets next to the monuments offer cheap, freshly cooked and tasty meals such as Phad Si Eew (my absolute favourite noodles) and other Thai dishes. The coffee, as in most places in Thailand, is good quality and strolling around market stalls at the ancient site with an iced latte in hand is a memorable delight.
Back in Phitsanulok, accommodation choices run from simple guest houses to luxury hotels, with every budget catered for.
My choice was the Shinnabhura Historic Boutique Hotel, whose rich traditions and character surpassed anywhere I have stayed during my three decades of visiting Thailand.
The property is a combo of luxury mansion and historical monument, lavishly decorated and furnished with antiques. Unique and exquisite, it’s a world away from the impersonal coldness of corporate city hotels.
Dinner at Shinnabhura was a feast of local specialities, cooked and proudly presented by friendly staff who explained each delicious dish as it was served. It was fun to assemble Mieng Kham, leaf-wrapped bites of ginger, chillis, dried shrimp and lime that burst on the tongue – especially as I had bought the ingredients myself as a kit in the market and the hotel chef kindly prepared them.
My room had all the benefits of a 5-star international hotel and more: fourposter bed, clawfoot bath, and luxury shower in an opulent vintage setting.
Phitsanulok is just an hour’s flying time from Bangkok and also very accessible by bus or train from Chiang Mai.
For a delightful return trip to the Thai capital, head to the train station and pick up a ticket for less than 100 baht. Then curl up for a snooze on the cushioned bench seats and wait for your hot, freshly prepared breakfast with coffee courtesy of vendors who board at each stop. Watching the dawn break over beautiful countryside and paddy fields from the train windows is a memory to treasure. The early train leaves pre-dawn and stops at a string of pretty stations before pulling into Bangkok at around 1pm.
Special to The Nation