My bike tires wobbled over the dusty cobblestones as we manoeuvred our bicycles through the steady stream of truck taxis, flower covered tuk-tuks, vintage motorbikes, psychedelic tour buses, stray dogs and happy-go-lucky tourists... all part of the ancient walled city of Sukhothai, former capital of Thailand.
There is nothing like a bicyclist yearning for adventure, and I was eager to explore this former artistic and intellectual centre that was the heart of the golden age of Thailand in the 13th century. Known also as the "Dawn of Happiness" Sukhothai is a UNESCO world heritage site and holds the very roots of Thai culture. Nearly 200 temples and buildings have been excavated and partially reconstructed to their former glory.
My first reminder that I wasn't in the streets of Canada anymore was when a motorbike zoomed by with an entire family balancing happily on the small seat and two peacefully sleeping kids wedged tightly between the parents. Once we navigated to the outskirts of the city into the tamarind tree groves we experienced an enchanting ride among the temples — the only traffic congestion coming in the form of a large monitor lizard casually sunning itself in the middle of the road.
The highlight of our bike tour through Sukhothai was finding the "speaking" Buddha just outside the city walls. Measuring a whopping 15 metres, the "speaking" Buddha's massive golden hand greets all who come. There were Thai people putting flowers all around its feet and bowing. So although Sukhothai is open to tourists, there are many Thai people and monks going about practising their everyday living culture regardless of the number of tourists.
The story behind the "speaking" Buddha goes back 700 years. That's when the Burmese army invaded Sukhothai — so the King sent one of his men up the narrow back stairs behind the Buddha's head to deliver a sermon that frightened the entire invading army away. The Buddha is in a tall stone enclosure that amplifies sound, so I imagine a loud voice could sound more formidable than the great Wizard of Oz behind his curtain!
The back streets of Sukhothai provided a colourful and less congested way to wheel our bikes along and see the many street food vendors. The Thai specialities of barbecue skewers of chicken and fish sizzling on small roadside metal grills turned the streets into an aromatic roadside cafe. Local craftspeople and artists also set up shop in small stalls in no particular order wherever there seemed to be an open spot on the sidewalk.
All the vendors loudly sang their invitations to come and check out their food, turning our cycle tour into a kind of colourful street theatre as they waved their cooking utensils masterfully over the steaming culinary treats. Some smells were tantalizing while others were so strong our eyes watered. What wasn't to like about having such an array of choices?
Nothing is wasted and nothing is packaged, just fresh produce, spices, meat and fruit prepared right in front of you while you watch. Thailand's version of fast food is much different, so you can never be in a hurry.
As we headed back to our guest house we needed to escape the sweltering afternoon heat and decided to take a shortcut past a small island. There were wooden feeding stations all around the edge of the lake, and for a small donation anyone could feed the fish living there. Just one sprinkle of the pellets made the whole surface of the lake burst with fins and the wide gaping mouths of the hungry fish. There were literally hundreds of fish visible with only the drop of one pellet into the water; I swear you could almost walk on their backs across the lake they were so many.
The late afternoon and evening is reserved for the sunset "paparazzi" tourists who gathered around the central section of the old Sukhothai temples to get the perfect photographic shot. As the oranges and deep reds of the setting sun shimmered on the lotus-filled ponds, there was a collective sigh as photographers, tourists and even painters admired nature's light show with the old temples illuminated by the golden sunset.
When we returned our rental bikes to the shop the lady smiled a huge toothy grin and made a special effort to slowly say the words in English, "See you next year!"
For us the ancient city of the "Dawn of Happiness" truly lived up to its name.