Two Thai towns: No banana pancakes

Two Thai towns: No banana pancakes




David Whitley veers off Thailand’s tourist trail to find two unheralded cities with very different charms

It suddenly strikes me what the road is. It’s curiously elevated, unlike any other in Phrae. On one side, there are a few shack-like houses with temple rooftops rising above them in the background. On the other, it’s wild. Overgrown trees and giant leaves obscure the river, although the bells attached to the cows lumbering down towards the water’s edge indicate where it is.

The road was once the city wall. It still goes round the old town; it has just been put to a new use now the era of siege warfare is over.

You’d be hard-pushed to find a more agreeable Thai city to wander around than Phrae. The walls may remind of a mini-Chiang Mai, but its hints of an understudy Luang Prabang that start coming through when you start taking in the gorgeous old buildings on every corner.

Phrae isn’t going to pretend to be as spectacular as either, but it has got one massive factor in its favour: far fewer people to share it with.

I’d been after somewhere without the banana pancakes, expat bars and twenty-something Westerners enquiring whether there was free WiFi. And as a respite from Thailand’s mercilessly-pummelled tourist trail, Phrae turns out to be the perfect tonic.

Wandering through the many wat complexes squeezed into the old city, it strikes me that the usual temple fatigue isn’t kicking in. There’s no time frame, no photographs to try and avoid getting in the way of and no pressure to be wowed by anything in particular. It’s just me, the temples and the occasional passing monk to flash a smile at. The huge seated Buddha at Wat Phra Baht Ming Meuang should be the star of the show, but I find myself absorbed by the delicately-patterned golden decoration on the window shutters. At Wat Luang, the oldest temple in town and dating back to the 12th or 13th century, it’s the stone stupa that’s slowly sprouting vegetation. At Wat Phra Non, it’s the slightly absurd Buddha reclining along the wall.

But it’s the houses that really enchant. Phrae’s major industry was once teak-logging, and whilst the teak trees in the surrounding forests are now protected, the buildings made from their ancestors still remain.

The streets are full of these delightful dark wood homes, with most beautifully preserved through good old-fashioned care rather than tour bus-hunting restoration budgets. The showiest of them – Vongburi House – is also the most atypical. It has an antebellum Deep South plantation house feel – fussy doily-like carvings decorate the roof and unshuttered windows from all angles let the breeze gallop through.

Inside, it feels like a step back to a colonial era that Thailand never had. Inside are gramophones, guns, antique teapots and black and white photos of elephants rolling fallen tree trunks. The house is bathed in much the same sepia-tinged tranquillity that the city is.

Phrae is a wonderful spot for blissfully mooching away from the herd. But, a couple of hours to the north, Phayao is most definitely a tourist town.
The tourists whooping it up there, however, are almost without exception Thai. This makes the experience of visiting tremendously odd. When I arrive, everyone in the city seems to be wearing a pink shirt – “the colour of the queen�?, apparently. Some are flooding into a park for a concert, others are bungling their way through an ill-coordinated group dance marathon around a large plastic dragon. It makes no sense at all, particularly when one couple points at me and laughs. Perhaps I should have worn pink too.

There are a few half-decent temples to see, but Phayao’s siren call is the lake it’s sat by. Fishermen stand around the edge like incompetent sentries, whilst wooden boats clank by the jetty. Enterprising oarsmen are always willing to embark on impromptu excursions in exchange for a few notes, but the real action is surrounding the lake rather than on it.

The lakefront is ringed with bar/restaurant/ café hybrids. Some are plastic chair affairs, others make the effort to doll up, but there are scores to choose from. And at night, the holidaying Thais are joined by the thirsty student hordes from the local university. It’s never quite raucous, but there’s a hugely likeable buzz.

The best time to arrive is shortly before sunset. The giant, fiercely red sun drops down through the hazy sky, while the reflections on the lake and the horizon’s palette make waterside Phayao seem like the perfect find. English language menus may be nigh on impossible to find and conversation with the enthusiastic group on the next table who are wondering why you’re here might be stilted, but who cares? The beer is cheap and you can get a giant fish, caught fresh from the lake that morning for the equivalent of £3. Providing you make the right fish mimes, obviously.

You can get Thailand included in the Globehopper RTW or the Navigator RTW

Colombo train


We have not planned this well. There are no tickets left for the 12 o’clock Saturday train from Nuwara Eliya to Colombo, and the station is full of people heading to Colombo for the weekend.  Despite the stationmaster’s assurances, there no seats left in the coveted first class observation carriage when the train eventually pulls in.



The typical pantomime ensues. While my friend holds the train, I jump the tracks and run to the back window of the stationmaster’s window, exchanging a handful of torn and grubby rupee notes through rusty bars for a pair of open, second-class tickets.  Winded, I jump the tracks again and make it on board just as the whistle blows.


We’re stuck in second class, in a carriage that smells of sweat and dirt and piss. There are no seats left, but the guards shuffle two elderly third class ticket holders to another part of the train, and we awkwardly and uncomfortably take their seats. My friend, who has been living in Sri Lanka for six months, is annoyed to be stuck in the cramped cabin for eight hours. Secretly, I’m thrilled.


As the train pulls out, men arrive from third class sneak in  to position hessian sacks and fraying bags in the empty rack space above us. Next to our Samsonite wheelie bags are netted sacks filled with cold climate vegetables: crisp cabbages the size of footballs, turnips bigger than my fists and carrots still caked with a little dirt: small, but thoughtful gifts for relatives who would otherwise pay four times the price for the same thing in Colombo.


Next to arrive are the men wielding thick baskets of food. The man next to me purchases a white plastic bag of green and yellow skinned fruit, casually tossing the bag under his seat. The mother sitting opposite us is more discerning: she checks through the entire box of the fruit; smelling, prodding and poking the skin of each piece before handing over the money.


The mouth watering aroma of fresh samosas then wafts through the carriage, followed by the sight of green mango covered in spicy red chilli, and a man carrying buckets of icy soft-drinks and water.


But the man who gets my money is selling peanuts. Filling an entire basket lined with newspaper, the fried nutty aroma is too good to resist. He plunges a metal scoop into the bucket, filling a tiny, paper pouch with peanuts fried with chilli and sprinkled with chunky salt. The packaging is recycled from a child’s math workbook: the child looks like they have a bright academic future. All the answers are correct.


Outside the window is a moving feast: saturated green tea plantations that slope down the hills, broken up by the groups of women in brightly covered clothing picking the leaves in the distance. Beehives the size of basketballs hang from trees, waterfalls appear and vanish as the train curves around the hills, and the occasional overturned and abandoned railway car rusts by the side of the tracks.


On the way up to hills we’d booked into the expensive tourist train carriage, with air-conditioning, wifi, and meal service, with a locked door that prevented anyone getting in. The windows hadn’t opened, and as I pressed my nose up against the window, I’d glimpsed other tourists hanging from the open doors of the train, their hair billowing in the wind. I’d been envious of their fun and felt like I was missing out.


With this in mind, I knew what I had to do. Dumping my jacket on my seat and my bag with my friend, I slipped out to the open doorway and leaned out of the side of the train, my whole bodyweight swung out the door. The wind stung my eyes and blew my hair back. It wasn’t exactly safe, but it was brilliant fun.


First class? It’s overrated.


The Rover RTW allow stopovers in Sri Lanka en route to Australia and New Zealand

The Navigator RTW also allows up to 11 stops and Sri Lanka can be one of them

Check out our Highlights of Sri Lanka tour


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