It’s another getaway column this month. If you can’t be bothered to read it or don’t have any spare time to get away from the drudgery of daily life, check out my photos at www.flickr.com/photos/philiproeland.
A few months ago I went to a town located just a few hours from Bangkok that's worth definitely worth a visit. Lopburi, famous for its ruins and monkeys, lies some 150 kilometres north of the capital and can easily be reached by either bus or train. I opted for the latter mode of transport since I live not far from a train station. Most day trains are 3rd class only, dirt cheap and well-ventilated since they all run with both windows and doors wide open.
Buses depart frequently around the clock from the Northern bus station, aka Morchit, and take two to three hours. Trains are regular as well and take slightly longer. The advantage of trains is that they take you straight to the centre of old Lopburi, whereas buses go to the bus station in new Lopburi, from where you'll need to take another bus or shared taxi to the old town.
While inter-city buses in Thailand are usually modern and air-conditioned, trains take you back in time, especially when travelling in 3rd class. It seems that the Royal Thai Railways haven't invested a penny in rolling stock for the last few decades. Railway carriages are worn-out and their wooden benches become uncomfortable after a few hours. I wouldn't recommend them for long-distance trips as they are not only more uncomfortable, but also slower than buses. Buses, on the other hand, do have a worse safety record. You might get a sore derrière, but you'll never die of starvation on a train, as there is an endless procession of vendors going up and down the aisle selling a myriad food and drinks. The wide range of inexpensive food for sale includes grilled chicken or pork with sticky rice, fresh fruit, peanuts, dumplings, stuffed buns, local sweets and even dried squid; water, iced coffee and tea, fizzy drinks and even beer can quench your thirst.
Although seeing all the major sights of Lopburi can probably be done in just a day, I preferred to stay overnight in a typical local hotel. The Asia Lopburi Hotel, in the centre of the old town opposite King Narai's Palace, might sound expensive but it wasn't. Single fan rooms with private bathroom and TV could be had for as little as 250 baht (add another 100 baht for A/C) thus confirming again that travelling in the Kingdom can still be economical.
Let me remind readers unfamiliar with Thailand that single room in traditional Thai-Chinese hotels usually refers to rooms with one double bed. Double rooms sport two beds, so make sure to ask for the right room if you’re travelling as a couple. 'Suits’ (sic) or 'sweet rooms' are the mispronounced or misspelt Thai equivalent of suites and only available in luxury hotels. In the local lingo, 'hong tamadaa' means ordinary room or fan room while 'hong air' is an air-conditioned room.
As already mentioned, the main attractions of Lopburi are its ruins, temples and monkeys. All of them are conveniently located within walking distance of each other in the old town. The most interesting sites charge a moderate 30 baht entrance fee (10 baht for locals), so they are within anyone's budget. Travellers on a shoestring can limit themselves to the few free ruins or gawk at the good stuff from outside the fence. However, is money is that tight they might just as well start thinking about which body part to sell next.
In my opinion as ruin and temple lover, the following sites are a must-see when visiting Lopburi: Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat (temple ruins on a large area opposite the train station), Phra Narai Ratchaniwet or King Narai's Palace (walled compound smack in old city centre) and Prang Sam Yot (Khmer temple ruins, aka the monkeys' lair, along the railway near the main thoroughfare). Other interesting but less spectacular sites include Chao Phraya Wichayen (ruins of the former residence for foreign ambassadors), San Phra Kan (small contemporary temple where Thais make merit and another monkey hangout) and Wat Nakhon Kosa (temple ruins near the latter, along the railway line).
If the above names are just gobbledegook to you, just have a look in any travel guide or surf the Internet and you'll find tons of useful information as I couldn't be bothered with copying what's in my Lonely Planet. By the way, travel information is often just meaningless words on paper. To really enjoy the great stuff that's out there, you'll need to get out of your sofa, put on your walking boots and find out for yourself.
Basically, what draws tourists to Lopburi is mainly ruins and monkeys. It would be fair to say that the area around Prang Sam Yot is being completely overrun by monkeys. Estimates put the number of these long-tailed macaques at a couple of thousand! Although they are a major tourist magnet, these seemingly cute creatures can get on the nerves of local shopkeepers and vendors alike who use sticks and slingshots to prevent them from stealing their merchandise.
For many tourists, hand-feeding these seemingly nice animals with fruit and veggies and taking close-up snapshots of the experience is high on their to-do list. However, once the cheeky buggers start jumping on your shoulders, pick your pockets or give you a nasty bite, you'll quickly start losing sympathy for them and wish the evil beasts were somewhere in a laboratory undergoing vivisection. Remember that they are wild animals and not miniature humans, so be prepared for a visit to the local hospital and a rabies shot if you get up close and personal.
In November, there is the annual Monkey Festival during which the monkeys can gorge themselves on a lavish buffet set up around their lair. Don't think that is the only time for the poor animals to eat properly. Every day of the year they are given more food than they can possibly eat.
Many of the Lopburi sites present great photo opportunities. Let me remind you that most great pictures are usually taken either early morning or late afternoon with the sun behind you or, at sunset, directly in front of you. If you're a lone traveller, don't forget to take a tripod as the pictures will become more entertaining for both yourself and friends or family. If you hate lugging a regular tripod around (like me), get yourself one of those mini-tripods that fit in your pocket. If you're not a (semi-)professional photographer, they'll do the job without other sightseers staring at you. By the way, when I was in Lopburi, many of the sites I visited were nearly deserted, thus giving me the opportunity to take some memorable pictures. So get off that couch and drag yourself to Lopburi! It's much more interesting than sitting in front of the TV all day or sleeping off a hangover. Have fun.
In a totally unrelated story, the press reported a few months ago that many of their sleeper train carriages were infested with bed bugs. Ten trains were subsequently disinfected and refurbished. I wouldn't have included this trivial news item, weren't it for the fact that the Thai tourism minister and a so-called expert from a leading university pointed the finger at foreign tourists. According to them, backpackers were responsible for the infestation because (a) they might pick up the bugs when going on a trek and (b) they don't like to wash and often go without a bath for days, thus attracting the bugs. This is of course total nonsense and proved yet again that many Thais don't have a very high opinion of anyone who isn't Thai. Shame on them!
For more photos of Thailand and the rest of the world, you can visit my photopage on Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/philiproeland.