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Thai Temples: Angkor to Chiang Mai


 
Next day, we chose a cross country route northwards from Siem Reap to the Thai border at O Smach. We went 50 km along one route which looked good on the map, but it turned out to be longer and less interesting than we had hoped; so we backtracked to Siem Reap and started again, leaving town westwards on Route 6.

At the small town of Puok, where the lively market was in full swing, we turned right on to a very nice gravel road, Route 202, narrow but straight and smooth, across well worked farmland and through attractive traditional villages. In Angkor Chum, we saw a large hoarding proclaiming “We no longer need weapons” and illustrating the benefits of peace and prosperity.
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Swords into ploughshares for a ravaged country: hoarding at Angkor Chum

A little further north, we passed another, smaller, ancient Khmer bridge; this, too, carried the modern highway until recently. The gravel became a little rougher for a few kilometres until, at Moung, we emerged on Route 68. We drove back south to Route 6 at Kralanh, to check this ostensibly better alternative, but found that it was unpleasant gravel. North of Moung, Route 6 was being widened to a lovely smooth gravel motorway. (The main roads in Cambodia are all being improved by various foreign governments, as a form of aid to this ravaged country.)

As we approached the frontier the road deteriorated to rough gravel, climbing up through a series of hairpin bends. The town of O Smach has a real African look, forlorn houses and red earth strung out along a half abandoned dual carriageway. After some toing and froing, we found the Customs office, but had to wait for the senior official to be summoned from the barber shop to get our Carnet de Passages stamped, before moving 500 metres on to the border post proper.

There are two more casino hotels for the Thais here. We thought of stopping the night in one, but the reception staff (and the parking attendant) were very rude and the place was noisy and crowded, so we continued to a nearby town in Thailand instead.

What a contrast: third world to first. It was nice to be back on Thailand’s wonderfully engineered, well signposted roads, although we had to readjust to driving on the left - we had been driving on the right in Cambodia.

(Of our seven countries, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand drive on the left, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and China on the right, so we switch sides three times. Our Mitzi is left-hand drive, so in Singapore we had had to put a sign to this effect on the rear.)

Here, we met up again with our previous Thai interpreter, the amusing and resourceful Tommy. Next morning, we took a route westwards on minor roads - some of them good gravel - visiting a number of fine Khmer temples, of which the most famous were Muang Tam and Phnom Rung. The first of these is a lovely complex with some fine carvings, immaculately maintained by the Thai authorities; while Phnom Rung is an architectural masterpiece atop an extinct volcano, reached up a long flight of ceremonial steps (you can drive if you prefer!) We had a good snack at the information centre near the bottom of the steps.
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Muang Tam temple

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Phnom Rung: ceremonial way

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Phnom Rung: superb lintel carving


Further on, the main Route 24 is lined with colourful displays of flowering shrubs. Later, we drive through a “pottery village”, where the highway runs between huge displays of porcelain: vases, statues, you name it. We stay the night in a city with two names: formally, it’s Nakhon Rachasima, but everyone uses the shorter old name of Korat. Our hotel, the Dusit Princess, is nice and comfortable.

Next day, we retrace our steps to the edge of town, then take a cross country route, much of it on smooth but narrow gravel roads twisting through a fertile plain, to the small city of Phimai. Here, there is yet another fine temple complex; a beautiful and peaceful place to visit. Just outside town is another curiosity, a low banyan tree that has put down many roots beside a lake, covering a large area.
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Phimai temple

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That’s just one banyan tree!


We then head north west across country using a variety of roads, from national highways (not many of these) to gravel tracks, at first across the plain then rising into hills. We pause at a fine viewpoint, resisting the temptation of little fried frogs on a stick.
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Frogs, anyone


For 45 km we take a lovely jeep trail, only 9 km of which are a little rough, winding through remote hills, with beautiful views. (As always, there’s a quicker, smoother option for those of a nervous disposition.)

On one of the many roads we recced, a new bridge was being built; we tried the ford being used by construction traffic, hubristically ignoring the navvies waving us back... and got seriously bogged down in a muddy river bottom. Fortunately the workforce had not taken umbrage at being so cavalierly ignored by these stupid gringos, and swiftly rustled up a big excavator to haul us out.
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Tommy directs rescue operations


After bypassing Phetchabun, we head for the hills again, this time on good asphalt, twisting up to Khao Kho mountain, scene of fierce fighting in the civil war of the mid-20th century, and home to the King’s summer Pavilion, whose gardens can be visited.
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The King’s summer Pavilion


Finally, after much back-tracking, we arrive at the event’s hotel, the Sappraiwan Grand, a pleasant forest resort, to be greeted by a group of happy young elephants, shaking and nodding their heads in contentment as their keeper hoses them down.
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Elephants at our hotel, enjoying a shower


More elephants the next day, but not immediately. First we visit one of Thailand’s most important sites, the ancient city of Sukothai, home once to maybe 300,000 people, and still to a very impressive collection of giant Buddhas and of chedis, the bell-shaped temple buildings so characteristic of Thailand. Fortunately for us it is possible to drive round the lovely site on a network of roads, all duly plotted in the road book.
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Old Sukothai

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One of many beautiful Buddhas at Sukothai


Only half an hour’s drive north, on a quiet secondary road, is another historic site, Si Satchanalai, best visited on a short, 15-minute drive round. I recommend the simple restaurant here. But we dare not hang around too long - the elephants are waiting!

After a pleasant drive on quiet roads through the hills, we reach one of Thailand’s finest historic temples, the Wat Phra That Lampang Luang. This is a complex of fine old buildings, mainly wooden and brightly decorated. Don’t miss this one, even if you are feeling by now a little templed-out.
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Lions guard the gate of the Wat Phra That Lampang Luang

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The wonderful old temple complex


At last we join the main Route 11, and are swiftly at our main destination of the day, the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre. Here we enjoy a show of elephants doing, not unnatural circus tricks, but the tasks that would be part of their daily work routine, such as hauling and lifting logs; although they do have a couple who paint pictures. It was Joanna’s birthday, so I bought one for her.
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Raising the mahout’s hat...

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... and hauling logs


Other delights to see are the manufacture of elephant dung paper and packaging, and the elephant hospital, where injured working animals are treated. Elephant rides are also available. After, we meet the management, who agree to put on a special show for us at the abnormal time of 3.00 pm on the day of our visit. Don’t be late!
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Making paper from elephant dung


From here (even allowing for a funeral procession crossing the expressway), it’s just a quick drive into northern Thailand’s principal city, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site: Chiang Mai.
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Hold up for funeral procession

The first place we come to is our hotel, The Chedi. We have stayed in some good pubs on our events, and I have to say that The Chedi is right up there among the finest. It is a low modern building on a river bank, built around what was once the British Consulate. The rooms are stunning, as is the food.

Next morning we take the car out early to plot a route around the old city. This lies within a great moat, and is built on a grid plan. Chiang Mai’s chief glory is its wats, or temples. There are dozens of these, of which seven or eight are outstanding. We devise a convoluted 11 km drive that takes in the finest. I recommend doing this very early in the morning.
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Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai

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Gilding statues

The event stays three nights in The Chedi. On the second day, you can chill out or take a short excursion, but the adventurous among us will not pass up the possibility of tackling the famous Mai Hong Son mountain road loop, including a visit to the highest point of our route (and of Thailand), the 2,565m (8,413ft) Doi Ithanon.

The main loop is now all tarred, but we have added a couple of spicy titbits. First, instead of taking the tourist road up to Doi Ithanon, we found a great 45 km back road up into the National Park. This passes through rice paddies, then follows a mountain river upstream, where you can swim or take a white water raft ride. Further up, there are wonderful mountain views and a short stretch of steep gravel. When we finally got there, though, Doi Ithanon itself was unfortunately shrouded in mist.
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Traditional scene

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A good place to cool off...

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... or go rafting


The road after Doi Ithanon was 150km of superb mountain driving on quiet secondary roads through wonderful scenery. We take a tarred side road to Mae Surin Falls, visible across the valley, from which a very enjoyable tortuous and narrow gravel mountain road takes us out to the main Route 108. Fine views here, too, especially where this route passes through the famous sunflower fields (which sadly will not be in bloom when we go through).
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Mae Surin Falls


Having taken so much time exploring the various options, we were running very late. We were clearly not even going to get to Mae Hong Son by nightfall, and started worrying about where to stay. As sometimes happens on these occasions, we stumbled across a beautiful little mountain resort at Mae Chaem, with excellent food and conversation.

The twistiest parts of the main loop lie between Mae Hong Son and Pa. They are fun, but I think better roads are to come later in the event. Watch this space. The whole day is 550km. This is more manageable than we had feared it might be, because the main roads are not as slow as we had imagined, but it still calls for an early start.

It’s scenic mountain driving all the way to Hanoi now.

John Brown



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