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A year isolated in Thailand, exploring the country’s lesser-known ancient cities from the Ayutthaya, Sukhothai, and Lanna Kingdoms.

A Brief Recap of 2020 in Thailand

The year 2020 is certainly unparalleled for most everybody in the world. Across the planet, every country went into varying extremes of lockdowns and restrictions in order to slow and turn the tide of what clearly became a pandemic far before it was acknowledged as such.

I had been in Thailand around the turn of the year, having just come back from a month-long family visit — the return flight of which forced me back into China  (a night in Chengdu) due to yet another ridiculous series of ticket changes from Expedia — but that’s another matter.

In Thailand, news from China began to leak out of the Coronavirus and early cases popped up in Thailand. Both my former coworkers in China and my girlfriend’s friends there were also giving us firsthand accounts of the extreme and sweeping measures their government had been taking. In one example.

Meanwhile, as the Thai government began reacting to COVID cases proliferating in Bangkok and spreading to the rest of the country, we were also dealing with the worst air pollution that northern Thailand had seen in decades. For those unaware, Chiang Mai and northern Thailand are plagued by a yearly haze caused by burning corps (and this year massive forest fires) around the Golden Triangle region. This creates a perpetual cloud of dark grey smoke that enshrouds Chiang Mai and forces most people to remain indoors except for the bare essentials.

Chiang Mai’s normal skyline vs smoky season in 2020.

So, when the Thai government began enforcing lockdowns in early March, we had already been homebound for over a month already due to the hazardous air quality outside. On top of that protective masks of any sort, even to protect from air pollution, had massive shortages due in large part to entire stock buyouts from Chinese residents travellers sending them back to China.

Thailand was one of the countries which, like Vietnam, Japan, China, and Taiwan, entirely locked down their border. At the beginning, not even Thai citizens were being allowed back in. To further discourage travel, foreigners within the country were granted an amnesty to their visas  — an issue in its own right that would cause much confusion and uncertainty later in the year — but kept many of us safe in the earliest months.

However, come June, Thailand had effectively rid itself of any virus transmission within its borders. While foreign entry was still banned with the exception of highly specific circumstances, domestic tourism was being encouraged by the government as a means to stimulate the economy, and the devastated tourism sector in particular.

This is where the visa situation became troublesome, and my visa had expired by this time — in fact, 2020 was the longest single duration I had ever spent in Thailand, including the time I had worked there between 2011-2013. Thailand had announced a visa amnesty effective until 31 July, but there was a heavy expectation that they would extend it, which they did end up announcing about 10-2 weeks before the expiration date. I already had plans arranged to leave Thailand for Europe, but this allowed me to stay for the time being.

This uncertain and shifting extension policy continued through the next few months until I had an exit date that I would not miss: a promise to my Mom that I would be home for Christmas. In the meantime, I made trips to corners of Thailand that I had never been to before and explored lesser-visited archaeological sites that will be posted to this website with all the detail and historical background they deserve.

In the meantime, here are my Top 5 Destinations of 2020:

5) Kanchanaburi

The Khwae River in Kanchanaburi
The Khwae River in Kanchanaburi

Kanchanaburi is “the old standby” — the forest and mountain retreat for a weekend trip from Bangkok or travelers who don’t have the time to get to Chiang Mai. It’s somewhere I’d been a number of times during the first 3 years I lived in Thailand as a makeshift weekend trip, the very first being during a Christmas holiday in 2012.

This year was my first time returning to Kanchanaburi since moving to Thailand, and also my first trip out of Chiang Mai since COVID restrictions had been lifted within Thailand. Needless, it was not the same lively tourist street it would have normally been. However, I wasn’t there to spend time in the town, but, like most people who visit Kanchanaburi, use it as a base to explore the western Thai countryside.

And, just as before, Kanchanaburi served this purpose perfectly. A room and car were easily accessible without needing to be in a big city and it was centrally located between 4 ancient cities (more actually, but didn’t have the time) that I was looking to see. However, if ancient history isn’t your cup of tea, there’s WW2 history and natural attractions all within a stone’s throw of this western frontier town.

4) Thung Saliam

Karst mountains on the Lampang-Sukhtothai border
Karst mountains on the Lampang-Sukhtothai border

One of the more enduring mysteries over the last year or so was the Lanna-Sukhothai Border Wall. I first encountered online photos of the random brick wall, which looked like a decaying city wall you might find along a street in Chiang Mai or Lamphun rather than in a forest. At first, I did expect it to be the wall of one of the lesser ancient Lanna Kingdom cities.

However, some digging into the translated conversations around the photos revealed it was actually a wall that marked the border between the Lanna Kingdom and Thailand’s more famous Sukhothai Kingdom. However, there was no mention as to an exact location, the closest being along the border between modern Lampang and Sukhothai provinces.

One of my first views of the ancient Lanna-Sukhothai border wall
One of my first views of the ancient Lanna-Sukhothai border wall

Eventually, this was narrowed down to Mae Mok, a district in the south of Lampang. However, the closest town of any substance to here was Thung Saliam, so that’s where we headed. And while I was finally able to find my ancient wall in the woods, the scenery around Thung Saliam itself made for a welcoming respite from other

3) Phrao

A mountain view in every direction in Phrao
A mountain view in every direction in Phrao

For me, Phrao was certainly one of the most scenic places in Thailand in recent me

The image of Phrao on a satellite map has always stood out to me since I began looking more closely into the history of Northern Thailand. While the cities in the north, from pre-Lanna times until now, have been built along riverways in mountain valleys, most of these were long, continuous valleys running north to south, with connections at low mountain passes few and far between.

The mountain valley of Phrao, however, is self-isolated, evoking images of a tranquil mountain valley — a la Shangri-La. To the west is the Ping River Valley leading south into Chiang Mai and Lamphun and to the east is the narrow valley housing Wiang Pa Pao.   

While Phrao is certainly no Shangri-La, it was certainly a pleasure to drive casually around (although hell to drive to from Wiang Pa Pao — I would strongly discourage anyone from taking that route).  Mountains surround you on all sides in this otherwise flat and fertile valley dotted with small villages and temples.

2) Phayao

Kwan Phayao (Phayao Lake) from the waterfront promenade
Kwan Phayao (Phayao Lake) from the waterfront promenade

More commonly called “That town with the lake”, Phayao is one of those cities that marks a spot on a map in Thailand and occasionally makes an appearance in Internet posts. But, it’s not often on the radar of most travelers in Thailand. That said, I have only ever heard good things from people who had been there.

Prior to this year, I had only been there on a bus ride to the Laotian border, and that was only to change buses.

This year’s visit to Phayao brought us to an empty, yet atmospheric lakeside hotel. A quick drive further into town and we were able to enjoy waterfront dining and a walk along the well-popularized lakeside promenade. Throw a little of the city’s ancient history on top, and this trip ended up being a very enjoyable one.

1) Phrae

The Phrae Old City from the northern city gate
The Phrae Old City from the northern city gate

While Chiang Saen still tops my list of favorite small towns in northern Thailand, Phrae runs a close second. I had first visited Phrae in 2012 as a 1-night stopover on my way to Laos. While I enjoyed a random walk through the town, I had little context for the historic significance of the town I was walking through — even to the point where I brushed off the couch-shaped earthen city wall that surrounds the almost 1000-year-old city.

This time around, the Old City of Phrae was my focus as I entered through the western city gate. Inside and outside of the Old City are numerous teak houses built in a traditional Northern Thai style, accompanied by temples that date back to the earliest years of the Lanna Kingdom. Walking through the Phrae Old City and a couple of the adjacent neighborhoods feels much more authentic than in Chiang Mai, Lamphun, or other northern cities. In some ways, it almost feels akin to walking around Colonial-era neighborhoods back in the US.

I spent an entire day walking through the Old City and still don’t feel that I saw everything, and was able to cap the day off with a friendly and hopping craft beer bar near the northern city gate. I only wish that Phrae had a museum to put more of their tangible history into context.

A full year in Thailand got me researching several places that I would not have otherwise. I hope to be sharing this information in fully fleshed-out archaeological travel guides this year, so please let me know what ones interest you most! Have you had any good or bad experiences in any of these places? What was your situation during 2020?

Leave a comment and let’s discuss!

Benjamin

Benjamin

Hi all, my name is Ben. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in archaeology and writing, pursuing a career in the latter. However, I never quite lost that fascination for archaeological theory. For the past 9 years, I’ve been living and travelling in Asia, documenting ancient sites and the peoples who built them, and then adapting them into practical archaeological travel information at PathsUnwritten.com.

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