Uncovering Thailand's ancient secrets by rail

We take the railway on a magical history tour of Thailand’s ancient capitals of Ayutthaya, Sukhothai and Chiang Mai in search of a mystical past hidden from the crowds

Train in Thailand

The Bangkok to Chiang Mai train on the platform in Chiang Mai railway station, built in 1922

The Bangkok to Chiang Mai train on the platform in Chiang Mai railway station, built in 1922

On the edge of the forest, beyond the pagodas and giant buddhas of the ancient ruins of Sukhothai, lost in gnarled roots and tangled vines, was a midden of ancient rubble. It was almost indistinguishable from the fallen leaves – a small mound like a tiny long-barrow.

Just for curiosity I rooted around with my feet, clearing a patch of vegetation and stones. Half-submerged in soil, I saw what looked like a piece of broken plant pot. I pulled it out. It was a small disc, with tiny, molded feet. Worms and nematodes, moss and liverworts had created a pattern of intricate tracery across its surface. Rain wash from the soil was so deeply soaked-in that it had left organic, stippled stains.

“Let me see that,” said Khun Thakham, looking surprised. I handed it to the guide, who carefully examined the object in her hands.

“Do you know what this is?”

I shook my head.

“It’s an ancient firing stand. It was made for a porcelain celadon vase to sit on as it hardened – some-700 years ago. This rubble must be the ruins of a kiln.”

She looked towards me, turning the disc in her hand like it was a precious object.

“It seems your search for Thailand’s secrets is paying off. The vase this forgotten stand was made for would have been a real treasure – hardened by temperatures hotter than a volcano; jade green; covered in peony-flower patterns, its porcelain as smooth and polished as a jewel...

It perhaps would have been sent to China, to Angkor or even the court of the Siamese king himself.”

I looked at the little disc – a relic of a glorious past in a city of ruined buildings, buried for centuries. When this stand was made, I thought, Asia ruled the world. And Thailand was at its cutting edge – in an age when Europe was making crude, hand-shaped pots.

I was in Sukhothai – ancient capital city of Thailand until AD1365. And as Khun Thakham said, I was here to unearth secrets. Even after two decades of travelling through the country, on countless visits, Thailand was still largely inscrutable to me. “Thailand,” a friend once told me, “is a mirror,” reflecting visitors’ expectations: of spas and plunge-pools-with-a-view, sizzling woks and silks, full-moon parties and banana pancakes on the beach… And of more tawdry dreams. But it reveals little of its own inner self, of the magic and mystery, the religion and royal history, which are fundamental to its real identity.

Distracted by the mirror of their own expectations and the disarming Thai smile, foreigners – or farangs as they are called locally – see exactly what the Thai wish them to see. Few visitors barely seem to notice the magical symbols that every other Thai person wears around their neck; they barely give a second thought to the strange rituals that take place hourly in temples the mix of religion and reverence afforded to the king, whose portrait hangs everywhere. And the Thai are happy to keep it that way, deftly avoiding questions about the royal family, Buddhism and that most secret side of all – Thai magic.

But I wanted to find out more. On this visit, I reflected on the Skytrain in from the airport, I would delve deeper. I would take the railway through Thailand’s history, this more social, intimate form of travel being all the better to uncover Thailand’s identity and secrets. My seven-day route would wind me north through Thailand’s ancient capitals: Ayutthaya, Sukhothai and Chiang Mai. And it begins where all Thai journeys begin: in Bangkok.

Bangkok

So my first visit, the next morning was to the City Pillar; a true Bangkok secret. Few tourists even know of its existence. It is a passing reference in guidebooks; a sight absent from ‘must see’ lists. Yet it is the spiritual locus of the city. And it lies in the heart of Bangkok’s oldest, most distinguished district – Rattanakosin. Once part of a river archipelago, this is the area that gave Thailand’s capital its name (Bang Ko means ‘the village on an island in a stream’), or so I thought. Later that day, I would discover that even Bangkok’s name is a secret.

The Pillar is secreted away inside a prosaic shrine beside the busy Ratchadamnoen Nai dual carriageway, a block from the river. When I stepped inside, the air was heavy with incense and the atmosphere as strange and occult as a ouija board. In the centre of the lowly-lit room was a giant golden staff. Locals knelt reverently before it – chanting quietly. I felt a tingle in my belly, a sense of danger – as if I’d chanced upon some mysterious masonic ritual after opening a door I shouldn’t in an ancient mansion house. A woman looked around at me – bewildered to see a farang here. In one of the world’s most tourist-visited cities.
Later as I was leaving, she followed me and beckoned me over. She asked why was I visiting the City Pillar? Why had I knelt before it like local people do? She was impressed that I had taken the trouble. I told her of my quest to discover secret Thailand. She looked pleased.

“You know why this was built?” she asked. I said I didn’t.

“In the 18th Century,” she said, “Thailand – or Siam as it then was – was destroyed by the Burmese. Their army tore down the royal city of Ayutthaya – in those days Ayutthaya was the wonder of South-East Asia. The Thai king Thaksin fled here for his life. Back then it was just a swamp next to a river, with a small village called Thonburi – right over there.” She pointed towards the river, “on the far bank.”

“The king brought his most ambitious general with him, who took power when Thaksin died and declared himself a God. He even took the name Rama and shrouded himself in old magic. His dynasty, which rules to this day, is called the Chakri – it’s a name for a kind of energy. And beginning right here at the City Pillar, from the spiritual ashes of Ayutthaya, Rama built a new capital for his dynasty, determined that it would be the most splendid in Asia.”

She came closer to me and whispered, “Bangkok is a nickname for farangs, the city’s real name is [locally abbreviated to] Krungthep. It means ‘the City of Angels and Immortals, the Magnificent City of the Nine Gems.’ Some people say that magicians placed the body of a baby who died in childbirth, covered in gold leaf under the City pillar, trapping its soul in a spell, to bring prosperity and wealth to Krungthep…”

Then the old woman told me about the next building that Rama constructed in his new city. And it too was magical. King Rama, she said, cast the most powerful spell of all when he built the Temple of the Emerald Buddha – the power amulet of Thailand.
“Go and see it, farang,” she said. “It’s still there at the end of this road: The holy Emerald Buddha – filled with great presence and sitting in the heart of Rama’s royal temple, Wat Phra Kaew. But don’t just look at it like you farangs do. Feel it…”

The City Pillar felt secret. But there were tourists by the bus load at Wat Phra Kaew.

The long queue to the Emerald Buddha chapel wound past fanged temple guardians and winged angels that shimmered in the hot sun. Finally I reached the building – glistering with mosaics and dark and mysterious inside. I stepped quietly in, determined to feel and not just see – like the old woman said. Despite the throng, there was a stillness to the room; a presence. The Buddha sat lambent; a glowing focus of energy, on an ornate altar under a gilt umbrella, clothed in an exquisite cape of filigree gold. I felt that tingle again as I gazed at it, hypnotised. Then another tourist prodded me in the back. “We all want to see it,” he said, ushering me on.

The entrance to City Pillar

Through the doors of enlightenment The 18th century entrance to Bangkok’s City Pillar, using chofa finials and lotus-bud motifs. Chofas symbolise the head of garuda (the vehicle of Vishnu), while lotuses symbolise Bodhi – the awakening of consciousness

Through the doors of enlightenment The 18th century entrance to Bangkok’s City Pillar, using chofa finials and lotus-bud motifs. Chofas symbolise the head of garuda (the vehicle of Vishnu), while lotuses symbolise Bodhi – the awakening of consciousness

Inside City Pillar in Bangkok

Erected in 1782, Bangkok’s City Pillar is made of acacia wood, encased in solid gold – it also contains the city’s horoscope

Erected in 1782, Bangkok’s City Pillar is made of acacia wood, encased in solid gold – it also contains the city’s horoscope

Monument in Bangkok

A yaksha (nature spirits who guard and protect holy places) on the Phra Suvarnachedi at Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok

A yaksha (nature spirits who guard and protect holy places) on the Phra Suvarnachedi at Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok

Buddha statue

A Buddha sitting in the ‘Earth witness’ mudra (pose) on the side of the temple of the Emerald Buddha, Wat Phra Kaew

A Buddha sitting in the ‘Earth witness’ mudra (pose) on the side of the temple of the Emerald Buddha, Wat Phra Kaew

Ayutthaya & Sukhothai

Chedis at Wat Phra Sri Sanphet in Ayutthaya

Chedis at Wat Phra Sri Sanphet, Ayutthaya, once the city’s most important Buddhist monastery and the model for Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok

Chedis at Wat Phra Sri Sanphet, Ayutthaya, once the city’s most important Buddhist monastery and the model for Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok

Buddha statue surrounded by tree roots

A Buddha statue surrounded by the roots of a strangler fig tree at 14th century Wat Mahathat, Ayutthaya

A Buddha statue surrounded by the roots of a strangler fig tree at 14th century Wat Mahathat, Ayutthaya

Woman kneeling in front of buddha statue

A young Thai kneels in front of the 42m-long reclining Buddha at Wat Lokkaya Sutharam, Ayutthaya

A young Thai kneels in front of the 42m-long reclining Buddha at Wat Lokkaya Sutharam, Ayutthaya

The ruins of 17th Century Wat Chaiwatthanaram, built by King Prasat Thong as a memorial to his mother. Chedis built in this style – similar to the Khmer temples of Angkor Wat

The ruins of 17th Century Wat Chaiwatthanaram, built by King Prasat Thong as a memorial to his mother. Chedis built in this style – similar to the Khmer temples of Angkor Wat

The next day I began my railway journey in earnest; catching a tuk-tuk through the rushing streets of Chinatown to Hualamphong station in old Bangkok. The concourse was bustling with commuters, backpackers on their way to Chiang Mai and big groups of laughing, saffron-robed monks. I bought a ticket for the price of a sandwich back home and sat in front of a smiling Thai couple who shared their spring rolls with me as we clack-clacked out of Bangkok into a rural landscape of rice paddies and farms.
We reached Ayutthaya, my next ancient capital, after a couple of slow, meditative hours. Even under the bright sun it felt like a sombre place. Wandering the crumbling brick ruins, I couldn’t help thinking about the ruin of Thaksin’s city, of the columns of slaves being marched into Burma in 1767, of the temples set alight and the buddhas sawn-up and looted for gold.

Now children played around the crumbling brick chedis, that processed like giant resting bells through avenues of crumbling brick. Royal courtiers had once walked along them – when they were shaded, open-sided corridors – bringing European ambassadors to the king, to bow and ask for access to wealthy Ayutthaya’s silk, spice and ivory trade. There were still signs of living mystery and reverence: locals dressed in white were bowing and chanting before an ancient Buddha face – wrapped in a tangle of fig-tree roots in the ruins of the ancient temple of Wat Mahathat.

I watched the sun sink orange over the river, silhouetting Ayutthaya’s chedis, heralding huge flocks of bats that fluttered through the trees. If Bangkok had been a glorious reclaiming of national spirit, I thought, Ayutthaya’s solemn ruins spoke of the crisis that preceded it; of the reduction of Thai identity and culture to rubble. Of loss. Of mourning. I wondered if this one of the reasons that the Thai were so reticent; perhaps this was why they didn’t trust foreigners with their secrets?

Late that night, it was dark and still on the station platform. A man slept on a rough concrete bench. Moths whirled around the station lamps. At the far end of the station, a group of students were silently glued to their phones, their faces lit by a spectral white glow from the screens. In the small hours, I finally saw the glowing eyes of an approaching train in the distance. It rattled into the station, shattering the quiet of the night in a screech of brakes. I clambered into my carriage and my couchette, trying not to wake passengers snoring under light blankets and collapsed into sleep.

In the buttery early morning light, low sun shafting through the windows, the carriage was a happier place. Uniformed waiters brought hot trays of eggs and noodles. Backpackers laughed with locals. A couple played a game of cards on the lino seats.

It was still early when we reached Phitsanulok and I was the only foreigner to get off the train. So the guide I’d booked-ahead found me easily, introducing herself as Khun Thakham and whisked me to a waiting cab for the short ride to Sukhothai.

Unlike Ayutthaya, Sukhothai was far from sombre. Although ancient and jungle covered, it was glorious. Buddhas, sat serene over pools of lotus flowers. One hidden behind a V-shaped arch inside a temple, was as tall as a London building. I reached up and touched its hand, which shone with gold leaf, pressed into its fingers from thousands of adoring hands, over centuries. The ancient kiln, where Khun Thakham told me the secret of the celadon vase stand was a short stroll from the statue.

Back on the train that afternoon, on the way to Chiang Mai, after the usual small talk about football and Netflix, I asked Khun Thakham about Thai magic. Did people still believe in the protective power of amulets?

“Of course,” she said smiling and pulling an amulet from inside her shirt. It looked as ancient as the celadon vase stand – a Buddha carved into clay sitting under a Bodhi tree. His features were gone, so were the leaves on the tree - worn down by centuries of fingers.

“It brings you luck?” I asked.

“These amulets do more than that,” she replied. “They save lives.” And she told me about a friend of hers who walked away from a car crash which crushed her vehicle – without a bruise or a scratch.

“She wore an amulet just like this one,” said Khun Thakham, her smiley face now serious and earnest.

Chiang Mai

Sukhothai had seemed almost tourist-free but Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second city and the final stop on my tour of its ancient capitals, was rushing with traffic and visitors. Over the following few days, we visited Doi Suthep – a gold-covered temple on a forest-swathed hill – and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, one of the city’s holiest shrines, built around the ruins of a giant stone chedi, with elephants at each corner. In the 15th Century, Khun Thakham explained to me, the Emerald Buddha was kept here in a niche in the great stupa, which rose over 50 metres, dominating the city skyline. One night it dramatically collapsed, but the Buddha survived completely unscathed.

On my final morning Khun Thakham said she had a treat for me – another secret to share. She picked me up before dawn and we sped through Chiang Mai’s empty streets, out of the city and into the forest surrounds. The tuk-tuk drove up a dirt track, just as the sun began to rise. All around us were tall rainforest trees, thousands of birds twittering.

A troop of macaques groomed each other next to the road. Then the forest cleared and I saw a temple and monks outside. They were holding bowls for the morning alms-walk – a tradition as old as Thailand itself, according to Khun Thakham. She handed me some beetroot-red mangosteens that I placed inside one of the monk’s bowls.

Then the monks led us to the main temple.

“Now we meditate,” said Khun Thakham.

“Concentrate on the breath,” she told me quietly as we all sat down, cross-legged, “draw it in through the nose very slow, fill the belly, the lungs, the top of the lungs, then out, the same way... notice the rhythm of your breath only, let thoughts evaporate away.”

And I did so, and when I opened my eyes after what might have been an hour or a few minutes, I felt alive, renewed. The colours seemed richer – the orange of the monks’ robes, the greens of the leaves all around, the brilliant blues of butterflies. A novice handed me water, looking into my eyes with warmth and genuine friendliness. The air itself seemed filled with vibrant energy. Khun Thakham smiled, laughed.

“This is the greatest ancient magic of Thailand,” she said, holding my hand. “Vipassana – the meditation of noticing. It’s my gift to you – a secret from ancient Thailand that you can take with you wherever you are in the world. A secret that you will never forget.”

The doorway to Wat Chedi Luang’s prayer hall

The doorway to Wat Chedi Luang’s prayer hall, Chiang Mai, is straddled by naga serpents – symbols of water and of the sacred magical energy which infuses living things;

The doorway to Wat Chedi Luang’s prayer hall, Chiang Mai, is straddled by naga serpents – symbols of water and of the sacred magical energy which infuses living things;

Buddhist monks peforming ritual

Buddhist monks receiving alms – a daily ritual played out just after dawn, for millennia

Buddhist monks receiving alms – a daily ritual played out just after dawn, for millennia

Monks performing ritual in Doi Suthep

Buddhist monks perform meditation rituals during evening prayers at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a temple on Doi Suthep mountain near the city of Chiang Mai (Shutterstock)

Buddhist monks perform meditation rituals during evening prayers at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a temple on Doi Suthep mountain near the city of Chiang Mai (Shutterstock)

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