If you have ever been to Thailand, you know how hard it must be to experience real Thailand, without tourist masses and touts. Everywhere you go, you are surrounded by tourists and nosy sellers, who want to sell you everything valuable.
As an avid traveller, I prefer to avoid tourist crowds and immerse myself in local culture. But in Thailand I was struggling a lot. Every place was flooded with tourists and lacked on local characteristcs. For it was like having a nightmare, until I reahed PHITSANULOK.
PHITSANULOK. A lot of visitors completely skip this small, but quaint town in central Thailand. The vistors, that do end up here, usually stay for a night, rushing to the next tourist destination the next day.
I first heard about Phitsanulok in a minivan, when two Spanish travellers were sharing their travel plans with me. I didn't know why, but my curiosity was piqued and I decided to pay this ancient town a visit!
Although it was shortly after 6 p.m. when I reached the station in Phitsanulok, it was already getting dark and I was happy there was no more travelling waiting for me on that day. Just as I was leaving the station, I noticed a huge marketplace with delicious street food stalls. I knew immediately that I will stay for more than one night in this place. The night market was opened every day from 5 p.m. until midnight., offering all kinds of delicious foods: noodles, vegetables, fruits, insects, fried snacks, skewers and desserts. In Phitsanulok I was able to find a small and cozy room, not far away from the train station. The owner of the hostel is Mark, whom I should be thankful for enhancing my experience in Phitsanulok. Mark showed me many "hidden gems" and explained a lot about Thai culture.
He introduced me to several historical sites; one of them was giant Buddha statue, just one hour bus ride to the eastern part of the country. In his words, the statue is completely devoid of foreign tourists and the most impressive in whole Thailand. And there is no entrance fee! I couldn't believe. Just what I was looking for. I needed to see this as soon as possible. Mark even advised me to hitchhike on the way back - it's very safe in Thailand. You will save some money and experience Thai hospitality.
Just as I was ascending the hill, where the statue was supposed to be located, I was blown away. Right in front of my eyes, this wonder started to appear:
I don't know if you can imagine the actual size of this giant Buddha, but this photo was taken from another temple, located several metres from the statue. And Mark was right: no foreign tourists and no entrance fee. Unbelievable! The whole place was quite mysterious - all of a sudden, clouds started to roll in, wrapping the whole statue into a fog. As if the weather was trying to hide this grandiose from outer world.
Thanks to Mark, my stay in Phitsanulok couldn't be more authentic as it was. One afternoon he invited me to join him in local Thai sauna.
It's very funny and interesting, he said. Nothing what you expect.
But I don't have swimming suits, I replied straight away.
You don't need them. Just take something light, because you will sweat.
That must be interesting, I thought. And so I went.
Going to sauna in Thailand is completely different than going to sauna in Europe or other parts in the world. This sauna was part of temple, operated and maintained by monks, who lived there. It opened in the late afternoon and it was favourite pastime of Thai people. People didn't come here just to sweat and have their bodies circulated, but to play traditional games, drink tea, chat, eat snacks and exchange news.
The sauna was also gender segregated, separated by concrete wall in the middle. It was just a tiny room with benches on both sides. Due to the lack of space some women were also sitting on the floor.
Upon entering the sauna, I started to notice the difference in the air. It was very suffocating and humid inside and I thought I would die inside. Some women rolled up their sleeves and pants, enabling the skin to breath with ease. I thought I will boil inside. I was sweating all over and had troubles with breathing. I thought everyone could hear my gasping, but the women inside were engaged in some interesting conversation, not noticing there is a foreigner among them.
During half an hour that I spent there, I had to leave for several times, just to get some fresh air from outside.
Although the whole experience was tough for me, I would repeat it again. And I felt so rejuvenated after it!