I always thought that one of the great delights when travelling was to stumble across somewhere or something which was totally unexpected and which, at the fear of sounding dated, totally blew my mind.
Perhaps my first major experience of this was in 1972 (which is now almost 50 years ago!) when I spent almost two months travelling through central Asia across Turkey and Iran, through Afghanistan, the Khyber Pass and Pakistan to India. Parts of the journey were exhilarating, parts were tiring but at the back of my mind was the fact that when we reached India we would visit the famous Taj Mahal at Agra. Together with the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building one of the most famous landmarks in the world and certainly one of the most beautiful.
And yet when I reached Agra? Yes I was impressed but far from overwhelmed.
Now put aside the fact that I have always been ‘a glass third empty rather than two thirds full’ kind of guy, this was a perfect example of the fact that it is better to travel than arrive! Or, as so many men have discovered, the joys of chasing a beautiful woman when one’s imagination runs riot is often more rewarding than actually meeting her! (And to allay any sexist comments I am sure this analogy works equally well in reverse – it just happens I am writing as a man).
And back in 1972, a few days after leaving Agra, I arrived at the much less well known ancient ruins at Khajuraho in Northern India. In this searingly hot dry desert landscape I discovered the ruins of 25 Hindu temples dating from the 9th to 11th centuries, many embellished with intricate and erotic sculpture.
It was by far the most impressive sight I had visited on my journey though Europe and Asia. I found it overwhelming and despite the heat of 40 degrees centigrade plus, could not get enough of exploring these incredible temples, which are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Of course the reality was it was always unlikely that the Taj Mahal could surprise me and meet my expectations when I was already so familiar with its features and history. By contrast I knew hardly anything about Khajuraho, which had the additional advantage of surprise and so my response and pleasure was heightened.
In recent years I can think of some similar situations.
In 2006 I was fortunate to visit three of the world’s great monuments in the same year when I walked the Inca Trail in Peru to arrive at Machu Pichu, stopped off in Egypt after climbing Kilimanjaro with my nephew Daniel and daughter Lisa and we visited the great Pyramids at Giza just outside Cairo, and then at the end of the year led a Charity group on a bicycle trek across Vietnam and Cambodia that culminated at Angkor Wat.
Of the three it was the spectacularly located Machu Pichu that I had long been keen to visit, but it was the collection of temples in the jungle around Angkor Wat in Cambodia that so impressed me I returned for a second visit just a few weeks later.
And as well as places that perhaps fail to meet one’s expectations like a movie where you are expecting too much after reading too many positive reviews, there are places you just happen across and which provide so much pleasure to discover and explore, partly because the pleasure is exaggerated by being unexpected.
Again I can think of two examples in recent years.
In 2016 together with my wife Sharron and friends Brian and Judy, we made a day drive from their home in Coffs Harbour NSW in Australia. We happened to come across the Dorrigo Railway ‘Museum’.
Totally unexpected and set on the Dorrigo Plateau surrounded by lush rainforest and a dairy farming area, we discovered an eclectic collection of some 45 steam locomotives, 30 diesel locomotives and some 280 carriages and wagons standing on several kilometers of railway track laid out parallel in the middle of nowhere. These had been collected by an eccentric railway enthusiast from all over Australia and had been long awaiting government permission to open as a Museum.
It was one of the most unexpected and bizarre sights I had ever discovered and within two years I was again similarly impressed, when I was staying in the ancient capital of Hue in Vietnam with my friend Ampai and brother in law Wayne. In an obscure online travel guide I saw a reference to the nearby and fairly recently built City of Tombs just outside the city at nearby An Bang.
We were the only visitors at a complex of huge and ornately decorated tombs and vaults, most the size of a large house, and spread over several square kilometers. I had and have never seen anything like it and I wandered around repeating
‘This is unbelievable’
‘I dont believe this’.
Indeed you can read about my visit and view a photo essay on An Bang here .
The reason I am recounting these tales is because a few weeks ago here in Thailand it was Thai New Year or Songkran. Most of the annual celebrations and festivals were cancelled because of a renewed Covid-19 outbreak of far greater severity than last year, but the government decided it was too late to forbid travelling over Songkran for the second successive year, as traditionally this is when most Thais leave the big cities and return to their villages of birth to visit and celebrate Songkran with their families.
And as predicted this decision has come back to haunt the government, with a rapid escalation and spread of the pandemic since mid April, allied by a non existent mass vaccination program that is yet to begin.
Most of Pattaya was and is ‘closed’ and Ampai and I did not want to risk the carnage on the roads, which is also unfortunately an annual by product of too many tired and drunk drivers on the road over the Songkran period, so we decided we would go to the Pak Chong area.
We found two well reviewed riverside boutique resorts online (obviously set up to cater for affluent Bangkok residents) and indeed both were still open, almost empty and within close proximity of one of Thailand’s most famous and most visited National Parks at Khao Yai which was also still open.
We stayed 5 nights at the Ndol Streamside Thai Villas near Muak Lek doing not very much at all which was after all the object of the exercise. We had a pleasant surprise when my dentist and friend Preecha turned up unexpectedly together with his girlfriend Saibua. Preecha enjoys driving and so had made the three and a half hour drive from Pattaya to buy some roses from an orchard in Pak Chong for his garden and they then surprised us by visiting us in our hotel. We made an afternoon visit to the nearby Namtok Chet Saonoi National Park and followed the Nature Trail visiting 7 waterfalls. Preecha and Saibua contemplated staying overnight at our hotel but in the end they decided to return to Pattaya late afternoon to feed their cats!
The following day Ampai and I dodged the rain showers to visit the Pasak Chonlasit Dam and then the day after that we relocated to the Watermill Resort located close to the road from Pak Chong to Khao Yai National Park.
After two days relaxing by the river we decided to head off and explore the approaches to the Park and the many hotels and resorts located on the main road confirmed that this was indeed a popular area for visitors from Bangkok and there were also several residential developments in what was quite an attractive and scenic area.
As we drove along we spotted a sign indicating that the large building at the entrance to what looked like an up market housing development was an Art Museum.
I was momentarily confused because we were aware of the existence of a Khao Yai Art Museum close to Pak Chong which apparently contained an impressive collection of sculpture and Thai paintings but we had called the museum and been advised it was temporarily closed because of Covid-19.
I assumed that was another ‘Lost in Translation’ moment and in fact this was the Museum which was indeed open, but when we parked and went to have a look we learnt this was the ‘129 Art Museum’, a different and separate museum.
By Thai standards the admission was not cheap, with an entry fee of about £13/US$17 for foreigners and £2.50/$3.30 for Thais.
The dual pricing annoys many foreigners but if a foreigner can afford to travel to or live in Thailand I think they can afford to make a higher contribution to Parks and Museums so it has never really bothered me.
I am not a connoisseur of Art but I have collected Art Deco sculpture for 30 years and do try and visit Galleries and Museums when I travel and I have a number of art reference books all bought with good intentions to further my knowledge of Art and mainly unread!
And indeed one of the first things I did after selling Casterbridge Tours in 2011 was to buy a large shop in the UK and establish a gallery to display some of my own mountain and landscape photography.
After entering and paying the admission, we were advised the paintings and exhibits were displayed over four floors with a lower floor, ground floor and two upper floors. I was permitted to take pictures without a flash but not in the basement floor.
It did not take long to realise this was a serious Museum and comprised of Yaovanee Nirandara’s private collection of artworks accumulated over 3 decades and contained both masterpieces by Thai artists of national renown both alive and deceased as well as rotating exhibitions of contemporary work by young up and coming Thai artists.
As I walked around I could not help but think that this was not only a labour of love but that the museum also represented a massive investment.
As well as many hundreds of beautifully framed pieces of art representing many genres, this was a purpose built property which was finished to a high standard and there were extensive display areas complemented with outstanding lighting to best showcase the exhibits.
I was somewhat bemused as to ‘Why is this Museum located here?’ as this was the type of gallery one expected to find in a vibrant international city like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore but I later learnt the owner was motivated to share her enthusiasm for Thai art and preserve her collection centrally within Thailand as a centre to celebrate Thai Art and to be accessible to art lovers, students, educators and scholars.
Someone had clearly invested a lot of love, time and money in bringing this all together and it was all so unexpected as neither Travelfish, the excellent ‘go to’ travel website for South East Asia, Tripadvisor nor any of the other online resources I had used in planning our visit to Pak Chong and Khao Yai had made any mention of the 129 Art Museum!
This seemed to be an attraction that had indeed flown beneath the radar!
We started on the lower floor and I immediately noticed the ‘Toys’ area adjacent to the foot of the stairway. Possibly an attraction for younger folk?
Well Yes and No but either way behind never ending glass cabinets were hundreds of plastic futuristic fighting figures that looked as if they had stepped out of the set of the latest Star Wars film. And I mean hundreds and hundreds. They were not to my taste other than to admire the intricacy of the construction and imagination of the design and I could not help but calculate maybe 500 figures at $30 represented a $15,000 investment in model kits which is a long way from the Airfix model kits that I grew up assembling!
I could not have been more wrong as we will discover!
And when I reviewed the images I was allowed to take, I think there were between 700 and 900 models on display and each one represented many hours of assembly time!
We continued on and spent almost an hour on the lower floor where there were extensive collections of up to 20 works by many Thai artists who had painted throughout the last 150 years. I could not help but note many had lived and painted in Europe and the USA for parts of their lives and whilst my knowledge of Thai artists was obviously non existent, even my untrained eye could certainly admire the technical ability that was demonstrated in most of the exhibits.
Each work and the details of the artist was labelled in Thai and English and one original piece was accompanied by the open pages of an American History of Art that used that picture as an outstanding example of a particular period of Thai art.
There was even a Madoura Collection of original ceramic work by Pablo Picasso, perhaps not so rare, as Picasso was a prolific worker in ceramics but interesting nonetheless.
As we made our way up the stairs and explored the upper floors the focus was concentrated on Modern and Contemporary Art covering the last 50 years with sculpture, portraits, surrealistic landscapes all competing for my attention. I am aware that one’s reaction to contemporary art is very subjective and it is a rare work indeed that secures everyone’s approval but I have to say again I was so impressed with the content and range of exhibits and the imaginative way they were displayed.
I have no objection to contemporary Art and once accompanied Ampai to the Tate Modern in London which most people rave about but I was distinctly underwhelmed by most of the exhibits. Ampai however just said ‘waste of money – they should give money to poor people instead’ and told me she would wait outside!
However like me Ampai found most of the contemporary paintings and displays at the 129 Art Museum well worthy of review and examination.
We probably spent the best part of two hours wandering around and admiring everything on display. The Gallery Catalogue or Guidebook was like an Art Reference book and would not have been out of place in the bookshops of the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York such was its quality in regard to production and content.
We purchased a mug, Gallery catalogue and some art motif cushions at the small Gift Shop area and then decided to have a coffee in the beautifully situated restaurant area next door which overlooked the surrounding countryside.
Both of us were amazed that we had stumbled across such an interesting Museum and upon reflection I decided I wanted to go back and buy an additional two cushions.
Whilst the staff were getting additional stock from the storeroom, I began talking to what I assumed was a member of staff saying how impressed I was with both the Museum and the content. A couple were standing nearby and joined in the conversation and were obviously very familiar with the Museum and asked me if I had seen and noticed particular paintings (Yes) and if I spoke any Thai (No).
After a while the younger lady confirmed to me what I had begun to suspect ‘This is actually our owner Yaovanee Nirandara’.
I was pretty effuse with my admiration and congratulations and said I could not begin to conceive how much time and planning went into such a project because on a much more modest scale I had once opened my own Photography Gallery and I knew how much work was involved in such an enterprise, but this was the manifestation of a lifetime’s work, beautifully presented and indeed a legacy for a nation.
I told Yaovanee she should be really proud of what she had achieved by creating such a wonderful museum for her country and people but I wondered why it was outside Pak Chong rather than in central Bangkok and she said it was an area she loved and where she would like to live one day.
It turned out that 30 years ago she worked for the auction house Christies when they had an office and regular auctions in Bangkok, which I guess is where she initially developed her expertise and familiarity with Thai art and particular artists.
I subsequently did an online search and discovered she was clearly a member of the Thai establishment and well known patron of the Arts as a Board member of the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra and a committee member of the Bangkok Art and Culture foundation.
I could not resist commenting about the extensive collection of Robot figures in the lower floor display cabinets and how many thousands or rather tens of thousands of hours must have been spent in assembling them, let alone designing and commissioning the display cabinets.
Her husband smiled and said that was his hobby and indulgence!
Apparently they were all Gundam figures from Japan and rather than bore you here just look up ‘Gundam (fictional robot)’ in Wikopedia. Apparently Yaovanee’s husband was or is a doctor or surgeon in the Thai military and had made over 40 visits to Japan to buy Gundam figures,which he brought back to Thailand to assemble. I am now beginning to wonder where he stored them until his wife built the Museum!
And remember I was trying to estimate the cost of the figures?
Well $50 and significantly upwards appears to be the cost of the kits but the gold plated limited editions (of which there were three on display) start at $50,000!
I said I would have loved to have taken some pictures of the robot collection to show my family and they both insisted I go downstairs and take as many pictures as I wanted, but not before we discovered something else we had in common.
When looking at my business card and learning I was an Educational Tour Operator, Yaovanee advised me that she was a Board Member of a private school in Bangkok that often organised overseas tours!
And all the time this most enjoyable conversation was going on my phone was buzzing with a succession of messages from Ampai asking how long did it take to buy an additional cushion!
By the time I finally departed from the Museum for a second time the skies had opened and we were in the midst of a tropical downpour which gave no indication of letting up soon, so we decided to return to our nearby hotel after enjoying an unexpected and interesting visit to an attraction that we did not previously know existed.
However as it turned out that was not the only unexpected pleasure we were to discover on our visit to the Pak Chong area.
The following day we were joined by Shampoo, Ampai’s adopted 8 year old daughter who had been brought to our hotel by some friends from Ampai’s village who were returning to Bangkok after Songkran and we again decided we would head off towards Khao Yai National Park. After all we had already been 8 days in the vicinity of the main attraction responsible for bringing us to the area without coming close to the Park!
However the combination of a late departure and stops at a coffee shop and garden centre as well as the likelihood of late afternoon rain and only limited time in the Park meant we decided to turn around on the fringes of the Park and make a full visit during our return drive to Pattaya.
As we were driving back to our hotel, I spotted a sign to Wat Sri Chai Mongkol, a temple with a large figure of a seated Monk that I remembered had featured as an attraction of interest in all the guides to the Pak Chong area.
As we drove between lush fields of rice interspersed with wooden areas towards Wat Sri Chai Mongkol we saw another temple on our left and pulled over to take a picture as it looked rather Disneyesque with what looked like a collection of colourful buildings on top of a limestone hill or small mountain.
We learnt that this temple was named Wat Simalai Songtham and the deserted parking area was decorated with a variety of seated and reclining Buddha statutory in various states of repair and disrepair. There was also a lifesize statue of an elephant.
We decided the temple was worthy of further investigation and made our way through the trees towards the entrance area, passing stalls that in normal times would sell food, souvenirs and trinkets to visitors.
At the entrance a lone monk directed us towards an open passageway and we removed our shoes before entering, as is standard in any Thai temple.
We were quite literally entering an Aladdin’s Cave that started to ascend upwards inside the mountain and after a few minutes, Ampai suggested we leave our sandals at the entrance rather than carry them and quickly went back to deposit our footwear at the entrance.
Memo to any non Thais who may visit Wat Simalai Songtham in the future: Do not, repeat do not leave your footwear at the entrance to this particular temple because your pampered and protected feet have not been toughened up by a childhood or indeed a lifetime of walking barefoot! And furthermore you will need footwear when you emerge from the labyrinth of statues, passages and colours that you are about to enter!
Our passage continued onwards and upwards on a well constructed cement stairway passing through caves and alcoves decorated with a rich variety of ornamentation primarily featuring statues depicting Buddha.
At times the walls of the caves through which we passed were gold painted and at other times plastered with renditions of the head of Buddha.
We passed pillars embellished with elephants, jade renditions of beautiful nuns, walls displaying faded photos of presumably distinguished visitors (or possibly donors who had funded the temple construction) and at times I felt like an ancient explorer passing through a treasure trove deep inside an Egyptian pyramid!
We eventually emerged onto a terrace with fine views over the surrounding forested countryside. The terrace wall was embellished with seated figures of Buddha looking inwards and standing figures of Buddha looking outwards. And there was even a statue of the four headed Hindu God Indra.
The terrace was unswept, gritty and I commented to Ampai that maybe it had not been such a bright idea to have left our sandals at the entrance. It did not seem to bother the habitually barefoot Shampoo, who was running around to her heart’s content playing with a cat, which she had carried up through the cave passages!
We made our way up a short staircase to another terrace where the wall was embellished by the tail of a giant dragon and someone had thoughtfully placed a rocking chair for visitors who wanted to relax and admire the view.
We spotted a descending stairway back inside the mountain which we assumed was the way out. At this point I should perhaps comment that I always recollect that my friend and former colleague Tony often advised me that the meaning of assume is ‘to make an ASS of U and ME.’
And so it proved.
The staircase down was steep but aided by a handrail and uncomfortable to walk on if you are a non Thai as there was a lot of grit and loose stone as well as pools of water. The lighting was colourful and garish, the walls were alternatively coated with cloth or hundreds of plaster depictions of Buddhas face until eventually we came to…………………………………a dead end!
Time for Ampai and Shampoo to pray!
Praying that we will find a way out?
Praying that a spare pair of sandals will miraculously appear for Michael?
We had reached the shrine for a famous deceased Monk and this was clearly an appropriate spot to pray for help and good luck for the rest of one’s life!
We turned and retraced our steps upwards and passed a skeleton that I had noticed on the way down. I am no longer surprised at anything I find on display in Thai temples (and indeed there were more mystifying features to come!) and I can only imagine this was to remind patrons to accept and prepare for the inevitably of our deaths to come.
We also passed a sculptured wall plaque depicting Kinnaree, part female and part bird with wings, a figure important in Thai culture but which originated in India
When we re-emerged on the upper terrace Ampai decided to descend via the same route we had ascended, as Shampoo wanted to visit the bathroom and, footwear or not, I decided I would continue upwards.
Quite literally within 20 metres or so I came to a steep tarmac road and I mean steep. It was clearly designed to weave its way up and around the mountain to being devotees to the temple buildings on the summit and it was certainly the steepest road I have ever encountered and far too steep to walk, let alone on rough tarmac with no sandals.
So I crossed the road, passing a lone peacock and continued up the steps to reach the first level of the eclectic collection of temple buildings on the summit.
Immediately facing me were giant and colourful figures of an elephant and snake overlooking the surrounding countryside and two highly ornamented doorways, one embellished with an elephant and the other by a giant insect with a semi human face, which led to an enormous cavern with a tiled floor, painted walls and an incredibly ornate plastered and painted ceiling!
There were ornate throne like seats presumably for Monks to sit when they meet devotees and a lounge area with a number of comfortable modern sofas and armchairs that would not have looked out of place in a hotel foyer.
I was the only person around and both my surprise and delight increased when I discovered a spotless sit down w/c and a shower presumably for the use of either visitors and/or the Monks but housed within two rooms designed to appear like giant pineapples!
I did not use the shower!
I continued making my way around the top of the mountain partly within this cavern-like structure and partly on outside terraces, passing colourful depictions of Buddha, elephants, lions and tigers and passing through ornately decorated doorways. The rich visual experience was complemented by a number of colourful peacocks wandering around!
There were excellent views towards nearby hills and mountains as well as towards Khao Yai Park and the giant golden figure of a seated Monk at Wat Sri Chai Mongkol, which was our original destination, was clearly visible about a couple of kilometres away.
A short staircase took me up to a similar layout on a higher level with a big cavern which I suspect was at least partly manmade and an ornately decorated circular passage way with open terraces. There was a section with wall paintings and sculptures depicting the much loved former king who died in 2016 and which depicted the period when he, like many Thai males, spent a period of time living as a monk at a temple.
The interior of this upper and final level of the complex was indeed a kaleidoscope of ornamentation, colours, figures, paintings and decorated doorways. Externally there were colourful towers and pagodas and figures of dragons, birds, buddhas and even a giant fish surveying the surrounding landscape.
And to this day I don’t have a clue as to why the words You Tube and the You Tube motif/logo were set within and as part of the temple floor.
And in another area I found the signs of the Zodiac depicted into the floor design.
Thai temples never cease to surprise me as they often seem to combine fine artwork and the sublime with (to me) bizarre and grotesque representations and often within a few steps of each other!
However Wat Simalai Songtham was certainly unusual even by Thai standards, due to its ascending access through the caves which in turn led to the main temple buildings occupying such a spectacular location.
I felt sorry that Ampai had turned around and was now patiently waiting at our rental car in the car park far below whilst I explored this wonderland on the summit.
I assumed that other than the peacocks I had the top of the mountain and the temple to myself but whilst taking pictures in the largest cavern-like space with a central throne, I was suddenly surprised to hear a phone ringing and it was not mine!
All of a sudden a shaven head nun emerged from who knows where and started chattering to whoever had called her! I am not sure who was more surprised, her or me!
After a final appreciative survey of the view of the surrounding landscape over and beyond the temple water tanks I called Ampai and said I was about to descend and made my way down successive levels passing giant welcoming outstretched hands as well as giant fish, dragons, snakes and birdlike figures until I reached a parked minibus at the top of the steep road.
I continued down the staircase as the road was too steep and rough for walking in bare feet and eventually came to a second staircase that enabled me to descend through the wooded area without having to retrace my steps through the caves. However with lots of gravel, stones and twigs on what looked like a rarely used path, I made slow progress, as I was constantly trying to protect my tender feet.
When the ground level area came into view, I called Ampai and asked her if she could bring my sandals to the foot of the stairway where I was descending, as the ground looked far too rough for barefoot walking. When Ampai finally ascertained where the staircase was she sent Shampoo to meet me with my sandals at the foot of the stairs which emerged into a forested area with yet more intricate and attractive Buddha statuary.
Adjacent to the temple at road level we also found a visitors area with more figures and a giant gold plated figure of a seated Monk overlooking the road. I understood from the sole attendant that the temple we had visited had been built over the last 30 years (?) although the internal decoration for some of the rooms on the summit complex had yet to be completed.
By now the evening was drawing in but I thought there was still time to visit nearby Wat Sri Chai Mongkol to see the famous giant figure of the seated Monk which after all was our main motivation for driving along this road in the first place.
We were the only visitors at Wat Sri Chai Mongkol, which clearly catered for a large number of visitors in normal times. Not only was there an extensive parking area but, on our approach to the giant figure, we also wandered between at least 50 stalls which normally sold food, clothing, amulets and souvenirs to visitors. However it looked as if only a few who were packing up were currently open with all the Covid-19 restrictions in place.
The giant figure was well worth a visit and as we retraced our route back to our hotel and passed by Wat Simalai Songtham, the illuminated Temple complex atop the hill looked more like Disneyland than ever!
I had found no reference to either the 129 Art Museum nor Wat Simalai Songtham in any of the guidebooks or online websites that I had consulted when compiling a list of attractions to visit in the Pak Chong area and indeed we had stumbled unexpectedly on both.
Yet both had been a pleasant surprise that gave us hours of enjoyment.
And such unexpected surprises are indeed one of the true joys of travelling and one I hope will be possible to repeat more frequently in the future as the Covid-19 pandemic is brought under control.
And in case you are wondering, yes we did finally get to visit Kao Yai National Park the following day on our drive back to Pattaya. Indeed we spent several hours visiting waterfalls and viewpoints and checking out Park accommodation for possible future visits.
© Michael Bromfield
Additional Images and captions