Sukhothai – day 346

Sukhothai is typically regarded as the first capital of Siam, although this is not entirely accurate. (The kingdom of Chiang Saen had already been established 500 years earlier). The area was previously the site of a Khmer empire until 1138, when two Thai rulers decided to unite and form a new Thai kingdom. Sukhothai’s dynasty lasted 200 years and spanned nine kings. The most famous was King Ramkhamhaeng, who reigned from c. 1275 to 1317 (Lonely Planet say 1275-1317, UNESCO say 1280- 1318) and is credited with developing the first Thai script – his inscriptions are also considered the first Thai literature. Ramkhamhaeng was one of the most important Thai sovereigns, as he brought Sukhothai extensive territory through his military victories. He invented the Siamese alphabet (Khmer script), as mentioned already, imposed strict observance of the Buddhist religion and instituted a military and social organization copied from his vanquished neighbours, the Khmers. But, before we saw the bronze statue of this legendary King we did the usual morning routine and grabbed a bus to the historical parks. 
The ‘night’ market was busier this morning than it had ever been and they were selling bags full of chillies and trucks full of pumpkins. An assortment of green veg, that would have made for an incredible jigsaw puzzle photo, was piled up a few stalls down from some slivers of very smelly fish. The patrons waiting for the doctor joined in the prayers led by the monks already inside the surgery and we took shelter in our little bus station until the joining others for the trip down the main road. Some jumped off at random places, but the monk, in his crisp saffron robes, and the three girls all got out at the big supermarket. We went all the way with a lady that must have been from France based on the text on her guide book. All three of us rented a bicycle to zip us around the grounds and between the various significant sites. Starting at the main temple of the central historical park, Wat Mahathat, we were starting our day at UNESCO World Heritage Site #55. We were looking for the atypical characteristics of the area with classic lotus-bud chedi, featuring a conical spire topping a square-sided structure on a three-tiered base. Obviously! Of course, I for one didn’t notice any of this. It was hot. At almost 28*C before 10:00 and the humidity to kill, we just wandered casually. This temple, completed in the 13th century, is surrounded by brick walls (206m long and 200m wide) (clearly the architect didn’t have OCD!) and a moat that is believed to represent the outer wall of the universe and the cosmic ocean. The original Buddha figures still sit among the the ruined columns of the old wí•hâhn (sanctuary) and the base of the main chedi is decorated with the relief-stuccoes of 168 Buddhist disciples. Just south of this impressive complex is Wat Si Sawai, dating from the 12th and 13th century, this ancient temple still retains it three Khmer-style towers and a picturesque moat. It was originally built as a Hindu temple but the sign describing all the evidence of it being such, with lingas, carved lintel depicting Vishnu and other designs were not obvious or no longer present. They were very nice and worth a visit before heading over to Wat Traphang Ngoen. Not mentioned in the guidebook, but recommended on our free map from the kind bike shop lady, the sign on the road describes its uniqueness as one without a boundary wall, with a main chedi, assembly hall (vihãra) and ordination hall (Ubosatha) in the middle of a reservoir. Continuing our culture tour of the park, we visited Wat Sa Si. The prevalence (and finally very obvious) Sri-Lankan style bell-style stupa – sometimes referred to as a chedi as well – is evidence of Sinhalese Buddhism in the area. The temple had a road going through it until 1978 and we sat away from the tree with dozens of smelly herons, looking at the new road next to the reservoir, as we had a break in the shade. We then carried on a bit and walked around the bronze statue of the King before thinking about lunch. A small distance from the main gate was the ever reliable 7-Eleven. A new big bottle of water, an isotonic drink and two ice lollies were in order to help cool down. The heat had probably reached it’s zenith of 33*C and we were feeling it. We cycled towards the North Historical park and got distracted by the Wat Sorasan/Sorasak (it’s hard to get reliable info these days). The main bell-shaped chedi sits on a base of elelephant structures. This concept is based on a belief that the elephant is regarded as a beast of burden for the emperor, and is a suitable animal to firmly uphold Buddhism through a period of 5,000 years. We took shade under a tree at Wat Mae Chon and took a breather and lunch. It can’t be said it was enjoyable as it can’t be said what it was we ate. We bought little tuna snack packs, but I don’t think there was any fish in it and the ingredients list was only for the crackers and a chilli mayo sauce. With limited time left to us before we turned into puddles we visited Wat Si Chum. An impressive mon•dòp with a 15m, brick-and-stucco seated Buddha. This Buddha’s elegant tapered fingers are coated with gold leaf from visitors and the effect was quite beautiful. No longer able to visit the tunnels of the structure to see the jataka inscriptions we made our way to Wat Phra Phai Luang. This 12th century temple is quite isolated to other sites in the area. It didn’t stop the Thai lady charging us an additional small fee to enter with our bikes. The Khmer-style towers are much bigger than Wat Si Sawai, but here only one of them looked to be in a good condition. It is thought to be the centre of Sukhothai when it was ruled by the Khmers of Angkor prior to the 13th century. The large site was the last we visited before throwing the towel in. Back we went!Dropping off the bikes we managed to get a bus immediately and the half hour in to town seemed much quicker than that morning. We probably should have rested inside and cooled down with several showers. Even though we weren’t burned we knew we had been in the sun far too long. We went to the pool to splash about. The idea was sound, except retrospectively it probably drained and dehydrated us more – we should have been drinking more and lying down. So it was that Katherine lay down with a headache and paracetamol and I stayed awake to keep track of time. Waking sleeping beauty we bought more isotonic drinks, collected our washing and had an early dinner/feast. Back to the guesthouse to pack we finally rested with some tv series on the iPad and sleep. 

Saturday 17th September 2016

Port Arthur – day 327

Unfortunately, the only free parking in Hobart is on the street between 6pm and 8.30am. Not a problem as we managed to find parking straight outside the YHA last night but slightly inconvenient as it required us getting up early when, quite frankly, we both just wanted to stay wrapped up in bed. After eating breakfast and making sandwiches for lunch, we headed to our rather lovely bright red Kia and headed onto the ‘freeway’ to Port Arthur Hostoric Site, which is considered to be one of Australia’s most important heritage sites and tourist destinations. The drive was quite lovely as we drove through the scenic Tasman Peninsula on the south east of Tasmania to get to the ruins of the former penitentiary. 

Using our YHA membership cards, we managed to get a concession price into the site – those cards are fantastic and have more than paid for themselves ten times over. Well worth the $25!! Treated ourselves to a guided tour of The Isle of the Dead too (also at a concession price). We where given a playing card each which corresponds with a convict that had resided at Port Arthur. As we had 45 minutes to wait until our harbour cruise and tour, we went into the museum to find out the fate of our convicts. Mine was from Cork, Ireland and was sentenced to transportation for stealing. Fortunately, my convict was a blacksmith so spent his time in a ‘decent’ job and environment within the prison. Jayne’s convict didn’t far so well… He was from Norfolk, England and he was also convicted of petty theft. He was given a job as a shoe maker and cobbler and spent his days making prison shoes until he was caught stealing again… He was then ‘demoted’ to the chain gang to chop and carry timber. A dangerous job as the logs were often dropped and men were crushed from the rolling trunks. We then went into the beautifully gardens and ground, including the reconstructed Commandant’s Garden which was originally planted in the 1850s, to explore the timber and stone church, constructed in 1836-37 and a lasting tribute to its convict builders. Built on high ground to overlook the convict settlement, the church could accommodate over one thousand souls at its services. The building was never consecrated, due to its use by prisoners of different denominations, but was representative of the authorities’ goal to reform the convict population through religion. The building was destroyed by fire in 1884 and has undergone repeated conservation work throughout the 20th century.Before we jumped onto the catamaran and started our cruise of the harbour. The MV Marana took us past the Dockyard, the Isle of the Dead Cemetery and the Point Puer Boys’ Prison. A really interesting cruise with the guide explaining bits about the islands that we passed and the history of the whole site, introducing us to the maritime history of Port Arthur.Jumping off at the Isle of the Dead, we began our guided tour which provided an insight into the live and deaths of some of Port Arthur’s past residents. The tiny island cemetery holds the remains of over 1,000 people, convicts and ‘free’ (guards etc), although there is supposedly space for over 2,000 bodies. Between 1833 and 1877 over 1000 people were buried on the Isle of the Dead. The island has two distinct burial sections; with convicts buried largely in unmarked graves on the low southern end, and the free and military burials marked by headstones up on the high northern end. The reason convicts were in unmarked graves was because they were considered criminals and, it was believed that, in their death they should be forgotten. After 1850, some of the convicts ended up with headstones but only if their family and friends could afford to purchase one. We got to hear the personal stories of convicts transported half way around the world, the soldiers who gave their lives to guard the prison, the men in positions of responsibility, and the families who followed them to the ends of the earth. The story of the convict tombstone engraver who made his friends (and partner in crime) tombstone the most ornate one in the entire cemetery was incredibly moving. 

Back on the boat, we made our way back to the port and were able to capture the iconic photo of Port Arthur before we began our free walking tour of the site which provided an introduction to the most significant parts of Port Arthur, giving us a great foundation to continue exploring the rest of the site on our own.Finishing the tour and heading over to the imposing ruin of the Penitentiary which was constructed in 1857 as a flour mill and granary. The flour mill and granary was converted into a penitentiary, capable of housing over 480 convicts in dormitory accommodation and separate apartments when the convict building became overcrowded. Flanked by the Watchmen’s Quarters, the building also contained a mess room, library, Catholic chapel, workshops and ablutions complex. The building was gutted by fire in 1897 and lay derelict until a conservation program began in the 1960s.

We walked around the various other buildings, including the reconstructed homes of important people. The building we both enjoyed the most was the Separate Prison. In 1848, harsh physical punishment within the prison was rejected in favour of punishment of the mind. Flogging gave way to solitary confinement and the Separate Prison was built at Port Arthur in 1850. Cruciform-shaped, each of the four wings comprised a central corridor flanked by rows of solitary confinement cells. Separated by thick sandstone walls, it was hoped that the convicts would benefit from contemplative silence and separation. So much so, the guards weren’t allowed to wear shoes or talk to each other when working so that the convicts heard no sound whatsoever. Even the chapel continued individual cells so no one could see each other. As we entered the Prison, a voice read out the Rules and Regulations of the Separate Prison as they were read to each man who was imprisoned here. It was also written on the wall, highlighting the strict solitary confinement that was ahead of each prisoner. Our echoing steps walked along the central hall to A Wing, and the cells where the men spent their days—sleeping, waking, working and eating. We then went into the narrow exercise yard, where we were surrounded by by high, imposing walls, revealing a sliver of sky – the convicts only link to the outside world.

We even tried the additional solitary punishment cell, used for convicts who broke the rules of solitary confinement (usually by making noise!). The cell was located through four doors, each one could be individually locked, and each inner wall was a metre thick – 4 meters to lock out every sliver of sunlight – when we each shut the other person inside, the darkness was so imposing. I couldn’t even last a minute inside, let alone 23 hours a day for a couple of days. Having already spent five hours wandering around the site, we decided to head to the Coal Mines Historic Site which was Tasmania’s first operational mine, established as a much-needed local source of coal, but also as a place of punishment for the ‘worst class’ of convicts. During its busiest years almost 600 prisoners with their jailers and their families lived and worked at the Mines. While the underground workings are no longer accessible, we were able to visit the picturesque ruins of houses, barracks, offices and punishment cells. As we explored the evocative unspoiled landscape, we were able to appreciate something of the isolation and hardship that the convicts had to endure.Knowing we had a three hour drive ahead of us to Coles Bay, we didn’t linger too long at the Coal Mines. Heading down the main road back towards Hobart, our sat-nav directed us down another main road to save us driving all the way to Hobart and back out again. Well, I say a main road… Within 5km the sealed tarmac road turned into gravel and then, slightly further on, dirt! Not exactly the same quality of main roads we are used to!! Seeing the funny side of being reduced to driving along this road at about 30km we kept a close eye out for wildlife as the side of the road was littered with roadkill. We came across loads of live animals as we drove for nearly an hour down the road – kangaroos, wallabies, possums and I even saw a Tasmanian devil but it disappeared easily before Jayne spotted it. 

A much longer drive than anticipated as, even back onto the proper main road, I was too worried about hitting anything to drive fast. Especially as I witnessed the car in front hit a possum. A slight difficulty finding the YHA due to confusing road signs, we grabbed our key that had been taped to the reception door and headed to our cabin (the hostel was closed for repairs). In a cabin with three others, a couple from Italy and a German girl, who were all huddled around a little electric heater whilst Jayne made pasta for dinner as I let my heart rate and adrenaline levels settle down!

Monday 29th August 2016