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.
PILLAR OF THE COMMUNITY
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.”
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
Spend a few days exploring the remote fjords, mountains and volcanic interior of Iceland's spectacular Austurland region William Gray gives his tips on hikes, tours and hidden gems
8 Characterful Hoi An Sleeps
Get an authentic understanding of the culture and cuisine of this Vietnamese heritage favourite with these eco-friendly stays
Perched at Africa's westernmost point, cosmopolitan Dakar is a friendly, frenetic, and unforgettable introduction to West Africa, with some of the region's best food and most hard-hitting history
Austria At Its Most Authentic
A land of lakes, peaks, hikes, heartfelt songs and naked saunas, Salzburgerland dishes up classic Austria at its most authentic
Rediscover The Saudi Region Of Alula
Desert wonders, clear skies and the relics of kingdoms past. George Kipouros beats the crowds to rediscover the Saudi region of Alula, Arabia's best-kept secret...
Where the rewild things are
At times the world can seem bleak for nature. But Lyn Hughes visits Scotland's Alladale reserve, where the future is looking bright
It proved too much for the Romans, but Gareth Clark finds inspiration in the wild, empty countryside, coast and kippers of his native Northumberland
Time-warp for tea
The district of old hanok houses in Jeonju offers an atmospheric taste of South Korea's past in this most modern of countries
Coimbra & Aveiro
Explore this lesser-visited Portuguese pair to combine ancient learning and lagoon living, says Martin Symington
Explore the piece of the Pacific Northwest that most people don't, mixing wild beaches, whale-watching, wine, cheese, trees, explorers and arguably America's hippest city
Change of Pace
Slow down and unwind in easy-going Phuket.
Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad — For Most People. For STAMP FAIRTEX, However, It’s Not Enough!
A Taste of Asia
Carole Mac takes you on an exotic gastronomic tour featuring Wine4Food’s top bites and sips across Asia. From lavish beach-side seafood in Bali, decadent wines in Myanmar, traditional noodle curry in Thailand, to the finest sake and Yamaga cuisine in Japan, this trip must not be missed.
HOW TO CROSS THE INDIAN OCEAN, BY JANNEKE KUYSTERS
Bangkok – Go with the Flow
Wellness options blend work and play in Bangkok.
15 Rooftop Bars Across The World
From the 118th floor of a Hong Kong skyscraper to Chile’s best-kept secret, these cocktail bars are worth a trip across the world.
Living With Korats Is Kaotic!
“Move over, rabbit’s foot.
How Two Seasteaders Wound Up Marked For Death
If a tiny floating cottage brought down the wrath of the thai navy, is there any hope for stateless life at sea?
Travel - Far, Fast, And Light
Travel gear brand Tropicfeel wants to lighten your load on your next trip.
Bangkok bustles with options for wining and dining clients.