The haunting, UNESCO-listed ruins at Kamphaeng Phet attract a trickle of travellers, often on day trips from Sukhothai. Those who linger are treated to marvellous food, a scenic riverfront, pristine natural attractions and spirited locals who haven't become jaded by large-scale tourism. If you seek to sidestep the well-trodden track, two days in Kamphaeng Phet could be just the ticket.
The provincial capital is located midway between Bangkok and Chiang Mai along the main bus route, making it very easy to reach (see map). Kamphaeng Phet can also be accessed by bus from Sukhothai, 80 kilometres to the northeast. Accommodation is available at a handful of midrange hotels and one interesting resort, though most choose to stay at Three J Guesthouse.
Run by the affable Mr Charin, a Kamphaeng Phet native and veritable wealth of info on the area, Three J is one of the friendliest guesthouses we've come across in Thailand. Along with good vibes and simple rooms, the guesthouse offers tours of the area, a rural farm-stay programme and bicycle/motorbike rental. The motorbike selection is limited, so you may want to rent one up in Sukhothai and drive it down to Kamphaeng Phet.
Day 1 Set off on bicycle in the morning, but before you pedal straight to the ruins, take the time to soak up the pleasant air of Kamphaeng Phet's streets. After a northern Thai coffee or tea at one of several quality bakeries among the town's food offerings, make your way to the lively day market off Bumrangrat Road to see (and taste) fresh-picked local fruit among mounds of produce. It seems very few foreigners ever stroll the market's photogenic lanes -- don't be surprised if you leave a ripple of excitement in your wake.
With a bundle of the sweet, stumpy bananas (khluai kai) that Kamphaeng Phet is known for in your bicycle basket, head north past the quiet village temples and teak wood houses that line Tesa Road. Many of the dilapidated yet charming old homes double as food shops that dish out tasty egg noodle (ba-mii) soup with roast duck or pork. After a bowl (or three), continue north to the central zone of Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park.
Kamphaeng Phet means "diamond wall" in Thai, and the city served as a western protectorate -- and thus front-line during Burmese invasions in 1559 and 1765 -- for both the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya kingdoms. Displaying artistic elements of both, the ruins at Kamphaeng Phet possess their own distinctive character. At Wat Phra Kaew, a serene trio of what are thought to be Ayutthaya-era Buddha images sit near Sukhothai-style elephant sculptures in exquisite condition.
Once you've had your fill of the central zone, mosey over to the National Museum and Ruan Thai Museum to gain a deeper understanding of Kamphaeng Phet's place in history. If you're the superstitious type, offer a flower garland at a shrine dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, believed by locals to protect all those who pass through the area.
The Historical Park's sprawling northern zone contains no less than 40 individual sites connected by narrow paved roads that ramble through lush banyan tree forest. Temple complexes like Wat Phra Non and Wat Phra Si Ariyabot are home to centuries-old laterite stone Buddha images so weathered that they often resemble other-wordly beings. Be sure to make it all the way to the ancient laterite plateau flanked by 68 elephant sculptures at Wat Chang Rob.
After your legs receive a well-deserved rest, your stomach will probably begin to rumble -- a sure-fire sign that it's time to hit the night market. Springing to life every evening around 17:00 near the river, this colourful congregation of prepared food and clothing stalls feels like the centre of Kamphaeng Phet's universe. Choose from grilled northern Thai sausage, spicy curries, salads and chilli pastes, whole fishes, noodle soup and khao man kai. For dessert, don't miss chao kuai, an icy treat of sweet gelatinous cubes made from grass jelly cultivated in Kamphaeng Phet province.
Day 2 Rise early, hop on a motorbike or in Three J's multi-coloured safari jeep and cruise west to Khlong Lan national park. Here you'll find a slice of heaven in the form of a 100 metre-high waterfall with several streams that cascade gracefully over a sheer rock cliff into a series of pools fit for sirens -- and backpackers. You could easily bask in the waterfall's beauty for several hours, but nature trails beckon visitors to venture deeper into the old growth.
As you leave Khlong Lan, be sure to stop off at a modest Karen village where traditional wears and foodstuffs can be purchased direct from people who have called these hills home for ages. To explore further into the remote Tanon Thong Chai mountains that stretch all the way to Umphang district and eventually to Burma, continue west to the solitary viewpoints and waterfalls of Mae Wong national park.
By the time you arrive back in Kamphaeng Phet, the sun will probably hang low over the mountains from where you've just returned. Pass giggling children and open-fronted homes where the scent of family dinners wafts into the twilight as you stride to the city's generous recreational riverfront. Relax in one of a few pleasant parks, feed the fish or kick back for a foot massage while watching the sun dip into the vast Ping River.
The night market may call your name for a second round, but a fine alternative is Thai-style barbecued pork (muu-ka-ta). Locals converge nightly on the city's many open-air barbecue joints to enjoy leisurely cook-it-yourself dinners of thin-sliced pork and veggies, usually accompanied by cold beer. If you're not too exhausted, keep the suds flowing at one of several chilled out riverside pubs or thumping nightclubs on Bumrangrat Road. Don't worry, Kamphaeng Phet is a small and safe city -- you'll find your way back to the guesthouse.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 23rd May, 2015.