Confused on where we are? I’m catching up on the black hole of content from May of 2016 to April of 2017 — when I jumped forward to blog the summer of 2017 as it was happening. This post is from December of 2016, when I hopped back to Thailand, and I can’t wait to turn my detailed notes and journals into more blog posts Thailand and Bali next! My apologies for any confusion with the timeline, and thanks for sticking with me.
If you take a peek at my destinations page, you might notice something in the Southeast Asia section: I’ve clocked some serious hours exploring various corners of my home-away-from-home, Thailand.
Now that I’ve been so many places in the Land of Smiles, I’m always stuck with that old conundrum when it comes to traveling there — try somewhere new, or return to an old favorite? When my college friend Becca let me know she’d be traveling in Thailand by the time I returned for the winter, we hatched a plan to meetup before heading down to the islands together.
While brainstorming places we could go, I couldn’t help but think of something that had long lingered on my Thailand bucket list: November in Lopburi, when the sunflower fields bloom and the Lopburi Monkey Festival takes place.
Sadly, there was just no way to make the Lopburi Monkey Festival work with our dates. No matter how many times I questioned the space time continuum and tested different flight search filters, there was simply no way to make it to both Thanksgiving dinner at my mom’s and the biggest feast of the year in Lopburi. Ah well, there were still sunflowers to chase!
I’d been to Lopburi before, years ago, and had fond memories of the tiny monkey-infested town, which most travelers visit as a day trip, or a stopover on the train route between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. I convinced Becca to trust me, and after a late night arrival on Khao San Road and an early morning train north, we met at trusty backpacker favorite Noom Guesthouse for two nights chasing sunflowers in Central Thailand.
I actually stayed at the cheapest budget rooms at Noom Guesthouse on my first visit to Lopburi in 2012 — this time, we stayed in one of the cute little bungalows I’d drooled over on that trip. They were simple but sweet, and Noom Guesthouse remains the best place in Lopburi to get travel information, meet other backpackers, rent motorbikes, and grab an easy meal.
We spent out first night there catching up over a glass of wine and strolled through the night market that takes place every Wednesday in Lopburi and practically cuts through the front door of Noom Guesthouse. We hatched an ambitious plan for the next morning: a motorbike tour of Lopburi’s far-reaching sights.
I didn’t want to let it on to Becca lest I make her nervous too, but I was feeling a tad out-of-my-comfort zone about driving in Lopburi. Sure, I’ve been driving a motorbike on Koh Tao for years, but this would be my first time driving along a four-lane highway and cutting through an actual modern city on our way from the cute old town to the rural outskirts.
I was just starting to feel confident when fifteen minutes into the drive, we got pulled over at a police checkpoint. Crap. There’s some debate on what the law dictates about driving a motorbike in Thailand, but most believe that technically, to follow the rules strictly, you must have a national motorcycle drivers license issued in your home country, valid for a motorcycle, and an International Driving Permit — some believe the license from your home country is sufficient to abide local laws, and I haven’t been able to get clear confirmation on which is accurate. Regardless, I, along with I’d estimate 99% of motorkbike renters in Thailand, had neither.
I couldn’t wait to see what this would cost me. The officer who pulled me over had a helmet, huge sunglasses, and a bandana covering his face, so I couldn’t read his expression as I confidently handed him my New York State driver’s license, grateful that I even had that on me. He studied it for a long time before pulling the bandana down long enough to say, “veeerrrryyyy be-au-ti-ful” in drawn-out English before waiving us on our way. No fines, no bribes — off-the-beaten-path Thailand at its best.
Though the sunflowers bloom November to January, we’d been warned that the farms rotate and the number of blooms you can find depends on luck, recent weather, and when they might be harvested to sell in Bangkok.
I expected endless farms of blooms, in the end we only past one or two — but that was fine, one was all we needed to get out and play around in the joyful explosions of yellow. We paid a small fee and shot off blazing, cameras in hand.
Next up, we explored a series of temples nestled at the base of Lopburi’s limestone mountain Khao Chin Lae, circled on a crude map we were handed along with the keys to our motorbike. At one we scaled hundreds of steps up to one of the stupas and enjoyed the peaceful views of the valley, at another we hung out with the peacocks circling the base. Later I compared photos and realized one was the same temple I’d watched bats pour out of a cave of on a sunset trip during my first trip to Lopburi!
Remember that if you’re going to be temple-hopping in Thailand, throw a scarf in your bag to stay respectful even on super hot days.
Next up, lunch at Ang Sub Lek, a reservoir that looked extremely inviting on a warm dusty day. The lake is jam-packed with various restaurants that have floating huts upon which to enjoy their offerings. But beware, it’s an extremely Thai experience. Between my pitiful grasp of Thai and the staff’s complete lack of English, ordering was a hilarious mess, and we weren’t exactly thrilled with the plates of food that arrived or the selection of drinks on offer.
But we were there for the view, and so we enjoyed it. At least it will be cheap, I thought to myself, but actually we were unpleasantly surprised when the bill came. I couldn’t tell if we were being ripped off because we were fool foreigners (in which case, valid) or if there was something we had missed or misunderstood, so we just shrugged, paid, and moved on with a laugh.
It was a beautiful, adventurous day exploring the rural Thai countryside. The gorgeous karsts in these photos are what make Lopburi famous across Southeast Asia for rock climbing, though when I inquired at Noom Guesthouse, they confirmed what I’d been told my first trip — there are no instructors in town most of the time, so it’s really a destination for those who are experienced and bring their own gear.
That night we were treated to a gorgeous sunset back in Lopburi Old Town, and a quiet evening strolling around and observing life in this sleepy, lovely little destination. When I saw the sunset really going off, I sprinted over to Wat Phrasi Rattana Mahathat, the one directly across from the train station. It’s lit up at night, and makes for gorgeous shots.
I noticed the one thing I hadn’t loved about Lopburi the first time hadn’t changed — there were no cheap massage places, an anomaly in Thailand!
The next morning, we set off to explore the sights of Lopburi on foot before taking an afternoon train back to Bangkok. Unless you chose to explore the outskirts we’d seen the day before, everything you’ll need and want in Lopburi is within easy walking distance, including the train station.
No tuk tuks, taxis or buses needed. It’s teeny tiny and so convenient to explore! And yet believe it or not Lopburi is the only ancient settlement in Thailand that has never been abandoned, with thousands of years of continual human settlement.
Our first stop was Prang Sam Yot, the most famous temple in town thanks to its abundance of agile primates. I don’t know if the monkeys have gotten more aggressive or I’ve become more of a wuss but Becca and I basically spent our time here running in circles and shrieking whenever a monkey so much as looked in our direction.
Okay, I think it’s the wuss option.
Next, we meandered by Prang Khaek, which is a super small temple but it was on the way and it’s interesting for the fact that its essentially the median in a small intersection — Lopburi just kept springing up around it, but still it stands, crumbling elegantly while 7-Elevens pop up on every corner.
Finally, we arrived at possibly my favorite Lopburi destination, Narai Palace, which functions as somewhat of a Lopburi Museum. I love this place — it’s small enough not to be overwhelming, but there are some fascinating facts to learn and artifacts to explore!
Plus, the grounds of the palace are beautiful.
Our final stop was one we made as we boarded our train back to Bangkok — a daytime peek at Wat Phrasi Rattana Mahathat. I visited pretty much all of these sites years ago, but I loved returning to them with Becca… and seeing how much my photography had improved since then!
Clearly, I love this little town! Two nights is a great amount of time to see it all — one day to explore the town center on foot, and one day to rent a motorbike and head to the outskirts. Travel hack — save a night on accommodation if you’re coming to or from an overnight train between Bangkok and Chiang Mai! You won’t find luxury hotels or international restaurants or anything fancy here, but you will find an easily accessible glance at a simpler way of life in Thailand.
Best of all? I was so thrilled to reconnect with Becca and have this time together. Becca and I were actually roomates for a hot second in college, yet these two nights in Lopburi kicked off a trip where I felt like we connected more than we ever had before. For a minute, I thought I might have a new neighbor when Becca kept pushing back her departure from Koh Tao! Sadly, she did eventually tear herself away…
Dang, did it feel good to be back home — my chosen one.
Next up, a wild girl’s weekend in Bangkok…
Heading to Thailand? Don’t miss my Wanderland Guide to Koh Tao, chock full of nine years of research on one of the best islands in Southeast Asia for scuba diving, hiking, beach bumming, dining and nightlife.