You have to think something is awry when a town’s main business is making coffins. Phitsanulok has a curious number of shops displaying 6ft boxes. And not just any old coffins – these are boxes with bling. Scoffing at the notion that it’s no good being the richest person in the graveyard, each one is festooned with gold engravings and intricate patterns.
Apart from the coffins, Phitsanulok is a jumbled collection of streets, each as anonymous as the next. Set 400 kms north from Bangkok, I found a 220 baht-a-night guesthouse then wandered around the town, past the rows of coffins and a few tailor shops (you need to look good for all those funerals).
Blocks of shopfronts stood shoulder to shoulder, a few open-fronted and displaying strands of yellow noodles and pork from glass displays. Few people walked the streets. Only a handful of tourists stop off as it’s roughly midway between Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
To be fair, Phitsanulok is not completely void of attractions (it was the capital for 25 years, after all). A three-portico pavilion forms a shrine to King Naresuan the Great, where a life-size figure sits on the site of the former Chan Palace. The top temple in town is Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat Woramahawihan (or Wat Yai if you prefer), a 700-year-old site that hosts one of the country’s best Buddha images, and a string of other antiques. Also worth a look is the Sgt Major Thavee Folk Museum. Founded by the eponymous Khun Thavee, it contains more than 10,000 exhibits that show the rural Thailand of yesteryear, from farming tools and animal traps to kitchenware and ceramics. Explanations are in Thai and English, though you may not wish to learn how the bull castration equipment works.
Back in town, the evening market is the town’s focal point. There, running parallel with the River Nan, flows a steady wave of locals, checking out the dresses, jewellery and counterfeit DVDs. Ten massage shops line up next to each other, all offering exactly the same feet or body rub-downs for 100 baht an hour.
After strolling up and down this promenade a few times, I had a tasty green curry at a riverside restaurant (several floating eateries also bob around down on the waterfront). The liveliest place in town is hidden just away from all this. Behind the night market’s stalls is a strip of bars facing the river. A friend showed me the way and we sat sipping beer on small wooden stalls. It’s not much of a highlight, but it beats coffins.
Buses run from Mochit in Bangkok throughout the day (05 524 2430), or trains go from Hualamphong in Bangkok (1690).
Sleeping – Budget:
Lithai Guesthouse (05 521 9626) With prices starting at 220 baht you don’t expect much, but the rooms are clean and come with TV and air-con. Top-price rooms are 460 baht and have en-suite bathrooms.
Sleeping – Fancy:
Grand Riverside Hotel (05 524 8333, www.tgrhotel.com) As the name suggests, most rooms have great views of the River Nan.
Eating Head for the night market along the riverside for a range of snacks.