Worked our way slowly up to Chiang Mai via Ayathaya, Lopburi and Sukothai. These were all fascinating places, steeped in history and religion. I felt as though I had seen more temples than most people see in a lifetime before I had even got to Chiang Mai!
It is still incredibly hot, and cycling makes for attractively sweaty work, but we have found that hiring bikes is the best way to get around these little, Wat-filled towns and cities. Sukothai, in particular, is a lovely place to look at from a bicycle, especially if you can beat the rabid looking dogs who are keen for the chase and like to run, yapping, at the back tyre. We went on a fantastic sunset bike ride through the country lanes of New Sukothai, guided by a crazy Belgian cycling enthusiast named Ronnie! Not a very likely scenario, I know, but he certainly took us to some places that we would never have found by ourselves. The rice paddies that we cycled through were the most incredibly bright shade of green, and the villages that we came upon were wonderfully remote and ramshackle. We hired bikes again the very next day (my bottom seems to have forgotten about the camel riding capabilities it picked up during our four day trek through the Thar in Northern India, because it really hurt when I got back on the bike!) and explored Old Sukothai Historical Park. Some of the ruins were quite spectacular.
Ayathaya was lovely too, and Lopburi was, well...full of monkeys, really. Taking the local buses between places was lots of fun. The buses are a fantastic mix of rickety, gaps-in-the-floorboards decrepitness and psychodelic, rainbow designs. They are really most unique. They also tend to pump Thai pop music out at full volume, accompanied by Thai pop videos which play on the tv at the front of the bus. The videos are hilarious. The schoolchildren always look transfixed.
Chiang Mai is a very buzzy place. The nightmarkets, in particular, are lots of fun. Suffice to say that many purchases have been made.
We particularly enjoyed our trip up to Wat Prathet Doi Suthep; a temple on top of a mountain overlooking Chiang Mai. We took a Sawngthaew (like a large tuk tuk) up the long, winding road and were confused by the throngs of students in uniform that we kept coming across; trudging en masse up the steep pass or sitting, squatting, leaning and standing in large groups under the shade of a tree by the side of the road. As we neared the top, the crowds became thicker, and we couldn't get anywhere near the bottom of the 300 steps leading to the temple without simply joining the procession. It was quite an incredible sight; the sea of yellow and purple clad bodies ascending the staircase, stretching away into the sky. We later ascertained that this particular day was one which occurred only once every year, during which every student in Chiang Mai made a sort of pilgrimage to Doi Suthep. I'm not sure how much of this was voluntary; most of them looked as thought they were about to pass out from heat exhaustion. There were lots of chanting monks and musicians as well as much ringing of bells and banging of gongs. It was a fascinating display of faith.