A day of history (Ayutthaya)

I was excited to explore Ayutthaya after our previous afternoon’s brief introduction to this historic town. And I was definitely not disappointed by what we found. We spent the day walking all around the river-bound island and across to Wat Chaiwatthanaram.

We started our exploration with Wat Phra Mongkhon Bophit, a massive red and gold-guilded structure that houses one of the largest Buddha images in Thailand. The building is amazing and it’s scale is impossible to share in photographs alone.

Inside it houses a 17m (55′) image of the Buddha. The image is thought to have been built in the sixteenth century but was damaged in the fall of Ayutthaya in the eighteenth century when the right arm and part of the head were severed. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that the image and building were restored to their former glory.

Next door is Wat Phra Si Sanphet. I liked these ruins with the rounded white cheddies. It was large and had shady trees growing throughout the complex. But the real highlight of our visit to this site was our interaction with the school children who were completing some sort of assignment. Groups of uniformed teenage girls were shyly stopping tourists and asking whether they spoke English. If the answer was “yes”, then a series of short questions would follow. Two groups of girls were brave enough to stop us to ask questions. I answered the first “interview” and Paul did the second. Then I saw a group of girls who had just been speaking with their teacher. They looked shy and scared. So I asked them whether they wanted us to do an interview and they looked so relieved. I’m studying teaching at university and think this makes a fantastic way for children learning a foreign language to engage with native language speakers in a semi-realistic setting. It’s a relatively safe controlled environment because you are in a tourist park with clear boundaries. And most tourists don’t mind helping students in this way.

It was a long walk from here around the island to the bridge that leads across the river to Wat Chaiwatthanaram. There’s a pretty little restaurant right on the river’s edge that serves delicious food for a great price. Both of us were hungry after walking for hours and we ate up a feast.

Wat Chaiwatthanaram was worth the 10km walk from our hotel. The complex was large and overlooked the greeny-brown river. We walked around the outer edge of the complex but chose not to climb the stairs to the centre spire because the structure looked vulnerable from years of existence. The wat was originally constructed in about 1630. Again, many of the Buddha images had their heads chopped off.

We contemplated catching a tuk tuk or taxi back to our hotel but found ourselves walking to a more modern wat just near the cross-river bridge. The bright red paint and decorations of the wat were a pleasant surprise and starkly contrasted the ruins we had been walking through all day. We bought some candles, insense and gold leaf, which we used at the temple.

Again we ended up walking our way around the island but this time we took the northern route. It was worth it to see the a giant chedi near the police training camp, the giant reclining Buddha, some very Thai architecture and the sun setting over Wat Phra Mongkhon Bophit.

First impressions of Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya was the capital of what is now Thailand from the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries. At that time, the whole country was called Ayutthaya and was a kingdom. We’ve been coming across Ayutthaya in museums and historic stories throughout our visit to the central Thailand area. Our chosen mode of transport was minivan. These leave from near the National Monument in Bangkok and cost only 60 baht per person. You wait until the van is full to leave but it doesn’t seem to take long until they fill up. It’s 80km or about 1.5 hours from Bangkok to Ayutthaya and our minivan took the toll roads without additional cost to us. The only thing is that the minivans seem to have a deal with the tuk tuk drivers near the edge of town because we were dropped at a tuk tuk stand about 2km away from town instead of at the minivan depot. The tuk tuk drivers kept insisting that it was too far for any of us to walk to our hotels, even when they didn’t actually know where we were staying (as in, we hadn’t told them). They seemed quite angry that none of the passengers on the minivan used their services. I hate this side of travel in Thailand. It frustrates and bores me.

Ayutthaya, on the other hand, isn’t boring at all. The city has so many things to do and see. We arrived in the mid afternoon and hit the streets to explore our new surrounds. We started with Wat Mahathat, an impressive complex where there is a Buddha statue head that has been engulfed in tree roots. It is said that the heads of some of the statues were removed by the Burmese in one of the many wars between Burma and Ayutthaya / Thailand over the centuries. Some have been restored to their former glory while others stand as evidence of the passage of time.

We follow random roads around and find ourselves at Wat Thammikarat. The wat is beautiful and relatively deserted but for the rooster statues. This is probably one of the most beautiful wats in Ayutthaya. There is a grandeur about the pillars that surround a golden Buddha statue in the main structure. The building that once stood here must have been massive. The pillars outside the building’s walls are starting to be gobbled up by tree roots, making them even more impressive and eerie. There is a huge head popping out of a lotus flower that commands attention. The flowers in the garden are pretty and squirrels run around in them. But it’s the rooster statues that are most intriguing. I am sure I could find information about them on Wikipedia or some other online site. But I think I like the mystery of why they are all there.

But there’s more to Ayutthaya than just ruins and roosters. The city has the coolest looking tuk tuks ever. They look like they are taking people to the beach to go surfing. I almost expect to see surfboards strapped to the roofs and long blond hair waving from their windows. The park is lovely for walking with late afternoon reflections striking the water and pretty bridges to cross. And did I mention there are plenty of shops where you can buy delicious cakes? The cakes here in Thailand are fantastic. They are not cheap with prices being similar to what you pay in Australia but the quality is excellent and the attention to detail superb.

We end our day with a walk through the night market. There are plenty of food options here. You can sit down to a clay pot soup and plate of pad thai. Or you can create your own menu buying snacks from stalls. Just about every taste can be pleased from cute artistic pancakes to local sweets, from chicken to pork belly, and from salad to crickets (yes, the insects). We settled for some random snacks that we took back to our hotel to eat in the comfort of the air conditioning because it is quite hot and humid, and we had walked another 20km by the time we had bought our food.