Retro: Ayutthaya, Thailand

For anybody following the Southeast Asia thread in order, you’ll want to click back to our Bangkok post.  If order means nothing to you and you kind of like the chaos, then F it, read away!

One of the problems with shorter trips is that you’re stuck for options if you want to see a lot of stuff.  While we were able to explore Angkor at a fairly leisurely pace, get the highlights of Hanoi down and have a nice, relaxing cruise to Ha Long Bay, we had to figure out ways to maximize our Thailand experience.  Ordinarily, we’d be heading to a place, spending a night there and then moving on to the next location.  This time, timing didn’t allow.

One of my goals in Thailand was to check out one of the ancient capitals, and I kept getting stuck between Sukhothai and Ayutthaya.  By all accounts, Sukhothai is the better looking site, with some Angkoresque qualities like big reflecting ponds and cool architectural geometrics (real term, not made up, maybe).  However, since our goal was to go south to Phuket as opposed to north to Chiang Mai, Sukhothai would have been too big of a jaunt.

So next choice was Ayutthaya, which is beautiful in its own right, plus a short trip from Bangkok. 

Never let anybody tell you Bangkok isn’t tourist friendly, or that they haven’t thought of ways to make money getting people from place to place.  There are numerous travel agents up and down Khoasan Road, including one right close to the ol’ Rambuttri Inn (still love that name).  Few bucks paid later and we were off in a van to Ayutthaya.

It takes you about an hour to get from Bangkok to Ayutthaya proper, which is still a bustling town in its own right.  Not that we got a chance to see it, as we went right into the old capital to have a look around.

The old Ayutthaya Kingdom (which most people probably know as Siam) existed from the 14th to the 18th century, and this was the seat of its power.  It was pretty foreigner friendly, a rarity for some parts of Asia at the time, and there were actually ties between the kingdom and Louis the XIV.  The kingdom did have some massive wars with the Burmese, which resulted in the plundering of the city and the capture of most of its citizens and, in what’s considered a massive insult, the beheading of many of the Buddha statues at the site.  More on that later.

First stop was the Monastery of the Golden Mount (Wat Phu Khao Thong), which is still a fully functioning monastery, complete with cows.  The giant chedi (stuppa) has a long history, having not been built at the time of the Burmese invasion and finally being built upon liberation from the Burmese, after the Burmese had commissioned their own chedi at the area which, understandably, the people of Ayutthaya were not that hyped to build. 

The pyramid outside of the monastery gives you a great overview of the surroundings as a whole, and the view from inside is equally as impressive.  A large reclining Buddha, draped in a huge saffron robe, greets you near the entrance and everybody lines up to see if they can get a coin to stick to Buddha’s feet, finding a particular “magnetic point”.   Daina found it, Laird found it, I eventually found it, with some help.  The mount itself is surrounded by dozens of Buddhas, draped in more saffron robes, and you can get right up to the top and get more great views of the many statues.  

Within walking distance is Ayutthaya’s, and arguably Thailand’s, most famous site.  Burma and Siam fought several wars over their history and, in 1767, the Burmese invaded Ayutthaya yet again and destroyed one of the temples at the city, Wat Mahathat.  As was the custom, the Burmese vandalized the Buddha statues by decapitating them.  For reasons unknown, one of the heads didn’t make its way back to Burma and was left outside of the temple.  In 1950, when restorations to the temple were taking place, the head was found, completely overgrown by the roots of a nearby tree.  It’s been there ever since.  Since the site is considered sacred, you must be respectful when taking pictures and make sure that, if you’re going to be in one, you can’t touch the head (there’s a guard sitting nearby) and you need to be kneeling.  It’s a rule to remember at any Buddhist ruin, along with not putting your head in the place of a headless Buddha or making stupid poses.  We saw a few people make that mistake afterwards, which got them some harsh reactions from locals.  So be nice.
While these are the heavy hitters of Ayutthaya, there are a few other spots to check out around Ayutthaya.  Wat Lokayasutharam features a 37 meter long, 8 meter high reclining Buddha.  You can ride an elephant around some of the temples and there is a pond where you’re feeding what, upon first look, appears to be a giant lake monster.  Like, literally, the bubbles as this thing comes up out of the water are pretty damn frightening.  Turns out it’s just a giant turtle.  Like, incredibly giant.  Throw some bread its way, take a look, get freaked out, unless you’re totally fine with gigantic freaking monster turtles.  The last stop was the Royal Palace and Wat Phra Si Sanphet, both of which were visually impressive, but neither of which were the highlight of that stop.
As we were wandering through the temple, we noticed a large group of Thai schoolchildren wandering around with notepads and pencils.  As the three of us were looking through the ruins, the group started eyeing us up.  Specifically, Daina who, as has been mentioned several times, is a whole different shade of white.  The kids eventually approached Daina and started asking him questions about tourism, why we came to Ayutthaya, if we were enjoying Thailand, etc.  The ones who couldn’t hear his answers came to Laird and I and started asking us questions.  In the background, there was one girl being chatted to by her friends, all of them looking at D.  Eventually, the girl came up to Daina and asked to see his arm.  Daina put his arm out, she put her arm next to it and there were some notable… well, whatever the Thai equivalent of “Oh my!” is, I couldn’t make it out.  However, D, being a champ, upped the stakes with “You think that’s impressive, take a look at this!”  He turned his arm over and showed the pale part of the arm that we all have, which gleamed compared to the arms of the Thai girl.  That got some screams from everybody!
After that, it was time to head back to Bangkok.  Overall, Ayutthaya is a damned impressive place, and I would have liked to have had a chance to see it on a bit looser of a schedule.  However, you can get the big stuff done in the day trip, and it definitely shouldn’t be missed if you’re in Bangkok.
More day tripping in the next post, as we head to the Floating Market!

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