So, after arriving in Bangkok, I dove almost directly into training and orientation for my job teaching English. After only a week or so came a long weekend, during which I escaped the capital for a brief but fascinating visit to the historic city of Ayutthaya.
Ayutthaya is the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Siam and, for history buffs and wannabe Indiana Joneses, it’s a must visit. It was the seat of power for a region larger than both France and the UK combined, encompassing all of modern day Thailand as well as Cambodia and Laos and much of Vietnam. The capital was moved to what is today Bangkok after the Burmese sacked and took over Ayutthaya, though the Siamese took the city back in less than a year.
Today, Ayutthaya is known mainly as a sort of historical fun park, just chock-a-block crammed with temple ruins. It’s also a lovely city with plenty of green space, surrounded on all sides by wide rivers, and criss-crossed with stunningly quiet streets, especially when compared to Bangkok. In fact, I didn’t quite appreciate the extent and intensity of Bangkok’s intrinsic cacophony until I visited Ayutthaya. Even my own neighborhood in Bangkok, which would be considered sleepy by many Bangkok locals, is a hive of activity compared to Ayutthaya. Granted, my hotel was nearly empty, so the city may have been quieter than usual.
I took the train to get to Ayutthaya, which was a fun experience. Though my ticket said I’d arrive in about an hour, the ride took about an hour and a half . . . and cost less than three dollars, this is with an assigned seat. Oddly, on the return trip, I did not get an assigned seat but paid less than a dollar! I had no trouble finding a spot and the ride, both ways, was actually quite comfortable, if a bit hot given there was no air conditioning.
There was some confusion on my first ride, though. My ticket indicated that I was in seat 9 on car 3. I didn’t know, however, that each car is actually two cars, one being reserved for monks and more traditionally-minded old people. Of course, I climbed onto that car and was met by about a dozen saffron robes. The monks did their best to explain to me that I was in the wrong car and, eventually, I figured it out. Thankfully, the “regular” car was far more comfortable than the monks’ car, which was equipped with wooden benches.
My hotel in Ayutthaya, the Niwas Ayutthaya, was beautiful, with a splendid courtyard and very helpful staff; it all made me wish I was staying longer and, if and when I go back, I’ll be sure to stay there again.
If there is one drawback to Ayutthaya it’s that it covers a deceptively large amount of space. On a map, you may think, “Oh, I’m just three blocks away,” but those blocks may be a good fifty feet each. It’s truly impossible to effectively explore Ayutthaya on foot. Many package tourists opt for air-conditioned bus tours, while a few masochists choose to slog through the humidity on bikes, but the best option is, by far, to rent a tuk-tuk.
Tuk-tuks are like three-wheeled trucks, so you sit in the bed of the little truck, behind the driver. The tuk-tuks in Ayutthaya are distinctive, looking almost like little boats, as though they could just float away in case of a flood. They are, however, in no way amphibious.
So, my tuk-tuk driver/guide met me at my hotel (he’d driven me from the train station to the hotel the day before and we made a deal to meet for the following day). He charged about $8 an hour, which is standard in Ayutthaya. He told me that, to cover all the sites, it would take three to four hours, and I believe it! The city has tons to see. I said I was good with two hours, so he showed me the top sights only, which, honestly, was plenty. After a while you kinda feel a tad ruined-out, though this may have been different if I’d known a bit more about each site, which is on me.
Most of these sites included Wats, or temples. Many of these are a blend of what has come to be known as Thai style as well as the Khmer style, best exemplified by Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The peaked chedi or stupa are of the Thai style, while the somewhat phallic looking towers are typical of the Khmer style.
I won’t name off the various Wat I visited, but suffice to say I saw three of the more impressive ones (according to my guide). One of them included one of the most photographed features in Thailand: the disembodied head of a Buddha statue that has been swallowed by the roots of a tree, found at Wat Mahathat.
Most of the statues among the ruins were decapitated by the Burmese and never repaired.
I also visited an enormous reclining Buddha that measured some forty feet. It was a hell of a sight, especially seen from afar, with people standing before it for reference and comparison.
It was ridiculously hot and sunny, so I was glad I’d brought sunscreen and a hat. I did get a little burnt but, ironically, this was on the train, as I had a window seat and sun fell directly on my forearm, essentially baking it.
My only regret is that, when my guide asked if I was hungry, I allowed him to take me to a restaurant of his choice. Of course, he had an understanding with the place, as did many other drivers. The place was comfortable and air conditioned and held only other tourists. I’m not complaining because of a lack of “authenticity”, it was just more expensive than I would have wanted, the meal costing about three times what I was accustomed to paying. But the food was actually excellent.
Anyway, I’d saved money the night before by visiting Ayutthaya’s small but lively night market. You’ll find clothes there, especially shoes, but the highlight is the food. There’s everything from stir-fries and curries to meat on sticks and cakes. I bought a bag of some type of seasoned insects and chewed on those as I wandered the market, eventually ending up at a beer stall where I enjoyed a refreshing Chang on the rocks.
I know I only scratched the surface of Ayutthaya and will certainly be back, especially given the short distance and the cost of train tickets. Oh, and the hotel was less than $40 a night. The city is an excellent day trip from Bangkok, offering a respite from the capital’s chaos along with a glimpse into Thailand’s storied past, and it also serves as a perfect stopover on the way from the capital to Chiang Mai by bus or train.