Ayutthaya is the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Siam. 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 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 compared to Bangkok. In fact, I didn’t quite realize just how noisy and busy Bangkok is until I visited Ayutthaya. Even my own neighborhood, 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 traditionaly-minded old people. Of course, I climbed onto that car and was met by about a dozen saffron robes. They 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 was beautiful, with a splendid courtyard and very helpful staff; it all made me wish I were staying longer.
If there was 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 in no way amphibious, however.
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! I said I was good with two hours, so he showed me the top sights only.
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. 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 quite impressive, 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.
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.
There was a French family at a nearby table, with three small kids, and the kids were clearly restless and would cry out or complain. It struck me that, in two weeks, this was the first time I’d witnessed such behavior from children. I don’t know what it is, and it’s not to say Thai kids don’t cry or maybe pitch an occasional fit, but I certainly hadn’t seen it by then. I did wonder if there’s something about how they are raised that makes Thai kids less prone to crying and tantrums. Again, I’d only been there two weeks, but it did seem telling that the first time I saw whining kids, they were western kids. Could it be that being raised in a “lesser” degree of comfort makes Thai kids more tolerant to minor discomforts and inconveniences? I mean, these are kids who ride on scooters, standing on the bike seat between mom and dad, tiny faces turned away from the wind of their familial velocity. That’s sure to toughen you up somewhat.
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.
Anyway, I knew I’d only scratched the surface of Ayutthaya and certainly hope to return.