We only had one full day in Ayutthaya, Thailand’s second capital, but we pedaled our asses all around it on fairly uncomfortable bikes. Elephants were fed, temples were visited and I had my first terrible meal so far. Even though as a young child I was coerced into cycling around the English countryside on a tandem bike with dear Mr. Brace, I never really embraced this particular means of conveyance as an adult. The last time I got on a bike happened to be in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica…and that’s because it was too dang hot to walk anywhere. That’s pretty much what drove us to rent bikes to explore the ancient capital of Ayutthaya, that and the fact that the sprawling historical park is spread over several kilometers in every direction and it seemed like rather a charming thing to do.
I don’t know if my ass bones will ever forgive me…but I’m getting ahead of myself…
We arrived in Ayutthaya via a mini van from Kanchanaburi. The driving turned a little Peruvian at times, swerving around tour buses and motorcycles at a rather risky speed. I was sitting in the back, over the wheel well, which made the journey a little bumpier than John’s, who was happily situated up front, enjoying the dashboard air conditioning. Every time we hit a bump, which occurred approximately 2,714 times over 3 hours, my backseat companions and I were flung 6 inches into the air, becoming quite friendly with the ceiling. My window was covered in some sort of protective film, which had been misapplied, turning the passing scenery a bit wobbly and headache inducing.
The highlight of the journey for me was seeing all the brightly painted trucks whizzing by us…they are done up all snazzy like…I am a big fan.
We arrived in Ayuthaya around 5pm, so the only sensible thing left to do was to head to the backpacker quarter and drink a few liters of Singha beer for $6. We moved on down the road and hit another restaurant/hostel, where John managed to mistake the shower for the bathroom and peed down the shower drain…you never can tell in Thailand…
We fully intended to go home and watch The Bridge on the River Kwai, but we fell asleep instead. This was probably for the better, as the following day turned out to be a long one.
Between 1350 and 1767, Ayutthaya was the capital of Thailand (then known as Siam). In 1767, the city was sacked by the Burmese, who looted most of it’s treasures which were housed in 400 temples throughout the city. What remains today is more than a dozen restored ruins in the Ayutthaya Historical Park, now designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site. We didn’t manage to fit in all of them, but we gave it a good college try.
Our first stop was Wat Phra Mahathat, as it was conveniently located right next to our guest house. Wat Phra Mahathat was flooded with tourists, as we had not gotten up early enough in the day to miss the tour buses from Bangkok. Most of the crowd was surrounding the famous Buddha head tangled up in tree roots. No one really knows how the head ended up here…some say it was abandoned by the Burmese and the tree grew around it. An alternate theory is that the Burmese tried to steal it, but gave up because it was too heavy. The crowds were cramping our style, so we headed further into the park and found a couple of relatively shady and isolated spots.WE thought our house had settled over the years, but these stupas had us beat. I could feel John itching to level everything with shims.
Armed with a cartoon-style map given to us by our hosts, we felt empowered to navigate around the park by ourselves. However, my expectations of riding gayly around temple ruins were hampered by paths that went nowhere, thanks to our completely inaccurate map. We made it to Wat Phra Sanphet next, although that was not where we were intending to go. This ruin features three chedis, and was the city’s largest temple. As well as being over run by tour groups, there was a trio of Japanese girls who were apparently in the middle of a photo shoot, on the three main chedis. We were not quite sure what was going on, but there was a lot of posing with floppy sun hats while an American photographer snapped a zillion pictures of them. Not sure who was paying who…I’m amazed I got one shot with out them in it.
Elephant time! We spied a line of elephants giving tourists a ride around the park. John loves elephants, so we had to go and have a shufti. No longer used a war machines, these elephants are now hard at work entertaining tourists. We skipped the elephant show, but did peek through the barrier and was amused/aghast to see them literally shaking their butts at the audience to a weirdo Thai version of Wrecking Ball. We couldn’t pass up the option to feed them baskets of cucumbers…which they inhaled in seconds.
Elephants are so freakin‘ cool. We are trying to book an elephant stay for later in the trip, but until that pans out, we were content to watch them snorf up some bamboo.We then proceeded to move on to our next site via a route that was completely inaccurate, which brought us close to being squished many times by the hectic Ayutthaya traffic. We pedaled in every direction but the direction we wanted to, stuck on the main road that encircles the city. Two death defying round-a-bouts later, we gave up and went in search for some lunch. Armed with our handy Lonely Planet guide, we settled on a restaurant on the river. Pulling up to the parking lot, we were waved off by two men who told us there was no more food. Hmmmm….really? I think they were hired by the restaurant next door to shoo people away from alternate options. We ended up dining with what seemed like every tour group in Ayutthaya and I had the worst food I’ve ordered so far. Fried chicken with Lemongrass sounded so good…but what was delivered was an inedible plate of, what I can only describe as cruel food.I know, I know, it looks delicious….but, every single ingredient of this meal, other than the cashew nuts, was evil. The ‘chicken’ was just bones wrapped with some fried skin. There seemed to be curlicues of wood shavings intermingled with teeth cracking peppercorns. Even John wouldn’t eat it…so I scavenged some noodles from his prawn dish. With the tour groups and the crappy lunch, my vision of our relaxing day was rapidly crumbling. I was hot and hungry…not a good combination. Spitting nails would be an apt expression.
After lunch, I took a deep breath an adjusted my outlook. I’m on the trip of my life, for god’s sake…let’s get some things in perspective. I’m glad to report that I put my big-girl panties back on and got on with enjoying the day…which turned out to be very pleasant.
Next stop on the new day was Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon, although it was entirely by mistake. We were lured in by the vast number of cock statues…of the avian variety, that is.These roosters have been a fixture in Ayutthaya temples due to the following urban myth: The legend is that Thai Prince Naresuan wagered a bet with a Burmese prince that Ayutthaya would be freed from Burmese rule if Naresuan’s rooster emerged victorious in the cock fight. Prince Naresuan’s rooster won the bet, humiliating the Burmese prince in the process.
Nearby was a huge temple, Wat Phra Mongkhon Bophit, which houses one of Thailand’s biggest bronze Buddhas. We slipped off our shoes and paid our respects. Outside the temple I spied a visitor carefully applying a small square of gold leaf onto the back of a Buddha statue.This tradition symbolizes doing good deeds without seeking attention…which, in my opinion, is the way to go.
While looking for a bathroom in one of the many markets, i spotted this Buddha nestled in the trees…No tour groups…no weirdo Japanese photo shoot going on…I just climbed over the curb, dodged the discarded beer bottles and cigarette butts and stood for a while.
Through pure luck, we actually navigated to our next destination directly, the area surrounding one of Ayutthaya’s two Reclining Buddhas. The heat of the day was declining, our bike riding was now a very pleasant and breezy experience. Our asses were still complaining, but the light from the late afternoon was soothing and we didn’t complain too much after 4pm.Next up was the most important feature at Wat Lokayasutharam: the huge reclining Buddha image, called Phra Bhuddhasaiyart, which faces to the east. .It is constructed of bricks and cement in the art style of the Middle Ayutthaya Period. It is 37 meters long and 8 meters high. The head is placed on a lotus, and the legs overlap squarely to show the equalized toes. He looks fairly chuffed to be having a lay down…I was ready for the same myself. We had one last stop before home, and that was to visit Wat Chai Wattanaram, which lies outside of the the historical park and requires rather a steep grade bridge to get to. It’s supposed to be the place to watch the sun set, so we girded our loins and risked our lives yet again by plunging into the heavy rush hour traffic.
Totally worth it.
Only 40 years ago, this huge Khmer-style temple was covered by a thick jungle…now it has been cleared and is the most ‘complete’ site we visited all day. The prangs have deceptively steep steps, which of course I made John climb for the photo op.Thanks to wikipedia, I have access to the following information, which was completely absent at the site itself…although, coconut ice-cream stalls were plentiful.
The Wat Chaiwatthanaram structure reflects the Buddhist world view, as it is described already in the Traiphum Phra Ruang, the “three worlds of the King Ruang”, of the 14th century: The big “Prang Prathan” that stands in the centre symbolizes the mountain Meru, which consists the central axis of the traditional world. Around it lie the four continents (the four small Prangs) that swim in the four directions in the world sea. On one of the continents, the Chomphutawip, the humans live. The rectangular passage is the outer border of the world, the “Iron Mountains”. The passage is lined with Buddhas, each missing their head.At each corner, there are statues in various stages of decay.While waiting for the sunset, we wandered down to the river where boats were pulling up and delivering tourists who were on the famed ‘sunset cruise’. The Royal Palace lies opposite the river, looking onto the best (in my opinion) temple grounds in Ayuthaya.The setting sun cast a rather glorious light on the whole site, and the resident stray dogs ‘kept watch’ over the whole place.
Sunset finally came, and it was lovely.Having pedaled around Ayutthaya for approximately 8 hours, we were ready to rest our asses and eat a delicious meal. We headed down to the backpacker area and had many beers and delicious food. The highlight of the evening was the house band at the Stage Lamp bar. Mr. Noi and the String Low Band killed the house with a set list that included such hits as Susie Q, Another Brick in the Wall [part 3], House of the Rising Sun and, my favorite, A Horse With No Name. Mr. Noi and his incredible mustache was absolutely superb… I became an instant fan.
I ❤ Mr. Noi.
By the end of the day, we were fully templed out…our next stop is the town of Lopburi…known for the huge number of macaque monkeys that swarm the town. Here's a fantastic preview of the monkey business to come:
If there’s one thing John likes more than elephants…it’s monkeys.