Ayutthaya

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Understanding the capital of Siam

Written by Emmy on 18 June 2011

IMG_1368Bangkok wears its history on the surface, with wats and prangs as plentiful as its shopping malls and pad thai carts. The Thai people demonstrate enormous respect for their past, a fact which became even more evident on our day trip to Ayutthaya on Monday.

Ayutthaya, situated about 70 kilometers north of Bangkok, was the historic seat of Thai power. Beginning in the mid-1300s, kings from five successive dynasties governed the Siamese people from the palaces and temples of Ayutthaya. Sacked by Burma, Siam’s constant enemy, in 1767, Ayutthaya was later abandoned as the capital in favor of a more geographically secure city: Bangkok. Though much of Ayutthaya was destroyed in several battles with the enemy, what remains has been preserved for tourists — Thai and foreigners alike — to come explore.

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We began our trip at Bangkok’s major train station, where we were offered the opportunity to pay 20 baht (less than $1) for a third-class ticket to Ayutthaya. We opted to pay a slightly steeper fee in order to enjoy much-needed air conditioning. After a 90-minute trip through the Thai countryside, we arrived in Ayutthaya and made our way to a small pier. The old city is separated from the train station by a narrow river, which must be crossed by boat. We paid a total of 8 baht in order to board what was generously dubbed a ferry.IMG_1409

Once on the other side, we purchased an all-access pass to the many ruins. Fragments of the once glorious temples remain, and though the stone towers and walls are punctuated by overgrown grassy fields, what still stands serves to demonstrate the impeccable craftsmanship that went into building Ayutthaya so many centuries ago.

IMG_1401After all of our touring around, we’ve learned a couple helpful hints to better decipher the temples and ruins of Thailand. For example, a Buddha with the left hand extended means “Stop fighting.”

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In Ayutthaya, many of the ancient Buddha statues are still intact, but the majority had their heads cut off by the Burmese invaders, leaving rows and rows of headless bodies. In contrast, one of the most famous Ayutthaya sites is the bodiless head of Buddha, encased in tree roots.

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We trooped around the old city, pausing in our historical journey only for a brief lunch of pad see ew and chicken with cashews.

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Appreciation for the wonders of Ayutthaya is still very fresh in Thai minds. Only recently, excavators discovered a crypt inside on the more majestic temples. I got a little creeped out by the steep, deep staircase, but Chaz went down to check it out for himself. The piles of golden Buddhas and other relics found in the depths of the temple are now on display in Bangkok’s National Museum, which we were able to visit on Wednesday before heading out of the capital.

We walked the entirety of Ayutthaya’s ruins, but caught a glimpse of Thai transportation history: elephants paraded around near the ruins, carrying tourists on their backs.

Toward the end of our day, all the walking began to take its toll. Though we did not board an elephant, we did partake in another feature of Thai life: a tuk-tuk. All week in Bangkok, we kept encountering these strange vehicles. An alternative to taxis, tuk-tuks look almost like golf carts from the front. Some have only a small bench for passengers, while others look like they could seat eight people. In Bangkok, tuk-tuks stopped every time we tried to hail a cab, but we waved them all away, opting for safety and air conditioning. In Ayutthaya, conventional taxis were nowhere to be found and we were a very solid walk from the water. So we hopped into the backseat of a persistent tuk-tuk driver and held on for the bumpy ride. There’s no meter, so we had negotiated a price beforehand. We most definitely paid more than a local would, but for less than $2, not an awful way to travel. Still, we disembarked in agreement that once was enough. (But I have since learned that apparently in Chiang Mai, taxis can be hard to come by and tuk-tuks are the way to go. We’re hopeful the city’s small size will make it easily walkable.)

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On our way to the boat, we walked through an open food market: the first signs that Ayutthaya was still a flourishing town of any kind. But just as we were getting into the trenches of the fish display, the sky opened up. Big, dark clouds had begun to emerge in the later part of the afternoon and the moment of monsoon had definitely come. Only problem: we had to cross the river. Putting everything we had with us into my bag and then under my raincoat, we ran for the ferry and made the adventurous crossing.

Despite the insane weather, our little train managed to get us back to Bangkok on a relatively timely schedule, wet, but a bit more cultured.