After tooling around the big city, I figured I had better make hay and see some of the surrounding countryside before heading to the southern islands. So, I boarded a bus at 7am, and said “north old chap” to the non english speaking driver.
My destination was Ayuthaya, the sacred city thathovers to the north about 1 hour drive on the brand spanking new ringed highway. With a population of 90k, this city was the former capital (1300-1760s) until it was crushed by the Burmese. It was sacked, burned, looted, pillaged and as a result, over 10,000 people were killed with another 30k taken as “slaves” back to Burma during the internecine warfare. Tough times indeed for both sides I might imagine?
I wanted to see the ruins that were declared a Unesco World Heritage site back in the early 1990s. So, I jumped on a bus after a 6am wake up call and made my way past rice fields, fish/bananna/fruit/mango plantations and suburban sprawl (that lasted a good 30 minutes outside of bangkok). Once I hit the countryside, the land was a flat, farmland pancake with numerous ditches, dikes and ravines for the incessant waters to flow. Its easy to see how this entire ecosystem is at the mercy of the monsoon rains. I would later see high water marks of up to a meter at the ruins from sporadic flooding in the recent past. Not to take a tangent, but I wonder what happens to this region in the coming 10-20 years if global climates go “worst case” and the sea rises by even a few feet.
I started my day visit with a stop at the Bang Pa-In – the royal palaces. This was euro disney meets “The King and I” hollywood movie set. I was not amused that I paid 100s of baht to see a 150 year old banyan tree, a fish pool w/ very rabid koi and sea turtles that went manic when the touristas threw bread from the pavillion above. While the architecture on the Chamrun Palace and victorian tower were fanciful, everything was a bit too manicured and a bit too precise for my liking.
I guess Rama V (the king from the late 1800s) had a fascination with european buildings (can you say replicas of Versaille and a europhile taste for gardens). You got the sense this place was never used for existing royals (although I was told Clinton and the Queen of England had dined there recently).
Moving right along, I made haste to the numerous temples and adorning Wats of the region. I spent some time at Wat Phra Mahathat, with the buddha head that has been ensnarled by roots of a local tree.
Quite the photo opp, as it reminded me of something from Angor Wat in Cambodia? I took alot of photos of the Khmer-style towers that were scattered about..but frankly was not overwhelmed as they were reconstructed brittle things that had visible concrete in a varity of places and presumably very little of the original handiwork (masonry, engravings, etc) wasleft. It was Khmer ruins gone apocalyptic. When the Burmese came through Ayuthaya, they leveled the city and from the looks of the remains, really burned the hell out of everything.
After a number of additional temples that again were non-descript but had the air of nobler times lost to antiquity, I paid my respects to a golden buddha at Wat Na Phra Meru. This 6m high buddha smiled its characteristic smile from above and I solemnly kneeled like my asian brethren.
After the incense filled the nostrils and I had divulged to buddha all that was kept, it was time to head back to the city for wonton bachnallian dining. I was le starved after the day spent walking the ruins in the reprehensible heat. Returning partially by bus, I made the last two hours memorable, despite my exhaustion, by returning by boat on the Mae Nam Chao Phraya river.
If I ever have the chance to travel by river, I almost always take the option. You can learn alot about a society, a culture and its foundation by seeing how people react to the waters that surround their land. WIth a country primarly surrounded by water, the nautical Thai’s were plying the river with a variety of activity. Whether washing their hair, fishing, moving product by barge or swimming playfully (alot of little kids enjoying the river banks), this was truly an amazing way to end the day. The visuals were interesting on multiple levels.
After returning to Bangkok and taking a nap (that heat just drains the body and mind of its wherewithall), I headed out to dinner. A former colleague from Time Inc. suggested I visit her favorite restuarant up in the northern part of the city for some delicious curry. Mission accomplished!