I woke up on Sunday with a horrible feeling that everything that could go wrong, would go wrong. So much for Murphy being an optimist. We were heading to Ayutthaya, some 80 km north of Bangkok. The scam-merchant for whose patter we’d fallen was to send a driver to take us to the station. And he did. He came. He collected. And he deposited us at the station where he bought our train tickets, handed them to us, parked us at the platform and went on his way. It was only after he’d left that I checked to see what seat we had and in which carriage, given that we were to have a seat in second class with air conditioning. But no. The scam continued. We had the cheapest of seats – some 20 baht (about 55 cents) – third class standing. No air-con. And on Thai Rail, the journey to Ayutthaya would take some 90 minutes. The fishwives of Moore Street would have taken me for one of their own, such was the litany of names I called him.
We boarded and sat for about 10 minutes before we were ousted by passengers who had seat reservations. We nabbed another two seats and got away with another 20 minutes before being upseated again. At this stage, the train was crowded. The air was stale. And it was bloody hot. The holy souls were flying out of purgatory as I wished the worst of all haemorrhoids on our TAT agent.
Once in Ayutthaya, we had directions – very specific directions – and had we followed them, we’d have walked through the Architectural Park, home to many ruined temples, remnants of a time when this city was once the capital of the country. We managed to find the ferry – the old town is on an island bordered by three rivers. But we took a wrong turn and ended up walking for what seemed like an eternity in some stifling humidity. Hotter than Hades it was. Hades, where I hope my TAT man ends up after his haemorrhoids inflame. Turn off the air-air-concon, Satan, and make him stand.
Staying in Ayutthaya
We’d booked a homestay, in Nature Home, not really sure what it was. It turned out to be an ensuite room in a complex where the couple lived themselves. A B&B. And it had air-con. Himself was happy because it had a café with good coffee. I was happy because it had air-con and wifi. The chap in charge told us that the best way to see the city was to take a river tour which stopped at three of the myriad temples in the city. There are loads of them, some working, some restored, some in ruins, and more again with no trace at all other than a mention in the city’s archives. We’d be taken by TukTuk to the river and then dropped back to the B&B or to the night market. All for 250 baht per person. My sincerity meter was obviously not working so I left it up to himself to decide and he went with it. He liked the guy. He’s a better judge than I am because it turned out to be great.
We shared the boat with a German family of 3, and a New Zealand/German couple with the cutest Swiss baby. He’s a skydiving instructor and they were on their way to someplace in Perth for a six-month contract. A nice way to live and see the world. I had a fleeting moment of envy until I remembered that I, too, could live the nomadic life had I not inherited all those fruit trees.
Temples in Ayutthaya
We docked for 20 minutes at each of the three temples on our itinerary. The first, Wat Phanan Choeng, warned us not to leave our shoes outside because they might walk. It was mobbed with locals paying their respects to the 19-meter-tall gold Buddha, the temple’s main attraction.
According to legend Phra Chao Sai Nam Phung, a King who ruled before the founding of Ayutthaya, wanted to marry the daughter of a Chinese emperor. When the Princess named Soi Dok Mak arrived by boat the King was not there to welcome her. After having waited in vain a long time for the King’s return, the Princess was so sad that she killed herself by holding her breath. When the King finally returned he was stricken with grief and built the Wat Phanan Choeng on the spot where she was cremated.
The second, Wat Phutthaisawan, had something going on with roosters – there were so many of them in and around the statues of the old Kings. Apparently, they’re a nod to the then future King Naresuan, who was heavily into cockfighting when he was a prisoner in Burma. And there I was thinking they’d some religious significance. He was so big that three movies have been made about this life.
By the time we got to the third, Wat Chaiwatthanaram, I was templed out. We didn’t go in, but rather looked in from the outside and hung out by the river watching the traffic go by. Apparently, there’s a replica of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat inside the complex, but hey ho. It’s impossible to see it all. Built by the king in honour of his mother, this is where the locals come, dressed in national costumes, to take their portrait photos. Had we had another 30 minutes or so, we’d have seen it set against the sunset.
Even before we went on the river, we’d wandered over to the Architectural Park and started with the ruins of Wat Mahathat. It’s fascinating. The statues are mostly headless – a few too many for it to have been an accident. Apparently, the statues were deliberately decapitated when the Burmese invaded in 1767. Spotting Buddha body parts around the site was a little surreal. But perhaps the most famous image here is the sandstone Buddha head entwined in the roots of a Banyan tree. I hadn’t realised the significance of Buddha heads in the religion. Images differ widely from country to country, apparently, but I found this about the one in Ayutthaya:
Among many theories, one theory suggests that the tree grew around the head of the Buddha when the temple was left abandoned. Similarly, another theory also states that a thief moved the Buddha head away from the main temple in Ayutthaya to hide it. But after moving the stone Buddha head away from the ruined main temple, it is believed that the thief could not move the head beyond the walls surrounding the temple. Instead of that, the stone Buddha head was left by the wall where it got nestled in the tree roots which have grown and entwined around it.
Eating in Ayutthaya
When it came time to eat, there was no question. We headed to the Night Market where you can sample just about everything there is to eat on a Thai menu. My favourite discovery was Ka Nom Tom – Thai coconut balls.
River traffic in Ayutthaya
Massive barges float up and down the rivers of Ayutthaya, pulled and pointed by colourful tugboats. Next to them, locals criss-cross at will, fishermen keep an eye on their rods, and the long-tailed dhow skippers race at up to 100 km an hour. Add to the mix the commercial ferries and tour boats and it gets to be a busy spot.
Houses on stilts line the banks not looking nearly as attractive as the many houseboats that are tethered to their moorings. If they ran electricity and had air-con, I’d consider staying a few weeks.
After the hassle and hustle of Bangkok, it was a joy to visit this lovely, laid-back cradle of culture. Check out some more photos on the Facebook page. Suitably recharged, I was all set to head north to Chiang Mai until I remembered that part of the TAT scam is that the tickets sold are not only overpriced but fake! I didn’t sleep much that night. Standing for the guts of an hour in the third-class carriage of a train perfumed with fresh urine from the rancid loo is one thing. Not getting a seat on a booked-out train or worse still, not discovering the forgery until an hour into the journey… that’s the stuff my nightmare was made of.