Back in November I decided I needed to go somewhere far far away, and booked my first ever solo holiday and first ever trip outside of Europe to Sri Lanka, Singapore and Thailand.
On my second day in Bangkok, I take an organised trip to the ex-capital of the kingdom of Siam, Ayutthaya [Eye-you-tee-ah], founded in 1350. Later in the year I read the Indian epic poem Ramayana, and only then made the link between the city’s name and the legendary Ayodha in India, ruled by demi-god Rama, the hero of the text and also name-spiration for the ruling Thai dynasty (we’re currently on King Rama IX). The Ramayana more than once refers to the etymology of Ayodha as an ‘unconquerable’ city, although sadly this wasn’t the case for Ayutthaya, which was sacked by Burmese armies in 1767. The remaining complex of ruined palaces and temples is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There were four stops:
- The UNESCO-honoured Historical Park
Red-brick ruins, some spiky, some corn cob-style (similar to Wat Pho). Plenty of sitting Buddhas, some of them sadly headless. The red brick is made from clay taken from under rice paddies. Our tour guide impresses upon us the amazing fact that the temples date from the 1300s; only slightly younger than the still-functioning Notre Dame de Paris.
2. Buddha head in tree
Within the ruins of Wat Mahathat in the Historical Park sits one of those amazing exposed-root trees that you see everywhere in Thailand. Nestled near the ground there is a famous Buddha head, its stone the same shade and texture as the tree roots. I’d first encountered the Buddha/tree thing in Colombo, and here our tour guide explains the link to us: Buddha attained enlightenment whilst sitting under a tree (the ‘Bodhi tree’ still alive at Bodh Gaya in north-east India), which event this could be a representation of, although it’s also speculated that the disembodied figure could have been put there initially to hide it from the Burmese.
3. Large stone reclining Buddha
Within the ruins of Wat Lokayasutharam there is a huge reclining Buddha, a delapidated version of the golden one in Wat Phrakaew.
There seem to be limited ‘casts’ of Buddha: reclining, sitting cross-legged, standing up arms down or raised. They all have the same hair, face, long ear-lobes and cropped curls in the Sri Lankan style, quite different to the fat laughing ones of Singapore which originate from China.
4. Bang Pa-In Royal Palace
A 30-minute drive away from Ayutthaya, we alight at the King’s Summer Palace. It’s a blazing sunny day, there are lushly irrigated lawns, landscaping (elephant-shaped bushes!), rivers, bridges, and buildings in all sorts of styles:
- The Aisawan Thiphya-Art (Divine Seat of Personal Freedom) is a traditional Thai-style spiky-gabled pavilion set on an island that appears to float, reachable only by boat, and being swept by cleaners that use the same witch-like tendrilled brushes the street cleaners use. This is the reason I booked the tour:
- The Warophat Phiman (Excellent and Shining Heavenly Abode) is a classical-style palace used for occasional royal functions. Architecturally, it is quite similar to a Western stately home, except for a more Thai-style throne room, and the wall pictures: these are similar to the paintings you see in temples, with 2D people and buildings, and plenty of gold leaf. Here, as everywhere, you have to go barefoot inside, and no photos are allowed.
- Wehart Chamrunt (Heavenly Light) is an incredibly ornate Chinese-style palace:
The grounds also contain a look-out tower and an amazing Buddhist temple that, from the pictures, looks eerily Catholic. We didn’t see it but I would if I went back.
We take a boat cruise back to Bangkok, which is less exciting than anticipated. There’s not much going on on this stretch of river; there are a few traditional Thai houses elevated on stilts above the water, but the river is mainly tree-lined. Next to us, three huge barges trundle along; they’re being pulled by a much smaller boat and are tied to each other with old rope. I wouldn’t be surprised if the cargo was coconuts, which do a roaring trade here.
I make friends with two Germans, bonding over our irritation with the Thai tour guide’s dramatic intonation and bewilderment at the fuzzy American version of You’ve Been Framed that’s playing on two screens in the background.
I decide to go for dinner on the Khao San Road with my new friends. This place is crazy at night. It’s crowded with even more street vendors than usual, some of them selling degree certificates, ID cards, driving licenses, university cards out on the open street – faked or stolen? – and some extremely crude wristbands (e.g. ‘rape me now’). The bars, restaurants and massage parlours are overflowing with tourists and pounding out techno tunes to an audience of drunk Brits. We buck the trend by settling in a cute fairy-lit side street for house music and cocktails.
Part 3 continued here!