Friday, 9 November 2018

Ayutthaya



Wat Chaiwatthanaram
One week and one day after completing the South West Coast Path my family and I departed the UK for our new lives in Thailand and we now live on the outer edges of Bangkok. This change of life was precipitated by the ongoing cutbacks in Britain, which had made life more and more difficult and in my case led to me being made redundant. This was the catalyst for looking for something else an my wife pulled the most amazing rabbit out of a hat when she landed a job at an International School here in Thailand. We are initially here for two years and if we like it there is the possibility that we will stay on. It promises to be a complete change of pace and this blog will reflect that!

Central Prang
My first trip out of the city was to the ancient capital of Thailand, Ayutthaya. This is approximately one hour north of where we now live but required an early start, largely so we could beat the traffic when escaping from Bangkok. The trip up from Bangkok was lovely - after seeing nothing but city since we have been here it was refreshing to see countryside and fields. None were like anything we have in Britain though - largely they were rice paddy fields and had storks and egrets roaming about in them. I imagine they are full of crayfish and frogs and the like.Since going the first time I have made a subsequent trip using the train and that was a far more enjoyable way of getting there since we went across a tract of countryside devoid of roads and this enabled us to see more wildlife. This blog entry is a blend of all the best bits from my two trips - they were a little different although I visited the same stuff with two different groups of people.
Outer Prang
Trains here are an interesting way of getting around. They aren't particularly quick and for this short journey there is actually little difference in timings between the 'ordinary' trains and 'rapid' or 'special express' but the fares vary considerably. We took an ordinary train and were most surprised at the fare - 11 baht (approximately £0.25) from Lak Si station (our nearest). The special express costs more than four times this amount - still a very reasonable cost to be honest. Life on board in third class is very interesting - you see all sorts of people travelling to work, to see family and friends, Buddhist monks and large groups of old people who look like the go on the train just for social time and a change of scenery. Vendors wander up and down regularly selling drinks out of ice-filled buckets, baskets full of packaged lunches that seem to include mostly rice and preserved fish, plastic looking sandwiches and cut tropical fruits such as pineapple, papaya and mango. The one thing you cannot buy is a beer for selling alcohol on board is illegal.
Reclining Buddha
The best way of seeing Ayutthaya is to travel around the city by bicycle as it is on a fairly large scale and this is what I did on both occasions. It isn't for the faint hearted though - cycling in Thailand on any road is quite a scary experience because of the traffic conditions and the lack of space or dedicated bike lanes. It is possible to walk around but this is even less enjoyable! You can go by tuk tuk too of course but you miss something of everyday life and views doing this.
 
Wat Phra Si Sanphet

Ayutthaya is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, designated in 1991, and was formerly the capital of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, the forerunner of Siam and later Thailand. It was sacked by the Burmese in 1767 and most of the historical temples were destroyed at that time. The capital city then moved to Thonburi and later Bangkok. What is left here is the most amazing set of ruined temples that only hint at the grandeur of the place before being destroyed. Most of the ruins are on an island in the Chao Phraya River, created by a canal cut across one of the large meander loops that characterise the lower course of the river.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet
We arrived first at Wat Chaiwatthanaram. This was an enormous temple a little way from the centre but gave us a fabulous taster of what was to come. In fact I would say this was my favourite of the sites we went to. Perfectly symmetrical but badly damaged it had a haunting atmosphere about it. The temple, like most of the others here had been badly damaged when the city was ransacked by the Burmese in the 17th Century. Much of the building is now being restored, presumably to stop any more of it falling down. This temple was built in 1630 by King Prasat Thong as a memorial to his mother's residence in that area. The temple's name literally means the Temple of long reign and glorious era and was designed in the then fashionable Khmer style. The towers are known as prangs and this one has a large central one and four smaller ones at each corner of a rectangular platform. Outside this are chedi shaped chapels and inside are a lot of mostly headless Buddhas, which were destroyed by the invading Burmese army. The temple was the plundered for building materials leaving it in its rather forlorn current state.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet
Having satisfied ourselves that we had seen everything we moved on, taking to our bikes and for the first time dealing with the traffic. We cycled along the busy road and across the river to the island that the majority of the city is located on. It was about 15 minutes to the next point of interest, which was known as Wat Lokaysutharum. The temple here was nothing like as impressive as it was mostly ruined - all that remained was a poorly preserved prang above ground level and the rest was just an outline of what must have once been here. However, the whole place was dominated by a huge reclining Buddha which is 42m long. It was an astonishing sight and has clearly been restored quite heavily judging by the variable tones of the material it is made from. Apparently it is often covered in an orange cloth but not today. One thing that struck me was the length of the toes were all the same - once noticed it is a rather strange detail. On the road surrounding the site were a lot of vendors selling incense, drinks, flowers and fried snacks. I guess the open nature of the site lends itself to this kind of activity - not many were buying though.

Golden Buddha
We spent a short time here before moving on again and shortly after setting off I quickly realised that not all was right with my bike. By the time I had got a short distance down the road my tyre was going flat and I had to stop and send the others with me on ahead to let the rest of the group know that I had a puncture. The lady in the adjacent cafe did her best to try and help and soon I had also attracted the attention of the tourist police who also want to help. Help eventually came and we wheeled over the the reclining Buddha where were to meet the truck that was carrying a spare bike. It took forever for the truck to come by which time the tourist police had tired of us loitering and had the tyre off to repair the puncture. Their efforts though I think would have been in vain for when the truck arrived I merely changed bikes.

Elephant Rides
We cycled off to find the others and found them at the very impressive Wat Phra Si Sanphet. This was a much grander affair than we had yet seen and apparently was the holiest of the temples in the whole of Ayutthaya. Judging from its scale I could well believe it. The site was dominated by three enormous chedi (also known as stupas). These succumbed to the destruction of the Burmese army but were rebuilt in a major restoration in 1956 and now add an air of grandeur to the site that is unmatched in any of the other temples. Next door to the ruin there is an active temple, complete with large golden Buddha inside. I took my shoes off as is customary here and went inside for a look before moving on.

Big Nut for a Small Squirrel
On our way to the next temple on our itinerary we got to see our first Thai elephant. I would like to say this was a truly uplifting experience but sadly this wasn't a wild elephant but one engaged in offering rides. I cannot be sure how these ones are treated but I have been told of some horrific practices relating to elephant rides. I definitely had mixed feelings about seeing these ones therefore. On the second trip we saw even more of them - the scale of the operation was quite big and so there is clearly plenty of demand for the rides.
 
Water Lily

We passed by Wat Phra Ram, which is another paid for entry but didn't stop there principally because we didn't think there was enough to see inside to warrant paying. Our route took us across Rama Public Park, a fantastic green space in the heart of Ayutthaya. We were very thankful to leave the traffic behind as we crossed the park and the shade from the trees was pretty welcome too.

Buddha Head


At the far end of the park we visited time to Wat Phra Mahatat. Having come from possibly the best temple in town this seemed a bit after the Lord Mayor's Show but has probably one of the most famous sights in all of Thailand with the Buddha head that had become engulfed by a tree. Usually one of the most famous sights at Ayutthaya and is often thronged with tourists wanting to get a picture. Thankfully we had come on a quieter day so we didn’t need to fight through the crowds. On the second trip here I took longer to look around the temple rather than just come for the photo opportunity and discovered that it was more extensive than I first thought.
 
Buddha Statue
 
On the second trip (which we did the opposite way round due to arrival by train) we also called in at Wat Ratburana next door. This has possibly the best prang in the whole town and had the bonus of being able to climb up to the top (mostly climbing in any of the temples is a big no no). This afforded a great view but also allowed a view inside where we found some roosting bats (not easy to see but easy to smell!) and some very faded frescos. These clearly had escaped the attentions of the Burmese and are definitely worth going to see for there is precious little other artwork anywhere in any of the temples.

Dressed Up
By the time we were done here we were all pretty ready for lunch and that was our next port of call on the edge of the city. We just had a simple lunch of Pad Thai at one of the huge number of roadside cafes. I’m not sure how they all get enough business to stay afloat, especially when they all pretty much serve the same stuff? For a dirt cheap meal it was pretty good and feeling satisfied we moved on, cycling back to the bus at the original temple. Given the heat this was about as much as we wanted to do in one day but there are several other less celebrated temples on the main island and a couple of other further flung ones that I shall definitely want to take a look at now I have familiarised myself with the place. This might form the basis of a future blog entry.
Prang at Wat Ratburana

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