Thursday, May 24, 2012

Re-visiting Ayutthaya

Wat Mahatat Buddha detail, Ayutthaya
One of the top tourist destinations in Thailand is the ancient capital, Ayutthaya, a mere hour from Bangkok by train. Founded in 1350, Ayutthaya is a former capital of Thailand, which was overrun and destroyed by the Burmese only 300 years ago. Our purpose was not to sight-see per se, as we had been there many times, but to introduce our daughter Plu to the sites and history. Despite her seven + years in a foster family only 60 kilometers north of Ayutthaya, she had never been there. Come to think of it, she had never been on a train. So, it was a weekend full of firsts for Plu.

Our adventure began on a third class train that slowly made its way from northeast Bangkok. I have yet to figure out how to purchase a second class seat, but if one is fairly  tolerant and wishes to experience the "real" Thailand, then third class--open windows and some partially functioning overhead fans--is the way to go. Besides, who can't stand 90+F (32C) heat for an hour? And you can't beat the fare: 20 baht (60 cents) each.

Shortly into our voyage, we secured seats with the help of a friendly conductor and settled in for the short hop to Ayutthaya through rice fields and along litter-strewn tin shanty towns that cropped up periodically along the tracks. Passengers chatted, dozed and largely stared during the steamy trip, occasionally stopping droning vendors to purchase plastic-wrapped rice meals or--in my case--cold beer that was packed in ice-filled thermos coolers. The vendors plied the aisles continuously, hawking their wares. At some stops, passengers leaned out the window to buy ice cream from platform-based sellers.

On the train to Ayutthaya

Once in Ayutthaya, we negotiated a reduced but still over-priced tuk-tuk ride to our accommodation and were pleasantly surprised to see that it (found in the online crap shoot) was fabulous. Outside of the old city, the area was nothing memorable, but the guest house suite was furnished in the old Ayutthaya style, complete with beds on teak platforms. Lush vegetation and old statuary graced the courtyard.

Apparently, there are no safety restrictions on tuk-tuks.

Antique terracotta urns in the guest house courtyard

Our first venture was to head to Wat Mahatat, famous for its dramatic chedis (pagodas) and iconic Buddha head entwined by centuries of tree root growth. We had the place pretty much to ourselves, which is unusual, and the few tourists that did enter the grounds were Thai. Wandering through what once was a majestic and busy temple of the Thai kings was peaceful and reflective. Across the street from the wat, we enjoyed a Thai meal, then headed to a nearby street market. Our tour of the market was interrupted by a dramatic electrical storm and downpour that sent us scurrying for cover under the tarp roof of a street-side restaurant where we waited until we could catch a tuk-tuk back to the guest house.

Approaching storm over Wat Mahatat ruins

The next day afforded me an early morning bike tour of the neighboring areas of some of the ruins and modern temples more distant from the city center. The air was, well, not cool, but certainly not yet hot, jasmine scent filled the still air, and the low sun lent a glow to the temples and ruins. I have never felt that a return visit to Ayutthaya has been anything other than a new experience. Of course we will go back many times.

Wat Kasatrathirat Worawihan detail.
Morning sun on ancient chedis (pagodas), Wat Chai Watthanaram