Sunday, 17 January 2016

Ayutthaya: the ancient capial of Siam

One of the most charming places I visited during my three-week backpacking trip to Thailand was Ayutthaya. Sometimes neglected by travellers caught between northern Thailand with its world-famous street food and  the glorious beaches of the south, Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Siam, is ideally situated a couple of hours by train from Bangkok and it did not feel crowded or overtly touristy at all. UNESCO-listed, atmospheric and quiet, it is the perfect retreat from chaotic and polluted Bangkok.

 A corner of Wat Mahatat in Ayutthaya
Let me tell you that to get there by myself from Bangkok was the easiest thing in the world: no hassles at all at the train station, and the third class carriage is not as bad as it sounds: it's even funny, and super cheap (20 baht, around €0,50). People passed by every two minutes selling snacks, while older Thai men checked my ticket to make sure I was on the right train. There were many backpackers on the train, all waiting in trepidation to visit these world-famous ruins. Once in Ayutthaya, I walked straight, then hopped on to a boat for a few baht to cross the river and in no time I was in front of  the ruins.

A Buddha statue in Ayutthaya
Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 and it was the capital of a kingdom that stretched all over Thailand. The town takes its name from Ayodhya, the mythical birthplace of the Hindu god Rama and the setting for the Hindu epic Ramayana, which Thai people call Ramakien. The city prospered until it was sacked and burned to the ground by the Burmese in 1767. It was at this point that the capital of Siam was moved further south, in Bangkok.  
A stupa in Wat Phra Si Sanphet
The ruins in Ayutthaya are inside a historical park surrounded by a moat, but there are separate entrance fees (50 baht, €1,30) for each main temple. You'll soon begin to orient yourself in terms of which ruins are on the island and which are off the island. There are a few interesting ruins off the island, that is to say outside the park, for which it is advisable to hire your own transportation (a bike, a motorcycle or a tuk-tuk ride are all fine). You could even hire an elephant, but concerns about the well-being might stop you.
Elephant ride in Ayutthaya
The first temple I visited was Wat Mahatat. Most of the buildings in Ayutthaya only show the orange brick with which they were built, but the countless Buddha statues with offerings of flowers or food on the side, the contrast with the green grass and the general atmosphere of quiet and harmony of Wat Mahatat are unique. I noticed that most Buddha statues in Ayutthaya were decapitated, probably a consequence of the aforementioned sack, yet around this temple there were several intact ones, and they are in beautiful surroundings.
One of the Buddha statues in Wat Mahatat
This is also where you can find a tree with roots growing all around a Buddha head that rolled down the rest of the body long ago. There is something mystical about this image: a face deep in meditation, with a peaceful expression, but swallowed - or perhaps only caressed - by the roots of a tree. 
The famous Buddha statue with roots all around it
I decided to sleep one night in Ayutthaya, so I took my time to visit it without rushing or looking too much at the watch. It was an excellent decision. On the morning of the second day I went to Wat Chaiwatthanaram. Even though I regret not going there for sunset with the evening boat tour, I had the temple almost completely to myself. Since it is located outside of the island, most day-tours skip it. It's huge and spacious, with a considerable visual  impact, but it's not as old as you might think. It was built in the 17th century in the Khmer style, in vogue at the time.
Wat Chaiwatthanaram
Another temple worth visiting is Wat Si Sanphet, with its famous three stupas (also called chedis), the typical bell-shaped structure of Buddhist temples. Its the most important temple in Ayutthaya, because it used to be the royal residence. Monks, with their bright orange tunics, are a fairly common sight in Thailand, but they always make for great pictures. 
Wat Ratchaburana was my fourth temple among those with an entrance fee. I found this the least charming among the four, perhaps because part of it was being restored, or perhaps because by now I was a bit templed-out.
Some of the statues that decorate Wat Ratchaburana
A couple of things I didn't like about Ayutthaya are the stray dogs that wonder around the place and the inexplicable absence of places to eat around the ruins.
Buddha heads in Ratchaburana
Ayutthaya was one of the highlights of my trip to Thailand, and yet I almost missed it. My initial plan was to go to Sukhothai, further north, and then maybe go for a couple of days to Siem Reap and visit the amazing ruins of Angkor Wat. In the end, I skipped Sukhothai in favour of the Loy Krathong festival in Chiang Mai and I ended up cancelling Cambodia due to a lack of time and organizaiton. Ayutthaya offered me what I wanted - amazing ruins and lots of history- at less hassle. If you're in Thailand and you've always dreamt of playing Indian Jones among the ruins, this is the place to go.


Monday, 4 January 2016

On the footsteps of emperors - visiting Split

For a history enthusiast like me visiting Split in Croatia was a real delight and a dream that came true. The city grows around and within what used to be Diocletian's Palace, built around 300 AD as a private residence for the emperor's retirement. He chose this place because it was close to his home town of Salona. The palace was abandoned after the decline of the Roman Empire, but in the 7th century people took refuge here to hide from the Slavic invaders. They started to build houses and business shops inside the palace complex, which had been both a fortified citadel and an imperial palace. When I first arrived in Split I was asking myself where the palace was exactly, and then I realized that it is everywhere: inside private houses, on the courtyards of restaurants, or inside a museum!

Inside the palace

One façade of the palace looks onto the sea, while the others are fortified, with a gate for each side. Some of the decorations have disappeared, like the statues that stood inside the niches, but the Croatian men dressed as centurions will remind you that you are in a place of considerable historical significance. Tufts of grass or flowers grow among the stones, giving an air of fascinating decadence to the whole place.

One of the ancient gates

Walking along the walls, I was soon able to find, next to the Porta Aurea (Golden Gate), the statue of Grgur Ninski, the 10th-century Croatian archbishop who introduced the Croatian language for religious services. It is a pretty big statue and it has become one of the symbols of Split. It brings good luck to rub the statue's toe, which as a result is smooth and shiny.

The toe of Grgur Ninski's statue
Emperor Diocletian is famous for having harshly persecuted Christians but, quite ironically, after his death the mausoleum built to host his remains was turned into a church. It maintains the original 4th-century Roman structure, and it has a 2,500-old black sphinx at the entrance. Other parts of the church were obviously added  later, like the bell tower. A mish-mash of styles is rather astonishing, if not interesting. 

The mausoleum looks out onto the Peristyle, a monumental columned porch that formed the access to the emperor's apartments in Roman times and is now the main square of the town. In the evenings you can sit on the stairs, on red cushions provided by one of the bars, and listen to music performances while admiring the ruins or observing the architectural details. I was completely mesmerized by this square and I was trying to imagine how it looked like in Roman times.

The main square in Split
Split is such a fascinating place, full of surprises around the corners of its glistening paved streets. You pass under porticoes, next to columns, and observe windows with colourful shutters built into the structure of the palace.

Buildings from different periods intersect the Roman ruins, forming a chaos that is nonetheless rather charming. Restaurants and bars put their tables on the paved streets, next to the palace walls, offering their food: seafood and pasta are everywhere, but you can also find soups and Bosnian cevapcici if you search well. While getting lost in the narrow streets of the old town, you can peer through an iron gate and discover a secret garden with ancient marble columns and thousand-year-old stones that formed part of the temples and buildings inside the palace.

Peering through a gate and discovering a secret garden in Split

My favourite sight in Split was Jupiter's Temple, once part of the complex of the palace and now a baptistery. There's a headless Egyptian black sphinx guarding the entrance, but the real star is the door. I photographed it so many times at different hours of the day, because I love the carvings and the marble with which it is built. It made me feel like Indian Jones, especially because it is located at the end of a small street that departs from the Peristyle, elevated from the main street level. Interestingly, the statue inside the small temple is not of Jupiter but of Saint John the Baptist.

Door to the temple of Jupiter

In spite of being a city built around ancient ruins, Split is rather modern, with fancy shops and sophisticated restaurants that could compete with any town in Italy. It was quite a shock to come here directly from Sarajevo, which is in many ways a simpler kind of place, with less international brands on display and devoid of that annoying obsession for everything hipster.
A restaurant in Split

I will give you an example of the kind of shock that travelling from Bosnia to Croatia will give you. On my way back to the coast of Croatia from Bosnia, which is almost a landlocked country, we passed through some mountains, and then entered a valley. There, the first thing I could see after villages and villages characterized by a small mosque with a tall slender minaret, was a church with a pointy bell tower. This reminded me of the religious divisions in the area, and how different ethnicities live side by side in this part of the world.
A religious image inside a window in Split

Outside of the city walls, the city is equally beautiful. Walking along the Riva - the seafront with a Venetian name - is really pleasant. From here you have a view of the outer walls of Diocletian's palace, but you can also enjoy the nice breeze coming from the sea. I remember that there were some stalls selling fritule, which is a sweet of Venetian origin, except that we only eat them around Carnival time, in the winter, and here there are for sell even in the summer. I also took a long walk on the hill that surrounds the town, and ate a really good dinner at Konoba Fife, right at the end of the Riva. You can have fresh mussels or seafood risotto here for a very reasonable price.
The Riva

For my second day in Split I know I wanted to relax, so I headed for the beach. There is one just outside of the town centre, but as most beaches in Croatia it is rocky, not sandy. It's called Bačvice beach: it is crowded, but not unpleasant. The water is crystal clear and there are some nice bars along the shore for refreshments and maybe a good tuna salad.
Bacvice beach in Split
There isn't much to do in Split, aside from walking around. Split is like an open-air museum, where occasionally you'll enter a two-thousand-year old structure. I found it interesting fascinating that the purpose of certain buildings is not certain: it sheds an aura of mystery to the old town. I know that I could have kept walking around for days, learning new things and enjoying the atmosphere of a town that's truly unique.
The town centre of Split
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