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.


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