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Andy’s Travel Diary

Tuesday, 24 Oct 2006

Location: Ayutthaya, Thailand


Ayutthaya was the ancient capital city of Siam for 417 years. The city is an island formed by the convergence of three rivers in a fierce race to reach the Gulf of Thailand. Due to this easily defended strategic position the city remained the centre of trade, commerce, culture and politics of the nascent Thai nation until the Burmese invasion of 1767.

After a two year siege the city fell and the invaders looted most of the architectural, cultural and religious treasures, including a 16 metre high gold buddha. Despite the rape of much of Ayuthaya’s wealth the modern city is littered with ancient and holy ruins resulting in a declaration by UNESCO that Ayutthaya is a ‘World Heritage Site’. Hence i found myself on a train hurtling from Bangkok at a frightening 30mph!

The train provided a welcome and refreshing change of transport after a multitude of long and tiring bus journeys. True the seats were all wooden benches, there was no lighting and a plump kid in front of me kept whispering “six baht” (baht is the thai currency) or standing on my foot with his pudgy feet, but none of this mattered a jot. In thailand the windows on each train slide right down and lack protective bars restricting the intellectually challenged from sticking their whole torsos out into the rushing air. So i leaned right out of the carriage along with everyone else from countries where the nanny state dominates; feeling rather than just observing the landscape. The smells, the sites, the sounds. Forget air-conditioned VIP buses, this is the more rewarding way to travel.

Past central Bangkok with its constant buzz of activity. Past the business district which resembled Canary wharf with its forest of skyscrapers. Past what can only be described as shanty towns on the outskirts of the city; ramshackle ad hoc buildings of wood, plastic and corrugated iron. Despite all the (superficial and outward) trappings of development, the plush boutiques and hotels, the flat screened internet cafes, the mobile phones stuck to every teenage ear, Thailand is still progressing along the temporal path to ‘modernity’. (Or so the dominant socio-economic narratives would have it).

Later we would pass the King. Over and over. On billboards, on advertisments, on roadside gold-framed pictures, on wide stands decorated with fairy lights and excessive bunting. Even 100ft tall, looking out on the city from the side of a building. They adore him. This year he celebrates his sixtieth year on the throne. The streets are awash with people wearing yellow shirts and polos emblazened with the royal seal as if the uniform of a communal dystopian society. Yet this is voluntary. It borders on idol worship, or at least the personality cults of various Communist states. We brits and our queen have a similar relationship don’t you think?

Arriving at the train station i was bombarded with the usual tuk tuk vultures eager for a piece of fresh, wet behind the ear backpacker meat. Luckily i am now a seasoned traveller so with a cocky smile, a deft hop into the back of a van and a five minute ride to my hostel i disembarked…and found myself ripped off to the amount of 50 baht. Live and learn, humble pie and all that.

The main city is quite dank and dirty. Most of the city conforms to two questionable architectural principles; the innate beauty of square structures and the overlooked sublime qualities of concrete. But scattered around the city, especially on the west side, where the city becomes green and pleasant rest the temples i had come to see.

I decided to stay in a guesthouse called Tony’s Place. It’s a very homely hostel, old, wooden and very welcoming. My room was nicely decorated and pleasant, but laying on the bed writing my journal i was joined by an uninvited bed-bug. Now, if you have met me since the attack of the bed bugs in Malaysia (now commonly referred to as Black Thursday - or Boring Thursday to those i’ve told the story to) you will know i’m not a big fan! Straight down stairs to complain . Luckily they got me a new room in another hostel. They really were incredibly helpful, i can’t fault them at all for their service and apologies. Some hostels just don’t want to know or insist you have brought them in, avoiding any responsibility for infestations. Not Tony’s Place. Immediately they had a spray.

Anyway the next day i woke bright and early (11 o clock) and hired a rusty hunk of metal on two wheels with a girly basket and no brakes - memories of my trusty steed in Cambridge, which also lacked the basic function to stop flooded back. I set off for a three day leisurely exploration of the city.

The Lonely Planet highly recommends a visit to the Ayutthaya Historical Study Centre to understand the religious and historical importance of the city and its ruins. The museum is architecturally modern, all clean and simple lines. It would not loook out of place on the South Bank. Likewise inside, traditional cabinet displays were interspersed with intricate models of the Grand Palace and temples, and various forms of multimedia to bring thai villages, houses, festivals, religion and trade to life - (interestingly by the sixteenth century Ayutthaya was trading regularly with the Phillipines, Malaysia, China, Japan, the Middle East and even European states. Forget the media hype, Globalisation is not a novel phenomenon).

Though impressive and informative the museum failed to provide the preliminary tutoring it was suggested i would need to explore the temples. So i settled on tackling the city without a plan.
It was impossible to see all the city had to offer so i concentrated on the main sites. From Thanon Pa Thon, the city shrine covered in hundreds of small figurines, of peple, of gods, pictures of families, relatives, of animals etc to the larger, more impressive ruins of the Grand Palace i was consistenly awed.

The main ruins are simply stunning. Majestic in size and style. Many of the temples consist of a central large phallic shaped structure covered in hinduized statues of bird-spirits/gods or multi-headed snakes, or simple and repetitive geometric designs. These main buildings are surrounded by constructs of various size and shape while rows of headless, armless buddhas (testament to the burmese invaders) are scattered liberally throughout the site or sit placidly in long rows of nearly a hundred.

Buildings are always more than the sum of their bricks and mortar. The philosopher
Alain de Botton, in a recent book called the Architecture of Happiness makes a similar claim. Our buildings affect us at a profound and deep level. Spaces influence and shape our identity - a relationship central to our lives but often overlooked. Yet Botton’s enquiry seems rather one sided. Our identity and who ‘we’ are, individually and collectively moulds and influences the buildings we construct; they are infused with meaning and symbols that reflect our ideas, our desires, wants and worldviews - not simply our basic, everyday needs. In many cases they can tell us much about who ‘we’ are or tell us stories about ourselves, not simply in painted murals but also the layout, structure, size and style of the building; bricks and mortar can be read much like a book - as long as you understand their language and lexicon. Wat Chaiwatranan for example has a central structure which represents Mt Meru where the gods reside in Hindu mythology and represents the centre of the universe. Unfortunately that was about as far as i got! Still, ignorance was far from disappointing.

Often the temples are confusing, multi-tiered affairs, with stairs and alleyways, colonnades, halls, platforms and small cubby holes. Great for hide and seek! A real maze. I felt a real sense of depth and upwardness when standing inbetween the tightly packed ruins. And yet that sense of upwardness is tempered by the erosion and age of these temples. Chedi’s leaned dangerously to one side, their bases sunk and collapsing under the own weight. Walls distorted and fluid, had peeled slowly away from their supports, or lay collapsed in a heap altogether. Grand Halls full of columns no longer supported anything but a couple of roosting doves. Intricate and lonely doorways stood where the rest of a building had disintegrated. At Wat Ratchaburana one such crumbling entrance provides a magnificent frame through which the central praang (tower) can be viewed. Due to the looting of this temple in 1958 when robbers broke into the main prang to steal the treasures within it is now possible to enter the main tower and admire the detailed mural paintings in the crypt. Quite unnerving as i was the only person in the temple complex…except one damn pigeon that kept flying close to my head meaning i had to duck, make weird noises to scare it off and flap my hands in the air, giving me the air of a person missing a few scews.

Most of the sites are simple structures of terracotta red, thin bricks which have been revealed after years of erosion and neglect. It gave the ruins a feeling of age that is less apparent with more complete temples. In their prime the buildings would have been covered with plaster, painted white or brushed with gold leaf. Wat Phra Si Sanphet was the least aged. The three huge bell-shaped chedi’s still retain their plaster. Their colour consisted of a multitude of leaky greys which contrasted with the white flowered bushes growing in the surrounding grounds. It was very picturesque.

At this site a group of Thai kids approached me asking if they could take a picture of me.
It can’t be my blooming movie career, though i have started preparing a celebrity signature. One by one they stood next to me. Ten in all wanted a picture! Japanese tourists started to stop, clearly wondering what all the fuss was about and if i was some sort of celebrity. I thought back to a newspaper article which outlined that people will stand and look at almost anything if there is a crowd. Soon enough i was the main attraction. People were actually standing around us watching people take pictures of me while my face slowly turned the colour of beetroot. I’m not sure why they do this, is it the exoticism of a rarely seen westerner? And yet this has also occurred on the Khao San Road (the main tourist area of Bangkok) where foreigners outnumber Thais. Who knows. Very strange. Next time i’m charging money.

Wat Phana cheong, built in 1324 AD was the only Wat i visited which was more complete than Sra Si Sanphet, mainly because it is still a working temple. The buildings are white and gold and heavily ornnate. The stone entrance hall was very atmospheric. Two large tables cluttered with huge candles, hundreds of smaller invidiaually placed candles made the air thick and smokey. Golde bowls full of incense sticks and those carried by worshippers gave off pungent, calming smells. The room was lit with chinese lanterns and fairy lights (!) and a tape of chanting played in the background. Two other tables held small and large, gold, silver and porcelain statues of people, figures with 30 arms and 12 heads, spirits or animals. Pearl necklaces and chains of flowers were draped heavily over the largest figures and worshippers kept attaching small, stamped pieces of paper to the tables or statues. Through this room was Phra Chao Phanan-choeng, a huge gold, seated buddha. One of the hands is taller than me. It is rumoured to have wept tears when the Burmese invaded. On the surrounding walls were 1000s of small alcoves all with a gold statue within. An old monk keeping ‘guard’ and sipping tea nodded when i pointed to my camera to check if i could take pictures. It’s always best to ask. To the sides of the entrance hall were two further room both decorated from floor to ceiling with rich and colourful murals of….i have no idea. I wish they had guides to explain to the uninitiated!

Wat Yai Chai-mongkol was one of my favourites. It was well preserved, retaining much of the detail which covered all of the temples in past times. A large, bell-shaped chedi (which can be seen from some distance) presides over four smaller mimics on each of the four corners of its base. Around the rest of the site, randomly spaced were further smaller impressions of the main structure. All wore an orange or yellow material around the main bulk of each chedi and from some angles this gave the impression of a giant Russian doll. Around the main base were nearly 200 restored lifesize buddhas in orange sashes. It also contained a large reclining buddha though this was nothing compared to another reclining image on the other side of the city. It was a massive 39 metres long. Its head rested on a lotus flower and the body was draped in a huge orange cloth. There are 32 rules governing the sculptured images of buddha. The position of his hands, the size of his earlobes, a third eye et cetera all dpeict different meanings. The pose of the image indicates the period of his life. A reclining buddha such as this one is meant to convey the exact moment of his enlightenment. No wonder he had a content grin on his face. It looked very similar to my face after an episode of How Clean Is Your House, speaking of which, my brother informs me there was a special edition where they clean a hospital? Did anyone tape it? This is life or death stuff.

On my third day i was waved to by some monks who beckoned me over. They were interested in where i was from, how did i like their city and offered to show me around their monastery. They offered me some coca cola and one monk gave me a vial of oil which helps with headaches, mozzie bites, anything really! It smells exactly like tiger balm so i assume it is made from similar ingredients. After helping them with the construction of their new building - i think i moved one brick - i learnt some interesting facts about Buddhism which undermined somewhat the distance people place between the religion and its other six main world counterparts. One of the monks told me that Buddhism, due to its concentratiion on reincarnation and karma has in many countries underscored divisive and inegalitarian caste systems, especially in south-east asia. Later i asked him about a mural painting at the Tammah Phra Phutthakhosachan, Wat Phutthaiswan ayutthaya which depicts the dispatch of a group of missionary monks to reinstate Buddhism to Sri Lanka in 1753. Not even Buddhism has escaped the evangelising forces so often attributed solely to the Abrahamic religions. I even saw a monk smoke and learnt that it was not necessarily forbidden in some sections of the religion! I had no idea. It was all very interesting.

After a good hour, while i waited for the monsoon rains to stop i said goodbye and left them a donation to help with the construction of their new building as they are not allowed to work for money. I had to place it in a box as they are not even allowed to touch money.

To end my final day i thought a trip to Wat Chaiwatthanaram was in order. It is one of the most stunning temples and is supposedly particularly beautiful and atmospheric for sunset. It is a striking and imposing Buddhist monastery which mirrors Angkor Wat (temple complex in Cambodia which i am going to soon) in style and architectural details. It consists of a main prang (Khmer-type tower) 35 metres tall and four lesser prangs on the same base situated at each corner, finally eight smaller prangs surround the main base. Unfortunately it was overcast so i failed to see it at its most magnificent. Hhough the last glimpses of the sun did break through, lighting up the horizon against which the temple was silhouetted whilst bats streamed from every crevice and circled the chedi’s above.

Although impressive my favourite temple was Wat Mahathat. It is neither the grandest, the most ancient or the most beautiful. It is quite average in most respects except one. It contains an iconic image; a buddha’s head engulfed by tentacled tree roots which snake down an eroded wall from a tree growing on top. It conveys a wonderful sense of age and mystery. No wonder it is used on so much of the literature of Ayuttayah.

Each night i ate at the night market in the city which lies on the riverbank and read up on the temples with the tourist guides i had bought. It was an immensely satisfying and fascinating three days. I was originally pplanning to miss the city out altogether. I am so glad i changed my mind.


Film scene of the week:
Hiring a bike was a great idea. Dodging the cars who drive on either side of the road, ignore traffic lights etc, dodging the dogs…dodging the cows! Cows? Cycling along i was overtaken by a running cow. Then another, and another, and another. I can confirm that none of them used their mirrors and i didn’t see them signal once. But that was not the strangest thing. Then elephants started trotting up the street after them (with riders on back) then dogs a-barking. Fel i was in the midle of the Jumangi stampede.