An Ayutthaya Visit
On my way back to Australia from a family wedding in England in August 2006, I had arranged a one-week stopover in Bangkok. I had been chatting on the Internet with a very sweet girl called Benji from Bangkok. Benji came from a well-connected family; her father was a senior officer in the Royal Thailand Air Force and she worked as a personal assistant for her uncle, who, as far as I could make out, was the deputy to the highest-ranking civilian in the air force.
It seemed a nice life for Benji, not much work to do and every Wednesday afternoon off as this was her uncle’s golf day. She knew I was interested in Thai history and culture, and suggested that when I visited she could take me to see Ayutthaya. Benji has a master’s degree in Thai studies and knows a lot about the history and culture of Ayutthaya.
When chatting to her it would take a long time for her to respond and she did say her English was not good, but her written English seemed fine. She looked very pretty on webcam but froze when I tried to speak to her, saying her English was not good enough. Eventually I did get her to talk and her English was pretty poor, which surprised me, as I assumed that to graduate with a master’s degree some competency in English would be required. She had done English at uni, but said she hated it, skipped classes and did not apply herself. Now that she was on the net chatting with Farangs, she had come to regret this.
So, we arranged to go to Ayutthaya on the Friday. She organised a driver and a car for the day (with me paying of course, 1,500 baht) and asked if she could bring some friends along. Sure.
I arrived in Bangkok and she arranged for us all to meet the night before at the Emporium shopping centre in Sukhumvit for dinner, to get to know each other. She turned up with her friends Ta Ta and Ou. Ta Ta was of Chinese descent, very talkative and engaging, with a reasonable command of English, which was just as well, as Benji literally spoke no English at all. Ou was pretty and her English, while better than Benji’s wasn’t that much better. Ta Ta became the interpreter. We had a light snack in the Emporium food court and then went for a stroll in Lumpini Park. The park was busy, lots of people exercising and wandering around, and the girls pointed things out to me, and we all took photos. Very pleasant, they were funny, engaging, and good company. They all went off to stay at Ta Ta’s place near the airport and it was arranged that the driver would collect me the following morning for our trip to Ayutthaya.
7.30 am and driver was at my hotel, with a brand new Honda with great air conditioning. We drove to the Armari Hotel near the airport and picked up the girls at 8.30 am. Benji had organised a punishing schedule for us, the aim being to see all of Ayutthaya in a day. It wasn’t realistic and we soon fell behind, not that it mattered. The drive to Ayutthaya was interesting and we snacked and chatted. Benji was very quiet, but Ta Ta more than made up for it and Ou seemed to be bearing the brunt of her jokes, which she took with grace and good humour.
We drove for over an hour and just before Ayutthaya, we came to our first attraction of the day, the Royal Palace at Bang Pa-In, also known as the Summer Palace. Here I had an introduction to the odious practice of dual pricing, free entry for Thais, a 100 baht entry fee for farangs. I was pleased to see that my companions were embarrassed by this rip-off. For me it is not the cost that irritates me, but the principle. We all pay the same amount or no one pays. If someone tried this caper in Australia the public would lynch them, but in Thailand it seems perfectly acceptable. The Bangkok Post even had an editorial in December 2006 where it did its best to defend this indefensible practice.
The Palace grounds are superb. Really, really beautiful and peaceful. The buildings, including the Palace and the Royal Residence and are something special as well, mostly constructed in the 19th century and they have a very European feel. The lake and fountains are spectacular and there is a beautiful Chinese style pavilion in the lake. There is a tall lookout (Ho Withun Thasana), similar to a pagoda, that we climbed, although it was pretty crowded as there were hundreds of school kids milling about. Many of them were very overweight. Is this a foretaste of things to come?
A photographer’s delight and we all snapped away, with Benji and friends photographing each other and me focussing on the buildings, gardens and water features. It was also very hot and humid. And so beautiful. If you haven’t been there it is a must see.
We then got back into the car and drove into Ayutthaya. The old city, now a UNESCO world heritage site, was founded in 1350 and was the old Thai capital before being destroyed by the Burmese Khmer in 1767. Our first stop was Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon (also known as Wat Yai Chaya Mongkol). Splendid old and authentic temples constructed in the late 16th and early 17th century, including a magnificent reclining Buddha, but a lot of damage was caused to the structures by the advancing Khmer army in 1767. Off to the temple for reverential offerings, then a wander around, including the obligatory photos. I found it fascinating. The site is so old; it has an ancient feel to it, with so much history. So different to Australia, where of course we have nothing like this. Benji was dying to explain it all to me, but Ta Ta’s English was not up to the job. A pity. The chedi’s had a pronounced Burmese influence. I could have spent all day there, exploring the huge and imposing structures, but we had an itinerary to stick to, so off we went to our next stop.
Lunch. Delicious, spicy food at a roadside restaurant somewhere nearby. Ridiculously cheap, 115 baht for the four of us. By this stage, it was pretty warm. I was sweating a river and the girls had their fans out. Then off to view the wonders inside the Chao Sam Praya National Museum, built in 1959 to display objects found at Ayutthaya. The museum had lots of incredible Buddha statues, but it was terribly hot inside. We were accosted by a large group of schoolchildren on an excursion. They seemed fascinated by me and all of them wanted to say hello to me, shake my hand, ask me questions and have their photo taken with me. I took a group photo of them. They were very sweet but the novelty soon wore off and we escaped to another building but they arrived there soon afterwards. I found their chartered busses incredible. What is it with Thai chartered busses; they are so made up, with all those extra lights and mirrors and the incredible painted designs.
Then back on the road to visit Wat Phra Si Sanphet, a residential palace and monastery that was ransacked in 1767 by the Burmese. The remaining ruins are extraordinarily impressive, but very sad. Little was left of the grand palace after it was ransacked except for a few walls. The giant Buddha there (Pra Mangkhon Bophit) is made of brick and covered with bronze and gilt, and dates from the 16th century. Originally located outdoors it was badly damaged in 1767 but has since been restored and is in a pavilion specially created for it. It is gigantic and must have looked phenomenal when housed outdoors. There was a market out the front where we got some food and then we wandered around. Ta Ta and Ou sort of just sat there, they were too hot and tired to do any more sightseeing, but Benji was game and traipsed around with me, despite the heat.
After that, it was off to Wat Na Phramen, housing another huge Buddha. We didn’t spend long here as we were running out of time and we still had one more must-see temple to visit. This was Wat Chaiwatthanaram, and Benji certainly saved the best for last.
This monastery was built by the royal command of King Prasat Thong as a memorial to his country and to celebrate his coronation in 1630. It was built in the Khmer architectural style, but, unlike the temples in Ankor, Cambodia, was built in brick not stone. Over the centuries the weight of the bricks have caused the structures to sag and in some cases to collapse. This monastery is astonishingly beautiful and although I took many photos, they barely do it justice. The highlight of my trip to Ayutthaya. We ran into those pesky school kids again! They were thrilled to see me. By this stage, I was too hot and tired to tell them to get lost. Fortunately, they left soon afterwards. We called it a day and drove back to Bangkok, dropped off the girls and then the driver deposited me back at the hotel.
A great way to see Ayutthaya! You can view the photos of the trip at: jeremy29.smugmug.com/Thailand/223020
Ayuthya is a great day trip.