Ruined Ruins Won't Ruin Your Day!

Trip Start Dec 29, 2009
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Trip End May 13, 2010


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Flag of Thailand  , Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya,
Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Thailand- Day Two and we're already leaving Bangkok. We chartered a private bus for the 6 of us and left that morning for Ayutthaya, the old capital city of Thailand. On the way we stopped off at an older palace that was the precursor to the Grand Palace just outside Bangkok. It was interesting to see, because it was highly influenced by other cultures. There was a Chinese building, a lot of Dutch influenced architecture and even some Spanish design. It was actually sort of comforting to see a Westernized palace as it was more picturesque as a classic palace with large white buildings and lots of green landscaping. We didn’t stay for very long here as we had a ways to go to reach the old city of ruins.



Now, I have to mention the deal we had for the day, because it was amazing. Our host at the hostel in Bangkok arranged it for us. Basically we had an air-conditioned van that drove us around for the entire day. Bringing us to Ayutthaya, helping us get train tickets for that night, and bringing us from Wat to Wat. Our driver was great, he told us to call him "Pete", which makes me think he had a very long name (a long name is good luck in Thailand) and chauffeured us around with such courtesy, buying us traditional snacks and always having a water bottle ready when we came back to the van. The traditional snack, Roti Sai Mai, is very delicious. It is basically a candy floss (similar to cotton candy but more stringy) that you wrap up like a cord and stick inside a flavored flour tortilla. It sounds gross, looks odder, and tastes amazing. The group went through about 4 bags of this stuff, and we probably could have had more. Best snack/ dessert in Thailand and you get it for cheap on the side of the road. The entire day van/ driver rental only cost us <15 dollars per person and it was worth every penny. The Wats are sparsely dispersed and some were hard to find. If we were to have rented bikes or tried to navigate ourselves, we wouldn’t have seen half of what we did, especially as we had all of our luggage on our backs.

As far as the ruins go- I felt like I was in Tomb Raider. I kept expecting someone or something to come out of the dark spaces in the ruins. It was eerie, because they were so empty and obviously not in use any more, but you could still feel the life of what the Wat used to be and how it might have been in its heyday. It was an almost indescribable experience, and even though they all looked pretty similar, each ruin had its own feel to it and its own attraction. So, on to the Wats!

The first ruin, Wat Yai Chai Mongkol was a bustling site. There were visitors everywhere and vendors near the entrance selling apparel and souvenirs. It didn’t really detract from the experience, but it also didn’t have the same half-dead eeriness to it that the other ruins did. There was a huge reclining Buddha in one section that looked onto the main pagoda. The stairs up to the main pagoda led to a small shrine where a Buddhist Nun was sitting. She confused me at first because I didn’t know there was such a thing as a female monk, but there is! They wear white instead of orange, and also have very short hair, not necessarily shaven heads. She also was American. Apparently she used to be an elephant trainer. Basically, a very interesting lady who was handing out flowers to those who wanted to pray.

The next Wat was my favorite, probably because it was nearly empty. We were able to wander wherever we wanted and explore the Wat as if it were truly a ruined city that hadn’t been touched for ages. This place was huge too. There were multiple stupas surrounding the man pagoda and the walls were lined with- you guessed it- broken Buddhas. The main Buddha just outside the main enclosure actually had a sign next to it explaining how its head had been stolen in the early part of the century and replaced with a replica. This made me rethink all the Buddha statues we had seen. So many of them had missing heads, but I always assumed they were just worn away at the neck and fell off, or damaged somehow. Now I wonder if they were all stolen, as the head is by far the most common missing part of any statue. Wat Chaiwatthanaram is the first wat we really got to explore and so we weren’t sure about protocol. We walked around for about a half hour wondering if we were allowed to climb the stairs to the top, until finally we just decided that if they didn’t want us up there, they would yell at us to come down, so up we went. What a climb it was. The stairs were worn and very steep, making the ascent rather treacherous. And it was a climb, I was using my hands to keep my balance and help pull myself up, but I made it. As soon as I looked inside to the shrine though, I promptly made my way down the stairs as the cave-like shrine was home to about 50 or so bats sleeping soundly. I wasn’t of the mind to try and disturb them. All in all, the Wat was gorgeous, in my opinion. Located by the side of a river, in an empty field, it was a prominent figure that was artistically rendered. It is very apparent that the architects planned these Wats very specifically. For this particular one, if you stand looking at the main Buddha in the Buddha garden, the statue is perfectly framed by the Wat behind it, lining up with the main pagoda and bisecting the wall behind it. Really quite beautiful.

Next we traveled to the Ayutthaya Historical Study Center, which was basically a very small history museum that explained the origins and fall of the Old Capital City. It was refreshing to A) be inside in the air conditioning, and B) learn a bit about the context of where these ruins came from.  The next Wat after that, Wat Phra Mahathat had the most “life” to it. I can’t explain what it was about this Wat, but walking around I could just feel energy it must have once had. I really can’t explain why. It probably has something to do with how it had worn in the years, with the buildings slightly tilting one way or another, stones sliding out of place slowly. This was also the most artistic ruin I found. There was more than one area where the walls eroded in such a way that there appeared to be the face of a Buddha painted in the stone. I’m not sure if it actually looked like a Buddha, or if my head was just so full of Buddha statues that it’s all I could see. This Wat is also home to a famous sandstone Buddha head that is placed in the base of a tree, roots entwining it.

Finally, we went to the ruins of the Royal Palace that housed ashes of the ancient kings. This was perhaps the largest in land area, but it didn’t leave the same impression on me as the other Wats did. I still ended up walking around it for about 45 minutes, wandering the grounds in near silence, only commenting on how many dogs there were. I swear, stray dogs own Thailand, and you do not want to trespass on their territory.

In general, everything I saw on this day blew my mind in one way or another. It’s really hard to believe that such a place exists, much less that I would be walking around it. It really felt like a Tomb Raider movie. I know I’ve said that before, but it’s the best explanation I can find. This exploration filled the whole day, ending with a tour of the city via van, driving by the wats that are lit up at night and arriving at the train station to take the overnight up to Chiang Mai in the North.
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