Old Thailand: Ayutthaya and Sukhothai
Trip Start Jan 09, 2011
15Trip End Mar 17, 2011
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Where I stayed
The trip went surprisingly quickly, as I was able to sleep about eight of the 12 hours… a great testament to the comfort of the seats!!! We stopped about midnight at a rather strange “truck stop” for the long-haul buses plying the highway between northern and southern Thailand. I say strange, because we were directed into a big hall where dinner, included in the price of the bus ticket, was served to each set of passengers. There were at least a dozen buses parked at the place when we arrived, so there was a strange orderly chaos about the whole thing. A woman barked out directions in Thai over a loud speaker, apparently directing the passengers of each bus to their place in the dining hall or maybe telling everyone how much time they had before their bus departed. I had no clue what she was saying, so just followed the lead of the Thai guy who had been sitting next to me on my bus. Dinner was like prison slop: each of us got a metal bowlful of boiled rice (that is, rice boiled in water, but still IN water… the water wasn’t cooked out) and a metal cup of water. In the center of the table were four or five different plates of food for each of us to serve out for ourselves. Most of it was very bland and nondescript, but at least it wasn’t BAD. I finished dinner quickly so I could go out to the many stalls set up around the place and purchase some snacks for the rest of the trip
We arrived at Bangkok’s northern bus station at about six in the morning, and though I had slept fairly well on the bus, I was nonetheless groggy and had no patience for the touts standing outside the bus as we disembarked trying to get the foreigners to go to this or that guesthouse or to use their taxi or tuk-tuk service to go into Bangkok. I made my way past the touts to the ticket booths at the bus station, where I was able to procure a ticket for the last part of the journey. At seven in the morning, I boarded a far less comfortable bus bound for Ayutthaya, some 75 kilometers north of Bangkok. During the hour to hour-and-a-half ride, I faded in and out as hordes of kids got on and off the bus: apparently, this bus also served as a school bus. Once in Ayutthaya, I then had to take a tuk-tuk to my guesthouse. I think I finally arrived at the guesthouse at about nine in the morning, some 17 hours after departing Patong Beach!
Fortunately, Tukta, the proprietor of the Baifern Homestay Guesthouse where I would be staying the next two nights, kindly allowed me to check-in early, but not before serving me a coffee and a bottle of water. I had a private room at Baifern, but the cheapest available; it had a queen-sized mattress on the floor, a fan (no air-conditioning), bare white walls, and a private bathroom with a no-flush toilet
After a couple hours rest, I was ready to explore Ayutthaya. For over four hundred years starting in the mid-14th Century, Ayutthaya was the capital of Siam or “Krung Tai” (Kingdom of the Thais). During the period in which Ayutthaya was the capital of Thailand, Ayutthaya developed and maintained relations with several European, Middle Eastern, and East Asian powers. By the beginning of the 18th Century, it was allegedly one of the most populous cities in the world (with a population of about 1 million).
Maps can be deceiving… especially when not drawn to scale or if no scale is given! As I explored old Ayutthaya, I was struck by how very big the grounds of the historic park are. Tukta seemed surprised when I told her I didn’t need a tuk-tuk to tour the city because I wanted to check things out on foot. I quickly realized why she had suggested a tuk-tuk: the city is far larger than how the map portrayed it. Stubbornly, however, I proceeded my first day to walk through the main parts of the old city.
Although beautiful, many of the ruins really do require a bit of imagination to try to picture how the buildings and temples may have once looked. Everything appears to have been constructed out of brick, then covered with stucco of some sort. Most of the stucco is gone, though
Outside the core of the old city are many more temples and sites, but I definitely needed to take a tuk-tuk to see them. For about $13, I took Tukta’s tuk-tuk (like that one?) suggestion and hired a tuk-tuk driver to take me around to some of these sites for a few hours on my second day in Ayutthaya. I saw Wat Yai Chaya Mongkol, which dates back to the mid-14th Century and was once a center for monks of the Aranyavasi (Forest Tradition) school of Buddhism. Unlike sites in the old city, the Buddhas here still have their heads, and there is a giant reclining Buddha
On my second night in Ayutthaya, Tukta offered to make dinner for me and I gladly accepted. As Tukta prepared diner, Tukta’s brother, who speaks almost no English and always had a smile on his face, picked up and started eating from a bowl of corn covered with sugar that had been sitting on the table. He noticed I was watching him, got up and walked over to me, filled his spoon with corn, and brought it to my mouth, as if feeding a child. Just 5 minutes earlier, I had seen Tukta’s mother eating the corn from the same spoon! It was one of those awkward moments where in a split-second I had to decide between opening my mouth and eating from the spoon or saying no and risk offending my hosts. Actually, I doubt he would have been very offended… but I opened my mouth anyway and ate from the communal spoon, trying my best to take the corn with as little of my mouth touching the spoon as possible. I laughed to myself at the whole situation, which to Tukta’s brother, probably just seemed like a nice thing to do. Dinner quickly followed: a delicious bowl chicken and vegetables in green curry and coconut milk served with rice, one of my favorite Thai meals
Two days was more than enough time to explore Ayutthaya, so on 23 February, I caught a bus for the five or six hour ride up to Sukhothai, an even older former capital of Thailand. Sukhothai is actually split into two cities, New Sukhothai and Old Sukhothai, separated by about 14 kilometers. The Sukhothai Guesthouse, where I would be staying, is in New Sukhothai. On my first day in Sukhothai, I decided to take it easy and just check out New Sukhothai. There really isn’t much of note there, from a tourist perspective, but it was nice just walking around and watching the daily life of a small Thai city unfold around me. Besides, I found a nice coffee shop with good espresso at which I could hang out for a couple hours. :)
On the second full day, I made my way out to Old Sukhothai, aboard yet another unique mode of transportation: the songthaew. Songthaews are pickup trucks or converted vans with a covered bed consisting of two, sometimes three, benches for passengers
Sukhothai, meaning “Dawn of Happiness”, was founded as the capital of Siam in the mid-13th Century, lasting for just over 100 years. One of the Sukhothai kings, Ramkhamhaeng the Great, had a particularly lasting influence on Thailand, as he is credited with creating the Thai alphabet, among other notable accomplishments. Old Sukhothai is now a national historical park and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The park grounds are truly lovely, with extensive lawns, ponds, and moats surrounding many of the ruins, much of which has been restored since the 1960s. On the day I went, though, it was quite hot (at least 95 Fahrenheit/35 Celsius) and the air quality was rather poor. Nonetheless, I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to see this important site. I rented a bicycle for about $1 (no motorbike, this time!) and pedaled my way around the core of the old city. To tour all of the ruins of Old Sukhothai would take at least a couple days (it’s about 70 square kilometers!), so I just focused on the central area. In some ways, Sukhothai was nicer than Ayutthaya, probably because of the fact that it is cordoned off and distinctly separate from newer development. After a few hours of cycling around from site to site, though, the heat of the midday sun won out and I gave in and left Old Sukhothai, glad for having seen this important piece of Thai history, but glad as well for the air-conditioned room that awaited me in New Sukhothai. On the way back, the songthaew in which I was riding stopped about halfway and loaded up with school children… I guess the songthaews also serve as school buses!