Friday, December 28, 2007

Bangkok and beyond

We arrived in Bangkok on the evening of the 27th and caught a cab to our hotel. For some reason I had pictured Bangkok as being a bit run down and poor, more like Jakarta, which I'm sure parts are, but the area we saw was busy, modern, loud and chaotic. But that's all we saw, since we had a train to catch the next morning.

The next day we went to the train station and got tickets for the commuter train to Ayuthaya. Recommended by our trusty Lonely Planet as the place to go. We loaded on to our train, which looked lovely with old wooden benches, but which numbed your butt pretty quickly. It turned out that we were fortunate to get on at the first stop, as after a few stops people were standing in the aisles or sitting on seat arms. Colleen had someone almost in her lap.

We arrived in Ayuthaya around noon and found our way to our accommodations, Baan Lotus, a nice little place just off a busy street. It wasn't necessarily nice, after our good hotels in Jakarta, but the woman running the place was very pleasant and helpful, it was clean with a nice view over a Lotus filled pond, and they had bikes for us to take out.

Ayuthaya was the Siamese royal capital from 1350 until 1767. In the 17th century over a million people lived here and it was claimed by every outside traveller who visited to be the most incredible city they had ever seen. At its peak there were over 400 temples in this small area. However, in 1767 the Burmese sacked the city, stealing everything stealable, burning everything burnable, and knocking everything else down. At that time the capital was moved to Bangkok.

Now some parts of the city have been restored. It was turned into a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1991. And some of the temple areas have been restored. We took bikes from the hotel and started with Wat Phra Mahathat. This was a mostly knocked down series of temples, but the remains were pretty impressive. The real draw here was a Buddha's head that had come off of its statue and then a tree had grown around it. The combination of the Buddha with nature has deep significance for some.

Next we went to Wat Ratburana, which we had seen from Wat Phra Mahathat. It has one of the best preserved "prang", a tall monument often built to celebrate dead relatives, in the area. This was pretty impressive, particularly when you thought of this structure standing like this for 600 years, with very little upkeep.

We next went for a drink at a cafe overlooking the temples. It was in the mid-30s and we were dying.

We had just enough energy left for one more temple, so we rode over to Wat Phra Si Sanphet. This one was impressive for its three huge stupas, lined up in a row. Our guidebook says this "epitomizes the quintessential Ayuthaya architecture". I don't know about that, but it was pretty cool.

We'd had enough. We headed back to Baan Lotus, showered, napped and headed for dinner. We decided to try one of the places on the river, thinking that it would have nice ambiance. I suppose it might have, but I wouldn't recommend it. We got the tourist menu, which was about 10% the size of the local menu. That was probably a bad sign. The other bad sign was probably when the diner sitting next to us decided to feed the fish in the river, by tossing his entire dinner over the rail. At least the fish ate well.

After having dinner at our first restaurant we went for a quick tuk-tuk (like a motorized wheelbarrow, with a passenger section) ride around town to see the temples at night. While you can't get inside the gates to see them, they're lit up beautifully. Then we went for our second dinner. At this place the food was great. However, the ambiance was a bit off. They had a Thai woman playing the guitar and singing 70's folk songs. My god it was awful.

Today started with me riding over to the train station to see if we could change our tickets for today. There are only so many temples that we want to see here, so we wanted to get out a little earlier than first planned. I grabbed a bike from the hotel and headed out, taking the bridge to get off the island. (I didn't mention above, but Ayuthaya is surrounded by 3 rivers and a canal.) It seemed a little busy, so on my way back I took the ferry. When I told our hostess, she was horrified. Clearly that was not the route to take.

After breakfast today I went to get a haircut. While already in the barbers chair I was upsold on the idea of a shave. This sounded pretty nice to me, since I already had 3 days growth going, and the idea of a hot towel and a good lather sounded somewhat luxurious. It would have been too, if I'd gotten either of those things. Instead I got some liquid spread on my face and a straight-razor. It might have been amusing, except for the look of concern on the barbers face when he realized that he wasn't sure if he could stop the bleeding. I think he put on all the coagulant that he had in the shop. On top of it, it was a terrible shave. I'm still scruffy because I think he was afraid to do any more damage.

That's it for now. We're hiding from the sun right now. Our train this afternoon takes us to Lop Buri, where there are apparently fabulous monkeys that have taken over the temples. The following day we're off to Phitsanulok, to access Sukhothai, another former capital. Then up to Chiang Mai for a few days.

p.s. I'm writing this in an Internet cafe with coin-operated computers. That's a new one on me.


Jeff said...

Straight razor. You're a nutter!!!

That's right up there with getting an ear cleaning with brass pipe cleaners on the streets of Hanoi.

Do you see similarities between the ruins you've seen and the Cham ruins in My Son?

Lots of love


Stefan said...


I made sure he used a new blade. Actually, he used two new blades, because the first blade had gotten so dull.

Yes, I do see a lot of similarities between what we're seeing here and what we saw in My Son. I believe that My Son was constructed long before much of what I'm seeing here, and My Son is a Hindu temple complex. But there is a lot of Hinduism included in these Buddhist temples. (Buddhism originating from Hinduism, of course.) And the basic construction is very similiar. I'm not sure why, but My Son was more impressive than what I'm seeing in Thailand. Perhaps it's just the scope of what I'm looking at.

Stefan said...

I asked Colleen about your question. She thought that the temples at My Son were a lot smaller than here, but that there was a great number of them in a tight area. The details that remained on them was also a lot better preserved than we're seeing here.