What will two girls do in Thailand?” laughed a male friend, when I announced our intention to travel to the neighbouring peninsula. He’d recently been there himself, and it seemed quite clear why he (and the host of other Indian men we eventually spotted waiting in the visa queue at Suvarnabhoomi airport) had made the trip.
Our plans did not include the obvious ‘girly’ thing to do either. And when girl friends began drawing up elaborate lists, we’d had to confess that shopping was not going to be part of our itinerary. We were in for another load of confused ‘but-what-will-you-do-there’ stares.
Ayutthaya - not on most priority lists for Indian visitors - was a natural choice for my friend and I. Culture vultures both, we were wound up by the thought of visiting the ruins of the erstwhile capital city of the Siamese kingdom before we headed off to enjoy the immaculate coast of Thailand.
First stop Bangkok
Ayutthaya city, which houses the ruins of the ancient capital city, is a day trip from the current capital. Flying in to Bangkok, we chose to stay in the backpacker-friendly and far cheaper Khao San Road in the old city. Although the area is buzzing with foreign tourists all through the day, Khao San and its adjacent Soi Rambuttri, come alive at night. Music blaring invitingly from the pubs, the roads packed with tourists from every corner of the world and local vendors selling the quintessential Tom Yum peanuts, Pad Thai, and Satay sticks.
After vetoing the train from Hualompong station and/or taking a taxi all the way to Ayutthaya, we decided to take the suggestion of an American lady we bumped into while eating freshly cut fruit on the streets of Khao San. She’d been to the country three times in the past and insisted on leading us to her favoured tour operator. For 100 baht, we were booked into an extremely comfortable minivan which would pick us up from our hotel early the next morning, take us around the ruins, serve us a quintessential Thai buffet lunch and bring us right back to Khao San Road.
The Hindu connection
The kingdom of Ayutthaya is believed to be named after Lord Rama’s Ayodhya, a result of a strong Hindu presence that could be attributed to its neighbouring rival Khmer Empire. Before Theravada Buddhism took over as the religion of the rulers, the Thai were believers of Hinduism. In fact, they also have their own version of the epic Ramayana - the Ramakien - which is said to have travelled to the country via Tamil Indian traders.
Located on the Chao Praya River, the city was the second capital of Siam (the first being Sukhothai) between 1350 AD and 1767 AD. During our two-hour journey to Ayutthaya, our guide told us the story of how the kingdom was first set up. King Ramathibodi, the story goes, is said to have spotted a conch shell buried in the earth. Enamoured, he placed the conch shell on a pedestal and decided to construct a city around it. Over the next 400 years, the city grew into one of the world’s wealthiest and most vibrant trade centres, hosting European, Indian, Chinese and Japanese merchants.
About 100 kms away from Bangkok, it took us two hours to reach Ayutthaya. Our first stop was at the Wat Yai Chai Mongkol, which included the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Built by King Naresuan, the large reclining statue of the Buddha was once protected by the four walls of a temple. In 1592, the king built an impressive Khmer-style chedi (or a stupa) to celebrate his victory over the Burmese. But when the neighbouring rivals came back to attack Ayutthaya in 1767, they not only destroyed the palaces, libraries and treasures, but also desecrated the temple of the Reclining Buddha. Although the four walls now stand in ruins, the statue luckily remains untouched by nature.
A closer look at the impressive statue revealed layers of golden leaves, which are offerings made by Buddhist devotees. Over the course of the day, we saw these golden leaves numerous times - they were on sale across the shrines and temples in the city, along with incence sticks, flowers and candles, all used as daily offerings to the Buddha. The golden leaf is said to honour Buddha’s teachings. And in case the devotee is experiencing pain, the leaf is placed at the same place on the statue, in the hope that it will help cure the ailment.
Apart from temples and stupas, Ayutthaya’s ruins, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981, include shrines, monuments and other sacred sites. The architectural style, vastly different from what we see in India, is said to be a combination of the Khmer or Cambodian style and a late Sukhothai style.
Wat Mahathat, which contains the famous Buddha head entwined in tree roots, was our next stop. Getting a photograph of the head, smaller than we’d imagined it to be, was near impossible. What with tourists taking turns to pose with the tree - no postcard shot for us this time.
No one really knows when or how the head got there, confessed our guide. During the Burmese attack, soldiers made it a point to brutally behead most Buddhist statues. One theory claims that the tree simply grew around one of the abandoned heads.
Just before we headed for our quintessential Thai buffet lunch, we were driven to the Wat Phra Sri Sanphet. This is believed to be the original palace grounds of King Ramathibodi, who founded Ayutthaya. Three chedis, which at the time of the Burmese invasion were gilded with gold, contain the cremated remains of Ayuthyan rulers King Ramathibodi II, his father King Borom Trailokanat and elder brother King Boromracha III.
Of elephants and roosters
Surprisingly, although the chedis are meant to honour Lord Buddha, we found a statue of the elephant-headed Lord Ganesha placed casually among the ruins. But nothing was as overwhelming as the incredible amount of rooster statues we saw. A modern monument we passed on our way back to Bangkok, paying tribute to King Naresuan, includes an army of roosters - a few even larger than the average man! Intrigued, we asked our guide for an explanation. Turns out, the king thoroughly enjoyed watching cock fights. The locals even place roosters at Buddhist statues as a gift to the deceased ruler as a sign of respect. After our hearty meal of Thai sweet and spicy gravy with rice, we were taken to see the baby elephants. At the stable (or kraal), a definite hit with animal lovers, you can ride and feed the baby elephants.
All’s well that ends well
Extremely aware of the tourist attractions their country provides, the Thai take their services very seriously. Our tour to Ayutthaya and back was bang on schedule, and gave us nothing but a sometimes ill-informed guide to complain about (we suggest reading up about the sites before you visit, as we did). And not to forget the extremely thoughtfully placed Seven-Elevens - Thailand’s famous supermarkets - within walking distance from well just about anywhere! When travelling to the country, these round-the-clock supermarkets will be your saviour. For those who don’t like Thai food, the Seven-Elevens come well-equipped to serve you cuppa noodles - they even have a machine that dispenses boiling water for you.
Make it happen
Getting there: You could take a train from Hualampong station, take a river cruise, go by bus from Bangkok’s northern bus terminal (Moh Chit) or book a seat in a minivan through a tour operator.
Going around: If you’d rather discover the place on your own, hire bicycles. Alternatively, you could see the ruins on foot – but make sure the sun isn’t blazing over your head.
Best time to visit: November to January are relatively cooler months.
Time frame: It is possible to make a day trip from Bangkok. But staying the night would enable you to witness the ruins by night — a photographer’s delight.