Song of the day: People Take Pictures of Each Other by The Kinks
“People take pictures of each other/ Just to prove that they really existed…”
Ayutthaya is known (at least on the generic tourist leaflet we’ve picked up) as the “City of Gorgeousness”. It certainly is a spectacular place. Unlike Bangkok it seems to give without demanding anything in return but a small upkeep fee for each of the complexes of ruins that you visit. Sleep was plentiful, but in stages of about two hours at a time. Each time I woke with a dry mouth I grabbed some water from the fridge and force-fed Hollie some as well, like a doting mother. We went to the same restaurant as the night before for breakfast, mainly for their liquid refreshment. Pint glasses of iced coffee are a common start to the day in Thailand, at least for the more western eateries we’ve been to. I had a gigantic iced Americano and Hollie had a chocolate flavoured ice shake. We’d been warned about the dangers of having ice that comes from tapwater, but I acted as guinea pig last night and so far there haven’t been any ill effects. In fact, I was far more likely to get a banging headache from the constant Michael Buble numbers they were pumping out, including several of his “best” Christmas covers. Bloody Buble – that warbling philanderer. Note – Hollie would like to be credited here for the invention of the phrase “Warbling Philanderer”, a more palatable description than I could offer for the man.
We took a songtheau to the station to try and bag ourselves beds on the sleeper train to Chiang Mai for the 4th Feb. Turns out we’ve made an error here – They’re all booked up for the next five days at least. Sometimes cancellations occur but booking these rare seats would involve hanging about the station all day and chancing our arm every half hour or so, which seems a waste of time when there are other means of getting to our destination. We should maybe have tried to book seats as soon as we got to Bangkok but at that point we were still finding the balance between planning ahead and not making our schedule too rigid. Instead we will now take a bus to Sukthothai and spend two nights here, before heading north to Chiang Mai. Sukothai has a lot of ruins and was the capital of Siam before Ayutthaya, and breaks our journey to Chiang Mai about halfway between. It seems appropriate that we’ve gone from Bangkok, to Ayutthaya, to Sukthothai in that order – the current capital, to the one before that, to the one before that. Travelling not just through space, but time too.
Sensing a decent fare, our songtheaw driver had waited for us during our negotiations at the station. He flashed a load of postcards displaying the various destinations around Ayutthaya and tried to flog us a tour. As genuine as he seemed we decided to take it at our own pace – these songtheaw tours tend to be a whistlestop affair of diesel fumes and swift photostops, without allowing for time to absorb what’s in front of your eyes. We got him to take us to the reclining Buddha at Wat Lokayasutharam from where we planned to walk our way back through the ruins to our hostel.
The reclining Buddha is about forty metres long and eight metres high. The preservation is remarkable and his eyes continue to stare knowingly at the cameras that are pointed in his direction. Whilst the red ruins of the temple complex around him have crumbled, he remains nonchalant, propped up on his elbow as if to say “It’ll take more than several hundred years and multiple invasions of the city to get me up on my feet, mate.” In fact, you get the feeling that if he ever did feel like getting up it’d be the end of the world as we know it.
We walked east to Wat Phra Si Samphet – the remains of the largest temple in Ayutthaya, which stands in the grounds of what once was the Royal Palace. Apparently there used to be a 340kg gold statue of Buddha in the grounds here. When the Burmese invaded the city they tried to melt it down to add to their own royal coffers, and burnt most of the temple down in the process – clumsy Burmese. After walking round these grounds for about an hour our water and energy reserves were dwindling so we took a songtheau back to the hostel.
We emerged refreshed in the early evening and hailed a songtheaw to a place called Wat Chaiwatthanaram, which was over the river from the main city. I didn’t realise until Hollie pointed out this afternoon that Ayutthaya is actually an island, surrounded on all sides by rivers. This must have been what made it such a good spot to build your capital on – access by river all the way down to the sea for trade, and an excellent advantage for fighting off invaders. It worked up until 1767 when the Burmese came, saw and conquered. I wouldn’t be qualified to go through the history of the different wars and battles that went on over the centuries in Thailand, suffice to say that it has a history of conquering and being conquered, like all of the countries in South-East Asia.
We arrived at Wat Chaiwatthanaram at about half five. Our songtheaw driver had the complexion of a sun-dried prune but I got the impression that he was younger than his face suggested. A complete guess here, but I imagined that he may have worked in the fields for years, with the sun tanning his skin into hide before he found himself a less back-breaking line of work. He spoke very little English and I feel bad now for thinking it, but at first I felt like he was trying to pull a fast one on us. He said something along the lines of “I wait here for you, 150 baht I take you back”. 3 quid for what was probably two hour’s work for him seemed too good to be true, but he wouldn’t take any money off us there and then and kept waving us away saying “Beautiful, beautiful!
Wat Chaiwatthanaram was built in 1630 by King Prasat Thong – one of many Siamese Kings who seemed to be looking to win the “Who’s appendage is biggest” war by building something bigger and grander than their deceased predecessor. It seems a bit unfair really – if you’re going to have a rivalry with somebody you should make sure they’re still alive while you’re doing it, even if it is your Dad. There’s a huge central tower built in a similar style to Angkor Wat in Cambodia – the architectural styles of the two countries being exchanged multiple times over the centuries they spend conquering each other. Whilst the central tower is built of stone the rest of the place is built of that same red-brick that comprises much of the rest of the ancient city. Two similarities between Derby and Ayutthaya – red brick buildings and pigeons. But this is where the comparison ends.
We walked around the temple for about an hour, taking photos of everything we could lay our eyes on. There is a certain unspoken etiquette to taking photos that some tourists follow, and others don’t. Trying to take a shot without getting another human in it is an art in itself, and we were annoyed when Hollie had just located the perfect shot that got more or less all of the temple in, only for some bloke to come and plonk his tripod and SLR cameras right in front of us. Still, let’s face it you have to be pretty original to take a shot that hasn’t been taken before by somebody else.
The plan had been to remain there until sunset at 18:17 precisely (thanks google weather) and take an iconic shot of it descending over the temple. As it was it was too cloudy so we headed back a bit early for the songtheaw. True to his word, our mate had waited for us and handed Hollie a bottle of water as we got back in his motor. We poured it away when we got back to the hostel as we were worried it was tapwater, but it’s the thought that counts. He ferried us back to the hostel and asked for the aforementioned 150 baht. We gave him 300 and still felt rotten – 6 quid for two hour’s work! I felt like one of the chief executives of Sports Direct. Taxi fares are a bit of a mystery to us here – they can range from incredibly overpriced (but still cheaper than what we’d pay in England) or so cheap that you can’t comprehend how it’s possible for them to make a living. Sometimes we’re obviously being overcharged because of our “farang” status but it’s all relative. If our songtheaw friend took a trip to London I imagine his budget wouldn’t stretch to getting out of Heathrow airport – they might even boot him out of the plane somewhere over the Middle East.
Dinner was nothing to write home about, so I won’t. We ended the evening by doing a spot of washing, our first lot since being in Thailand. The dust off the road and the sweat that you generate just standing still means that you get through clothes more rapidly than in Britain, and I’ve already been doing the “run it under the cold tap” trick with my t-shirts for a couple of days. It was one of those massive vertical washers where you chuck your laundry in and let it do it’s stuff. The machine appeared to be operating in some kind of space/time continuum, because I returned ten minutes after it’s original advertised finishing time and it still had about half an hour to go on it. Even the machinery here appears to have a “mañana mañana” approach to it’s designated task. I panicked a little because when I peered into the bowl it seemed to have enough water in it to fill a small pond swilling around. With visions of our clothes being turned into shrunken Barbie and Ken versions of themselves I decided to wait by the machine until it had finished it’s cycle. It finished the wet bit with about ten minutes to go, drained itself, and then proceeded to wake the whole of Ayutthaya up as it spun everything inside it to the point that the Tazmanian Devil would have suffered motion sickness just watching it. Convinced that it had gone into electrical spasm, I was about to call the hostel owner or better still a monk to perform an exorcism on the bloody thing, before it ended it’s task with a final belch of water. At 22:00 I removed the somehow still sodden clothes, put them gingerly back in my plastic carrier bag, and silently buggered off back to our room as stray dogs howled and curtains twitched all across the neighbourhood.
Sorry about the lack of pictures – imagine the inconvenience of poor wi-fi in South-East Asia…
Up the Rams. Tonight’s the night lads.