What better way to greet the first day of 2009 than to be at a centuries-old center of one of the great religions of the world. Ayyuthaya was once the pride and joy of the ancient city of Siam and site of some of the greatest temples of Buddhism.
I arrived in Bangkok from Penang last night for New Year’s eve. Being the first day of the year and my first full day at this wonderful city, I thought at daytrip to Ayuthayya would be a fitting way to start the year right. I took a bus at the Northeastern Bus Teminal and 2 hours later, was dropped off at the city center. I had imagined Ayuthayya to be all temples and countryside. What greeted me was an industrial city with traffic. I would discover later that the temples were actually spaced quite a bit away from each other. I hired a tuk-tuk for 3 hours to bring me around. It still was much cheaper than taking any of the tours plus it would allow me maximum flexibility to choose the temples I wanted to go.
Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon
I guess everyone had the same idea as me. There was really heavy traffic on the road leading to this wat which houses a large chedi and a community of mae chii (Buddhist nuns). I had forgotten that inspite of being very modern and touristy, Thailand is primarily a Buddhist country where most Thais, even those in the cities, actively practice their beliefs. Even malls have their own shrines just outside their buildings.
Locals were burning joss sticks and offering lotus flowers and petitions to a golden buddha. I actually like the fact that the wat far from just being a historical site is a living structure where people really do worship.
Of course, tourist buses were everywhere and it was actually quite hard getting nice pics as there were so many people.
Surrounding the main chedi were 200 seated buddha images all decked in yellow robes. On one side of the complex was a reclinging buddha on whose feet, people were pressing coins.
Wat Phra Mahathat
Ravaged by the Siam-Burmese war and by nature, wandering around the remains of this very large complex is almost meditative. Without a formal chedi to house a Buddha image to worship, there weren’t many people. Starkingly beautiful against the blue sky were the ruins of the different prang (tower-like structure) and chedi. Everywhere were burnt sacred images with missing heads and limbs, victimes of both war and time. It was lovely just walking around the ancient structures especially since I was alone most of the time. Turns out, everyone was gathered at a large bodhi tree whose roots have covered a statue leaving only its head protruding. It was one of the most iconic images of Ayuthayya. I really enjoyed this wat as the ruins were really really beautiful and it was so quiet.
Though it was a fairly small complex, the climb to the chedi was up a very very steep flight of stairs that was on almost 80-degree incline. Going up and even going down, I couldn’t imagine how those monks could manage the climb. It wasn’t actuallty difficult as there were hand rails to hold on to but the sheer steepness and vertically was quite daunting. It was slow going-up as there were so many people and some needed to really take it slow and stop at certain points.
The inside of the chedi was quite empty but the view from the window was lovely especially since you could see the colored roofs of a nearby temple complex. Another set of steps that were even steeper than the ones inside and whose width wasn’t even enough for my entire foot to step on led way way down to a tiny alcove where ancient frescoes were painted. It was dark inside and really really cramped as one had to squeeze in a squarish hole. Once inside, with only the flicker of an electric lamp, the frescoes, though faded were still beautiful. It was both frightening and yet soothing to be inside such a small dark space and be staring at decorated walls that echoed with so much history and religious fervor.
I only had an hour left as I didn’t expect the wats to be so big and the traffic to be so snarled. No wonder when I told the driver that I would be back in 30 minutes, he didn’t believe me and said I should be back in 60 minutes. Since this was the wat had the elephant rides, as expected it was filled with so much tourists. I really had no plans on riding an elephant as I expected it to cost much. Apparently, my driver took my questioning to be an interest in elephant riding. He brought me to the counter which I thought was where the entrance fee was to be paid. I was waiting for my change to the THB500 when the counter girl said it cost that much. Only then did I realize I was off to riding an elephant. I didn’t really mind as it was an experience. The price was quite steep but if it really went to the upkeep of the elephants and their families as claimed by the brochures, then it was for a good cause.
The temple complex is one of the largest in Ayuthayya and going around by elephant apparently is one way of seeing the sights without tiring your feet. The downside if of course you don’t get anywhere near the ruins or the chedis. I was quite anxious with the elephant as he seemed to be quite unhappy, tired, or probably bored. The driver seemed to be coaxing him at time or reprimanding him. I was thinking that if he were sulking he might just decide to throw us both of his back. I became even more anxious when he lifted his head and trunk and brayed. Walking along a stream, I imagined the elephant to be heading to it for a bath. It was a sunny day and I thought he might want to take a dip or quench his thirst. But he stayed right on course. I guess I was just a little paranoid. At one point , he started trotting a bit fast forcing the driver to hit him. I was just concerned when I saw the driver holding a hammer-like tool with a pointed end which he would use when he seemed to be reprimanding the animal. I just surmised that with a really thick skin, he needed the pointed tip to let the elephant “feel” what he wanted him to do. I’ve never ridden a horse or a carabao. It was actually my first time to ride an animal and I couldn’t help laughing all the time as it felt quite strange especially since I was alone and everyone else was in pairs.
Halfway at the walk was a stop where we exchanged cameras with another elephant driver for photo-ops. The ride took about 30 minutes and by the time it was over, I was due back to my tuk-tuk to be dropped off at the minivan waiting station. I wasn’t able to explore the temple grounds anymore and I just watched part of the elephant show near the entrance.