A day trip to Ayutthaya
My last day in Bangkok, I decided to take a day trip to Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya (ee-you-tea-ya) is an entire province and a world heritage site that was the capital of Siam for 417 years. Up until 1946, Thailand was still called Siam. If you’ve ever seen the movie “The King and I”, you’ll recognize some of the names of the Kings that lived and reigned in this area. Believe it or not, I signed up for one of those big group tours. I rationalized it because I was traveling completely alone that day, and I wanted the information and history to go along with the sights. Booking it only two days before limited my options, but I would not be deterred.
I met the group at one of the downtown hotels and we boarded an air conditioned bus for the 45-60 minute trip outside of Bangkok. It was nice to take in the more rural communities outside of Bangkok. The main crop and employer in Thailand is still rice, although they no longer use Water Buffalo to harvest it. While Thailand was one of the first countries to export rice, the current King has encouraged farmers to diversify into fruit or livestock as well. I had no idea that there are over 200 different types of rice.
Our first stop was the Bang Pa-In Summer Palace. Although the palace grounds date back as far as 1656, the palace was revived and used by King Mongkut in the 1800s. Recognize the name from “The King and I”? His son King Chulalongkorn continued building on this site from 1872-1889, when most of the buildings standing today were constructed. While it is only used for ceremonies today, there are several buildings amidst the beautiful grounds that sit upon the shore of the Chao Phrya river. There are observation towers, royal residences, a royal carriage museum, and much more. The tour guide gave us a brochure and an overall idea of what was there and then set us loose. Although I didn’t visit everything in the 90 minutes we had to explore, I definitely got a good feel for the entire place.
The second stop were the ruins at Wat MahaThat whose origins date back to the late 1300s. There is no Wat here, it is basically ruins. The Wat here was ravaged by wars and time. The majority of the Buddha heads have been cut off. Our guide said that during the war with the Burmese, even the Thai people raided this area for relics and treasures to sell for money. Although the ruins are absolutely beautiful, I wonder about their longevity. They are not protected from the weather or tourists, other than a few signs telling you not to walk in certain areas. One of the most famous sights here is the Buddha head cradled within the tree roots. Dating back to about 1375, the tree roots somehow grew around a forgotten Buddha head. It is considered rude to stand over a figure of Buddha of any kind. Since this one is only a few feet off the ground, you are asked to be seated or crouch down in order to take photos.
Our third stop was Wat Na Phra Mane, which is a full standing temple with gems and artifacts that date back more than 1000 years. These artifacts were preserved from destruction because it was selected as commanding headquarters more than once for the intruding Burmese army when they attacked Ayutthaya. It is definitely worth a visit since it is the only standing original temple of that time period. Although our guide explained and elaborated on this history, there are english explanation placards inside.
Our last stop were the ruins at Wat Lokayasutharam. The temple ruins hold one of the largest reclining Buddha images. While it was built during the early period of the Ayutthaya region, it’s exposure to the elements was causing its decline. So in the 1950s it was replastered some. I would have liked to have seen some pictures of it before its “restoration” but the sheer size was impressive enough.
The tour that I took ended with a late lunch cruise on the Chao Phraya river back to Bangkok. The food was mediocre and the river experience was a little too long. Although the guides did a running commentary during most of the 1 1/2 hour cruise, it was still a little boring. I’d recommend using a tour company that drives back to Bangkok. While I do recommend getting out on the river while in Bangkok, I’d rather do it an a traditional long boat.
In the end, the tour was a good choice for me. The security of being in a group while being able to see this amazing province was great. If I was with a group of friends, I might have gotten a private tour guide and driver. It would have been nice to set my own pace and visit some of the sights before the crowds showed up. Although several times, if I just went the opposite route through the ruins than most of the group did, I found myself wandering quietly alone. It was in those moments that I was struck by the history of this incredible province.