Day 41: Ayutthaya, Thailand. After a quick breakfast this morning, it was time to slap on sunscreen and head out and explore the temples of Ayutthaya.
We decided renting bicycles was the way to go – the tourist map makes the central area of Ayutthaya look pretty small, but in reality the distances are a little too big for walking around in a day.
The guesthouse rents out bicycles so we asked for two; the young guy in charge of the bikes took one look at Jim and selected a nice black number for him. With the biggest padded saddle you’ve ever seen. Perhaps he’s read our earlier blog posts about bike riding, and knows all about Jim’s delicate bum.
Even better, the word ‘Special’ was written across the back of the big padded saddle. Lil spent a couple of minutes falling about laughing before she could get on her own bike and head off. The guy at the guesthouse had no idea what was so funny, which is probably a good thing.
The bikes were supposedly equipped with a few gears each, but as always with rented bikes, they didn’t work. So we had only one gear to work with all day. Unfortunately for both of us it was the lowest gear possible, so we set off down the street with legs spinning furiously like cartoon characters.
Ayutthaya is a fascinating place, soaked in history and packed with the remains of temples, palaces and city walls. The old city is located on an island surrounded by canals and bridges and lots of green spaces. Founded around 1350, it became the second Siamese capital after Sukhothai in the north, and one of the biggest cities in southeast Asia, with three palaces and over 400 temples.
It was attacked by the Burmese army in 1767, who burnt the city to the ground and forced inhabitants to flee. The city was never rebuilt was is now an extensive archaeological site. It was granted UNESCO status in 1991 and is a very popular tourist attraction – thankfully we’re here during low season when visitor numbers are a lot lower.
We reached the first temple, Phra Nam, and chained our bikes to a railing (not that we thought the chances of anyone stealing them were particularly high). We wandered through a market next to the temple, where stalls were selling all sorts of interesting foods, including Roti Sai Mai, a traditional Ayutthaya sweet which is Persian fairy floss wrapped in a pancake coloured with pandan leaf.
For a couple of dollars, you get a big bag of pancakes and another big bag of multi-coloured fairy floss, and you ‘roll your own’. They were nice, but sickly sweet – way too sweet for Lil who had one bite and decided enough was enough. Jim managed to make (and scoff) a few rolls, then devoured all the pancakes and threw away the rest of the fairy floss. That was definitely a one hit wonder, but good to try.
Lil spotted a donation box for ‘Food and medicine for dog’, and put some money in. There was no indication of what charity was collecting the money, but given the donation box was right outside the office of the Tourist Police, we assumed it must be legit. There are lots of stray dogs in this town, though so far we haven’t been intimidated by any of them. We regularly see rice left on the ground for them – either that’s the charity doing its good work, or some kind locals. Either way, it makes us happy.
We spent a while exploring what’s left of Wat Phra Nam. There’s an impressive prang (a corn-cob shaped tower) in the centre, surrounded by remains of chapels and accommodation blocks. There are many stupas (spired towers), and Buddha statues are on every surface. Interestingly the Buddhas are nearly all missing their heads – perhaps that was part of the ransacking process.
Next we headed to Mahathat Temple, one of the oldest and most significant temples in Thailand. The prang in this temple fell over about a century ago, having stood for over 500 years, but there are many beautiful stupas still standing. There is the head of a Buddha statue trapped in some tree roots which is considered very holy and a big tourist attraction.
Then it was back on our bikes and off to the next temple, about 5km southwest of the town centre, outside the city walls. Wat Chai Watthanaram is a Khmer style Royal temple that was used by the King and other members of the Royal family. Built in 1630 by the King as a means to gain Buddhist merit and also as a memorial to his mother, it was one of the finest monuments of the Ayutthaya Kingdom. This was Jim’s favourite because there are stupas that have open areas underneath which were once highly decorated with paints, gold leaf and stucco, some of which remains. Sadly some of the palace is still under renovation having been damaged by the floods of 2011.
By then, it was late afternoon and time to head home. We chose a smaller side road for the return journey to get away from the loud traffic. On one quiet tree-lined stretch, Lil almost wobbled off her bike as she nearly rode over the tail of a giant water monitor by the side of the road – so big that Lil was convinced it was a crocodile. It took off, crashing through the bushes and we heard it making a very loud splash as it jumped into the river below.
We had a look online later to see if there are any crocs in Ayutthaya. The last time they roamed the area was when over 100 of them escaped from a crocodile farm in 2011. At the time the Public Health Minister announced a 1,000 Baht bounty for each crocodile caught alive – less than $50 – which doesn’t sound like a large reward for pinning down a crocodile and tying it up for return to the croc farm. At the time though, it was worth more than 3 days’ salary, and with the devastation caused by the 2011 floods, they were going to need the money for repairs.
Looking through some more pics online, Lil decided the stripey monster she’d nearly ridden over was definitely a giant water monitor. There have been reports of some huge ones found in the area, weighing over 100kg – yikes.
We got home, showered and changed and headed out for dinner. We stopped at a small bar and restaurant close to home for a quick pre-dinner beer and chose seats in the outside area. As we drank our beer and chatted, there were very dark clouds gathering above our heads. One of the waitresses came out and showed us her phone screen which displayed the (presumably Google translated) words “The rain is about to fall”. And indeed it did – it came crashing down. We moved inside, waited until it stopped and then headed into the town for dinner.
We ate this evening at a restaurant called Burinda – the food was outstanding. Spiced fried pork with ginger, chilli and egg; chicken with morning glory and mushrooms in a savoury sauce; vermicelli noodles and rice. And tonight’s Chang beer was elegantly served in an ice bucket.
Then it was time to head home, do some more travel planning and catch up with emails. Tomorrow, depending on the weather, we may spend some time at the Chao Sam Praya Museum, or head 20km south to visit the Summer Palace, or do something else entirely.