When I learned that the staff of Thailand’s Rajanagarindra College, where I once worked as a professor, was attending a countrywide sporting festival in Ayuthaya, or Phra Nakhon Si Ayuthaya, I couldn’t pass up the chance to tour this ancient kingdom. So I went along on the bus ride to this historic city, the former capital of Siam (now Thailand).
Thirty-three kings ruled in Ayuthaya through five dynasties until the Burmese looted and torched the city in 1767. Yet remnants of those former glory days remain. In 1991, a vast stretch of Ayuthaya’s historical sites was declared a World Heritage Site.
In addition to this World Heritage treasure, there are many more ruins scattered across the city, which is located in southern Thailand about 44 miles (72 km) north of Bangkok. While modern cities often build on top of ancient sites, hiding the history beneath their streets, Ayuthaya is different. Here, the old city melts into the new.
Bell-shaped pagodas with dark patinas appear between lighted restaurants and karaoke pubs. During my visit, hundreds of employees from provincial Rajabhats – schools much like American community colleges – had gathered on the sprawling campus of Ayuthaya College to play and watch chair ball (a simplified version of Lacrosse), baytong (a variation of lawn bowling), soccer, volleyball and a Thai version of chess.
Small markets had formed around the playing field. The smoke from roasting chickens and squid, sweet crêpes and fried fish cakes floated over crowds of mingling Thai. I heard the beat of a glong pooja (an elongated bongo), guitars and singing from the knolls around the gymnasium. The music deflected from the brick walls of a crumbling monastery nearby. Like Ayuthaya, which blends ancient palaces and modern museums, families and college staff, vendors and spectators were happily mixed on this busy campus built around an ancient temple.
Home to 60,000 people, Ayuthaya offers quiet, shaded courtyards at ruins and temples covered with magnolia and tun po (Golden Shower) trees. The grassy stretches between shrouded Buddha figures and shrines invite silence.
Looking at what the Burmese left of the palatial and religious compounds made me think of all the splendor that is now forever lost.
The quiet, contemplative nature of Thais coincides with the temples that were often built as monuments or blessings to the dead. The temples were never inhabited by anything other than bones – it is simply space to contemplate those who have passed on. Their gabled arches and pagodas peaking above the treetops are meant to be seen from distances. That’s all you need. Ruins don’t sing.
Ayuthaya is located in a rich, rice-producing region and was always a powerful and strategic place. It is an island-city surrounded by three rivers: Chao Phraya, the Pasak and the Lopburi. The rivers and numerous canals served as roads connecting hundreds of monasteries and supporting a vast trade with China, Japan, India and Persia.
Ayuthaya’s ruins indicate that it was one of Indo-China’s most prosperous cities. By the end of the 17th century, its population had reached one million. Even the Dutch East India Company arrived here, as did the Portuguese, the French and the English. The visiting foreigners of those times claimed it to be the most illustrious city they had ever seen.
Today you can rent a long-tailed canoe at the pier near the Hua Ro Market, a lively spot well worth seeing, if you’ve never traveled in an Asian country before. But be prepared: The pier, the boats and the sights are quite authentic, somewhat crude and usually appeal to the adventurous.
I climbed into the shaky, wood canoe and settled my bag into the ribs of the exposed frame. I dipped my hand into the soupy, warm water. Once I got used to the whine of the outboard, I was soon fascinated by scenes of everyday Thai life.
Their aluminum shacks are covered with rust and graffiti. Piecemeal scooters and barrels of rainwater litter the yards along the banks. Wild dogs dash up to the river edge baring their teeth and barking. But despite the poverty, the Thais smile and wave and aren’t afraid to offer the few English phrases they seem to know: “Hello,” “How are you?” and foremost “Welcome to Thailand!”
It pays to learn a few Thai phrases, especially when it comes to food. You won’t see too many signs in English, and most Thais speak no more than a few introductory phrases. Gang kio wahn gai, which translates as sweet green curry with chicken, can be ordered in up-scale and street-corner restaurants or purchased in bags, usually with enough for two people at unimaginably low prices, often no more than $US 2.
Tom kar gai, coconut soup and chicken, is a sweet favorite of most Thais and westerners. Kai jeaw moo sup is an omelet with minced pork and vegetables served over rice (rot kao). Sticky rice with boiled banana wrapped in banana leaf (kao tom mot) is sold by many corner vendors near temples and can instantly convert you into an Asian cuisine addict.
Tuk-tuks are a safe and inexpensive way to get around. Here, tuk-tuk drivers wait for their next customers.
The city is filled with tuk tuks, a Thai phrase imitating the sound the little taxis make as they putter down the street. You can trust the drivers to treat you well. Thais are naturally friendly and open and genuine. Take a map, hop into a tuk tuk and point to the spot on your map where you want to go. The driver will know the way. Forty baht, about US$ 1, will take you anywhere in the small city. Two or three hundred baht, less than US$ 10, might get you a friendly driver for the whole day.
In 2001, Francis Ford Coppola produced the movie, The Legend of Suriyothai. There are a few older, Thai versions of this national epic. In the story, Suriyothai, an actual Siamese princess, sacrificed her life to the Burmese army so her husband, King Tien, and the kingdom would thrive.
Her story reflects the contemporary and vibrant love of king and country that is so pervasive in Thailand. Suriyothai lived here in Ayuthaya, and her Shakespearean-like story documents the drama of Thailand’s moiling past.
While still a patriarchal society, the princess represents the character and strength of Thai women. They are often the cores of powerful institutions: families, businesses and colleges. Most of the employees and professors at the Thai college where I taught are women.
At the opening ceremonies of the sporting festival in Ayuthaya, I watched a parade barge, a national symbol of pride and culture, ceremoniously rowed by women across the running track. A professor had composed a song for the occasion. He sang into the microphone at the podium.
The slow beat he hammered with his fist on the glong pooja matched the strokes of the rowers. I was hypnotized. It was only a glimpse into the native spirit of the Thai people who are so adapt at mixing the old and the new.
IF YOU GO
Ayuthaya Tourist Information
Tourist Information Center (Ayuthaya): 66-035-322-730
Suan Luang Hotel: 66-035-245-537
Information on the History of Ayuthaya
Information on Thai Phrases
UNESCO World Heritage Sites Not to Miss
The UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in Ayuthaya includes the Wat Phra Si Sanphet Temple, built in the 14th century. It once housed a 52 feet (16m) standing Buddha sculpture that was covered in 455 pounds (170 kg) of gold. It was the most important temple within the Royal Palace compound before the Burmese set fire to the Buddha image to melt off the gold, completely destroying it and the temple.
Wat Phra Meru, reminiscent of a 16th century fortress, was fortunately not touched and still boasts a 20 feet (6m) crowned sitting Buddha and a 1,300-year-old green-stone Buddha from Ceylon.
Wat Phra Chao Phanan Choeng is a monastery south of the city. There is no reliable information about its time of construction, possibly around 1325 A.D. by the Khmer people of what is now Cambodia. It contains a much revered and beautiful 62 feet (19m) golden Buddha image made of stucco.
A restored Elephant Kraal, locally called Phaniat, was used for the capture of wild elephants in ancient times. It is a spacious enclosure made of massive teak logs planted in the ground at 45-degree angles. Behind the Kraal the king had a special pavilion built so that he could watch the animals rounded up. The last capture of elephants in the Kraal happened in May 1903, as a demonstration for royal guests.