Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ayutthaya - Might and Splendor in Ancient Thailand

Ancient cities are always a thrill to visit. With a dash of imagination and some heaps of history, we found the Ayutthaya Historical Park a walk back to an era of kings and merchants, of adventurers and spice barter trades. We traveled barely 2 ½ hours until we were standing at seemingly neglected ruins that still evoked historical pages from what we expected. An ancient city in the central plains of Siam rose a century (year 1351) after the founding of the North Thailand's Kingdom of Sukhothai (year 1238).

417 years, the ancient kingdom of Ayutthaya, 85 kilometers north of Bangkok, flourished as a city comparable in size and wealth to Paris of that era. Some 33 kings of different dynasties ruled the Thai city which, at that time, was Thailand at its mightiest. The name itself meant “undefeatable city”. Founded by King U-thong in 1350, the reign lasted until the Burmese sacked and pilfered the kingdom in 1767. These days, ruins to the kingdom stand as mere shadow of a once mighty kingdom. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site that enjoys frequent day-tour visits from Thailand’s millions of tourists.

If you don’t have much time to do a comprehensive visit to all the temples and chedis – many of which are in dismal ruins with no hint of preservation – then just make a checklist of the major sites. Foremost on this list should be Wat Phra Si Sanphet (Sri Sanphet Rd), the largest temple in Ayutthaya, known for its row of chedis (Thai-style stupas). Housed within the grounds of the former royal palace, the wat (temple) was used only for royal religious ceremonies. Entrance fee is a measly 30 baht, but if you take a guided tour, you usually pay between 1000 to 1,200 baht that includes visit to several other sites like the Bang Pa-in palace, your lunch, transportation, hotel pick-up, most of the entrance fees and a sketchy tourist guide. Wikitravel says, “It once housed a 16-meter Buddha covered with 340 kg of gold, but the Burmese set fire to the statue to melt the gold and destroyed the temple in the process.” Roaming the whole area, one is reminded of the mindless destruction from a violent past. History has taught us time and again over the stupidity of war, yet how many countries in the present world are currently embroiled in such nihilistic folly? We just never learn.

There are several ways to visit the Ayutthaya. You can take the train from
Hualamphong Station in Bangkok. A 3rd class ticket will cost you 20 baht for a 2 ½ hour travel. A first class train will take 1 ½ hours. Upon arrival in Ayutthaya, you have several options to consider. You can rent a bike and pace your own visits, which is a fun way of exploring the park, especially if you’re fit enough to be pedaling for the day. Bike shops charge from 40-50 baht per day. The more convenient option is the tuktuk as you don’t have to brave the harsh sun. They usually charge 300 baht/hour – or a discounted 1,000 baht for 4 hours. However, if you consider a guided or arranged tour from Bangkok that charges 1,200 baht (that already includes your transportation, lunch, entrance fee to the temples and several spots to visit), hiring a tuktuk and the trouble of arranging your own itinerary (as well as dealing with opportunists and touts) seem like a poor option. You are better off getting the package tour. It saves you a lot of time, money – and headache.

This is the
Eye in the Sky.

Buddha head overgrown by trees at Wat Mahatat.

Clambering up chedis and temples are a big no-no. Hehe

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