Sunday, August 9, 2009

ANCIENT SIAM – Around Thailand in a Day Part 1 of 3

After more than 3 hours of finding my way to Samut Prakan (local literatures spell it as a single word – Samutprakan), I finally found myself inside the airconditioned ticket hall of Muang Boran, aka Ancient City. There wasn’t a queue. If the availability of so-called “tourist guides” annotating as the trams navigate the park was indicative of anything, it was that not a lot of farangs visit Muang Boran.

I chose the trams (instead of buggy cars or bicycles) because of the harsh sun (a girl from DC even called it as a health hazard). The tram will roam around the heritage park. You can hop on and off from any location, while you check out any of the 116 listed sites that proudly highlight a region of Thailand. No! You cannot navigate Ancient Siam on foot! It is just too big – and most of the time, Thailand’s weather is just too hot!

Ancient Siam is a successfully realized private outdoor park characterized by scaled down versions of Thailand’s most important heritage sites. Some quarters refer to it as the world’s largest outdoor museum, although this is debatable. It is a 320 hectare sprawl. I however realized that “scaled down” is not exactly appropriate. The ambitiously rebuilt temples and mondops are in fact nearly as big as the original sites, with sophisticated architectures followed down to the letter. They may be described in literatures as “miniatures” but these reproductions might as well be the real deal. These aren’t just huge doll houses – like they were in Nayong Pilipino (Jakarta also has their own heritage park – the Taman Mini Indonesia Indah - which spreads out on 120 hectares of land, barely half the size of Ancient Siam)!

The temples here rise like the real temples they emulate – in terms of size or reproduction. When locals enter these temples, they nonetheless take off their shoes to offer a prayer, a lotus or incense just as they do at their original site. Ancient Siam has pagodas and temples, prayer and ordination halls, 30 to 50 foot statues, lakes, hills, shipyards – the works!

This heritage park is amazingly borne from private funds. This Thai wonderland is a product of the genius of Mr. Lek Wiriyapan and his wife Prapai Wiriyapan, a visionary couple who built the park in protracted stages, to structurally preserve some of Thailand’s most sacred sites, most culturally representative landmarks, and most historically significant monuments. In fact, some of the landmarks seen here are already extinct in their areas of origin (like the Ayutthaya palace seen at the top of the page)

Dusit Maha Prasat Palace - Detail (above) and facade (below). This is Thailand's Grand Palace located in the capital of Bangkok. This palace has an area of 218,400 sq. metres and is surrounded by walls built in 1782. Muang Boran's founder considers this as one of his top 3 "re-creations" in terms of attention to detail.


Reading through the handout given with an entrance ticket (300 baht for adults), its founder shared his thoughts on why he – together with his wife - envisioned such a park. Some ideas are a bit quasi-philosophical and abstract, thus difficult to associate with the physical structure that has risen in Samutprakan, but he insisted that “Man must know the events of the past!’ He believed, “If we have no knowledge of the past, it is somewhat like a vessel without a compass and a rudder on the high sea. What will happen to that vessel is a matter of grave concern.”


Also emphasized was the more palpable concept of ignorance: “Great harm is derived from ignorance; but more harm is caused by not knowing truly, and yet pretending to know.” He referred to it as “ruinous”. Then he continued further on the precepts of morality, population, advancement of science, environment, right nucleus, and culture. However these beliefs are interpreted, Mr. Wiriyapan (Viriyaphant) must be right – he must know something that we don’t – or there wouldn’t be a Muang Boran - spectacularly realized concept!


His message was concluded by quoting an old saying – “To build a hill, a lump of earth has its own value.” Then he compared this with a traveler. He added, “Each of his (the traveler’s) steps contributes and has its own value. To complete the building of one hill, it has to depend on the first lump of earth. And to reach the end of a journey, it has to depend on the first step!” I like him already!


To my mind, there is a part of Thailand that is not represented here – the beaches: Phuket, Pattaya, Koh Samui (unless you consider the I-Nao Garden as part of it), Koh Phi Phi, etc. But how do you really “scale down” the rush of the waves and the idylls of fine white sands from these pieces of paradise? But I am mentioning this just for the sake of completion. I am so impressed nonetheless!


I have to warn every visitor, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the succession of sites. It is hard to take down notes and name every structure or you’d end up writing them down three days hence! As a result, some of the photos here need labels. (Note: I’d appreciate some help if you can identify the unlabelled photos.)

Meals can be had at the “Old Market Town” (#10 from your map) or at one of the small shops surrounding the Floating Market (#45) for your Thai halo halo or Nam Keng Sae (crushed ice mixed with colored sweeteners, beans, coconut byproducts, fruits, etc) and local meal (very affordable – my own chicken rice meal was just 30 baht).

The area is shaped like the Thailand map. The south entrance will take your tram through south Thailand, then head to your left – westward – and will proceed north, before turning around to the eastern section of the “country”. To be honest about it, I am not sure if a visitor’s full-day visit is enough to see all the sites. There are just too many!

By the time I was hopping off at the 2nd half of my visit, I was already shaking my head! Visiting every site was close to impossible since I got there close to midday. My shirt – that had dried up after getting soaked with sweat – was soaked once more! I was flushed and my hair was matted with perspiration! Even the strap of my knapsack was drenched with sweat! Haha. As my 7th tram ride glided through northeast Thailand, I knew I had to beg off from some of the sites. We passed by a hill – of what would be the Prasat Phra Wihan of Si Sa Ket (#72) – I was clucking with regret – but hey, I was really beat! And I just didn’t want to chomp down more than what I could chew! It was a LOT of steps and it would be a mountain if it didn’t rise from a heritage park!


It’s also hard to pick a favorite. But the Old Market Town (#10) and Floating Market (#45)– seen in Muslim-majority south Thailand - would be easy picks since they conjure water towns populated with cottages on stilts. They also serve as an oasis from the truly harsh summer sun! I took my time drying my sweat and catching breath while taking my lunch, watching little boats glide gracefully through the lakes.You can walk through bridges to cross cottages that rise from these canals. You can have your lunch or buy your souvenirs or pasalubongs (gifts). The Pavillion of the Enlightened (#110) rises from a mini-lake and the gleam of its golden halls just overpowers; it is such a sight to behold in the afternoon sun! The Royal Water-Course Procession (#104) is another graceful poetry in sight, the way these series of delightful royal boats snake serenely through the lake. The Sukhotai wats (#42) in North Thailand, which I visited last year, is as awe-inspiring as the original temples.


Just to mention some of the 116 structures listed – The Royal Strand (#1), The City Sala (#5), I-Nao Garden, the Manohra Garden, Stupa of Phra Maha That (Nakhon Si Thammarat), Tiger King’s Palace in Phetchaburi, Khun Phaen House, Dusit Maha Prasat Palace (Bangkok’s Grand Palace), Thee Pagodas Pass in Kanchanaburi, Chom Thong Palace Hall in Ayutthaya, Fruit-shaped Tower in Chai Nat, Krai Thong Garden, Lotus-Bud Tower, Ho Kham in Lampang, Wihan at Sa-Moeng in Chiang Mai, Phra Chedi Sri Song Rak in Loei, Phra That Phanom in Nakhon Pathom, Thai-Songdam Village, the Churning of the Ocean, Wat Nimit in Trat, Sumeru Mountain, Sala of 80 Yogi, the Rainbow Bridge, and many more.

Phra Maha That, Chaiya, Surat Thani in North Thailand

Buddha image of the Dvaravati Period (above and below)

Sanphet Prasat Palace in Ayuthhaya is unfortunately completely ruined, but its founder researched every inch of its architecture thus this reproduction. This palace is considered by the founder as his masterpiece, outside and in.

Dvaravati House and (at the background) the fruit-shaped tower of Prang Mafueang in Chai Nat

Audience Hall of Thonburi

Dusit Maha Prasat's lakeside view

The Ramayana Garden

The Ramayana Garden

The Ramayana Garden

Footprints of the lord Buddha in Saraburi. The recreation of the footprint was a gift from an Indian King. Wat Phra Phutabhat - where a 5-ft footprint of the lord Buddha is entombed in Saraburi. The said footprint was found by a wandering hunter. When the waters filled the footprint, the hunter bathed in it and all his wounds immediately disappeared.

Because of its prophetic and legendary healing powers, this site in North Thailand has become the Lourdes of Thailand, attracting a
huge number of ailing devotees, especially every February and March where a feast is celebrated.

The Bench of Public Appeals at Muang Boran is a long Thai style hall covered by a tiled roof. The bargeboard reflects the influence of Sangalok kilns of Sukhothai. The doorway is an example of the post-lintel type of construction, while the post, from which the bell was hung, is also a fine example of primitive wooden architecture. A bell has been hung outside the entrance to the court in accordance with the aforementioned stone inscription of the Sukhothai era. This was under the reign of a well loved and just king Pho Khun Ram Kamhaeng. In his kingdom, anyone with grievances can summon the king by just ringing the bell in the vicinity of the Bench of Appeals.

Who says you can't do your version of the Apsara dance sans music? ;->

Thai-speaking guides

Tiger King's Palace in Phetchaburi

By the time I got back to the Ticket Hall area (#2), I was once again drenched from head down to my pants. I sneaked into the very clean men’s toilet and practically bathed my head, face, hair and arms with water. It was one of the most refreshing toilet washes that I could recall. :)

I got myself 2 cans of Coke and downed them one after the other. I was thinking of the hazards of polydipsia, but was wary of dehydration and heat exhaustion too. It was that hot! Once recovered, it was time to head back to the big city. I made my way out of the parking area and through a footbridge to the highway. This was Kilometer 33 of Sukhumvit Road.

To get back to Bangkok, I was to turn right from the entrance of Ancient Siam! I had to climb up the overpass to cross Sukhumvit Road then headed westward. I noticed some guys fishing at the canal – a creek that flows beside the length of Sukhumvit Road! I hailed a white sangthaew #36 (a pickup) and paid 5 baht to take me to Pinklao-Paknam. Then from there, I took a Bangkok-bound bus #511. This took an hour. I was standing on the bus until 30 minutes into Bangkok, but I was enjoying the cool blow of the AC. God! I never even ride buses in Manila. That’s why I love living such experiences abroad! 

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Visit their site at The park is open daily from 8AM to 5PM. Entrance fees for farangs are 300 baht for adults and 200 baht for children, and 150 baht for locals. Ancient City is 33 kilometers south of Bangkok. It is very near the Crocodile Farm, the Erawan Museum (another institution founded by Ancient Siam's founder) and the Suvarnabhumi International Airport. Contact them at 0-2323-9253 or 0-2709-1644.

NEXT POSTPart 2 and More Photos from the Ancient City -

Last part - Part 3 and more photos plus the story of star-crossed lovers Pha Daeng and Nang Ai -

For an introduction: Getting to Samut Prakan or step by step instructions on how to get lost (wink!wink!) -

I-Nao Garden - The I-Nao tale is actually an Indonesian folklore introduced to the Thais during the Ayudhaya period and translated into the Thai language by King Rama II. This is the Javanese legendary romance between Prince Inao and Princess Budsaba set in the ancient city of Muang Kulaypan. Presently, the I-Nao Garden is in Koh Samui.

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