There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Ayutthaya, Another Minor Disaster and The King and I; Part 12 of Thailand and Laos

Mentally prepared to reach Ayutthaya at 4.30, sleep on the rattly train from Ubon Ratchthani was elusive and we were up before the attendant came to wake us.

Arriving right on time, we stepped out into the warm night. Only the day before we had realised that our itinerary said we would be met at the station by our hotel's representative but it did not name the hotel nor give a local contact number. We were relieved to see a woman standing on the platform holding a piece of paper bearing our name.

She led us from the station past benches of rough sleepers. She may not quite have been a ‘representative’ but she did have a tuk-tuk, and we climbed dutifully into the back. Tuk-tuks in Ayutthaya are painted green, have an idiosyncratic design and are, unsurprisingly known as 'kermit tuk-tuks’.

Kermit tuk-tuk
Photographed later in the day (obviously)
The city has only 55,000 inhabitants, but the length of the drive made it seem larger. We eventually stopped outside what looked more a large house than a hotel and were checked in by the night watchman. He showed us not to a room but a suite which we noticed, even in our tired state, was seriously impressive. After a cup of tea we resumed our interrupted sleep.

In the morning we discovered the hotel pool was only a few paces from our door and beyond that the waterway surrounding central Ayutthaya. Across it was a temple with an impressive prang.

View from beside the hotel pool, Ayutthaya
After a leisurely breakfast, Chart, our new guide arrived. He came with a driver and van into which we packed our bags before setting off with Chart in a Kermit tuk-tuk. We never discovered the name of the hotel - shame we would have recommended it.

Ayutthaya was founded in 1351 by U Thong, later King Ramathibodi I, who was forced to leave his capital at Lopburi by an outbreak of smallpox. In following years, with the Khmer Empire in terminal decline and Sukhotthai weakening, he and his successors made Ayutthaya the second Thai capital and secured an empire with borders similar to modern Thailand.
Our day in Ayutthaya, Thailand's second capital, started in Ubon Ratchathani and ended in Kanchanaburi.
The map also shows Sukhothai, the first capital and Bangkok, the current capital

It was a city of rivers and canals (now mostly gone), many inhabitants living on boats. By 1700 Ayutthaya’s population was estimated to be over a million and its great wealth attracted foreign traders from China, Persia and the European powers. Each had their own ghetto and dock exporting rice, spices, timber and hides.

This golden age ended abruptly in 1767. After centuries of incursion and counter-incursions the Burmese finally sacked Ayutthaya, leaving it in ruins and transporting thousands of prisoners back to Myanmar. The city was abandoned, a new Thai dynasty arose and built their capital at Bangkok, 80km to the south.

Our first stop was at the 16th century Phra Noon Buddha.

With our Kermit tuk-tuks at the Phra Noon Buddha, Ayutthaya
Built of brick covered with concrete he is 37m long and 8m high. From a distance the face looks uncharacteristically miserable....

The Phra Noon Buddha, Ayutthaya
… but on closer inspection that appears the consequence of centuries of weathering rather than the sculptor’s intention. As in Myanmar local people like to attach gold leaf to favoured images, here the authorities have attempted to protect the revered statue by providing a smaller replica which people are welcome to gild.

Head of the Phra Noon Buddha, with the smaller semi-gilded replica, Ayutthaya

There is little left of Wat Lokayasutharam, the temple behind.

Wat Lokayasutharam, Ayutthaya
Kermit next took us to the Chedi Phou Khao Thong on the city’s edge. A 50m high Mon style chedi was built here in 1569 by the Burmese King Bayinnaung after one of his more successful incursions. It fell into disrepair and in the 18th century a Thai chedi was erected on the same foundations. Allegedly, visitors can climb to the first level, which gives views over the city, and visit the shrine inside. It appeared closed - perhaps for safety reasons, the structure has an alarming list to starboard.

Chedi Phou Khao Thong, Ayutthaya
If we had climbed the chedi I might have been able to get my bearings, but Ayutthaya remained a steadfastly confusing city. Amid the huge area of destroyed palaces and temples on the island are unexpected intrusions of modernity, a block here, two blocks there, while in the modern city, there are sudden outbreaks of antiquity, like this chedi at the end of a very modern dual carriageway.

Nearby is an equestrian statute of King Naresuan the Great. Born in Phitsanulok, near Sukhothai in 1555 he was taken hostage by Bayinnaung during his 1564 incursion to ensure his father's loyalty as a vassal monarch. Brought up in the Burmese court, Naresuan was schooled in the art of warfare and at the age of 16 was made viceroy of Phitsanulok. When Bayinnaung died in 1581 he seized his chance and by 1590 he had united the thrones of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya and ruled over a united and independent Siam until his death from smallpox in 1605.

Naresuan the Great, Ayutthaya
Naresuan was the subject of a three part biopic released between 2007 and 2011. The film included a well-known story that, when a hostage, he had wagered with his hosts/captors that if his fighting cock was victorious, then he would free Siam. The cock duly won. After the film, cockerels started appearing, first near the statue, but now throughout the city. No-one knows who started it, but anyone wishing to donate a bird can buy one in any temple or cockerel statue outlet (of which Ayutthaya has many).

Lynne among the chickens, Ayutthaya

We sped back into the centre - tuk-tuks do not really go fast, it just feels that way - to Wat Phra Si Sanphet. When U Thong founded the city he built himself a wooden palace. A century later one of his successors built a new palace a little to the north and constructed Wat Phra Si Sanphet (Temple of the Holy Splendid Omniscient) on the old palace site. It was comprehensively destroyed by the Burmese in 1767. and King Rama I, the founder of Thailand’s present ruling dynasty, used many of the bricks to build his new capital in Bangkok…

Destroyed statue, Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayutthaya

...though the three main chedis have been restored.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayutthaya

In the surrounding park a model of the vanished royal palace was on display despite being only half finished. Three young men were working on it, one of them painting plastic trees green; a strange job but someone has to do it.

Painting trees, the old royal palace, Ayutthaya

We said goodbye to Kermit at the market. Among with the usual array of dried fish, fruit, and vegetables were sugar roti stalls, an Ayutthaya speciality. They start as regular rotis, though dyed unnatural colours, the maker smearing the wet mixture onto the hotplate with her right hand and flipping it with the spatula in her left...

Making roti, Ayutthaya market

... then you buy some spun sugar - a rainbow of colours are available - wrap the sugar in the roti and  transform an India breakfast savoury into a sweet snack. It should not work but the soft/crunchy, sweet/savoury combination is strangely moreish.

Spun sugar, Ayutthaya market

Leaving the market we descended to a jetty to embark on a circumnavigation of the island along the Lopburi, Chao Phraya and Pasak Rivers - and bit of interconnecting canal.

The Pasak is a serious working river and the trains of huge slow moving barges looked intimidating from our small boat.

Tug hauling barges on the Pasak River
On our journey we saw hospitals and factories, temples old.....

Old temple, Ayutthaya
...and new...

Modern temple, Ayutthaya
...and the original (or more probably restored) Portuguese church from the great days of Ayutthaya.

Portuguese Church, Ayutthaya

As we disembarked, our driver reappeared and drove us in the van to Chart’s chosen restaurant. The menu could have been Lao, but the air-conditioning and the eye-watering prices reminded us where we were - actually, Thailand is cheap by European standards but when you have just arrived from Laos….

After lunch Chart suggested we visit one final temple, the 14th century Wat Phra Mahathat, the Temple of the Great Relic. In the heart of the old town, it was not spared the destruction of 1767, but a prang has survived....

Prang, Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayutthaya

... and a Buddha's head peers out from between tree roots, allegedly the most photographed object in Ayutthaya (so why should I ignore it?)

Head in the roots, Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayutthaya

We had climbed a small flight of brick steps to a ruined chapel when, without warning, it started raining. From this exposed spot (the chapel roof having disappeared 250 years ago) we hurried for the steps and the sheltering trees below.

Along with several others I followed Chart down before turning in time to see Lynne diving over the side of the steps.

Ruined chapel, Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayutthaya

After an elegant plummet she landed well on the packed-earth floor, rolling to absorb the shock but as she rolled her forehead struck the concrete surround of a small tree with an unpleasant thunk.

Chart and I rushed to help as a crimson tide surged down her face. Lynne could see the blood, but was otherwise unhurt and far more concerned about her glasses.

By the time we had located them, thankfully, undamaged, Lynne was on her feet and surrounded by locals, tourists and security guards all offering water to wash the wound and tissues to staunch the flow. The quantity of help offered was overwhelming. I was wiping away blood when a Germanic voice behind me ordered ‘stop wiping it, put pressure on the wound.' The tone irritated me but I was too busy to explain that I had not yet found the wound so I had to keep wiping away the blood to locate its source. He was only trying to help, though.

The rain stopped as suddenly and mysteriously as it started.

I had just found the wound when a Japanese tourist bustled up carrying a comprehensive first aid kit, produced a large adhesive pad and stuck it on Lynne's head. Applying pressure to the pad stopped the blood, though Lynne’s t-shirt looked like it had starred in a Sam Peckinpah western.

Thanking her, and everybody else, we marched Lynne back to the entrance through a growing crowd of concerned onlookers. Once in the van Chart gave directions to the nearest private hospital and ten minutes later we drove into the ambulance entrance, a wheelchair appeared and Lynne was whisked into the treatment room.

A young nurse ran through some questions in remarkably good English, shaved hair from around the wound and sent me away. I think we probably jumped a queue, but I was not paying attention to that and really did not care. Lynne says a doctor arrived quickly, local anaesthetic was injected and three stitches inserted.

Lynne later that evening, stitched but unbowed and tougher than she looks
By the time she emerged with an elaborate dressing on her head I was at cashier’s paying the £45 bill. We were impressed by the hospital and the treatment and grateful we were in relatively wealthy Thailand rather than Laos where two days earlier we had passed a grubby, poverty stricken hospital and commented that we would not fancy going there in an emergency.

Our plan had been to next drive 20 km downstream to visit Bang Pa-In and then make the two and a half hour journey to Kanchanaburi. I assumed this would change, but Lynne insisted she was fine and Chart thought we still had sufficient time.

A popular retreat for the kings of Ayutthaya, the first palace was built at Bang Pa-In, in the 17th century.

It was abandoned with the fall of Ayutthaya but in the mid nineteenth century steamboats brought Pa-In into easy travelling distance of Bangkok and King Mongkut (Rama IV) built a modest palace here. The current buildings are the work of his son King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) who reigned from 1868 to 1910.

King Mongkut and Prince Chulalongkorn
Unknown photographer, sourced from Wikipedia
Mongkut had been a monk for 27 years before succeeding his brother but prior to that had travelled and studied widely. Deciding his many wives and children required educating in the ways of the west he sought advice from the British consul in Singapore and appointed Mrs Anna Leonowens, a widow living in Penang, as governess.

The Indian born daughter of a British army sergeant and an Anglo-Indian mother, Leonowens’ life reads like a picaresque novel. Her 1870 memoir The English Governess at the Siamese Court was fictionalised in 1944 as Anna and the King of Siam and in 1951 Rogers and Hammerstein turned that into The King and I. Leonowens was an embellisher of stories, if not a downright lier, and her memoirs caused some offence, while the 1956 multi-Oscar winning film musical remains banned in Thailand. The current King Bhumibol (Rama IX) watched it when visiting the USA in 1960 and complained that his great-grandfather was not a ‘polka dancing despot’ but ‘really quite a mild and nice man.’ The Thai ambassador to the US took exception to ‘its ethno-centric attitude and its barely hidden insult on the whole Siamese nation as childish and inferior to the Westerners.’ I can see his point.

Anna Leonowens
1905 portrait by Robert Harris, sourced from Wikipedia
That said, Leonowens nurtured Chulalongkorn’s fascination with all things European. We crossed the remarkable bridge to the curiously Romano-French Varobas Bimarn (The Excellent and Shining Heavenly Abode). Here we removed our shoes and Lynne donned a traditional Thai skirt - a strange outfit for trailing round room after room of reproduction Louis XV furniture. Only the throne room was in Thai style.

Lynne in a clean shirt with her hat pulled down low on Chulalongkorn's 'classical' bridge
with Varobas Bimarn in the background
Aisawan Thiphya-art (The Divine Seat of Personal Freedom) is Pa-In’s only purely Thai architecture.

Aisawan Thiphya-art (The Divine Seat of Personal Freedom), Pa-In
Beyond Rama V’s garden house….

Garden House, Pa-In
…we reached Uthayan Phumisathian (The Garden of the Secured Land). While admiring the topiary elephants we were heard a thump-thumping and turned to see a column of sweaty soldiers, jogging past perfectly in step.

Uthayan Phumisathian (The Garden of the Secured Land), Pa-In
Behind the garden, the Sage’s Lookout Tower has a style all of its own. Chulalongkorn used it to survey his palaces and their grounds.

Ho Withun Thasana (The Sage's Lookout Tower) Pa-In
The Palace of Heavenly Light was a present to the king in 1889 from Bangkok’s Chinese chamber of commerce.  Chinese inside and out - all the contents were imported from China - we had time only for a quick look round but the ebony and red lacquer interior was worth seeing.

The Palace of Heavenly Light, Pa-In
From the palace we crossed a branch of the river to a Buddhist monastery, again of idiosyncratic design. We were pulled over the water in a transporter powered by a gang of monks.

The transporter over to the monastery, Pa-In
The remarkable Temple feels deeply weird. Although unimpressed by western religion, Chulalongkorn admired western religious architecture.

Buddhist Temple (yes, really) Pa-In

From outside the temple mimics a church and even inside the triptych pseudo-altarpiece echoes Christian decoration, but the symbolism is entirely Buddhist.

Inside the Buddhist Temple, Pa-In
The light was fading as we left Pa-In. Driving in the dark in Thailand is not for the fainthearted, but braving animals, cyclists and unlit vehicles our driver brought us safely to Kanchanaburi where we checked in to the sort of a resort hotel I prefer to avoid.

At the outdoor restaurant I ordered Thai green curry and was given a concerned look followed by 'you can eat spicy food?' Despite my emphatic ‘yes’ the dish that arrived was uncompromisingly bland. A green curry without chillies is like a night without wolves as The Count used to say on Sesame Street.
Thailand and Laos

1 comment:

  1. Found the bit on the King of Siam interesting. We have a local link in Bowers Gifford. The Rector here in between the wars ran a school in a large house down the road from the Rectory. It was for young men who needed to cram for Oxford or Common Entrance. One such young man was a son of the king of Siam and we believe we have a photo. He did not go to Oxford, but became a fairly well known racing driver/pilot or some such. If I have more time will sort him out. Our pews in church were donated by families of lads who went to the school and the local history group are researching some of them.

    Helen C