Sunday, January 23, 2005

We woke up early today for a tour to Ayutthaya. Of all the things on our trip itinerary, this was the one excursion that most interested Crystal. Unfortunately, it was also the last one to get booked, as the travel people in Bangkok were very slow to get back to our travel agent. One week before we left home we did get the day trip finalized. We didn't realize it would be private – we thought we'd be in a van with other people. As it was, we had a private Mercedes with a driver and a guide. As we drove out of Bangkok the smog slowly got a little better, but still by no means good. The main scenery was a bunch of rice fields.

In the late 13th century, Angkor 's power was on the wane, and several northern chieftains came together to form the first "Thai" kingdom of Sukhothai. Sukhothai flourished and expanded for nearly 200 years, but power eventually shifted southward to Ayutthaya, which was founded in the mid-14th century. Under the 33 kings of Ayutthaya, Thai influence expanded until they held sway over the entire Malay peninsula and much of what is today Laos and Cambodia. During this time, the first formal contacts between Siam and Europe were established, and around Ayutthaya today there are the remains of the Portuguese village as well as a Japanese area. At its peak Ayutthaya had over a million people, making just as big if not bigger than London and Paris at the time.

Late in the 18th century, the Burmese launched an attack on Siam and managed to take Ayutthaya, burning and sacking the entire town. The Thais regrouped under a general named Taksin, who managed to expel the Burmese and then establish a new capitol in Thonburi, on the west bank of the Chaophraya river across from what is today Bangkok. Taksin's commander of the army, general Chakri, later returned from subduing rebel provinces in the East to find that Taksin had gone insane. General Chakri had Taksin executed and himself crowned king Rama I, the first of the Chakri kings that rule Thailand to this day. Rama I moved the capitol across the river to the more defensible village of Bangkok.

The first temple we saw was Wat Chai Wattanaram, built in 1630. It's main building, or prang, was up a steep set of stairs that was tough to go up, but even tougher to go down. We took turns on the stair so that if one of us feel we wouldn't wipe out the other person. Pretty much all of the Buddhas were headless – there was one with half a face, but other than that they were all wrecked. It was unreal how big this place was. It seemed bigger because it was still fairly early in the morning and hardly anyone was there. It was difficult to imagine how grandiose the buildings had been in their heyday. All of the remains are basically just bricks, but in some places you can still see the sandstone (that has otherwise eroded away). The sandstone was covered with gold leaf and other decorative effects.

We left Wat Chai Wattanaram for the old elephant kraal. Back in the day, the government set up these kraals to catch elephants from the wild to train them for logging purposes. The kraal had two sets of fences, the outer fence to catch a large group and an inner fence to thereafter guide the one or two best specimens. There used to be many of these kraals, but this is the only large one left. It's not really used any more, but is still in good shape. Today almost all of the elephants in Thailand are domesticated, and most of them have to be used for touristy things. They are almost all domesticated because of the development in the country slowly eliminating the natural forests. The domesticated animals have to be used almost exclusively for touristy things because Thailand in the last couple decades passed laws to eliminate much of the logging that elephants used to do.

When we got to the elephant place (they aren't actually kept in the kraal any more – they're right next door), there was this rather large lady reaching into this large box while two Thai men looked on anxiously making high-pitched noises. The lady pulled a pretty big python out of the box – she was trying to rearrange it so that they could put the lid on the box and send it somewhere – maybe to a zoo? We walked over to an area where a mama elephant and her newborn were hanging out. We got to feed sugar cane to the mama elephant, but were told it would be best to stay away from the baby because mama was protective. We thought it best to not push our luck. We then walked over to see the resident movie star, an older male who is used in movies and cultural celebrations all the time. He still had some residual paint left on him from a recent performance.

From the elephant place we headed into the center of town – Ayutthaya is more or less an island surrounded by three rivers. In the center of town there were a bunch of ruins in very close proximity, so the best way to see a lot them in a short order was an elephant walk. We were pretty excited about this, and it was cool, but it was very uncomfortable. The chair on the elephant's back wasn't padded, so every other step there was this jarring motion on our lower back. We did add elephant to our growing list of animal encounters – manatees, monkeys, dolphins and now elephants.

We left to go to a super old temple, Wat Maha That. It was built in the 1300s, and was pretty much leveled by the Burmese. At the Wat there was a Buddha head in a Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa). The Bodhi tree is very important in the Buddhist religion, as it was under a Bodhi tree where Buddha attained enlightenment. So when a Bodhi tree started to swallow up a Buddha head at Wat Maha That, the Thai people left the tree alone.

We went to lunch at one of the few hotels in Ayutthaya (most people take day trips), the Krungsri River Hotel. The hotel was right along a river, presumably the Krungsri River. At one of the table near us there were some Americans, who seemed like they were from California. We cringed at most of their conversation, hoping no one else heard they were saying. One notable statement was “This doesn't taste like American Thai Food.” Well no, it doesn't, that's why it's called “American” Thai food. This family and the Spanish-speaking guy at the Jurong Bird Park made us happy that we'd seen so few Americans – hopefully the two of us could cancel out whatever idiots came through the area before us.

After lunch we waited for a guide for a bit (admiring the nearby foliage), then boarded one of the high-nose speedboats for a boat tour of Ayutthaya. We made a big circle going around the periphery of Ayutthaya, passing a ton of wats including the one we saw first thing in the morning. There were rivers everywhere, and everything started to look the same after awhile until we got back to where we started. In many of the places there were houses right along the river and we saw people fishing, bathing, playing in the water, brushing their teeth, and pretty much anything else you could think of.

The last stop of the day was a more recent temple, Wat Naphrameru-Rajikaram, or Royal Temple. This temple was right near the old Royal Palace of Ayutthaya (which was about the flattest thing we saw during the day besides the pavement). For some reason the Burmese spared this temple. Because the Royal Temple was in decent shape, it was refurbished and is now being used as a regular temple. One thing we noticed and were told by our guide is that the temples in Ayutthaya are supported by huge interior pillars, whereas the temples in Bangkok are large open areas with no or few interior columns. The landscaping around the temple was exquisite, with Pandanus, many palms (Bismarckia, Wodyetia, Dypsis), and a Bodhi tree that was digesting an old temple. From there we left to go back to Bangkok, which replaced Ayutthaya as the capital because it would have been too difficult to rebuild and Bangkok was deemed easier to defend than Ayutthaya.

When we got back to the hotel, we caught a cab to the Jim Thompson store. When Justin was asleep the night before, Crystal had bought some stuff at the Jim Thompson store in the hotel, but there were a couple things that weren't available in the hotel store, so we went to the main Bangkok store. At the main store, however, Crystal still couldn't find what she was looking for. From there we caught another cab to go back to the tailor so Justin could pick up his suit. He was happy to find out that it was well tailored and well worth both the price and the grief from the day before. We caught a cab back to the hotel, with the added excitement of the taxi driver not knowing where the hotel was, and not knowing any English for us to help him out. We had to resort to pointing directions, which was fun because two or three times we couldn't go the direction we wanted to because of one way streets.

We got back and changed into nicer clothes and then walked over to the State Tower, one of the tallest buildings in Bangkok . Atop the hotel, outdoors, are the Sirocco restaurant and the Sky Bar. It was very odd being outdoors 64 stories in the air. Fortunately, the air was noticeably cooler up there, so we weren't that hot. Alas, the air wasn't any better for our lungs. During dinner there was a fireworks display over the Chao Phraya river, and we were actually above the fireworks. The food was very good, probably the best of the 3 ultra-high up restaurants we ate at (Seri Angkasa, Equinox and Sirocco). It was also better in that we were out in the elements, which also made picture taking easier (no glass reflections). Of the three, though, it probably had the “worst” view (which was still amazing) because it wasn't as high up and the air quality made visibility poor.

We walked back to the hotel and changed into more comfortable clothes for a second try at the Bangkok nightlife. We took a cab to the JW Marriott on Sukhumvit Road . We chose that spot because we figured for the ride home we could easily catch a cab (sans argument with the driver). We toured the nightlife, and it was surprisingly very tame. Apparently laws have been changed cutting back on what can and can't be done or shown in the clubs and bars. We went to a couple clubs and bars, all of which being more or less the same, before going back to the Oriental. We probably could have found something more risqué, but we weren't going to spend five hours looking for it. While walking up and down Sukhumvit we saw not one but two elephants walking on leashes with homeless people – not something you see every day. Back at the hotel we went to the downstairs bar, which had live musicians and people in suits. It was about a 180 degree change from the bars of an hour earlier.

So in the course of one day we had visited ancient ruins, ridden on an elephant, visited a shady tailor, eaten at a glitzy restaurant atop a 64 story building, gone to seedy Bangkok nightclubs and gone to a fancy nightclub at the Oriental Bangkok. Quite a day.



Jump to January:
7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30