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A turbo tour of Ayyutthaya

It doesn’t take me long to realize that Tong Tong is a pretty reckless driver. And the Bangkok traffic isn’t of much help either. Every few minutes, he swerves the car from one side to the other; with each swerve my heart lunges with fear while he guffaws so loudly that I want to strangle him.

We are on our way to the ancient Thai capital, Ayyutthaya. Ayutthaya is somewhat of an offbeat Thai destination. It wasn’t always so. Until the 18th century, Ayutthaya was not just the center of Thai commerce and culture it was also the political hub of the Thai kingdom. Its traders traveled far and wide as Dutch and other European trading posts dotted the entire region. The destruction by Burmese forces around 1780 completely ruined this city. What remains today are the ruins in brick, stone and stucco of this ancient capital that exists primarily as an archaeological site. Its recognition as an UNESO heritage site is a testimony of the cultural value of Ayyutthaya’s ruins. To be honest, I had not heard of this place till a few weeks before the trip when an old friend and fellow traveler recommended it. Whereupon we had to quickly make changes to our plans to accommodate this into our itinerary.

AyyutthayaOur initial plan of getting to Ayyutthaya early to watch sunrise (coupled with ruins this is my travel passion; add to that the avenues upon avenues of Buddha heads and this trip is golden). However, the glitch was that it was not possible to get hired cars out of Bangkok that early. Another option would have been to move to the town close to the ruins, but a quick search did not yield anything favorable. So we settled for the next best; sunset over the ruins.

But now with Tong Tong at the helm, I wonder whether we will reach our destination in one piece at all. Soon we hit Expressway 9 and I declare my intentions aloud: of calling up the travel agency (that supplied Tong Tong), getting rid of him and taking the wheel, in that order. Suddenly things are quiet in the car and we are having a smoother ride.

The ruins that make up the entire city of Ayyutthaya cover hundreds of hectares and are almost impossible to travel on foot. Bicycles are available at the main gate and make moving around the complex quite easy. Also off the complex are smaller temples that can only be seen from the back of an elephant. Sitting on a howdah is not too bad, if you discount the sudden lurches: I was almost falling off the perch trying to protect my camera and myriad lenses (note to self after this trip: never sit on an elephant with anything other than a cell phone camera; better still tie that cell phone to your wrist).

AyutthayaThe main temple of the complex, the Wat Mahathat, must have been elegant and stylish in its heyday. Even in this ruined state, it looks majestic and beautiful. The guide tells us of how the Burmese army has looted and systematically destroyed this structure pounding the walls and then burning what was left of it. I sigh and weep inwardly. We are also told that at the four corners of the temple are four Buddhas back to back, but I could locate only two amidst the ruins. The wonderful geometry of this temple is amazing.

The next temple is the largest temple of the complex, Wat Phra Sisanphet. It was the royal temple and palace for several dynasties of Ayutthaya kings. This somewhat better kept temple has large stupas (chedi) around two towers. This seems to be a typical pattern for several temples in the complex. In another temple complex, the Wat Ratchaburana the central tower has steep steps leading to an entrance to the inner sanctum. Once upon a time, the temple innards were filled with gold and silver. I climbed the steps to reach the doorway to see crypts where treasures were recovered almost 50 years ago but the room was so dank and dark and full of bats that I had to beat a hasty retreat.

AyutthayaAt this point my companions on the trip had found a ramshackle shop near the complex and were imploring that we stop to eat and drink. So on popular demand (and despite my reluctance), we had to stop for a while which was good, as we were all pretty tired by now.

The thing about Wat Ratchaburana is that despite the structure being quite damaged, the columns, pillars and the floor provide a good idea of how it might have looked centuries ago. Two halls, one in the front and one at the back form the gateways to this temple. Another temple in the complex, with avenues of sitting Buddhas and the two majestic Buddha statues at the entrance had me completely floored.

Of all the temples, Wat Chai Wattanaram one of the most impressive and well maintained and is a must see for folks with an interest in archaeological ruins. It is almost 5 in the evening when we are done doing the temple rounds and it is time for sunset. The good thing with being off the beaten track is that there are few tourists. And everything is quiet. There are no vantage points at Ayyutthaya as the clutter of the stupas and the scattered towers prevent an expansive view. Rather than spend time picking a good spot, I decide to train my lens on the twin Buddha statues of Wat Chai Wattanaram, as the sun sets. Soon the whole complex is bathed in gold and amber. The Buddhas look so serene and peaceful.

The best thing about sunrise and sunsets is that there is no shortage of them.

Ayutthaya sunset

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