Friday, November 20, 2009

อาณาจักรอยุธยา Ayutthaya

*retroactive post: Petra is catching up*
My one and only trip to Ayutthaya (pronounced: eye-YOU-tee-yah) perfectly illustrates the unfortunate truth that significant sightseeing destinations are less likely to be visited by locals – even temporary ones – than by tourists breezing through a country in one or two weeks. Given its proximity to Bangkok I should have been able to explore it much more thoroughly than ended up being the case.

Located only three hours from Bangkok by train, Ayutthaya is the old capital city of what is now Thailand. During its long period of prominence it fought many of wars, held numerous vassal states and maintained economic relationships with Indian, Persian, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Dutch, French, Spanish, and Portuguese traders. Ayutthaya was the central political power in the region from the mid 1300’s through the middle of the eighteenth century, at which point the Burmese seized and sacked the city and drove the centre of government south to its present location in Bangkok.

I went to Ayutthaya one Saturday in November 2009 with my good friend Maria, a fellow Australian Youth Ambassador who worked in Bangkok with Disabled Peoples International. We boarded one of the many vans making regular runs between Victory Monument (one of Bangkok’s main transportation hubs) and downtown Ayutthaya. Our fellow passengers – all working in Bangkok and returning to their hometowns for the weekend – were friendly and quiet, and most were asleep in fairly short order. The three hours we subsequently spent crawling North along the expressway in bumper-to-bumper traffic gave Maria and I a fantastic opportunity to catch up. We had a great time.

We arrived at the perfect time to grab a lunch of Ayutthaya’s most famous dish. This signature soup of meat, vegtables, and a particular type of noodle is traditionally prepared and served from small canoe-like boats (think floating market) on the river or moat. It is and therefore named, appropriately enough, Boat Noodles. Ayutthaya is also famous for the street snack Roti, a sweet and sticky fried pancake served with banana, egg, and condensed milk and bearing almost no resemblance to the savoury Indian bread for which it’s named.

After lunch we approached a group of tuk-tuk drivers. After some truly heroic haggling from both of us (lots of smiling, wheedling, teasing, and implacable refusals to consider overpriced offers), we managed to secure both a driver and vehicle at quite a reasonable price for the remainder of the afternoon. In the end, I think we only got such a good price because it was a pretty slow afternoon and because the divers thought our Thai was so cute.

We spent the afternoon touring picturesque ruins of temples, monasteries, tombs, and other monuments. They rest amongst well-tended lawns, spongy marshes, groves of deciduous trees I can’t identify but which are graced with the occasional Bodhi tree. On the day we visited, the majority of other tourists were Thai, followed by people from South Korea, Japan, and China. We also encountered a few people from Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, Britain, and Germany. While the sites are definitely well visited and we had to wait our turn to take pictures of the most famous spots, they were quiet enough that Maria and I often had the more out-of-the-way corners entirely to ourselves.

At the entrance and parking lot of every site (in the shade of the afore-described trees) is a collection of small shops and vendors selling refreshments like iced tea, ice cream, fruit, sticky rice with beans or coconut in bamboo stalks, soda, and of course the ever-present dishes of rice, noodles, or noodle soup. You can also buy all manner of tourist memorobelia mass produced in one of the many factories in the region (Thailand itself of course, but also China, Cambodia, and occasionally Vietnam). Local crafts are sometimes available too. At temples and the tombs of important religious and historical figures you can also buy incense, flower garlands, swaths of brightly-coloured fabric (usually yellow and orange, sometimes pink, blue, green, or white) to leave as offerings. Upon arriving at each new site, our driver would make his way to a shady spot to take a nap or gossip with the vendors and other drivers, while we strolled off with the other sightseers.

Ayutthaya is one of Thailand’s two most popular and historically significant World Heritage sites. The other site, the old capital of Sukothai, is reportedly even more extensive and beautiful. While I’m very sad that I didn’t make it to Sukothai during my year in Thailand, I suppose it is good to have left something so special unseen so that I can look forward to visiting it in the future.

No comments: