Three full days of exploring Bangkok and we were off on our next adventure. Nick and I are currently making our way north through Thailand where we will eventually cross the Mekong River into Laos (probably around Jan 19th, when our Thai visa expires). The next stop on our journey was Ayutthaya, a small city (80,000 people) about 2 hours north of Bangkok.
In 1350AD Ayutthaya was established as the capital of Thailand and for 417 years remained the seat of power for the kingdom. During that time, the Kings of the day built countless monuments, meeting halls, and monasteries all around their city.
Today, the vestiges of this ancient capitol remain scattered among the small dusty city of Ayutthaya. In some places, all that is left is rubble and ruins, but in many places you can see some fantastic monuments.
It’s pretty crazy to spend some time in a city like this, most of what you see is a typical Thai town: cars, neon signs, street lights, vendors… but then mixed in with all that are huge monuments that were built 400-600 years ago. It really gives you some perspective – things weren’t always the way they are now, and they won’t always be this way either, and the world will keep turning long after I’m gone. It definitely reminded me that life is short and I better make use of what I’ve got.
The best way to check out all of these ruins is by bicycle, so yesterday Nick and I rented two bikes and headed off to explore the area.
Our first stop was Wat Ratchaburana which was built in 1424.
This wat (or temple) was built by King Chao Sam Phraya as a monument to his two brothers. After their father, the king, died, the two brothers fought each other over who would assume the throne. Both brothers dyed in their battle for the throne and so a third brother, Chao Sam Phraya, took over the throne and built this wat as a monument to them and the late king. (Seems like a perfect example of divide and conquer to me!)
Wat Ratchaburana, like most of the wats in Ayutthaya, has three main components:
The main Prang (Khymer-style tower)
A gallery or meeting hall of some sort
And the chedis, or stupas (remember the stupas from Borobadur?), which hold the ashes of the king’s brothers
For most of the ruins, all that is left are brick structures, but at the time of their construction, the brick formations were covered with a layer of concrete. Remnants of the outer façade still exist in many areas and you can see that here, on this chedi.
The cool thing about this temple was that we could actually climb up to the top and go inside!
And something that was especially unique about this prang was that once we were inside, we could actually climb down to the bottom and see what the inside of these temples looks like.
The stairs were steep and once we climbed down to the bottom, we popped up into a small tomb with four small alters up above our heads. Areas like this one used to hold Buddha images, gold tablets, people’s ashes, and other valuables.
Even inside the temple, it’s important to remember the current King, and so someone nailed up a calendar with the King’s picture inside the top of the prang! (I didn’t check to see if it was on the correct month or not)
The second stop on our bicycle tour was Wat Maha That, which was built in 1374 as the royal monastery.
And, conveniently, was only a short bicycle ride across the street from our first stop!
Walking around these ruins all day was like a trip back in time.
I kept trying to imagine how these things were built without any modern-day machinery. The buildings are huge and even in January the temperature was in the mid-90’s. I can’t imagine the strength and endurance it took to build something like this 400 years ago. Some of these buildings are almost 40 meters high and they had no cranes to carry the bricks to the top! It’s amazing.
One of the coolest things at this site was a Buddha head that has been surrounded by banyan tree roots.
The story of this Buddha isn’t exactly known but people think that this Buddha head fell to the ground when the Burmese army conquered the city and destroyed the temple in the mid 1700’s. However it got there, it’s pretty cool now. The Buddha head is the same color as the tree roots, so it looks like it’s actually a part of the tree.
Stop number three on our trip was Wat Phra Ram, which was built in 1369.
Followed by Wat Lokayasutharam which is basically just a HUGE reclining Buddha, 37 meters long and 8 meters high.
Just like the other sites, it is made of bricks and covered in concrete, but it was fully restored in 1954 and then again in 1989 so no bricks are visible. At about eye-level, you can see lots of small pieces of gold leaf stuck to the Buddha. These little squares of gold are placed on lots of Buddha statues in Thailand when people come to worship and make offerings, although I haven’t figured out what this symbolizes yet.
Next, we rode out to Wat Phu Khao Thong, which was just one towering chedi
Even though at this point we were hot and caked with sweat and grim we managed to get our butts to the top of this one as well.
As we walked around the top, we found a small doorway and ducked inside to check it out. What we found was a small tomb in the middle of the tower where someone was working restoring the alter. The ventilation was pretty bad and heat mixed with paint fumes was stifling. We didn’t stay long to watch.
As the sun was setting we moved on to Wat Chaiwatthanaram which was built in 1603 as the royal monastery and the crematorium for the royal family.
This, by far, was the most impressive site we saw while in Ayutthaya with the main prang standing a stunning 37 meters high.
It was a steep climb to the top of this monument, and a dizzying climb down, but the view from the top was worth it.
(there’s nick at the bottom!)
(did we mention it was hot?)
The stairs were so steep and narrow, I can’t imagine anyone using them to carry more bricks and building materials to the top. All I carried with me was my camera and I still felt like I might tumble down the monument.
After marveling at Wat Chaiwatthanaram for a while, we had one final stop at the fully restored Wat Phutthai Sawan
and then rode home along the river as the sun was setting.
On our way home, before it got dark, we heard a rustling in the leaves next to the road and saw a 4-foot lizard retreating into the river. He had been sitting just next to the road and was disturbed by our approaching bikes. He had four legs and looked like a mini-crocodile but had a tongue like a snake.
He was HUGE and I was too afraid to get closer and take a better picture. I guess you have to watch your step around here; he was our second big lizard sighting in one week!
It was an exciting end to a fantastic day!