Founded in 1351, Thai history oozes from every pore, makeing the city a worthy recipient of the UNESCO heritage listing it achieved in December 1991. Founded in 1351, the Siamese ruled their kingdom from Ayutthaya for 417 years. 76 kms north of Bangkok the old capital of Siam is bordered by the Chao Phraya, Pa Sak and Lop Buri rivers.
There are plenty of tour operators promising to whoosh you up and back from Bangkok in a day, twelve hours of bus cramped agony. I once read that to enjoy the world you should be a traveller rather than a tourist. Travel to enjoy and savour what interests you and whilst independant travel is not for some faint hearted or inexperienced, perhaps that’s how you become brave hearted and independent? Be guided by your senses and your allow yourself to indulge, treading the globe, embracing trials and tribulations, places off the beaten track. If you find somewhere you love, take the time to enjoy it. You’ll be surprised what can be gained, what memories you take away. It may be worth missing the next 10 minute stop at the next temple or cultural centre on the well worn track of those before you.
With this in mind and searching for an enjoyable and rewarding way to savour the Wats (temples) and ruins of this once majestic city and looking to avoid the bus loads jostling for photo opportunities and bathroom time, with the guidance of Google, I discover Oriental Escape. A quick email and a prompt reply starts our private two day journey to explore the kingdom of Anna and the King (Rama IV), Rama meaning number. The King was instrumental in bringing multilingual tutors to Siam educating the Siamese in order to conduct business with emerging markets, thus enabling his kingdom to develop and prosper. A visionary whose passion and forethought was passed onto his son Rama V, who having studied in Europe, returned with ideas to modernise and transform Thailand.
Although there are times when group tours interacting with others and sharing experiences is both an enjoyable and rewarding part of global travel, the joys of tailoring a tour to suit your needs are numerous. Lingering or leaving as the moment takes you, this time with my parents, savouring every moment, adding to the life journeys we have shared together and to the memories that will stay with us. In the words of MasterCard, priceless.
We are met promptly by our driver Anu, who speaks Thai and our guide Wit, fluent in both English and Thai. Having graduated from university in Bangkok with a degree in philosophy and history, he is an asset with a wicked sense of humour and insights into the Thai culture, both past and present, that enrapture and entertain us. In a stop-start fashion we are driven onto the tollway and head north. Lurching forward then slowing … then forward then slowing … then forward then slowing … It’s only an hour or so however we are feeling a little queasy and looking forward with anticipation to a smooth cruise down the Chao Phraya river on our return to Bangkok the following day. His smile and warmth more than compensates for his reluctance to succumb to the power of the minivan, forbidding his foot to rest on the accelerator, allowing it to cruise and glide effortlessly north. We fake full bladders breaking the journey allowing our bodies to settle.
Our first stop is Bang Pa-In Summer Palace, a 17th century royal retreat. Destroyed in 1767 during the fall of Ayutthaya, it was ‘restored’ in the mid 19th century by Rama V and is a mish mash of European architecture. Italian style banquet halls, baroque bridges teleported from Paris, perfectly clipped and shaped hedges … Holding pride of place, a Chinese pagoda donated from Chinese who have made money in Thailand as a gesture of their gratitude and having been pulled apart in China and reassembled here. The palace grounds resemble the Las Vegas skyline, slightly tacky and disappointing, devoid of Thai culture and heritage. Not one to proclaim ‘this is just like Paris’ as I pose for a photo in my wedding frock in front of the Eiffel Tower on Las Vegas Boulevard, it exemplifies the King’s appreciation of architectural styles and his desire to share this with his kingdom. Or, it is a gaudy eyesore that boasts of his travels and wealth? We zoom around in golf carts adding to the theme park vibe.
Thailand can fall ill with ABT (another bloody temple) syndrome, and whilst this may be true, you enjoy a serene enlightenment as you allow yourself to immerse into the Thai culture and appreciate their devotion and belief, displayed with Wats and Chedis and with offerings and shrines on corners and in the gardens of homes and businesses the country over. One for the sacred spirit and one for the God of the Earth.
Temples and ruins struggle to break free from their earthly graves and sit silently as nature attemptes to reclaim them. Weeping figs attempting to strangle history although perhaps helping to preserve it, impeding the crumbling by holding things together. The setting, history and scale demand that you give justice to the unraveling history before your eyes. Many architectural jewels were destroyed during the fall of Ayutthaya, burned to the ground by the Burmese and while few relics remained unscathed, some have been restored and some left to bear witness to the past. Preservation perhaps the best way to allow future generations to reminisce, with limited restorations allowing glimpses of a glorious past.
We visit The Chao Sam Phraya National Museum, which, if visited during the week is like entering a sauna as the humidity and heat are trapped longing to escape, air conditioning a luxury reserved for the weekends. We get a rapid appreciation of Thai expertise, creativity and history before seeking out the comfort of our air conditioned ride.
Lunch at a local riverside restaurant surprises and delights. Weaving down dirty roads, startling chickens and stray dogs we come to a halt before the bank has a chance to grab us and plunge us into the greenish fast flowing water. Tantalizing aromas drift out to greet us. We are the only Gaijin (westerners) which for me is an attraction. Supported on stilts jutting out over the water, grabbing the breeze, this is a family affair, daughters offering icy cold cokes, mum and dad cooking with woks, gas burners blazing. The river flows quickly beneath us and would surely succumb to the green lilies attempting to strangle it, if perhaps a constant stream of traffic, huge barges three tied together labouriously towed by colourful tug boats, among others, did not carve out a path keeping the invader at bay.
Wit orders some food for us as we order the rest, pictures guiding the choices offered by the Thai calligraphy. From him whole spicy river prawns. Eat the whole thing keeping your mouth closed as warm juices spurt out of the crunchy head and the soft flesh of the body adds sweetness. This is surely one of the joys of travel, for me anyway and I am happy to try anything once or in this case half a dozen times. We enjoy wok tossed pork, succulent and ever so slightly spicy, lips tingling just enough to encourage another mouthful. Whole sea bass perfectly steamed. White flesh soaking up the Tom Yum flavour broth served as an accompaniment. Warmth surrounds us and not just from the gently blowing breeze assisted by the blades of fans hitched to the ceiling and standing on the floors, but from the hosts and from the spices.
We head into Ayutthaya to explore, allowing ourselves the luxury of checking into our hotel to freshen up before returning to enjoy the city in the cooler, late afternoon and evening.
See the post Ayutthaya – Ancient Siam, say Wat!
We’ve chosen to stay at a fairly modern hotel and are delighted with our selection. Bright modern foyer, large rooms, with a small galley type kitchenette with microwave, kettle and fridge, tastefully done and fabulously huge comfortable beds. Great gym and lap pool in which to cool down. It’s hot, 37 degrees hot. The Classic Kameo Hotel Ayutthaya offers a restful night’s sleep and ample breakfast, to recharge before the morning activities.
In the morning after visiting a couple more temples, we head south to join our boat for the 20 km journey back to Bangkok. Three decks, smaller but like those you see cruising the Danube. We arrive early thanks to our considerate and insightful guide, beating the 200 or so that would join us for the voyage downstream. We enjoy the buffet, with delicious Tom Kha Gai chicken soup and Pad Thai washed down with icy cold Singha beers before the masses smoother the decks and engulf the food like a swarm of locust leaving bare plates and bain maries in their wake. There is a surprising amount of room on the decks. Photo opportunities of ‘local life’ greet us at every turn as our captain navigates the river and the plethora of passing traffic. Barges towed up stream empty, seemingly floating above the water, returning almost submerged bound for markets locally and the world over. Ferries, water taxis, fishermen …the river is truly the lifeblood providing the heartbeat of the city.
As the city approaches, we skim past shining Buddhas, temples, shanties and ‘locals’ doing their thing. We are witness to numerous palaces jutting up behind trees and gardens on the banks, built for the children of Rama V, according to my research 77, according to my guide 134 or was it 108? See Ayutthaya – Ancient Siam, say Wat! Maybe Viagra is a derivative of ancient Thai herbs used for Royal gratification and fornication. Artwork emblazoned on city buildings, temporary masterpieces by Europe’s most famous street artists and part of the Bukruk urban street art festival, jump out to greet us as we glide past before pulling into the pier.
Having motored smoothly down the river, our journey the previous day a memory, like the barges passing by, we are loaded with treasures and memories. A remarkable finish to an amazing two days.