Ayutthaya, not too far north of Bangkok, is a city built on the ruins of the former capital of Thailand–it was one of the most powerful and prosperous cities in Southeast Asia from the 1300s to the 1700s, and had a population of over a million near the end of its heyday. It was sacked in 1767 by the Burmese, and never recovered; the damage was bad enough that the Thai moved their capital to Bangkok.
We took the train to Ayutthaya from Bangkok, which was a great deal (tickets were 15 Thai Baht apiece, about 50 cents at the current exchange rates), and gave us the opportunity to see Bangkok with a very different perspective than we had had before. The train took us through more industrial areas of the city, past the old Don Meuang airport (the international hub until it was replaced by the shiny, modern Suvarnabhumi Airport) as well as miles of shanty towns built on the side of the railroad tracks, modest homes with families and kids and dogs, built from bamboo sticks, 2x4s, cinderblocks and corrugated metal, and past farms running controlled burns on the fields to prepare for the new crops.
On our first night in the city, we signed up for a ferry tour of a few ruins sites on the outside of the river (Ayutthaya is in the Chao Phraya river valley, and the main part of the city is surrounded on all sides by river, which was nice because it made it hard to get too lost). We went to a few wats (temples) that were kept in good shape, including Wat Phananchoeng, which is home to a what is supposedly Thailand’s largest Buddha image–this was one of the first actual wats we had been in since we got to Thailand, and it was beautiful and impressive. The next day we rented one-speed bikes to meander around the city, which was really pleasant and relaxing, and the weather was great. We spent the whole day visiting different wats throughout the city and exploring these crumbled and burned fascinating ruins. It was a very intense experience to be standing on the site of what must have been a very bloody and violent attack on an ancient superpower, one that effectively ended an entire kingdom.
One of the most interesting things about this city was that the ruins are interspersed throughout the city–we’d be biking past houses in a residential area, and come upon a clearing with the ruins of a wat, followed by a 7 Eleven and food carts. Some were in better shape, and while many were cordoned off into parks others had become a part of the urban landscape in the area, with kids in school uniforms playing around them.
We biked around U-Thong Road, the “frontage road” that ran around the city inside of the river’s boundaries, and got to explore a covered market in an extensive alley system (much larger than it looked from the tiny entrance we found), narrow little aisles filled with toys, clothing and shoes, produce, every cut of meat you could imagine (including a whole pig head), live eels trying to escape their confines, stands with hot coals and frying pans and noodles. We bought a pair of sandals for Daniel, and had the unique experience of trying very hard to communicate with someone who didn’t speak any English at all (you kind of forget about that staying in the more touristed areas), and the only Thai I’ve really figured out for sure is “hello” and “thank you”– the Thai phrasebook I have is nice, but I really haven’t gotten my brain all the way around the tonal language idea. In the rare case that I am able to get out an intelligible sentence a Thai person might understand, any follow-up questions are useless and I feel like a hard-headed American.
We stayed at a guesthouse called Tony’s Place on Naresuan Road Soi 1, a sweet little raised wooden structure painted sea-foam green like plenty of the guesthouses in Bangkok. It had a shower and toilet in the room, as well as an electrical outlet, which we came to miss in KhaoSan, and there was a restaurant on the main deck. We had some good food there–wide rice noodles with seafood, pineapple fried rice, and delicious fresh watermelon and pineapple shakes. Overall, it was great–check out the photos we took from the ruins!