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Monday, October 30, 2017

Individual style: Ayuthaya, Thailand

Kinds of transportation we’ve taken in Thailand since the airplane: Metered taxi, subway, elevated train, tuk-tuk (a 3-wheeled golf cart that passes for a taxi in most places), Chao Phraya Express Boat, train, rickety ferry, and sahm-lor (a bicycle rickshaw and not designed for two passengers, but that’s another story).

And bicycles. Riding a bike is that archetypal thing one never forgets how to do, and T. knew I could ride one. She didn’t, though, expect that I would. After all, I’d never really ridden in any kind of traffic, and it had been years since I was on a bike at all.

Biking past Wat Phutthai Sawan, a still-active temple and the first built off the island
 I was glad to have surprised her. Ayuthaya, the old capital north of Bangkok, is a small city on an island, and much of it is ruins of its glory days (1300s-1700s). It’s the ideal size to pedal around on a cheap bicycle, and after Bangkok, the traffic was nothing. Other than the hour or so we kept getting stuck behind a trash truck, I quite enjoyed it.
Aboard the Chao Phraya Express Boat, Bangkok
First, though, we had to get there. Ayuthaya is up the Mae Nam Chao Phraya, the river we’d toured by cheap public boat before we left Bangkok. Sadly, there’s no reasonably quick way to get there by boat, so we took the train. Third class. Cooled by wide open windows and fans hung from the ceiling. There were still bench seats available when we boarded, chatting all the while with a young German man who was headed to Ayuthaya for the day before boarding a night train to Chiang Mai. If it weren’t for Germans, we wouldn’t have any other backpackers to talk to.
From the window of the third-class train car
And if we didn’t feel like backpackers before, we did here. Our German friend Alex was going to get a "taxi" (tuk-tuk) for his day tour, but we were staying for a few nights. So we climbed aboard the ferry and crossed the Chao Phraya to the island.

When I say “ferry,” it was more like a large covered rowboat with an outboard motor. We saw it was departing and thought we’d wait five minutes for the next one, but the no-nonsense woman driving the ferry shot back to the jetty for us, so on we teetered. Not for the first time, I was glad we had only backpacks. The real fun was on the other side of the river, when we had to balance on a rickety board bridge forming three sides of a square, before finally arriving on dry land.

Later during our stay, the bike rental woman tried to convince us that the river was too high at the end of the rainy season to take a boat or ferry on. We just laughed.

T. had booked a place to stay over the phone, with an elderly woman who, upon learning that T. is from England, said, “Your English very good!” When I say elderly, I mean way past retirement age. Our hostess had one of those papery thin voices and didn’t even attempt to come up the stairs with us. Her guesthouse is a charming old schoolhouse made of teak wood, and still looks it (desks on the landings). 

We should have known something was amiss when we first walked in and saw a huge tree lying in the front yard. One of her employees waved us away from the fallen power lines. It turned out our hostess had no electricity and no water. Before we could even hit the hammock, she got off the phone and gave us the bad news that the electricity would not be fixed that afternoon, so we had to move on. “Good luck,” she said sweetly. “Leave now!”

So off we tramped around the corner to backpacker row, and found a room at the first guesthouse we came to. So much for booking things in advance! (Later during our stay, we biked past the elderly woman’s place and everything had been cleaned up, so I’m happy to report she’s fine.)

Not long ago, no window to look out of and a showerhead just hanging off the wall next to the toilet might have put us off taking a room. Now, paying Thai prices (maybe a third of what an Airbnb in Europe cost), we just thought, Hey, it’s spotless. The grass out front is green and the people are friendly. And our instincts proved correct: the next day, while we were drinking beer on the terrace, a shiny car from Bangkok pulled up, and an important-looking couple got out. They looked familiar (from formal portraits framed in the lobby, as it turned out). They were the owners, and used to seeing scruffy people hanging out in front of their house, as they chatted with us in a very friendly manner.

By the way, floors are spick and span because people take their shoes off everywhere. I haven’t gone barefoot this much since I grew up in Tennessee.

As in many other parts of the world, in Thailand motorcycles aren’t a statement but a way of getting around. Two Muslim women showing only their faces came by on a scooter, followed by two schoolgirls in uniform, followed by a whole family—dad, little girl, and mom—all under the same rain poncho. Did I mention it was pouring at the time? I was observing all this from a shelter while I waited for the rain to stop, since foolishly I’d set foot outside without my raincoat. Like almost everyone else I’d seen riding motorcycles in Africa or Asia, no one had helmets. 

The bike rental place did have a kind of helmet available for motorcyclists, just in case some foreigner wanted one. They weren’t like any helmets I ever saw before, but “any port in a storm” has become my favorite saying. We took two at no extra charge.

“Individual style!” the rental guy said. Meaning, he’d never seen someone on a bicycle wear a helmet before. Never mind; they coordinated with our outfits.

We saw a lot more birds in Ayuthaya than in Bangkok, where all I heard was a rooster along the canal. We also visited a lot more temples, or more accurately, ruins. During the centuries when Ayuthaya was the capital of Siam, its many temples and palaces glittered from afar, and merchants from around the world came to admire and trade. Some of them stayed.

In European history, the 14th to 18th centuries aren’t renowned as a time when religious difference was tolerated. I could think of many examples of Catholic kingdoms where Protestants were persecuted and vice versa, not to mention the many religious minorities who fled to America and other places. In Ayuthaya, however, it seems that there was space for different cultural groups to coexist. Peoples such as Lao and Khmer settled among the locals, while those from further away were given land by the king to build their own settlements.

We got directions from someone at the mosque at Friday prayer time.
Most of these settlements were across the river to the south. East of Wat Phutthai Sawan a Persian community settled, and the area is still Muslim today. St. Joseph Church was built by the French on land given to them by the king near the Christian Vietnamese settlement, and many people living in this community to this day are Catholic.
St. Joseph Church. The writing inside the church is in French.
There were also Dutch, English, Chinese, and Japanese villages, though nothing remains of most of these. Most of the Japanese people who settled in Ayuthaya were themselves Christians fleeing persecution back in Japan. I find these facts fascinating, because so often, history reads as if no one has ever gotten along. I had no idea that during the same years when Pilgrims were fleeing religious persecution in England, a Siamese king was making persecuted Christians feel at home.

The first Europeans to arrive, in Siam as in Mauritius, were from Portugal. There are still traces of the Portuguese settlement today, including the foundation of the first church in all of Thailand. St. Dominic was built in 1540 and we could still see this fascinating feature: a Thai-style spirit house, only with figures of saints inside. Two of them are St. Joseph and St. Paul. I’m not sure what Paul would make of this syncretism, but then, I’m not Catholic.

Both on and off the island, Ayuthaya is full of Buddhist temples, some of them still active. One of the active ones is Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit, which has the distinction of having been repaired with money from a Burmese government of the 1950s. You may recall that it was Burma that sacked Ayuthaya two centuries earlier, bringing its time as the Siamese capital to an end. It was nice of the prime minister to make this very belated gesture.

By far the coolest picture in Ayuthaya is at the ruins of Wat Mahathat.

All that remains of this sandstone Buddha is the head, around which have grown the entwined roots of a bodhi tree. I must admit that Shelley's "Ozymandias" went through my mind.

We were getting so confident on our bikes that we took a little detour to one more ruin, and this one didn’t even charge admission. How could it? Wat Lokayasutharam has a 42-m reclining Buddha, representing the Buddha at his death, i.e., when he passed into the state of nirvana. It was so impressive that we let some woman talk us into buying marigolds to pay tribute. The king, you know.
When I took this picture of the reclining Buddha, I didn't notice the reclining dog.
There were other women who “helped” us put our offerings in the right place and not commit faux pas. Afterwards, they showed us various amulets we could buy: one for money, one for men, and so forth. I was going to make a deal for two money ones, since I wouldn’t know what to do with a man; but I didn’t want to pay in any case.

On the actual day of the king’s cremation, we were wandering around trying to find the action, but gave up. We give up easily in the heat. That’s when the sahm-lor guy came by. We agreed that he would take us “home,” and on the price. Then he took us the complete opposite direction, to where everyone was lined up to pay their final respects to the king. We didn’t mind seeing this in fact, but when he asked for twice as much money, we decided he was crazy!

You know the joke about eating Chinese food and being hungry an hour later? It’s not a joke in Thailand. I don’t know if the portion sizes are just smaller because the people are; I always feel like I’ve had enough of Thai food, but I never stay full for very long. I have to keep going down to 7-Eleven and buying sandwiches and junk. Sometimes I even break down and order French fries. It’s a disgrace.


While I’m up eating every hour or so, I reflect on the many countries I read about on the African part of our travels. How many of them have the trappings of democracy, but supported by the military; or are “presidential republics, in practice authoritarian.” It’s a reminder how fragile democracy can be. I was obviously raised to believe, and always have believed, that the best form of government is to let people choose their own representatives. Lately, though, I’ve been wondering…
Wat Phra Si Sanphet. Monks in orange and everybody else in black

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Delightful insights sparkle everywhere! Items that particularly caught our attention: Buddha's head surrounded by Bodhi roots and your allusion to "Ozymandias." And the last photo, showing the orange-clad monks with others in black--the colors of the Betsy Band and the Milligan Buffs! G & P