I had never heard of Ayutthaya before I started researching Thailand, but its incredible temple ruins, UNESCO World Heritage site status, and proximity to Bangkok make it a go-to spot for tourists. So a few teacher friends and I decided to make a quick trip there a few weekends ago. Aside from the ancient temples that quickly exhaust every synonym of ‘beautiful,’ the people I met on this trip (mainly an old woman and a monk I only spoke a few words to), are what I will remember. I wanted to come to Thailand to see incredible temples and landscapes, but I also wanted to meet people with completely different perspectives and life experiences. The language barrier has made it tough to do the latter so far, but this trip gave me some hope that I’ll be able to meet at least a few Thais during my travels.
A cliff notes history of Ayutthaya: It was declared the second capital of the Siamese Kingdom in 1350, but was destroyed by the Burmese Army in the 18th century. During its prime in the 16th century, it was a huge foreign trading center and considered one of the wealthiest areas in Asia. You can find out more about Ayutthaya here.
After a quick 1.5 hour bus ride from Bangkok, five fellow teachers I arrived in Ayutthaya. We were met by a persistent tuk-tuk driver who offered us a pretty good deal: he’d take us to four temples in three hours for 220 baht each. After a quick discussion of, “Can you remember what so-and-so said the going rate was?” “I don’t know.” “I’m tired let’s go,” we were off in his school bus-yellow hybrid tuk-tuk/songthaew, which is apparently unique to Ayutthaya.
Our first stop was Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon. Any photographer would have killed for the way the insanely blue sky played off the gold cloth on the temple. My words can’t really do it justice, and neither can my pictures. The sun was so strong and bright, I took most of my pictures with my eyes half-closed– blindly hoping good shots would find their way into my lens.
We then drove to a cluster of temples in the center of the island to see Wat Phra Mahatat, home to Ayutthaya’s famous buddha head wrapped in tree roots. Like most over-hyped and over-photographed travel images (*cough* Mona Lisa), it was a little small, but still beautiful. The rest of the temple was a sprawling complex of torn-down walls and stupas that looked like a scene from Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
Up next was Wat Phra Si Sanphet, one of Ayutthaya’s more popular temples. We spent a long time having a photo shoot with three incredible stupas as our backdrop— that is until we conveniently missed the “don’t climb on the ancient stairs” sign and were yelled at by a temple attendant.
From there, we walked over to Wat Lokkayasutharam, home to a massive reclining Buddha clothed in a gold robe. I wish there was something in my photo that could accurately show the scale of the Buddha.
Our hungry, sweat-drenched group decided it was time for some food, so we headed to Ayutthaya’s Floating Market. The giant smiling sculptures welcoming us to the canal were definitely an indication this was a tourist attraction, but there was good cocconut ice cream and we downed some som dam (papaya salad) to tide ourselves over until dinner.
After saying goodbye to part of the group that was heading back to Bangkok, two friends and I made our way to the Baan Lotus Guesthouse– two beautiful teak-style buildings set in gorgeous tree-studded grounds. As we checked in, an old woman with dark puffy hair and a wide smile shuffled over to us, opened a map, and proceeded to circle and explain every area of importance in Ayutthaya. It didn’t matter that we already went to half of the places she told us about. She had the sort of wise and endearing voice that Pixar animation studios would immediately want to use as a grandmother in their next movie. “I just want my guests to see everything,” she said emphatically, as she gummed her dentures in place.
As we sat in the outdoor reception area to plan the rest of our stay, we learned that she was born in the house where the hotel now stood and moved to Bangkok to earn her Masters in Public Health. She was given a WHO grant to study tropical medicine in Israel and then lectured in hematology at a university in Bangkok. After she retired, she decided to move back to her hometown and open one of the most popular hotels in the city. This was the last thing I expected from the owner of our hotel. But after telling us about herself, she was only interested in what we had planned for our stay.
The next morning, we headed to Chao Phrom market. A far cry from the touristy floating market, this complex of alleyways and streets was filled with produce, meat, fish, produce, and a few prepared food vendors. I didn’t know what half of anything was, but I loved this market. After being surrounded by tourists at temples, it was refreshing to feel like we were seeing a more authentic side of Thailand. We were the only foreigners there, and based on the shouts of “beautiful, beatiful!” from produce sellers and the baffled facial expressions of the amulet sellers, there usually aren’t too many. I grabbed a rare iced black (no sugar syrup! no milk!) coffee, mango sticky rice, and mini coconut pancakes and took them back to the guesthouse where we lounged on hammocks.
I never wanted to leave my Sunday morning hammock, but Baan Lotus Grandma was determined to make sure we saw the best sights on the outskirts of the island. She made the call for a tuk-tuk driver, explained our self-designed route, and negotiated the price. After our driver arrived, she gave him the universal slap on the shoulder for “take care of my girls,” and we were off.
Our first stop was Wat Phanan Choeng, a temple still in use today. We were among the only tourists that morning, as it was flooded with worshippers praying with monks. As we carefully navigated through the crowd and into a packed chamber, none of us were expecting to find a HUGE gold Buddha in the center of the room.
The next stop was my favorite of the trip: Wat Chaiwatthanaram. Parts of it were destroyed in a flood a few years ago, but the temple based on Angkor Wat in Cambodia was still incredible. We were one of the few groups exploring the temple, so the towering ruins were even more majestic.
Our last temple of the trip was Wat Phukhao Thong. We didn’t know what to expect when we drove past a dozen statues of colorful, glittering roosters that would look more at home on a Disney cruise ship than an ancient temple. But we were about to experience a highlight of the trip. We walked toward the chedi (Buddhist tower) and found a huge, almost vertical staircase to the top. After an exhausting climb up the beautiful temple stairs, we turned a corner and were met by a monk perched on the side of the wall, staring into the distance. “Surreal” doesn’t do this moment justice, but it’s the only word that even seems close to fitting. Other than the three of us and a man on a blanket selling trinkets, there was no one at the top of the chedi. Not knowing what to do, I gave a quick wai and took in the scenery. The three of us had a brief conversation with the monk before we descended. He asked us if we knew Thai, and we asked him why the temple was covered in rooster statues. “Gai” (the Thai word for chicken) we said over and over again. “Why gai?” “Ohh,” he said. “I…the king… he just liked chicken.” He nodded his head and cracked a small smile, as if that was the perfectly logical response to our question.
We felt like we couldn’t top an exchange about chicken with a monk at the top of a temple, so we ditched the last temple we’d planned to see. We headed back to the guest house to grab our things, thanked Baan Lotus Grandma for all her help, and made the journey back to Bangkok.