Ayutthaya meant a lot to me personally. While we were planning our Thailand itinerary, I was the least enthused among the 4 of us to visit Ayutthaya. How exciting can an entire day roaming through a bunch of temples be? Given the amount of religion we’re exposed to back in India, the prospect just didn’t thrill me. Turns out, I was wrong. This wasn’t about religion. It was about history. Intricate tales of Kingdoms, Kings, Wealth, War, Heirs. The kind of stuff that shaped civilisations.
Ayutthaya, the erstwhile capital of Thailand, a UNESCO World Heritage site is pretty much prevalent on every tourist route through Thailand. And for good reason. This sparkling clean kingdom (I still can’t bring myself to stop calling it that) is on show for everyone. Ancient ruins, small restaurants, wide streets, and drivers who know nothing, it’s all just a quick hour’s drive away from the heart of Bangkok.
We hooked up with our regular taxi guy from the hotel, who decided on a fixed price to take the four of us around and bring us back by evening. It’s probably a good idea to decide which Wats (temples) you want to visit, because then he can take you around in that order without backtracking. Pronouncing them right, and being understood correctly is impossible, so you’re better off just pointing them out in a guidebook, leaflet or map.
We picked these at random (and on the driver’s recommendations), because we didn’t have time to visit every single one, we may have done a bit of backtracking in retrospect, but here’s what we discovered on a half-day in Ayutthaya.
1. Wat Yai Chail Mongkol or Wat Phra Chao Phya-thai
It has been known by several names that roughly translate to Great Monastery of Auspicious Victory. This was our first stop, and we got out of the car and bought frozen bottles of water because it looked like a terribly hot day ahead. Walking in, we saw tourists taking photos against every tiny detail. Things that we’d walk past by the end of the day. This was said to be the built by King Uthong as a tomb for his children who died of cholera. Back then it was called the Monastery of the Crystal Forest. Later, the temple built there was known as the Monastery of the Supreme Patriarch. The Auspicious Victory spoken of in it’s present name is the war against the Burmese occupants in 1592.
The large chedi in the centre has a bell-tower, containing relics in the shrine. It’s a great view of Ayutthya from up there. Down below, numerous, symmetrical Buddha statues in a meditative pose flank the border, each of them wrapped in a saffron robe. One of the most famous Thailand icons, the 23 foot reclining Buddha is here as well. We had a lot more to do and see, so we moved on, excitedly.
2. Wat Maha That
Also known as the Temple of the Great Relic, is best discovered, while walking around listening the Narrowcasters AudioGuide that you can rent at the entrance. It really brings these beautiful ruins alive, and takes you back to the Siam Kingdom that flourished here.
The Narrowcaster’s audio guide includes this excerpt by Jeremias Van Vliet, a chief merchant of the Dutch East India Company in Ayutthaya where he described first hand the yearly Royal Procession at Wat Mahathat on the occasion of Kathin. Take a few minutes to read it, I believe that is all you need, to envision this historical place.
The procession on land is not arranged in the same way every year, but occasionally it is as follows:-
First come in stately order going from the to the principal temple called Nappetat about 83 to 100 elephants, which are sumptuously decorated. On each of these elephants is seated, besides two armed men, a mandarin in his gilded little house having in front of him a golden basin containing cloth and presents for the priests. Then follow 50 to 63 elephants, on each of which are sitting two to three men, each of whom is armed with bows and arrows. After this come, also seated on elephants, the five to six greatest men of the kingdom, some of them wearing golden crowns, but each with his golden or silver betel box or any other mark of honor given to him by the king. They are accompanied by their suites of 30 to 60 men afoot. Following those come 800 to 1,000 men armed with pikes, knives, arrows, bows, and muskets and also carrying many banners, streamers, and flags. Among these armed men are mixed about 70 or 80 Japanese, who are gorgeously dressed and carry excellent arms. The musicians who follow the soldiers play on pipes, trombones, horns, and drums and the sound of all these instruments together is very melodious. The horses and elephants of the king are copiously adorned with gold and precious stones and are followed by many servants of the court carrying fruits and other things to offer. Many mandarins accompany these servants. Then follow on foot with folded hands and stooping bodies (like everyone who rides or walks in front of the king) many nobles, among them some who are crowned. Then comes the red elephant decorated very nicely with gold and precious stones. Behind this elephant follow two distinguished men, one of them carrying the royal sword and the other one the golden standard to which a banner is attached. A gilded throne follows after them showing how former kings used to be carried on the shoulders of the people, and then follows His Majesty sitting on an elephant and wearing his royal garments and his golden crown of pyramidal shape. He is surrounded by many nobles and courtiers. Behind His Majesty comes a young prince, the legal child of the supreme king, who at present is eleven years old. The king’s brother, being the nearest heir to the throne, follows then with great splendor, and seated on elephants in little closed houses come after this the king’s mother, the queen, and His Majesty’s children and the concubines. Finally many courtiers and great men on horseback, and 300 to 400 soldiers who close the procession. Altogether about six to seven thousand person participate in this ceremony, but only His Majesty, his wives, his children, his brother, the four highest bishops, and other high priests enter the temple. Having stayed inside the temple for about two hours, the king and the whole splendid train return to the palace in the same order as here described. The streets are very crowded with people from the palace to the temple, but everyone is lying with folded hands and the head bent to the earth. It is forbidden for anyone to look at the King’s mother, his wives, or children; and the people turn their faces when royal family passes. Only strangers or foreign ambassadors are allowed to look at them.
3. Phra Mongkhon Bophit
After that fabulous lesson in history, we went to the “Buddha of the Holy and Supremely Auspicious Reverence” This gigantic Buddha, is another iconic image of Thailand. It does have an impressive tale of perseverance though. One in which it has survived King’s whims, thunderbolt fires, and another fire after that.
4. Wat PhraRam
The second tape of the Narrowcaster’s audio guide took us through Wat Phra Ram. Personally, this was the most magical of the all the Wats. The audioguide really brought alive the stories of gore and the kind of battle these grounds have seen. Magical, mysterious, magnificent. It’s layout and upkeep too, helped bring it all alive.
After a quick lunch of culinary discoveries in a friendly, family-owned, local roadside café we discovered a few more wats, that had no signage, entry fee, nothing. Centuries of history, just lying around, uncared for, so matter – of – factly. Beautiful, yet unnerving.
Just like the rest of Ayutthaya and it’s ghosts. Beautiful, yet unnerving.