We had tried to get an early start to beat the heat, humidity and crowds, but didn't get out the door until around 9am. It was still a pretty lovely day overall, so the morning was quite nice. We had the first blue sky day all trip (besides Koh Samui, which doesn't count since its an island!). In fact, it stayed blue and beautiful until recently – now back in our room resting before dinner, its pouring rain and thundering right overhead – but we didn't even notice the clouds accumulate while we were showering the long day away!
We biked to the ruins furthest from our guest house, with the intention of working our way back. These were only about a mile away from our lodging, and turned to be the largest complex. The ruins were breathtaking. Despite the repetition (they are all varations on a pile of brick rubble), we found them fascinating to walk through. Behind this first ruined wat were the foundation walls of the old royal palace. All of these grand and flourishing buildings were destroyed by the invading Burmese army in 1767. Prior to that, Ayutthaya was the capital of Thailand for 400+ years, from around the time of 1350 AD. 33 kings had reigned over this capital before the fall. When the Burmese king came to visit a few years ago on a peace-building mission, local Thais were said to have cleaned up ruins so that he would not feel as guilty about the destruction (although we wondered if perhaps they were saving face and minimizing the damage for pride's sake as well?)
I have a serious love of ruins, and this was the first time I got to explore any with Ty. To my delight, he enjoyed them also, and sometimes spent more time than me imagining their former glory or investigating the purposes behind what remains we could see. We initially walked hesitantly around the giant stupas and prangs, minding the signs not to crawl on the ruins. Even simple base structures once held Buddhas, and were therefore sacred. Many beheaded Buddhas remain, and these are also to be treated with the same utmost respect as an intact statue (Buddhists believe the image or statue of Buddha is a direct connection to him and therefore holy). Ty did break from his normal serious respect by jumping up behind one headless buddha so that I could take a picture with his head replacing the missing head. :)
(look for Ty posing as Buddha's head)
Otherwise, we were very careful – until we saw dozens of school children (Ayutthaya has more schools than ruins - we think it is a boarding school center for the country!) racing each other up the steps of the 3 large chedis that are the center of this site. After they had their fill, we decided to climb up as well – it turns out that as long as a Buddha was not involved, and the area is fairly strong still (not crumbling), Thais will let you wander all over their ruins! Rome can't compete in this department.
The palaces and temples must have been amazing. They were huge, and apparently tall, and although we saw mostly the underlying brick, they were once covered with detailed and ornate plaster. Bits and pieces remained at all of the sites we visited. Given the relative quiet in the morning, it was easy to imagine color and finery on top of the crumbling red bricks, to hear the noises and bustle of court life, and then the screams and panic as the Burmese invaded and lit fire to all of this grandeur.
We were passed on the street by the royal elephants – kept nearby for formal events and demonstrations. When not parading for the king, they are available for tourists to ride on, in their full regal gear. We did not ride, as a basket seemed aloof and unkind after our neck-hugging experiences in Chiang Mai, but did marvel at the magesty the animals presented when gilded in red and gold tassles. One elephant was painted pink (apparently pink elephants DO go on parade!) and later we also saw one painted blue. They seemed well cared for but it was sad to watch their giant padding feet scrunch on top of pavement and brick, when we had ridden them through soft mud and grasses.
(pink elephants on parade!)
(and blue ones too!)
We visited several ruins with the more Khmer (Cambodian) style prangs (longer, taller, more ornate chedis), all near by. These complexes are very similar to Angor Wat, which we did not have time to visit, although set mid-city. Ayutthaya is small, at least in this old part of town, but given how moving and surreal these ruins were, it must be amazing to wander amongst the acres and acres of ruins at Angor Wat, which are even more quiet, and in a more jungly area.
(Khmer style ruins and happy ruin-hoppers)
One of the complexes has a beautiful head of a Buddha which was separated from its body, and over time a strangler-fig type plant has grown all around it, cradling the face and making quite the tourist photo spot. The head is fairly close to the ground, and custom holds that you must keep your head lower than Buddha's out of respect. While this is difficult to enforce most of the time, it was enforced for the photos at Wat Mahathat, so we had to crouch very low beneath the strangler-fig's Buddha head.
(keeping our head lower than Buddha's head)
The current custom of cramming as many Buddha statues into a temple as possible seems to go back very far in Thai history. The ruins were filled with statues in various states of disrepair – missing heads, arms, or even only the lotus-style meditating feet or lap remaining. We wondered if the Burmese were Buddhist when they invaded, if they had any qualms about desecrating these holy artifacts (or if they were considered holy to the invaders). We wondered, if the statues were a direct link to Buddha, would modern Thais cringe at the ravaged but still holy remains?
(grateful for my head amidst many headless Buddhas)
We thought we would be done bicycling by 11 or even 1pm, but continued on until 3pm. The lower heat and somewhat lower humidity allowed us to press on. We had a great noodle bowl lunch at a tiny shack behind a monestary – apparently they don't get many tourists down this little soi (lane) as it seemed a big deal and very funny to have us there. We gestured for food and hoped we'd get something we could stomach – it was fantastic and only 50 baht for 2 bowls and a giant cold pepsi – less than US$2! The 14 year old “waiter” was very excited to say “thank you” to us- and said it 5 or 6 times, giggling to his friends every time. The matronly cook didn't seem interested in us but accepted our thanks and smiled genuinely when I rubbed my stomach to say we were full and happy.
(giant pepsi and mystery noodle dish - delish!)
Towards the end of the day, we biked farther west and found the giant reclining Buddha. It was approximately 100 feet long, 20 feet tall, smiling, and exposed to the elements in front of some other ruins. We wondered why he wasn't destroyed by the Burmese – perhaps he was built after the sacking of the city. These sorts of details aren't available – none are really. Sometimes we are lucky to get a sentence or two at each site in English saying the year built and by which king – which means little to us but is better than nothing.
I love the Buddhas that are outdoors- not many are. I find them more inspiring – you can get such a better sense of their size and grandeur when they are not pressing up against a roof.
(I want to visit his pedicurist!)
We continued on to find a few more wats, and took an alley road to check out some infrastructure Ty wanted to investigate. Adjacent to this Thai stormwater pumpstation (very exciting for Ty), was a ricketing bridge over a large canal. Local kids were jumping off the bridge and swimming beneath, and having a great time. Across the bridge was another wat, we investigated that but found the kids more interesting. They had caught some siamese fighting fish in a bucket and would probably take them home to bet on the fights later. We also saw a tourist couple taking a boat ride up the canals for sightseeing – which we had asked about but had been told wasn't possible Mae pen rae, eh?
By now I was really sunburnt (again, but in new places), and the heat and humidity were getting to me – it was after 3pm and the hottest time of the day. We headed home and I realized how tired I was as the bike became harder to negotiate across the busy streets and built-in hurdles. The tricky thing about traveling like this is that you don't recognize your boundaries until you have crossed them. Because you are hot and humid from the start, its easy to not realize how dehydrated you are. Because you are constantly taking in the sights, sounds, smells, obstacles, decisions, risks, and corrections for earlier decisions, you don't realize when you are tired. Ty has taken to laughing when I hit my proverbial wall, because I slam into it full force and am equally surprised and useless after impact. I am just glad he can laugh and doesn't seem to hit his as hard (or perhaps not quite at the same time).
We've just spent a good hour lounging in our luxurious AC and listening to a fantastic storm outside. The rain has let up, so it's time for dinner on the river again. We'd hoped to go out to a wat outside of town which is reportedly the place to be at sunset, but with the storm, the timing might be off. We may also walk back to the closests ruins after dark to see them lit up – or maybe we'll just come back and sleep!
(view from our room during an afternoon storm)
We walked a long ways to dinner on another river (old Ayutthaya is surrounded on 4 sides by 3 rivers), hoping a tuk tuk would stop to take us to the wat outside of town for sunset. Apparently the tuk tuks go home when the big tour buses go home – we didn't see one for the rest of the night. Due to the late storm, the sunset was lackluster anyways – we enjoyed what little of it there was from the deck of our great dinner place – an old house converted to a restaurant right on the River Pasak. The house was all teak, with beautiful tile floors and a big porch. When originally built, the back of the house on the river was the front door, as all traffic came by water. A few guests tonite even arrived by boat – again the taxi/tour boats we had been hunting for. Another wat was across the way, and beautiful clumps of water hyacinth floated by all night. It was nice to enjoy the hyacinth in its natural habitat, since usually I am cursing it for taking over our California water ways and destroying the ecoystems. We ate great food – atlhoguh when Ty ordered a dish called “extra hot red curry chicken”, the kitchen must have toned it down for him – it wasn't spicy at all! This after 5 minutes of debate about wasting food if he couldn't eat it for the spice, or paying the price later on...for nothing! At least he tried. we had tasty desserts too – coconut ice cream (which is all vanilla and very little coconut! But very rich), and “banana samosas” which are pieces of banana wrapped and fried in wonton type wrappers, then dusted with cinnamon – yum!
(Ty's "spicy" dinner at our restaurant on the river)
We walked another really long way to a market (closed) on the way to the lit up ruins (not so lit up). We saw other parts of town, including a large avenue with special lights that dripped like giant blue raindrops. We passed store after store of internet gaming stations, full of young thai men (and a few women and expats) playing video games. We'd hoped to check email and contact people but thought the computers weren't really available for that!
(ruins at night)
We wandered around the ancient wat complexes in the dark, trying not to think about cockroaches and muck and rotting food (the streets were pretty clean but a few branches across the foot in the dark and we were convinced otherwise!). We got pretty tired, but did enjoy the few wats lit up, and actually even the ones that weren't, as there was a pretty decent moon out. We made the long trek home and into the shower before bed. We will try to bike to the sunset wat for sunrise (it is oriented east-west, so good for sunsets...which in theory makes it good for sunrise, I think?) and one other nice wat on the east side of town (we were in the north and west sides today), if we can get ourselves out of bed at the ambitious pre-7am hour we intend to. Then it's packing and off to Bangkok for our last 2 days!