March 24, 2008

Easter in Thailand Day 5: Train ride to Ayutthaya

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Today I would be leaving Bangkok and going up to Ayutthaya, the other ancient capital of Thailand. After having a quick breakfast of stir-fried kway tiaw in the hotel, I packed up and left for Hualamphong station.

I paid the 315 Baht fare for the 2nd class, air-con train. I think it was definitely a wise decision not to take the 3rd class commuter train for 15 Baht - it just looks crowded, dirty and hot. The train was actually reasonably comfortable and clean, and the air-con is a must in this climate.

My 1 1/2-hour train ride was reasonably uneventful, except for the 2-yr old boy on her mommy's lap next to me. She obviously spoils him and he gets whatever he wants, throwing food around and kicking me in the next seat. Eventually she ran out of tricks to calm him down, and I think she let him suck on her tit to keep him quiet. Anyway I think that's what happened, since I didn't exactly feel comfortable to take a good look... 

Getting off the train at Ayutthaya station, I found myself a tuk-tuk to take me to the hotel. The ride to the River View Place Hotel on the island is short and I am there in no time. The tuk-tuk driver offered to take me around the sights for charter hire, and showed me a laminated card printed with English and Japanese. He wants 300 Baht an hour! I am insulted and told him to take a hike.

The hotel is a bit dated, probably from the late 80s, and caters to tour groups. I booked one of the River View Suites and they are basically at the end of the corridor, facing the river. The room was huge, with a kitchenette and a balcony. For such a large room, the TV was still the same tiny 20-inch as in all the other rooms. The room is pretty bare but the space is nice.

I have a full view of Wat Phanan Choeng across the river. This is a modern-looking temple which is associated with the Chinese explorer Zheng He (鄭和). As its architectural style is both modern Thai and Chinese, I find it uninteresting and decide to skip it.

After a bit of rest, I leave the hotel for the sights. I bargain with the tuk-tuk outside the hotel, and manage to negotiate to 500 Baht for 3 hours after telling the driver that I'm Chinese and not Japanese. Apparently the driver's father was Chinese so he spoke a few words...

Ayutthaya is much bigger in scale compared to Sukhothai. And unlike in Sukhothai Historical Park, here in Ayutthaya people live among the ruins.

Our first stop is Wat Ratchaburana, a temple dominated by a large, Khmer-style prang. After walking around the grounds, I step up inside the prang for a look. There is a display showing pictures of stolen artifacts taken by robbers some years ago. A long and narrow staircase leads to a crypt below. I was hesitating about going down, but eventually curiosity got the best of me. At the very bottom, there was space for only one person to stick their heads into the opening. The wife of the French couple in front of me took a look, then shook her head at her husband and declared in jest: "c'est magnifique!" Well...the frescoes were tiny, but they were old and original.

Next stop was Wat Thammikarat. I should have realized from Lonely Planet's description that "sees fewer visitors" means that there's nothing to this place. I move on quickly, and next is a trio of temples next to each other.

The driver directs me to Wihan Mongkhon Bophit before closing time. This is a modern-looking temple with an old bronze Buddha, and there are many believers streaming in.

But I am not interested, and move on next door to Wat Phra Si Sanphet. This is one of the main temples in Ayutthaya, with three chedis housing the ashes of kings. I stomp the grounds looking for the right angle for the afternoon light. The trees were blooming, providing a nice foreground and contrast to the ruins. It is here that I realized that in Ayutthaya, not all Buddha statues face east.

Wat Phra Ram is across the street, with its prominent central prang. It's very picturesque from across the moat. I encounter many tourists riding on "elephant taxis" here.

The last stop of the day, where I waited for the sunset, is Wat Chai Wattanaram south-west of the island. This is a magnificent temple, with many towers done in Khmer style. This place has been extensively restored, and poses a stark contrast to many other temples in the area. The most striking element here is the manicured lawn, which was freshly cut just before my visit, and the smell of sweet grass hung in the air. Compare this to the dusty grounds at many temples, and the difference is glaring.

I spend time circling the temple, examining the numerous Buddha statues as I wait for the sunset. I eventually leave just before the actual sundown, when the sun falls below the cloud level.

After a quick shower and change of clothes, I venture out of the hotel for the night. I asked a moto-taxi to take me to a stall selling roti sai mai - a local Muslim dessert. This is interesting - basically taking a thin pancake and wrapping it around stretched palm sugar which look like strands of multi-colored hair. In reality the sugar looks and tastes a bit like 龍鬚糖. I thought it was delicious.

The moto takes me back to Wat Phra Ram, where I set my camera up on my portable tripod for night shots. A few of the temples are lit at night during the early evening, and they look fantastic. I give up after a few shots due to the condition of my tripod head, and ask to be dropped off at a night market.

I end up at the market that stretches along Thanon Bang Ian, starting from Thanon Chee Kun. It's lively with many stalls. I sample some local delicacies, and buy some sweet mangoes to take back to the hotel.

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