The traditional universal image of Thailand is of mountains, temples and beaches. It’s true that the Thai temple, or wat, is never far from where you are in Thailand; even down the long stretch of highways, there’s nothing more likely to break up the distance between cities than the occasional durian truck vendor and sanctuary. Few of these make up Thailand’s most ancient cities, however. Before Bangkok became the capital we know today, there was Ayutthaya.
Getting to Ayutthaya from Korat is a relative piece of cake. It doesn’t need much forward-thinking and we decided it was adventure time just the night before our 6.30 am minibus journey. This is the greatness of a place like Thailand – though at times a little time consuming, getting to places is pretty painless. Travel is as cheap as the proverbial bag of chips and can be done with a last minute decision. Sometimes, you might find yourself lucky with space to starfish across seats. Other times (as was our luck), you can find a complete stranger sitting on your lap. Some journeys can be a bit daunting when choruses of “farang, farang, farang” move through the bus. Farang is a Thai ferm that can mean either a western foreigner, or guava (the fruit). Often no harm is meant by the term, but it can take some getting used to. Sometimes it feels that the drivers will pick up every man and his dog on the side of the road, which in this case, made our 2-3 hour journey into 4 and a half. Ouch.
Separated by three rivers, Ayutthaya is an island of sorts. The Chao Phraya river which flows from its source in the centre of Thailand through Ayutthaya and Bangkok and to the Gulf of Thailand, meets the Lopburi river and the Pa Sak river. Naturally, streams, canals and rivers stem through and all around the city, the land immediately around these areas lush with greenery and plantlife. Despite this, the rest of the island remains quite arid. It felt like it hadn’t rained in some time. The land is quite dusty and dry and seems almost inhospitable, fitting with the city’s many ruins – it was up to us to imagine a time where both the kingdom and its landscape gleamed.
From other countries, other continents, some world-renowned images of Thailand are masked in the roots of Ayutthaya. The head of a Buddha image grows further with every passing moment into the bark of an ancient tree perching on the grounds of Wat Mahathat. Another temple or ‘wat’ well worth seeing is Wat Ratchaburana, built for the commemoration of King Borommarachathirat II’s two elder brothers, who fought each other for their father’s succession, both dying as a result. Wat Thammikarat is an incredibly visual site too, a photogenic gem behind a camera lens.
Ayutthaya sits in a landscape of grey and earth, and yet, looking back, I think of gold and glimmer. It’s been founded, pillaged, rediscovered and (somewhat) restored as what might be one of the most accurate representations of “what was” as well as an insight to “what is” in Thailand. An hour away from Bangkok is a relative stone’s throw, and unlike its more decadent capital sister, it remains humble and feels a little less discovered. It’s satisfying enough to temple hop for the day and move out of the city centre as the sun becomes weaker.
Something more than satisfaction is feeling like you’ve discovered something on your own. A discovery that felt as magical as the temples we knew about before and took the horrendous minivan journey for was stumbling upon the Tree Café we didn’t know about. Writing this months after my visit, I still remember fresh fruit juices, tea and the finest example of Thai hospitality on the outskirts of the city, bordering countless rice fields and being in total tranquility.