Last weekend the Diplomat, Canada’s Finest Jazz Vocalist, the Professor, Isla, and I decided to make the 1hr car journey north along the Chao Praya to the Kingdom of Siam’s ancient capital, Ayutthaya.
A city heralded in Western ethnography as the “Venice of the East”, Ayutthaya came to the understanding of European explorers (the Portuguese) in 1434 A.D. The city itself is said to have been founded in 1350A.D though “founded” is perhaps the wrong word with its connotations of “from scratch; nothing there before; etc.” Its creation was hardly like that of, for example, modern-day Canberra, Australia. Trade in the area would have resulted in the organic growth from a thriving community to a town, which – come 1350 – resulted in the creation of the city as a capital. Its importance as a trading post can be found in both its geography – it is near the great Chao Praya yet has a natural flood defense to its south and west, it is ideal for the cultivation of ‘wet’ rice in paddy fields – and its proximity to cultivated goods. Whilst the extant written record prior to 1350 is scarce to non-existent there is a large amount of material from China from about 1368 (a time when the Ming dynasty was established after the years of Mongol rule) giving substantive records of trade and tribute. There is a short period (but extremely detailed) of historical records from Japan (the period 1604-1635), plus the records of the Dutch East India company.
All of this data points to a very successful Kingdom where trade of items like ivory, animal hides, rice, base metals, gumlac (a sealing wax excreted by ants), eaglewood, gittagum, black lac, benzoin, sapanwood, saffron, indigo, peacock plumes…was an abundance of riches that favoured a nation. With all this in mind, it was a terribly excited travelswithadiplomat that hunched behind the wheel of a new Ford Explorer (in magnificent blue) and raced north on the Si Rat Urban Expressway/Udon Ratthaya Expressway/Kanchanaphisek Road to Bang Pa-in towards what promised to be exactly like Pompeii, Italy.
It did not disappoint. like all great places in this part of the world, it was a)not busy, b)happy to let you wander at leisure everywhere. And I mean everywhere (bar a couple of holy places) unlike places in Europe where you are kept a mile away from anything and forced to read plaques at best. No guard rails either. If I wanted to fall off a sixteen foot high wall and stove my skull in at the foot of another stupendous ruined stupa then I was at perfect liberty to do so. Today the site is ruined, abandoned after the sack by the Burmese in March, 1766. To is south and west is the Chao Praya; to its east the border is the Pasak River; the north boundary formed by the Lopburi River. It is a vast area, of which a very small portion – the Grand Palace – was our destination. Wats abound – such as Wat Rajaburana, Wat Mahathat, Wat Buddhaisawan, Wat Khun Muang Chai on this “island”, the layout of the city space regular with its grid street pattern of both roads and klong.
We parked under the scant shade of a forlorn tree, placed Isla into a pushchair and headed over to the wooden shack masquerading as an entrance booth. Two Thai ladies of advancing years sat behind the desk and requested a prompt payment of “foreigner fees”. Now, it is a peculiarity of Thai places of historical interest or culture that there is a different fee for farang compared to Thai nationals. You can attempt to negotiate if you can prove you are a resident in Thailand or have a diplomatic card but whether they’ll agree usually depends on the mood of the person at the time. In this case, the laudable linguistics of Canada’s Finest Jazz Vocalist went something like this (translated):
“Saaaaawaaaadeeeee Kkkkkkkkrrrrrrrrraaaappppp” – he does have a fine singsong drawl to his greetings.
“800 Baht for all four of you.”
“Ah, but we live here. And those two (a waft of a hand in the Diplomat’s direction as I was busy gazing at the historical delights to come about 20 metres away) have diplomat status.”
“We should pay national rates. 400 Baht.”
“Nah. 800 Baht.”
“Come along, we’re not real tourists. Surely you can see that?” An encouraging smile.
“800 Baht or no entry.” A grim faced stare from the two guardians of the ruin. I sensed nothing got past them.
“OK.” humphed Canada’s Finest Jazz Vocalist.
Suddenly the crones spot Isla.” Baby! How old?” They begin to advance on our curious child only to be stopped by Canada’s Finest Jazz Vocalist with a raised hand. He is imperious in his manner.
“If we pay foreigner fee you don’t get to see the baby.”
And with that we grabbed our tickets and moved past the gaping ladies into history.
I have to say the ruins are stupendous. I recognize I tend to get overly emotional about these things with a love of ancient history, but it really was (I am told if I liked this then Sukothai and Angkor Wat will send me into a frenzy of academic delirium) an awesome site. I left everyone at their smiling behest in the cooling shade of a crumbling wall and leapt onto a pedestal to survey my temporary kingdom. Traveling light and fast with my trusty ten-second delay camera I rambled through an old palace notable for its lack of plaques, roped off area, guard rails, guards…and dearth of tourists. For long moments I could stand in what was like an ancient forum area or a street, or a colonnade all by myself. I do believe that to truly experience the history of a place you need to experience it alone. Just you, the sky, the crumble of time, the defiant stone or bricks, the sense of standing on a vast map. For seconds you can truly begin to imagine real people, real lives, real events hundreds, even thousands of years ago. To look intently at a single piece of blueish vein in a single marble block surrounded by million such blocks and know that a thousand years worth of humanity has touched exactly the same place. What did each of those think about it when they touched it? Who will touch their fingers where I laid my hand a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand years from now? Places are where history can be imagined and thus, despite the laudable efforts of the History Channel and other like it, you simply have got to get off your couches and go experience these places. You will never get a true understanding of them from a book, or even this blog. Go, look, touch.
After a happy 20 minutes of so I was conscious of the other four waiting patiently so I gamboled and gyrated with a happy hop, skip and a jump down a broad avenue back to my companions. Could I have spent all day by myself there? Of course I could and I would go back in an instant to do so. But for me, it was like being in Pompeii again, I truly appreciated Ayutthaya and recognized immediately that anyone who comes to Thailand with even a modicum of an interest in history has to visit this place.
We headed for home, with a small stop at the newly built Ayutthaya Factory Outlet for a late lunch. If you are a golfing person it’s worth a stop as they have all the major golf brands plus a large driving range at the rear. The highways from Bangkok to Ayutthaya have recently been rebuilt and expanded; you can get there by train in about 90mins if you want. Of course, the place has its tourist honeytraps, one of the main draws being an elephant ride around part of the ancient palace which is great for photo opportunities. Note that you are effectively “trapped” on an elephant for a good 30-40minutes so, even with the shade of your box seat, it can get very hot – take plenty of water. Our little party decided to skip that for another day when we might visit with older children in tow. We did stop at an elephant kraal nearby where we got to feed baby elephants and mingle with the massive pachyderms in a manner you’d just never get in Europe. It was pretty awesome. I’ll leave you with a few photos of them…and an encouragement to stop by Ayutthaya if you are ever in this part of the world.
Is this what diplomacy is all about?