The ruins of Thailand's historical capital Ayutthaya.
With busy schedules, the lack of a Christmas break, and some six-day work weeks, I have spent the last few months in, or within the immediate vicinity of, Nakhon Sawan. A four-day weekend for New Years, followed by a two day weekend for a holiday that slips my mind at the moment, provided a chance for Tara and I to get back on the road. In the process, we took in some incredible sights, delicious tastes and, as always, met some wonderful people.
In early December, our friend Ryan had mentioned a trip to Chiang Mai, the mountainous city of the north which Tara and I have been waiting to visit since we arrived in Thailand. Chiang Mai is known for it's beautiful surroundings, a city which is large with many western-ammenities, yet still small enough to retain a local charm and much of it's tradition. It is easy to see why it is a haven for tourists, yet it is far from overrun by them. Chiang Mai is built within and upon the remnants of an ancient city. In the center of town the remains of a giant pagoda still stand. Although most of the massive structure collapsed in
an earthquake centuries ago, it is still an awe to behold, even more so when one imagines the magnitude of the original building. The "old city," as it is known, is still surrounded by the crumbling wall which once fortified it's inhabitants, as well as a moat encircling the wall. The old city also contains many beautiful and chic coffee shops, bars, restaurants and markets which are simply amazing, yet due to a local ordinance prohibiting any structure larger than the original temple, it maintains a small town charm.
Looking back, we are very fortunate to have made it to Chiang Mai. When David, Ryan and myself went to book our tickets for a sleeper train, weeks in advance, we found that every single ticket had been sold. Moreover, a trip to the bus station found that all tickets for all classes of bus had already been sold as well. It appeared we would not be heading to Chiang Mai. We spent the next few weeks trying to get enough people together to hire a mini-bus, but many of our would-be companions were too indecisive, and the process basically fell apart. This is why I grew so excited when
my friend Gary, who owns a car, decided he would be headed up north as well to do a visa run and visit a friend in a nearby city. He graciously extended an invitation to Tara, myself, and our friend Ashley who was also dead-set on visiting the city. Our prospects also improved when we found out our friend Nhoom, whose family is from Chiang Mai, would be there for the New Years as well. He seemed just as excited as we were, and offered to pick us up in the city and show us around.
While in the city, we enjoyed some western food not available in Nakhon Sawan - an American breakfast, Italian and Mexican lunches, an Indian dinner and a homecooked dinner at Nhoom's sister's house. We went out to several local bars with some of Nhoom's friends for New Years, and watched an unforgettable display from a bridge as the visitors and locals alike released hundreds of traditional Thai paper lanterns which dotted the sky like deep orange stars while fireworks exploded from every direction. Everything was so beautiful it was simply impossible to decide which direction to look.
The next day was spent
exploring Chiang Mai's incredible markets, which are truly an experience all their own. As we have many gifts which will be on their way home from this market, I will not mention any of the things specifically. Suffice to say, these markets have everything you could possibly imagine and then some. Chiang Mai is especially well known for it's hand crafts, and the creativity of these people truly can not be overstated. Tara and I plan to return to Chiang Mai when our semester is over to spend some time for the Thai festival of Songkran, and I will take many more pictures to help flesh out this majestic city in more detail. A day and a half in Northen Thailand is like exploring a deep cavern without a candle, it is simply impossible to even scratch the surface.
The tradition of Thai excuses for cancelling school continued last week. For whatever reason, I think Tara heard someone mention "students day," or some nonsense, Saturday's classes were once again cancelled. Either way, I was not going to complain. Since, a two-day weekend now seems like a long-weekend, we decided we would get out of town one more time. This
The incredible spices that bring Thai food to life.
time, however, Tara and our friend Jen were keen (yes, overhere with all of our British friends "keen" is a common term) on taking our motorbikes for the two and a half hour, 180 k drive down Thailand's busiest highway to visit Thailand's ancient capital Ayutthaya. After some hesitant thoughts I gave it the OK.
We got going early in the morning at the discretion of the boss and were on the road by about 9am. The drive down was beautiful, the leaves on many of the trees are beginning to change colors and dry out, many falling to the ground. The combination of the foliage, the relatively cool air, the blue sky with whispy clouds and the breeze on the motorbike almost gave the impression of a warm autumn day in America. It was very refreshing. There were a couple close calls with crazy Thai drivers, but overall the ride was quite smooth. The highway has an extra lane for motorbikes which is just as wide as the main lanes on the road, and the cars stay out of it unless they need to pull over. We averaged about 80 - 90 kilometers per hour on our Fino
Fresh produce at the markets in Ayutthaya.
scooter, and with a few stops interspersed we were there right on schedule. When we arrived in Ayutthaya we stopped and asked for directions at a small coffee stand, ordered two latte yen wan nois
(iced latte with a little bit of sweetness - which in Thailand means iced latte with a still absurd amount of sweetness) and were on our way to our guesthouse. We got a small, 200 baht / night ($6) room near a few good restaurants and bars. I had masaman curry (an Indian-style Thai curry) which was phenomenal, and we were on our way to see the ruins.
As a history major and global history teacher, I feel obliged to offer a bit on the history of the ruins, quickly, and how they came to be ruined. Before Thailand became a nation it had a collection of smaller kingdoms which were at various times in control of various amounts of land. One of the earliest and greatest of the Thai, or Siamese Kingdoms was Ayutthaya. The Kindgom began in the fourteenth century and gradually grew in prosperity. A strategic location placed Ayutthaya in the heart of South East Asian trade. It's location on the
Chao Phraya River linked it with the sea, where European traders would eventually travel to the city, and it's proximity to China linked it with the great overland trade-route of the period, the Silk Road. Due to it's location at the confluence of sea and overland trade routes, the city grew to unprecedented proportions. By the 1700s it would dwarf most major European cities, and the French King Louis XIV compared it in size and splendor to Paris. As many as one-million people may have lived here during this time, and some scholars have even estimated that it may have been one of, if not the, largest city in the world.
Although the eighteenth century brought continued economic prominance and new technology through foreign trade, Ayutthaya began to experience unrest as provincial governors began to rebel against the capital. At the same time, Ayutthaya's long-time rival the Burmese continued to launch invasions. In 1767 in the midst of revolutionary upheaval in America, the rise of European imperialism, and the dawn of the industrial revolution, the Kingdom of Ayutthaya fell to Burmese invasion. The atrocities that followed were horrendous and continue to hinder Burmese-Thai relations to the present day. The
The ledgendary Buddha head. Historians believe that the Burmese who sacked the city attempted to carry it away, but eventually left it behind. It was eventually absorbed by a "strangler tree," where it continues to rest today.
Burmese armies laid siege to the city, indiscriminatly slaughtering everyone in their sights while setting torch to the entire city. As the once mighty city was reduced to ashes, even images of the Buddha were not spared, as many were destroyed for the wealth of their golden shells. The headless Buddha statues, including the Buddha head now lodged within a strangler tree, and the fact that only the concrete and stone buildings remain, lay testament to the devestation suffered at the hands of the mighty Burmese forces. Though many Thai historians have pointed out that this was a war between monarchs before the era of nations, much of Thai popular history continues to take an indignant stand toward the Burmese for past atrocities. As many Burmese are not taught the history of the wars in this same light, they do not understand the position some Thai's have taken toward them, and the hostilities reverberate to the present geopolitical scene. Today Burma, known as Myanmar, is ruled by a strict military junta known for the suppression of human rights, and the population continues to suffer under it's oppressive rule; while Thailand successfully reestablished a new monarchy in Bangkok, repelled European imperialism,
and has become a model for successful modernity in South East Asia.
Ayutthaya today is quite a wonder. It is an island only a little wider than a mile from north to south, likewise from east to west, surrounded by rivers. It is a modern city, but all around are historical parks of various sizes which showcase the city's former splendor, along with small ruined temples and pagodas that pay homage to it's magestic heritage. Since we had driven our motorbikes down we were free to cruise around the island and explore the wonders of the ancient city. The pictures give testament to the wonders of the city far more than any words I can express here. On Sunday morning before heading back, we decided to stop and visit the area where the King's war elephants used to be trained and housed. We were quite suprised, and pleasantly so, that they continue to house elephants there (although perhaps for dubious reasons). Nevertheless, we enjoyed close contact with the elephants and even got to play with a baby elephant that was less than one month old. Believe it or not, a one month old elephant is still quite powerful. At
one point it almost knocked me off my feet in a playful charge. Then we followed the trainers down to the river to watch the elephants swim, bathe and play in the water. It was a fun way to end the trip to the historical capital.
On the way home we stopped in Antong to visit our friends Ashley and Alex. We met them and caught up over lunch at an open air, plant filled restaurant with delicious green curry. We went and visited their house (yes they actually have a house) which made us again question why we live in the tiny cube that we pay nearly as much for, and then went out to visit Antong's famous sitting Buddha statue - the largest of it's kind in Thailand. What struck me about this temple even more than the giant Buddha was the bizarre collections of statues. They were organized into about 15 or 20 different scenes, each depicting the horrors of hell. It is strange because in all that I have read on Buddhism, I have never heard references to heaven or hell, and had certainly never seen such disturbing images at a Buddhist temple. I intend
to do more research on the significance of the statues. Although they turned me off to the entire complex a bit, they made for some interesting photography. This trip was also the first time since we have been here that I have carried a camera full time (all the images in the black and white scheme with a single color drawn out were taken by me). It was a lot of fun considering I really haven't taken any photos since my photography classes in college.
We said our goodbyes over iced coffee with Alex and Ashley. They were so suprised by how short our trip had been, that they decided they will travel up this weekend to visit and go on the jungle trek we are planning to do. They will be our first friends from Phuket to come and visit, so we will be tour guides for a week-end.
As always, we really miss everyone at home, and when you finish reading I would love to hear a quick comment or story from you. Even if I don't know you and you just stumbled across my blog, please let me know what you think, share stories or
feel free to ask questions if you too will be traveling this way.
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