31 December 2002, Ayuthaya
Yesterday’s train ride was uneventful and rather uncomfortable. I slept fitfully from midnight to around 02:00, when I woke up and tried to figure out where we were. I stayed awake until about 04:00, but since we were behind schedule I decided to try to sleep a bit. I did manage to do that until we arrived in Ayuthaya at 06:00—an hour and fifteen minutes behind schedule. Given my experiences with the trains to and from Chiang Mai, I can’t help but wonder why they even bother printing train schedules with precise times.
We waited at the train station to watch the sun rise and then headed directly west to the ferry pier. There were two ferries, one on the north side and one on the south side. The man at the pier directed us to the southern (left-hand) ferry, and I assumed that the two ferries went to the same destination. As it turns out, though, the northern (right-hand) ferry goes more or less straight across the river, while the southern ferry heads northwest and drops you off a few hundred meters further north. LP listed the price of the ferry ride as 1B, but we paid 2B, so I’m not sure if the price went up or if we were just directed to the more expensive ferry—both possibilities seem equally likely. Whatever the case, our destination was to the south, and taking the ferry we did meant that we had to walk that extra few hundred meters. Dead tired and lugging our heavy backpacks, we never made it to our original destination, the Reuan Doem Guest House. Instead we stopped at the first decent-looking pace along the way, the Iudea Guest House (also apparently called the River View) .
Rooms on the west side were 200B and rooms on the east side, facing the river, were 250B. We decided to pay the extra 50B for a balcony and river view since we were only going to be staying for one night. The rooms were clean, but the walls were nothing more than plywood. Also, being on the river, the place was infested with mosquitoes. Actually, the whole city seems to be infested, being entirely surrounded by rivers and canals, but it seems to be particularly bad right on the water.
We decided to eat breakfast in the outdoor restaurant next to the guesthouse. The place was clean, but the food was nothing special, at least not the toast, egg, and ham combos Hyunjin and I ordered. It was enough to satisfy our hunger, though, and considering the fact that it was the first meal I’d had in a day and a half, it was fairly easy on my stomach. After eating we went up to our room and slept until about 10:00, when we went out to explore the city.
We traveled north to the first road leading west, Thanon Bang Ian, and followed that to Beung Phra Ram Park. There we paid 30B each to enter Wat Phra Mahatat, which, in addition to its ruins, is famous for a stone Buddha’s head that has been ensconced by the roots of a banyan tree.
Beung Phra Ram is a refreshing park area with trees and pavilions situated around a large and irregularly shaped lake that is crossed at various points by wooden bridges. We wandered around here for a while before returning to the intersection of Naresuan Road and Cheekun Road. We had intended to try Malakor, which was listed in LP, for lunch, but the only building that fit the description appeared to be closed for the holidays. So we settled for Po-Thai next door instead, which had decent food but was a bit on the expensive side. It offers a decent view of the stone prang (a quick note on the difference between chedi and prang—both are stupas, but chedi are usually are generally bell-shaped while prang are phallus-shaped Khmer-style stupas) of Wat Ratburana across the street, so at least the scenery was good.
After finishing lunch we took a “shortcut” through Beung Phra Ram. Like all good shortcuts, it ended up being the long way around, mainly because of all the bridges over the water. It was a pleasant walk, though, and we were in no hurry, so we didn’t mind. On our way out of the park we passed the Handicraft Centre and decided to take a look inside. We saw two artisans carving traditional Thai woodwork decorations, and the shop are contained all sort of beautiful handmade items. We didn’t really want to be carrying stuff around all day, so we didn’t buy anything. Outside the centre, two spirit houses stood next to a banyan tree. Spirit houses in Thailand are like flags in the United States—you can’t just throw them away when they get old. In the U.S. the proper way to dispose of a flag is to burn it (really), and in Thailand the proper way to dispose of a spirit house is to leave it by a banyan tree, which is considered sacred. So if you’re ever in Thailand and you see a bunch of spirit houses clustered around a banyan tree, you’ll know why.
We eventually made our way down to the traffic circle at the intersection of Thanon Pa Thon and Thanon Si Sanphet. From there we walked to the city pillar shrine on the southwest corner of the intersection. A city pillar is a phallic monument that marks the center of the city and is the point from which all distances are measured. It is also believed to be inhabited by the guardian spirit that protects the city. The current pillar is enshrined in a pure white stone pagoda, while the ruins of what was apparently the old city pillar and shrine lie behind it to the south.
Our next stop was going to be the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum, but a quick check of LP showed that it and the other museum, the Chantharakasem National Museum, are both closed on Monday and Tuesday. We decided to detour instead to the TAT office, which lies south of the city pillar shrine, and see what they recommended. They gave us a large map and outlined a rather extensive route that would have been no problem with a car, and even doable by bicycle, but not on foot. They also recommended the Ayuthaya Historical Exhibit on the second floor of the other tourist information building south of the TAT office.
We chose a few of the many locations they pointed out and decided to concentrate on them. While each wat certainly has its own unique characteristics and special features, unless you’re a student of Thai temple architecture (or Southeast Asian architecture in general), they all start to look the same after a while. In fact, I remember experiencing the same thing with the cathedrals of Europe. I love architecture, I really do, but after a point my brain gets overloaded.
We left the TAT office and headed north to the end of Thanon Si Sanphet, where we bought tickets to the royal palace complex. We passed by Wihan Phra Mongkhan Bophit—it was thronged with Thai tourists, and we figured we could probably live without seeing the bronze Buddha (which is a replica anyway) housed within—and continued on to Wat Phra Si Sanphet, which is famous for its three chedi. Beyond that was the Ancient Palace, at least according to the map, but all we found when we got there were the low ruins of walls less than a meter high. Apparently this was where the Ancient Palace used to be. Further on was the Chantharakasem Royal Palace, but we headed west instead, crossing a small canal and following a winding road to the reclining Buddha at Wat Lokayasutharam.
The map of Ayuthaya in LP and the map we got from the TAT office looked quite different (the TAT map, like most tourist maps we’ve seen in Thailand, was not to scale), and neither showed a through route from Wat Lokayasutharam. We continued south anyway and walked through a residential area, eventually coming upon Thanon Pa Thon, the only road the runs the length of the island from east to west, barring U Thong Road, which runs around the perimeter. On our way back we passed by the city pillar shrine once again, and since we were in the neighborhood we decided to ask at the tourist information center if there were any New Year’s Eve festivities in town. They told us that the Krungsri River Hotel—Ayuthaya’s fanciest hotel—was having a New Year’s Eve party, but two part-time hippies (a phrase coined by Hyunjin before she ever actually saw a hippie, referring to the fact that when we travel we go into “backpacker” mode) like us wouldn’t make it past the front door of a place like that.
Since we were in the building, we decided to go up to the second floor and check out the Ayuthaya Historical Exhibition Hall. It’s small, and no substitute for a museum, but it was surprisingly well done, appealing to the senses of sight, sound, and smell (movement- or time-activated machines released fragrances into the air). There was also a good deal of information on the walls, although, like other such exhibits I’ve seen (in Seoul, for example), the English could have used a little work. There was an interactive computer program that introduced the various sites, a map of the city that lit up certain locations when you pressed the appropriate buttons, and a film-viewing room at the end. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the projector to work.
We were the only ones in the exhibition hall, so we took our time. After walking around all day, it was nice to sit down on the padded benches. We left shortly before closing time at 17:00 and walked the length of Thanon Rotchana back to the river. Heading north, we found the Reuan Doem, and we walked past the guesthouse and made for the floating restaurant on the river. It looked quite nice, but there wasn’t a soul around—when we finally found a staff member, she told us that the restaurant would be closed until the 9th. I can understand maybe being closed for New Year’s Day, but until the 9th? That just struck me as a bit much.
Our initial plans foiled, we headed south again and backtracked to the Ruenpae Restaurant, another floating restaurant that turned out to be a small ship with tables set up on two levels. We took a table on the upper level, and although there was still a roof over our heads (and a rather low one at that), we had a decent view of the river and the Krungsri River Hotel on the other side. It definitely wasn’t as nice as the Ruean Doem in terms of atmosphere, but it had an overwhelming advantage in actually being open.
The prices were on the high side (dishes ranging from about 60B to 120B), but we expected that from a floating restaurant. What we didn’t expect was the food to be as good as it was. We ordered the fried fresh crab in curry (“kari”) sauce and the steamed chicken with ginger (interestingly enough, the chicken was more expensive), and both were excellent. The fried crab actually had a whole crab in it, cut into pieces. This was a pleasant surprise, as we had expected sparse bits of crabmeat. An unpleasant surprise was the VAT and service charge added to the bill—there was nothing on the menu or anywhere else that said anything to that effect, and the practice is not common in Thailand. We have also grown accustomed to having fresh fruit juices at Thai restaurants, but Ruenpae only serves soft drinks and alcohol. Overall it was a mixed experience, but ultimately a positive one.
After dinner we went north along Thanon U Thong and turned west on Thanon Naresuan. Walking past the Chao Phron Market, we stopped at Swensen’s for ice cream sundaes—something that Hyunjin particularly enjoyed, since ice cream sundaes are hard to get in Korea. Then we went around the corner and into the Amporn Department Store. In the supermarket (most department stores in Thailand that I’ve seen have well-stocked supermarkets, like most department stores in Korea—maybe it’s an Asian thing) we bought some juice and bread for breakfast tomorrow and box of mosquito coils. Then we headed out onto the street and back to our room at Iudea.
We took showers after getting back (the men’s shower had no hot water, so I used the women’s shower), and after that we rested from our busy day. It is now almost a half hour before midnight, and the new year will soon be here. Compared to Chiang Mai or Bangkok, the night life in Ayuthaya—not to mention the foreign population—is practically non-existent, and if we had wanted to see the new year in with a bang we would have been better off staying in Chiang Mai or continuing straight on through to Bangkok. When it comes down to it, though, it’s just a day like any other. So it doesn’t really bother me that we won’t be doing anything special.
Ayuthaya has proven interesting, but a day here is definitely enough. Hyunjin read somewhere that two hours would be sufficient to tour the city, and I imagine that might be so by car or bicycle. We decided to go on foot, though, and probably ended up walking well over 10 kilometers, depending on whose geography you go by—the Exhibition Hall said that the city was four kilometers by three kilometers, but according to the LP map the island is at least six kilometers long. Yet even on foot we managed to see a great deal of the ruins, see the historical exhibition, and eat two meals and dessert in a matter of ten hours, and this was at a very leisurely pace. It might have been longer if we had been able to enter one of the museums or if we had gone north to the palace. Still, I feel we have seen most of what there is to see, and I’m ready to move on.
Tomorrow morning we will return to Bangkok. I know it hasn’t even been two weeks since we left, but it seems like such a long time ago, almost as if it happened in a dream. I was glad to leave the noise, crowds, and pollution of the city behind when we headed south to Krabi, but now I’m strangely looking forward to getting back. Perhaps it’s because we have so many things planned. Perhaps it’s because I’m looking forward to the conveniences and air-conditioned buildings. And perhaps it’s because I know that Bangkok is the last stop before we head back to Korea, and maybe I’m getting just a little bit tired of traveling. Whatever the case may be, tomorrow begins a new year and the last leg of our trip.