Lessons from the ruins of Ayutthaya

It’s been two years since my first visit to Thailand and I’ve been missing the country and my Thai friends like crazy. So when my mom asked me where our family should spend our 2014 holy week holiday, Bangkok was the first thing on my mind.

BUDDHIST PARADISE. One of the many Buddha statues around Ayutthaya. All photos by David Lozada
BUDDHIST PARADISE. One of the many Buddha statues around Ayutthaya. All photos by David Lozada

I had to be the tour guide for my family while we were in Bangkok since I was already familiar with the city and the must-see places for tourists (i.e. Wat Pho, the Grand Palace). But since we had some free days in our itinerary, we decided to take some day tours to see the beauty of Thailand outside the busy streets of Bangkok.

A day in ancient city

The ancient kingdom of Ayutthaya was on top of the list of places we wanted to see. Located around 80 kilometers north of Bangkok, this city used to be the second capital of Siam. In the ancient times, Ayutthaya was one of the trading capitals of Asia due to its strategic location between the Malaysian islands and China.

We paid around 700 baht (around $22) per person for a day trip. This is actually cheap considering it included our transportation, site tickets, lunch, and a tour guide. We left Khao San road – where we were staying – at around 7am and we were already in our first stop by 9am.

These were the places we visited during our tour. I highly recommend them to anyone visiting Ayutthaya without guided tours.

Wat Yai Chai Mongkol

Our first stop was Wat Yai Chai Mongkol. It’s a temple that was ordered to be built by Kung U-thong for his 2 sons who died of cholera. The two big Buddha statues beside the big chedi represent the king’s sons, Chao Kaeo and Chao Thai.

FATHER'S LOVE. The main chedi at Wat Yai.
FATHER’S LOVE. The main chedi at Wat Yai.

Like many of the temples in Ayutthaya, this site had survived many battles between the Siamese and the Burmese. The main chedi – which is over 60 meters high – is itself is an amazing proof of that. The base was initially built by the Burmese but the stupa on top was added by King Naruesan to celebrate the “auspicious victory” or “chai mongkol” of the Siamese.

If you climb up the steps of the main chedi, you’ll see a Buddhist shrine on top. This place is still being used today and you’ll see many locals offering flowers and incense to the Buddha images. Around the temple’s premises are many Buddhist statues. Sadly, most of these were only restored due to the many wars Wat Yai had endured. The only original statues that survived were actually the two big Buddha images beside the Chedi.

Wat Phra Mahathat

Sitting in between the ruins of Wat Mahathat.
Sitting in between the ruins of Wat Mahathat.

This is another temple that shows the harsh battles between the Siamese and the Burmese during the ancient times. According to our tour guide, this place was burnt for 7 days when the Burmese conquered Ayutthaya. You can still see the black stains that the fire left on the walls. One look at the surviving pillars and infrastructure, however, and you can imagine the grandeur this place had. The rows of headless Buddha statues were also iconic.

Speaking of heads, this temple is actually famous because of it. You cannot go to Wat Phra Mahathat without taking a picture of the tree that has grown with Buddha head in its trunk. Be cautious when approaching it though. Buddhists believe that this is a sacred relic. So when taking a photo with the tree and Buddha’s head, make sure to kneel down. Your head should always be lower than that of the Buddha’s.

Wat Lokayasutha

The reclining Buddha tells the legend of Buddha and the giant Asurindarahu. The latter wanted to be a follower of the former but when he saw how little Buddha was, he didn’t believe in him. With Buddha knowing the thoughts of the giant, he grew larger than the giant while laying down. Now seeing how Buddha was much bigger than him, Asurindarahu started believing in Buddha.

This is the longest Buddha image in Ayutthaya and one of the biggest in Thailand.
This is the longest Buddha image in Ayutthaya and one of the biggest in Thailand.

This is, perhaps, the reason why all the reclining Buddha statues are extremely large, like the one in Wat Pho and the one we visited in Wat Lokayasutha. The statue in Lokayasutha is actually the largest reclining Buddha in Ayutthaya. It is frequented by locals who offer flowers, incense and prayers to the founder of Buddhism.

Tourists can purchase flowers, candles and incense for 20 baht so they can pay their respects at the shrine. The statue itself is a mystery. They’re not sure when it was built and who built it.

Wat Phu khao Thong

Also known as the “Golden Mount,” Wat Phu khao Thong is a big white chedi northeast of Ayutthaya. Like Wat Yai, this infrastructure is interesting in that the chedi we see now is a mix of Siamese and Burmese contributions throughout history. The wat – which had a different name then – was ordered to be built by King Ramesuan in 1387. Around 1569, a Burmese king ordered the 3 levels at the base to be built. In 1744, the chedi on top was ordered to be built by a Siamese king to mark the victory against the Burmese.

If you have the energy, make sure you climb the steps of this Burmese-Siamese chedi.
If you have the energy, make sure you climb the steps of this Burmese-Siamese chedi.

Tourists can climb up the stairs of Wat Phu khao Thong until the foot of the chedi. The top base offers a scenic view of Thai rice fields and the nearby modern-day Ayutthaya.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet

This was the last itinerary on our tour and it certainly was the most iconic and memorable! If Egypt has it’s pyramids of Giza, Ayutthaya has Wat Phra Si Sanphet. The most noticeable part of this ancient ruin is the 3 big chedis in the middle of the complex. These were built to house the ashes of 3 successive kings by their own predecessors. The minor chedis housed the ashes of the other kings of Ayutthaya.

The 3 chedis for the 9th, 10th and 11th king of Ayutthaya.
The 3 chedis for the 9th, 10th and 11th king of Ayutthaya.

A royal palace used to stand beside Wat Phra Si Sanphet but only a few building are left standing. The Grand Palace in Bangkok follows the same model as that of the ancient royal palace.

You can ride an elephant for 10 minutes for only 800 baht (but we got it for 200)!
You can ride an elephant for 10 minutes for only 800 baht (but we got it for 200)!

The highlight of our tour in Ayutthaya, however, is the elephants! Around Wat Phra Si Sanphet is a park where tourists can take pictures and ride elephants. Normally, the price for an elephant ride is around 700 baht per person but since we went there during Songkran, we were given a discount of only 200 baht each ($6). The elephant ride, though short, really completed the whole Ayutthaya experience. I was able to imagine how royals and government officials in the ancient times traveled great distances by those gentle beasts.

Finding lessons amidst ruins

As I ended our day tour in Ayutthaya, I suddenly remembered the philosophy of the lotus flower.

The lotus flower grows in muddy water. The muddier the water, the more beautiful the flower becomes. Out of everything that is bad and messy, something good and beautiful can always come out of it.

This, I guess, summarizes my take away from seeing the ruins of the ancient city. Out of everything that it has been through, the temples always found a way to rebuild themselves. We are all a product of our history. Everything we’ve been through – the good and the bad – contribute to our present state. In the end, it’s our decisions that matter: Are we going to let ourselves stay in ruins? Or are we going to constantly rebuild ourselves?

Some lotus flowers for Buddha :)
Some lotus flowers for Buddha 🙂

There is beauty in everything. Even in its ruined state, there is still wonder in the remnants of the once glorious city. As my favorite author, Liz Gilbert, said, “Ruin is a gift. Ruin is a way to transformation.” This is the story of Ayutthaya.

The ancient city is certainly a must-visit city in Thailand. Given the chance – after I finish my 25-country goal, perhaps – I’ll definitely go back! AM+DG!

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