Thursday, 26 July 2012

Ayutthaya, Thailand

June 26th - June 28th, 2012

Alighting from the train after a three hour journey north out of Bangkok the tuk tuk drivers were, as usual, surrounding us.  Shaking our heads we walked away with them in pursuit, trying to convince us it was too far to walk to the accommodation.  A couple of German fellows asked about cheap accommodation options to which they responded the cheapest being 800 baht.  Having been in Thailand long enough we all knew he was pulling our legs and despite his persistence we continued to discuss our options between the four of us, the travellers bond shrouding us from the unwelcome attention.  Julian and I headed towards the tourist information down the street, picked up a map to locate the mini bus station where our Couch Surfing host, Note would be picking us up.  Back on the street, the same driver had followed us down the street in his tuk tuk, calling to us incessantly but now armed with information we walked the necessary 400m to the boat quay where we once more met with our two German friends and took a quick ferry across the river to the island side.  

A few phone calls later Note finally found us and picked us up with another Dutch couch surfer who was teaching english in the local area.  He dropped us off at his house, briefed us quickly, left us with the keys to his house and motorbike and promptly left for Bangkok to watch a Thai musical.  Humbled by his generosity and immediate trust in us we had a quick look around his house; one room set up as a recording studio with grafitied walls, numerous guitars, electronic drum kit and a mixing desk amongst recording equipment and a computer.  A comfortable lounge was decorated with a set of reproduced samurai armour and leather seating which gave away to a hallway leading to a fully equipped kitchen, up the stairs to our air conditioned bedroom.  After a short rest we reved up the motorbike as the sun set for a evening ride before dinner. 

The attendant at the tourist office in Bangkok recommend we stop in Ayutthaya; the former capital which was destroyed by the Burmese Army in 1767, resulting in the collapse of the kingdom.  Its ruined Wats and the Royal Palace a site of mass murder, rape and enslavement of the Siamese people now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site 

As we trundled around the island on our newly acquired wheels, down streets mercifully quieter than Bangkok we passed numerous prangs of red brick, many of which lay in ruins, before turning down a side street between two ruined temple sties.   As I stood between these Wats I could feel their stories coursing through my veins, invoking emotion much deeper than the golden temples I have previous explored throughout the peninsula.  Wat Phra Sri Sanphet was the most important temple of Ayutthaya and situated within the Royal Grounds.  The Wat was silhouetted against the darkening sky, a couple sat upon the brick walls which were closed for the evening.  Julian vowed to return to this site for sunrise and the next morning wandered the deserted site in the silence of mornings first light. 

Note joined us for a few hours that morning and after a breakfast of chicken and rice brought us to visit the Ayuthaya Elephant Kraal.   A new mother, chained at the ankle guarded a two day old baby.   It appeared the two had been granted special privileges of a open space outside the main confines, munching happily on fresh hay.  Surrounding the parking lot three enclosures were segregated from each other; males together on the far side, females opposite, and mothers with young ones together in another.   Upon learning that we could approach the elephants we purchased a basket of large cucumbers  to offer them.  The two youngest approached us eagerly reaching into our outstretched hands with their trunks.  I was then that we noticed not only were all these elephants confined within the enclosure, they were also all bound by metal chains attached at the ankle each allowed about 15ft of leeway.  A  young boy no older than 15 stood by an elephant with a sharp steel hook, scraping it down her trunk for no apparent reason and I watched her back away from him as far as her short leash would allow.  Upon seeing our offerings of food they stretched their chains to their furthest length, their trunks reaching out towards us with what seemed to me like a sense of urgency. 

Visiting the males, I noticed first they all constantly shook their heads from side to side, swaying the hours away. One in particular had fabulously long, twisted tusks which crossed over each other, his trunk reaching out between them.  This along with his wrinkled skin suggested his mature age, possible the eldest of the group.  He reached out to me with his trunk, our eyes meeting and I sensed a particularly disturbing vibe.  One of the workers called out to me, calling me a "stupid woman" urging me to back well away from him.  These elephants remain confined here for the most part, rotating in shifts into town for eager tourists hire them for a sightseeing tour of the city. Later we saw people perched upon their backs on high seats, the mahout sat upon the backs of their necks in traditional dress willing them to his direction with word, heel and the occasional prod.  They seem happy enough to be wandering the streets, but to know that they spend the majority of their lives under ball and chain troubled me further.  

This is not the first time we have been made to feel upset by animal treatment in this part of the world and I began to think about our volunteer position at the Tiger Temple.  The month of September we had booked in with a Buddhist Temple working hands on with tigers and participating in the personal encounters between tourists with these incredible creatures.  A seemingly fabulous image gave way to thoughts of conditions possibly similar to here and it wasn't long before Julian and I discussed the situation whereupon we agreed we did not approve of such treatment of wild animals, especially predatory animals, and both of us were feeling uncomfortable about our commitment and the support for such ventures this inferred. We have now withdrawn our volunteer position. 

Note brought us to one of his favourite temples; a small, modest building home to a pure white Buddha; much more humbling than his golden counterparts.  Offering to show us the traditional way to pray, we got down on our knees and repeated after him in Thai, mimicking his movements as we stared into the smiling eyes of this white Buddha.  

Having seen the ancient sites many times before, Note escorted us to UNESCO World Heritage Site Ayutthaya Historical Park and left us to explore on our own for the rest of the day.  We began with Wat Mahathat, the largest of the temple sites and generally considered to be the first of the Khmer style prang to be built in the former capital although the attraction for most tourists (ourselves included) is the Buddha head engulfed by tentacle like tree roots. Opting for the audio guide tour of the site we dutifully followed the map around in scorching heat. Where we couldn't hide in the shadows of trees or walls the two of us hid beneath my pashmina and walked in sync amongst the ruins imagining the original splendour as depicted through our headphones, the audio guide as so often is the case, providing another layer to our experience. 

Taking advantage of the loaned wheels, we drove to the outskirts of the city towards a temple which caught my attention as the train pulled towards the station. Prangs wrapped in cloth stood gloriously before us and many images of the Buddha similarly so. The clear saffron stood out against the ancient mottled stonework, sky and vegetation alike.

The gift of transport that Note had granted us really came into its own as we crossed back the entire width of the city to Wat Chai Wattanaram. This particular structure was built in the 17th century and extensively restored in the 1980s and is (according to Lonely Planet) a popular spot for sunset watching which of course piqued Julians interest. We arrived far too early for the evening light but were impressed beyond words with the building, the central stupa reaching high into the air surrounded by four prangs at the compass points and even smaller versions between. The site was closed for renovation work, but for a change, we were happy enough to take in the overview, the perspective from the riverbank as impressive as anything we had come across so far. We had time before the last of the daylight to run down to the nearest market before returning with food to wait for the sun. The tourist trips up the river came upon the Wat at various times during the next hour and a half there and for a time we thought we might be swamped by those and fighting for the most photogenic angles come sunset, but each and every one, from the large party boats pumping base beats, to the smaller craft with maybe half a dozen passengers had disappeared by the magic hour and just the two of us remained. The cloud had been hanging over us for most of the afternoon but just as the sun began setting it cleared from the western horizon and gave us the most glorious display.

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