In a hot place, you must be careful not to let the heat get to you. Even if you are healthy person, if you are not used to living in the tropics, you are often unaware of how much fluid your body loses just by going on your day normally. If you walk around like I do on top of that, then you really ought to be careful. So what do I do? I carry large 1.5 litre water bottle, of course. A cold one, which I wrap with a towel so it stays cool longer. Also, more importantly, I avoid being outside at the hot part of the day. I would wake up at sunrise, say, around 6am, drinking lots of water to supplement for what was lost during the sleep, gradually waking up the system, and use the toilet before going out. You never know when you get to use one, and you really never know how clean they are (and how much it costs to use one.). Sitting outside the guesthouse with foggy eyes, I slowly but continuously sip water. It is getting brighter by the minute and I have a hard time holding down the desire to just start walking. But it has to wait till the toilet visit is done.
Last night, I walked to Wat Phra Ram and Wat Phra Mahathat which were lit up. According to the map on Lonely Planet, it is less than 2km from the guest house on the north-east corner of the ‘island’ to the two main temples in the middle/west. Guidebooks are not always perfect. The map can be incorrect. The road may change. And it may not be quite well scaled. So it is a good idea to do the first light walk to do the reality check. It turned out to be a relatively easy walk and I was confident I could cover the island on foot, without having to negotiate the fare for tuk tuk.
In the last few years I have travelled in Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos in this trip. Malaysia aside, those countries really share the same cultural roots. There were some ethnic groups which became stronger at certain point in history, and they would control larger part of the region, only to shrink smaller on map into their homeland as another gets their time of their life.
The border areas around northern Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Laos went through repeated transitions. The name of town Siem Reap, where Ankor Wat is located, means something like ‘defeating the siam’ – a once-strong nation which was based in the present-day Thailand. Among temples in Siem Reap, you can clearly see the different building styles of temples, even different religion, because of the influential party at the time of construction. According to Lonely Planet, Ayutthaya (or Ayuthaya) was the Siamese royal capital between 1350 to 1767. Before that Khmer had their outpost here. Though Siamese were so strong, they were eventually conquered by the Burmese, and for Thai people Ayutthaya is a ruin that reminds them of a slain hero of some sort. Well, walking around ruins I sure got an impression of empty shell with lives escaped without trace. Many ruins of large temples lack statues or wall paintings which remind you of the glorious days. Among partly reconstructed ruins you see Buddhist statues without their heads.
I guess destroying your enemy’s historical legacy is nothing new. In Egypt, inside the shrine thousands of years old, magnificent wall paintings tell the tales of the gods and the kings. And you see some of the faces are scraped off; or some names in hieroglyphics are scraped off in the same way. The Christians who became more influential in the later years, though still respect their history, erased the names of strong leaders from their history. History repeats itself. If you can truly appreciate the heritage of others, there will not be a war.
This ruin of a large temple is one of the most photographed image in Ayutthaya, apparently. Being the first visitor to walk in to the place in the morning, I take in all the breeze and silence, imagining how this place might have been in their days. But again, this is an empty shell, lacking any sign of the living soul and their handwork, and to me it is just some tall towers and floor plans of other buildings (ideally a Buddhist temple has 5 buildings that represent their idea of perfect and complete world, I heard somewhere).
Next door, inside a Bangkok style-roofed building sits a large bronze image of Buddha. This reminds me of the Great Buddha in Nara back in Japan.
Sun is now higher and blaze stronger, I start thinking about going home for a nap. More tourists are arriving on the temples, too. I retreat and find myself in a local noodle shop.
After the light breakfast of beef noodle soup (not much of soup, really), I picked up a small paperbag full of fried banana. Crisp and sweet, good sugar boost for a hot day. I walk back towards the town centre in the west end of the island. Near the market on the road parked are many buses. Many of them are actually pick-up trucks with some kind of roof attached to them. It seems that people know which one to take to go to the area they want to go to. For people who live along the route of the bus, this must be much cheaper than using tuk tuk.
Chao Phrom Market is just a buzz. People are buying their vegetables and meet and fish and rice noodle and sticky rice sweets and clothes and pots…
Market is getting quiet. Sun is up, heat is in. I catch the ferry to cross to the staion, pay 4 bahts at the desk and go to the ticket office in the station. There are 3 sleeper services going to Nong Khai at the border to Laos. But when I enquired, the computer screen in front of us indicated that all 3 trains are booked out. Damn. So much for going with the flow. I checked the time table. There is also a service in the morning, though it does not go all the way to Nong Khai but to Udon Thani. According to the guidebook, there seem to be buses running between Udon Thani and Nong Khai all the time and it takes one hour. The day train leaves Ayutthaya at 9:40 in the morning and arrives at Udon Thani at 6:10pm, if that goes on time. It would be good if I can make connection to Nong Khai, but even if I didn’t I guess there should be at least some kind of accommodation in Udon Thani. I did not see the point of staying an extra day in Ayutthaya so I booked a second class air-con seat. I paid 4 bahts at the desk again and hop on the ferry to cross back to the island and to cold shower and bed for a nap.
Having already seen the main temples on the island, I decided to check out a couple of places just beyond the station. I could have walked across after my short trip to get the ticket, but it was getting hotter and I would have had to shelter for a few hours or take a tuk tuk to go back. It was not quite my idea. So when I woke up, with sun still hot, I put a cap back on and walked to the bridge that crosses between south west end of the island to the outside. From there, walk back north again past the train station, I looked for a sign of temple on the other side of the tracks.
The heat is getting to me, so much for crossing the bridge. Well, it was not just to save 4 bahts but I also wanted to see if there was any good view from up there. But that meant extra kilometre or so of walking. I am now beginning to regret it. I passed a few small shops on the roadside selling food in take-away plastic bags. Probably people pick them up on their way home so they don’t have to cook.
I came across a part of train tracks where there are sleeper blocks laid across so that people can easily walk across the tracks. I don’t see any rail crossing ahead yet. So I crossed it, only to find some kind of enclosed ground with modern building in front of me. It could be a dead-end but who cares. Never find out if you never walked. Walk around the building and find myself at a corner of a school ground. There are some kids playing football and table tennis. At the opened door of ground floor room next to me I see kids with make up for traditional dance. Interesting. I love this.
When I stopped in the shade of the building to take some water, a guy probably in his 30’s who just parked his Honda Civic came to talk to me. He’s in a quick-dry sleeveless top and short pants, putting on jogging shoes. After hellos and where are you from’s, which revealed that I am a Japanese, he started talking to me in fairly good Japanese. He works for a subsidiary of Sanyo in Ayutthaya and has been to Japan on a training tour. We chatted for a while, and I walked around to take some pictures of kids playing and then found that some temples are next to the school, so I went out to have a look.
Coming back to the school ground, I find my Japanese speaking friend playing volleyball with his friends. They are actully quite good. In the late afternoon, with the setting sun lighting up the concrete floor gym, the boys are having lots of fun playing a good game of volleyball after work on Friday.
I was a bit too tired to walk yet, and there was nothing much to go back for in the guesthouse street, so I sat there and watch the boys (some looking more like girls, you know how it is in Thailand) play the game. When it got a bit dark, the game was finished and everyone was getting on their way home. Bee-san came to me and asked if I wanted to go for dinner together. Sure, why not. We got in his car and drove back to the island. On the way he found out where his friends are, and we arrive a small bar which I recognise from the walk this morning to be just around the corner from my guesthouse.
Bee-san’s friend did not speak much English. His girlfriend (one of the girlfriends, apparently) spoke a bit of English. Bee-san’s better in Japanese than English. So the evening went. Bee-san’s friend is going to be driving his girlfriend back to her place before heading back to his home, so still got at least an hour’s drive. But he’s doing most of the drinking. Bee-san and I are drinking iced tea.
The bar did not have much more than finger food, so after spending an hour or so with those friends, I bid them good-night and walked around the corner to the main street. Just at the corner of Soi 1 are some hawker stands, so I picked one of pork rice and sit down for a meal.
I bought another large bottle of water from the receptionist at guesthouse for 15 bahts, which I think is quite reasonable (some store outside was charging double that!), and went to bed. Next morning, I rise at alarm clock so I can go for a walk to market at their busiest hour before heading for train to north.
Before the long day of train ride, I take a light meal of porridge at a stand in the market. I pointed porridge and fried fish on tray, but did not realise the porridge is supposed to be offered with chicken broth poured on it. By the time I saw a couple other customers receiving their food, I was already half done with my slightly plain taste porridge.
Having enjoyed the buzz of the morning shoppers, I go back to check out from the guesthouse and take the ferry one last time to the train station.
Information for fellow travellers:
- Wat Phra Si Sanphet
Admission 50B, open at around 7.30am
(The current, 12th edition of Lonely Planet was published in August 2007. Their information is at least 2 years old, who said the admission was 30B back then)
- Wihaan Mongkhon Bophit
It is a working temple / meditation place. Respect the peace of the followers, no flash photos (as with any temples, I guess). Donate some money to keep this large Buddha looking down on us with his peaceful gaze.
- When in temple…
Better to have full length trousers but if shorts, must at least cover your knees. Shirts with shoulder covered. Ladies, if it’s too hot, bring a shawl. Buddhist monks are to neither touch women (or touched by) nor have erotic thoughts. Respect their rule when stepping into their domain and be careful not to touch them – like shaking hands. Take off your hat and shoes, normally at the steps OUTSIDE of the covered marble floor, not at the doorway into the building. When in doubt, take them off. Sit with your legs under your backside. You can have both feet on the side of your bum (like picture above) or under them (like Japanese style, as they call it in my yoga class). Bow with your hands together in front of your heart centre, touch both hands on the floor, back to heart centre, repeat 3 times. Sit up straight, and let the hands down. Now you are free to admire the Buddha. Donate at least 5 or 10 bahts. Good large temple, even if they do not officially charge ‘admission’ expect 20 bahts (SG$0.90 or US$0.60) as minimum donation for each visit.