Monday, December 10, 2007

The ancient capitals, Ayutthaya and Sukhothai

Ayutthaya is located one hour north of Bangkok and is a popular day trip from the capital. The city was the capital of the Thai kingdom from 1350 to 1767 when the Burmese ransacked the city. Unfortunately, the Burmese destroyed Ayutthaya's architecture, breaking walls, burning roofs, melting precious metals, and even lopping off Buddha heads. Today, a bustling city has built itself around the ancient ruins and hoards of people pour in to see the UNESCO world heritage site.

The city center is an island surrounded by three rivers. Ruins can be found both on and off the island but generally around the river. The popular method of getting around is bus tour, boat tour, or by bicycle. We rented these sweet wheels for thirty baht (less than one dollar).

The island has numerous wats(temples) spread out over a few kilometers. Two temples highlight the island, one of them being Wat Mahathat.

Wat Mahathat contains what most consider the defining image of Ayuthaya, a Buddha head wrapped in ficus tree limbs.

Speculation is that the Buddha head was decapitated by Burmese invaders. After the invasion, Ayutthaya was abandoned for more than a hundred years and the tree grew around the head. Regardless, it seems like and image from a sci-fi movie where man goes extinct and nature adapts to man's remnants.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet is the second main island highlight. This royal temple was build on what had been the royal palace grounds. The chedis (giant bell-shaped towers) house the remains of royal family members. Three of the chedis are prominent fixtures of the city.

Off the island, Wat Chaiwatthanaram is in impressive condition. The wat was constructed in the 17th century and the Burmese used it as their army camp, choosing not to ransack it. After Ayutthaya's fall, the temple was looted, bricks sold, and nature allowed to take over, but much of the main prangs and chedis survived. This site was incredible.

The trouble with Ayutthaya is the city is truly bustling. Tourists pack the temple sites. Buses, cars, and even elephants pack the city streets.

It's a bit difficult to move site to site on bicycle, being the least important vehicle on an overcrowded roadway (that's not completely true, the pecking order is elephants, buses, trucks, cars, tuk-tuks, motos, bicycles, and pedestrians so we went up a notch in Ayutthaya). We did visit a peaceful area north of the city, the elephant kraal. Elephants were being trained to perform manual labor, be a tour guide, or act as entertainers. We watched one shout with joy as he was bathed.

Laura gave twenty baht to feed them a few corn husks.

One showered us with trunk saliva as a thank you.

Sukhothai was the Thai capital prior to Ayutthaya for more than a century. Instead of building around the old city ruins, new Sukhothai is twelve kilometers from the ruins. This means the Sukhothai Historical Park has plenty of room to work with. A beautiful park is maintained within the old city walls and park purveyors have sustained the ancient moats, canals, and ponds that surrounded the temples. The ruins required a bicycle to get to all of them. They did not disappoint!

The central temple, Wat Mahathat, is a monolith of a temple, easily the largest we have seen.

Nearby Wat Sa Si, surrounded by water, had one of the more beautiful Buddha images.

An interesting array of characters joined us for our early visit to the historical park. Four men in casual attire sped from wat to wat in their Toyota SUV; we caught them leaving a pigskin offering to Buddha.

Wonder how Buddha is going to take that? At Wat Mahathat, two determined monks passed by us to eventually bow, chant, and pray to a Buddha image.

Finally, we encountered this lady.

She was trying to sell me alive frogs, fish, or eels that were captured in her plastic bags. When I scrunched my face in confusion, she lifted a bag to me and pointed to the pond behind her. Huh? My heavy heart caused me to call Laura over, I explained the situation, she inspected the contents of the bags, we discussed the morality of the woman, and finally, we spent twenty baht to release two frogs.

They'll get a days worth of freedom until they are re-captured and sold to the next farang (foreigner) tomorrow. We should have released them into some other pond!

Sukhothai Historical Park was a deep contrast to Ayutthaya. The park was free of heavy traffic making it fun to bike around. The major temples were in good shape, for ruins. There were endless temples off the beaten path that were crumbling but away from the tourist crowd and still used for worship by local people. We enjoyed the ambiance of Sukhothai's ancient ruins with its canals still flowing as they had in the 13th century, uninterrupted by seven-elevens.

Now, a break from the travel blog to comment on everyday life in Thailand. I've never seen more stray cats and dogs in my life! At first, I noticed the cats, mostly because they were unpaying customers at all the guest houses we were staying at and also because we miss our three children. As street food is plentiful in Thailand and the cats weren't skinny, I figured they had plenty to eat. But, were cats eating rice with mixed vegetable? Why were they at the guest houses? Ayutthaya showed us why. Ayutthaya had tons of stray dogs and no cats... maybe the dogs were hungry? One evening, as we were searching out some night market food, Laura spotted the largest rats I have seen since New York city's subway. They scampered about, uninhibited by people strolling by, collecting rice grains left from the day market. Laura's appetite was gone instantly while my stomach rumbled. Unable to eat at the nearby night market, we walked a kilometer to the riverside night market; the quaint scene was inspiration enough to get Laura to take a seat. We sat down next to a wall of bushes along the river and ordered our food. Seconds after our order, a rustling in the bushes brought our attention to them. Then, out of the leaves, a beady-eyed mouse poked his inquisitive head out. What you guys eating tonight? Much to Laura's dislike, the mouse joined us for dinner, obviously interested in the rice with chicken and garlic. Where were those stray cats when you needed them? We have found their friendly faces everywhere else, from guest houses to streets to the pigeon-tempting ruins of Sukhothai,

often begging for attention.

Lonely Planet's Southeast Asia on a Shoestring states there are more than 120,000 stray dogs in Thailand. They seem to survive on the abundant street market food, either gifts from market guests or leftovers from market cooks. They have never been threatening while passing and provide loads of entertainment on the streets. The temple ruins of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya are home to the most pious of the stray dogs.

Next, we are off to Chiang Mai, the northern capital of Thailand. We plan to spend time there taking classes before traveling to Laos.


Anonymous said...

Thats one hell of a crappy way to make a buck with animals...

Can you imagine the uproar PETA would make if someone tried that in Boulder?


Anonymous said...

great entries on an area of Thailand that I didn't even know existed. Was looking at the pictures when all of a sudden there was this big MEOOOW behind me and I looked back and there was Charlie looking over my shoulder from the couch and he saw the pic of "Daddy"petting another CAT how could he when he misses him soooo much!!!

Greg said...

Once again so enjoyable. Noticed kickstand is mounted on rear axel instead of nearer midship. How's the stability?

650 year old clay bricks in the tropics? Not that's inspiratonal in its self.

We noticed in KAZ [Almaty city of a gazillion dogs] that the stray dogs seemed to bred towards smaller, leaner, curly tailed dogs for some reason. The two you show seem to be short-haired shephards. Perhaps it is the lack of harsh winters.

12-16-07 0935 VT

J.Pallotta said...

Definitely some big stray dogs in Thailand... got pretty spooked at first when I was running and one shows his teeth. So far, none have done anything.

Kickstand in the back isn't too bad but definitely gotta find pretty stable ground.