First completed in 1350, Ayutthaya was once a powerhouse city of Southeast Asia and is the former capital of Siam. In the 15th through 17th centuries, the city was an important center for the arts, medicine and technology and became a major trading center for Europeans. Today, the old ruins are a World Heritage Site and have been pretty well preserved. I’m a history freak, so I was so excited to hop on a bike once again to explore the crumbling temples and palaces along with our guide. After a quick visit to the Historical Study Center (a great place to get your bearings), we were off.
We visited Wat Phra Si Sanphet, which was the largest temple in Ayutthaya where the royal family worshipped. At one point, it housed a 50-foot Buddha, but when the city was sacked by the Burmese in 1767, it was stolen and melted down (rude!). Today you can see the three chedis that have been well preserved along with the foundations of the former palace walls surrounding them. The chedis were gorgeous and I loved that we’d gotten there early enough and there weren’t many other tourists wandering around.
Next was a visit to Vilharn Phra Mongkol Boptir, a large modern temple that was built around a giant bronze Buddha image that dates back to 1538, followed by a quick stop at a giant reclining Buddha statue.
While riding through town, we ended up stumbling upon an awesome display on a street corner – a group of about 15 painted elephants spraying a small crowd with water and a group of Thai girls dancing in traditional clothes around them! Our guide told us it was a ceremony to usher in the upcoming Thai New Year, or Songkran Festival.
It was really cool to see all the elephants really up close (before I’d only seen them in zoos from far off) but I hated seeing the men sitting on top of them jamming what looked like knives attached to the ends of sticks into their heads to control their movements. I’d heard that many elephants are horribly abused in the name of tourism in Thailand and if I want to interact with them, I should visit a sanctuary to feed and bathe them instead of riding them. It was a bit sickening to see them treated that way but it was still a spectacular sight to behold.
Our last stop was Wat Phra Mahathat, which is basically ruins of a former royal monastery, but it did have a really interesting Buddha head with tree roots wrapped around it. At one point it was part of a full statue, but the ransacking Burmese beheaded most of the Buddhas there in 1767 (even more rude!). At one point most of the remaining heads were taken to a museum, but this one was left as the roots had already begun wrapping around it and the Thai officials realized that it was really popular with tourists.
After our bike ride, we had lunch at a place with some of the most hilarious mistranslated menu items I’d seen yet, and then we headed to the train station to board our overnight train to Chiang Mai. I’ve never been on an overnight train in Asia before, but we were surprised by how nice it is! I’m sitting in a cozy little top bunk with my curtain closed now, all bundled up because the AC is blasting.
When I wake up, I’ll be in Northern Thailand, ready for our 3 day trek to a hill tribe village! I’m just praying these tracks aren’t too jostling…not just because I want to get a good night’s sleep, but I really don’t want to think about using the squat toilet while on a bumpy, speeding train. Fingers crossed there is a Western one too!