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Post 305: Ayutthaya ... ancient capital of Siam

Having laughed at the unique Ayutthaya tuk-tuks, I turned the corner and found myself facing an evil temptation. “Ayutthaya Riverside Hotel - Rooms 600 THB”. That’s £12 for one night, double what I’d like to pay. But, it was right there in front of me and probably had a bath in every room. I haven’t had a bath for longer than I can remember and sometimes, it’s the little things that I miss the most. In reception it all seemed very familiar. If it wasn’t for the famous Thai smiles, then I’d swear that I was back in an old Soviet Hotel in Siberia. I asked the receptionist for her cheapest room and she offered me a River Room for 1,250 THB including breakfast. I didn’t want breakfast and I’ve seen the Chao Phraya River before, so now give me your cheapest room. She asked if I’d be staying alone. I could see my reflection in the giant mirror behind her and wondered if she really needed an answer from me. Eventually we reached a satisfactory compromise. I’d move my bike if she’d cut the bullshit and give me what I wanted. As I followed the uninterested hall porter towards room 312, I reflected that this must once have been a great hotel, but unfortunately ’once’ was clearly quite some time ago. The room smelled even older than it looked, but at least it had a bathroom with a perfectly functional bath. I held up a bathtowel the size of my arse and raised an eyebrow to the still uninterested hall porter. He just shrugged his sunken shoulders and left without a ’tip’. For the first time in three long months, I settled down to soak in a bathtub filled with piping hot water and every bottle of shower gel that I’d managed to lift from the room-maids trolley. Not quite heaven on earth, but after too many miles on too small a bike, it was pretty damned close.

For around 400 years, Ayutthaya was the capital of Siam and as such was one of the most prosperous centres in Southeast Asia. The city itself is little more than an island created at the junction of the Chao Phraya and Pasak Rivers. It’s location was probably chosen because of its defensive position but in 1767, Ayutthaya’s defences were breached by invading Burmese forces and the city all but destroyed. Since 1991, the city has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Situated just forty miles North of Bangkok, Ayutthaya is one of Thailand’s most popular tourist attractions and has somehow managed to divorce the culture from the crude. I’m sure that the ‘crude’ exists here, but at least it’s in the back-streets and not your face .... mai pen rai

Wat Chaiwatthanaram is located to the West of Ayutthaya on the opposite bank of the Chao Phraya River. I accidentally found this place on my way towards Chai Nat in 2008. I remember sitting here with a group of Thai's watching an amazing sunset in silence. Today it’s quite early in the morning and apart from a couple of gardeners, I seem to be the only person here. I wander around the ruins and climb the steps of the main tower, the ‘Prang Prathan‘. Around the outer wall, the smaller statues of Buddha all have their heads removed, a reminder not only of the violence of four hundred years ago, but also of more recent acts of theft and vandalism. While work has been undertaken to prevent the entire structure from collapsing, visually things have been left as they were found and I really like that approach to conservation.

I know that I've been here before, but even so, it all seems much more familiar than it ought to. As I ride away from Wat Chaiwatthanaram it suddenly dawns on me that I have been here before. Not just in 2008, but twenty years before that on my first visit to Thailand. Back then the whole area had been overgrown with shrub and only the main towers had been visible from the road. I remember scrambling through undergrowth, climbing the crumbling walls to find hidden statues of Buddha and wondering why on earth this place wasn't a major tourist attraction. In 2008 I hadn't recognised it, but thinking back, twenty years ago I'd probably stayed in the same bloody hotel on the banks of the Chao Phraya River .... mai pen rai

A few kilometres North of Wat Chaiwatthanaram is Wat Phutthaisawan, a much smaller monastery that’s also deserted. Not a single person, not even an attendant to guard the entrance. I walk inside the grounds and it’s access all areas. This complex seems to be unkempt, slightly wild and overgrown. To the rear of the complex is a large white Prang, the Khmer influenced rounded top tower and a few Chedi, the smaller more pointy towers. I know absolutely nothing about this place and there are no signs, in any language, to help me. The only sign of human contact are the drapes, candles and flowers that are placed across the hidden reclining statue of Buddha. The statue is surrounded by a crumbling wall and while it seems to be the centre-piece of the complex, I suspect that most visitors don’t even know that it’s here. Having said that, I somehow doubt that this place has too many visitors, it just doesn’t look the type ….. mai pen rai

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