Bangkok (again) and Ayuttahaya

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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

After a quick one hour flight from Siem Reap I was back in Bangkok and the 'Land of Smiles' and looking forward to seeing Oi again . I was hoping that we could pick up where we left off. We met at the BTS train station On Nut in the east of the city where she has a studio apartment and we hit off straight away again over some drinks at her local market area. I was really happy  that we clicked again straight away and looked forward to the ten or so days we would have together before I flew to Manila on the 6th April. Bangkok is dam hot in late March and heading into April. There was a period of around five days where the weather was overcast and the barometer hovered around 30 degrees centigrade but other than it was dam hot and humid. Most days were in the mid thirties with humidity round 70 percent plus. Other than Cambodia this was the first time I had been living in this kind of heat and it kind of slows you down. I think my body was adjusting to this heat and often I would find myself sapped of energy to the extent that one day I developed a slight fever. Thankfully Oi was there to look after me and would rub me down with wet towels and give me whatever help I needed. I can distinctly remember one afternoon taking a public van ride one mile down the road to get some lunch and by the time I stepped off the van I was literally dripping in sweat all over.  I had to run inside a mall to the safety of an air conditioned environment and cool off under the tap in the toilets. Copious amounts of iced coffee and water helped things a bit but essentially between 12-3pm you wanted to be indoors in order to survive the searing heat.

Most days were spent just rambling around town in the afternoon and then hitting the town a night for drinks, diner or a movie. Bangkok has a lot to offer and it is nice to just wander around town and see what is going on. There is a huge shopping mall called the MBK which has six floors of shops ranging from department stores, individual stalls selling handicrafts, two food courts, a warren like clothes market, a cinema and a floor dedicated to electronic devices like iphones, cameras, computers and accessories. One day we went there we stumbled across a fund raising event for the victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. There were many Japanese students dressed in very colourful Manga like outfits posing for photographs by members of the public. Check out the photos below to see some of their great costumes and characters they were portraying. There was also also a performing stage where young musicians or dancers would do their thing and entertain the watching crowds. It was here that I bumped into Dave, a man I met last time in Bangkok as he was a friend of Steffen, the German I befriended poolside the day after the whole Coconut episode. Dave travelled the world for seven years on a bike before marrying and settling down in Bangkok. He is a travel writer and professional photographer and this was obviously heaven for him, he had gone to buy some photographic equipment and just stumbled upon this collection of Japanese students dressed in all these crazy cartoon like costumes. He was loving it and stuffing his rather large zoom lens into the faces of these kids.

Over the coming days Oi took me to some interesting places in Bangkok which I had not seen before. One of these was the King Rama IX Royal Park. Rama IX Park is a large public park on the Eastern outskirts of Bangkok near Bangna. Commemorating the 60th anniversary of King Rama IX, it was inaugurated in 1987. This 200 acre park is said to be one of the most exquisite parks in Thailand. Scattered all over with trees, flowers, shrubs, landscaped gardens and lakes it is indeed an impressive park. There are numerous flower gardens representing different country's and I chuckled when I saw that the French and English gardens were situated right next door to each other and unfortunately I have to say the French garden looked more attractive - sigh. There were also numerous gazebos to find shade and have a rest, a fern and rose garden and a even a cactus house. There are a variety of plants, many with name tags marking their genus and species and although I have no real interest in which plants is called what there were some very pretty plants, of which you can see some photos below .  The entire park sets aside six main areas of interest for visitors - Homage to His Majesty, The Botanical Garden, The Reservoir, Rommaniya Garden, The Sanam Rasdara and The Water Garden. The 'Homage to his Majesty' area sprawls across eight acres and houses the striking nine-sided Commemoration Hall (Ratchamongkol Hall) that displays works inspired by the King and countless other royal artifacts. Another tourist hot spot is the artificial lake 'Prapang Kaew Keb Nam' in 'The Reservoir' area of the park . This artificial lake offers scores of water sports and serves as a venue for various cultural activities. Apart from that, the 'Sanam Rasdara', the large grassy area of the park is used for sporting events, musical performances and outdoor concerts for the public. The 'Water Garden' in the park is another quaint corner that houses various exotic species of birds and aquatic plants. All in all a very beautiful and calm environment where you can stroll around and the city seems a million miles away. Another highlight was when we visited the Chatuchak weekend market. This is the largest market in Thailand covering over 35 acres and contains upwards of 5,000 stalls. It is estimated that the market receives 200,000 visitors each day! The market offers a huge variety of products including household items, clothing, Thai handicrafts, religious artifacts, collectibles, foods, and live animals. Rarely for me I actually bought something when I opted for a hooded t-shirt from a flamboyant gay man's boutique. Ten dollars didn't seem much and he took a shine to Oi and gave her a free doll - how chi chi. We wandered around for hours just looking at the stalls and sights and then found a bar playing some great dance music and settled down for a beer. I have to say this was without doubt the most interesting and diverse market I had ever visited

Oi had been talking about visiting Ayutthaya one day and this was a historical city I too had planned to visit before I set off on my travels so we decided to go and have a look. After little sleep the night before we took the skytrain to Victory Monument to catch a minibus for the journey. Ayutthaya was the Thai capital for over 400 years and was founded in 1350 by King U-Thong (don't you just love the names in Thailand) when the Thais were forced southwards by the invading northern neighbours the Burmese . During this 400 year period 33 kings of different dynasties ruled until it  before it was eventually sacked by the Burmese in 1767. It lies 76kms from Bangkok and has many ruins and art works. Although much smaller in scale and grandeur than Angkor Wat is still provided a very interesting look into a period of Thai civilisation where they were basically fighting their neighbours all the time. We rented a bicycle in order to see all the sites we wanted to. Like Angkor, there are many sites to see, Ayyuthaya covers over 2,500 square kms and so we decided to just focus on the bigger and more popular sites as we only had one day.  Getting around the city is not particularly straight forward as there is a lack of clear information for tourists at the entry to the city we were dropped off at, which was essentially a huge car park with a few buses and stray dogs wandering around. Heading into April in Thailand is the 'shoulder season' as the airlines call it, which is between the high and low season, and tourist numbers start to tapper. This is great at there are less people around but it  also means less information and a thinner tourist infrastructure. We wandered over to a tuk tuk driver in a corner of the car park and thankfully Oi was able to speak with him and soon we were where we needed to be at the Tourist Center Office. After hiring the bikes we nipped across the road for breakfast at the Elephant Center, where if you want you can hire a elephant and a Mahout rider to show you around. After a breakfast of pork and rice (no such thing as a western style breakfast in Thailand, its rice or more rice) I familiarised myself with the map and we headed off to the first wat.

Wat Chaiwatthanaram is the furthest away wat we wanted to visit so it made sense to visit it first before the scorching midday heat hit in. After a bike ride of around 45 minutes we arrived at one of the most imposing ancient Buddhist monasteries in Ayutthaya located in the west on the Chao Phraya River. It was established by King Prasatthing in 1630 and was made in his mothers honor and it notably similar in its architectural style to Angkor Wat, but on a smaller scale. Apparently the wat may have been built to commemorate the king's victory over Cambodia. The wat itself consists of a main prang (Khmer-type tower) and four lesser prangs, all built on the same base and surrounded by eight lesser prangs and a gallery. Along the gallery lie 120 Buddha images, which have sadly all been vandalised and had their heads stolen. In 1767 Ayutthaya was besieged by Burmese invaders and the wat became an army camp and was later abandoned after the city fell. Looting, the decapitation of Buddha images and the selling of bricks from the wat became common practice. It was not until 1987 that conservation of the wat began and finished in 1992 . In its restored state the wat is indeed very beautiful and impressive, even if all those Buddha heads have been chopped off.

We hoped on our bikes and cycled several kms back into Ayutthaya to headed to the Grand Palace compound to see Phra Mongkonbophit, a huge bronze cast Buddha image which was originally enshrined outside the Grand Palace to the east. In 1610 King Songtham ordered the image to be moved to the west and covered with a Mondop ( a pavilion and denoting a small square temple building used to house minor images or religious artifacts). Interestingly later on in another king's reign the top of the Mondop was burnt down by a fire due to a thunderbolt and the head of the image fell off. As a result the king had a new building built in the form of a sanctuary to cover the image, sadly when Ayutthaya was sacked the building was burned and was restored centuries later in 1955 and in 1990 the image was covered with gold leaf. Inside the sanctuary you can wander around the huge bronze Buddha and there are many photos of previous Thai holy men paying their respects. Many Thais, including Oi, were paying their respects in the traditional Buddhist way of kneeling on the floor with three josticks in their hands and offering private prayers. Leaving this building there was within a stones throw Wat Phra Si Sanhpet, another important and outstanding monastery. Used as a residential palace it became a monastery in the reign of King Ramathibodi in 1350, but today is uninhabited. Later his son King Ramithibodi 11 ordered the construction of two chedis and another chedi was added by another king later. In 1499 a hall of worship was built and in 1500 there was the casting of a standing Buddha image 16 meters high and covered in gold. After that time the ashes of royal family members and other kings were placed in small chedis built at the site. The wat is circled by an outer wall and inside the grounds are gorgeous trees which lie in line against the crumbling walls of the buildings. This was probably my favourite wat in Ayutthaya as the chedis look different from the many angles you are afforded of them and you can walk to the top of raised structures for superb views of the ruins. As well as this you have the beautiful trees and generally pleasing layout of the wat.

By now we were hungry and so cycled off into town for some lunch and found a very good burger bar at the side of a roundabout , pretty random to find a burger bar in Ayutthaya and the burger was very good as well! Well fed we cycled across the road to visit Wat Mahathat. Again this wat has Khmer style prangs and again has been modified over the centuries. Construction began in 1374, there was some restoration work in 1630-1655 and 1732-1758 and then when Ayutthaya was sacked in 1767 the wat was burnt and has since been in ruins. It was also looted in 1911 when the main prang collapsed exposing the treasures underneath. However the ruins are still sufficient to appreciate what once must have been with this royal monastery. What this wat is really notable for is a remarkable Buddha's head entwined in the roots of a tree in the courtyard - have a look at the photo. No one is exactly sure what happened but it is thought that after the wat was set on fire and destroyed by the Burmese that most of the images and objects in the wat fell to the ground.  The wat was then deserted for a hundred years and many trees had since grown at the spot covering this Buddha's head. Another theory is that a thief may have tried to steal it but due to its weight it couldn't be carried across the wall and so it was left there until the tree covered it as it can be seen at present. Theories aside it is quite a remarkable site and before I came to Thailand this was one of the most prominent images in all the guide books and internet sites I read

We were pretty tired by now as the middy heat here is intense and we had visited on the back of a boozy night before so we decided to visit one more temple, Wat Ratchaburana, which conveniently was right next door. In 1424 King Intharachathirat passed away and his two sons met in battle  as each desired the throne. The battle involved the sons engaging in single handed combat on elephant's back and both were killed. A third son, Chao Sam Phraya, came along and acceded to the throne whereon he declared his intention to organize a funeral for his father and his two brothers. Afterwards he ordered the building of this wat at the site of the cremation and at the place where his brothers fought and died he had two chedis created in which to keep their ashes. Again is has a Khmer style prangs and a central main prang which sites atop a high structure in the center of the site. This prang has a two level crypt inside which housed the cremation ashes and again it was looted in 1957. The Fine Arts Department proceeded to excavate the site and found Buddha images and many artifacts made from gold. They also built a stairway so that you can down down into the crypt and look at the mural paintings. The stairs are on two levels and are incredibly narrow . This was the only wat I visited where there was a crypt you could access from the inside. It felt exciting actually climbing down the stairs inside the main prang to see the murals. Oi also noticed a huge bee hive at one of the entry points to the prang which was hanging over the head of an image which had been carved into the rock, which was quite bizarre. As you walk around the prang you can see an old collapsed beehive on one of the other sides of the prang also. I wander what it is about this prang that the bees like so much?

Returning to Bangkok Oi and I passed in and out of sleep several times and when we got back we crashed out for the rest of the day . The rest of my time in Bangkok was spent having fun with Oi. We went out a lot and had good times together. So good that I missed my 6th April flight to Manila as I misread my ticket time! Four days later I finally flew off to Manila to explore what the country has to offer. I said goodbye to Oi and it was pretty sad but that's the way it goes

Next stop Manila

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M&D on

Sorry for late comment on this fascinating blog - we've been up in Scotland and out of broadband contact most of the time. What a time you continue to have, and what fun for you and Oi to go round on bikes - great way to travel! Love the photos and the videos - more next time please. Lots of love, M&D

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