Cradle of Thai civilization

Trip Start Feb 17, 2007
Trip End Apr 13, 2012

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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sah wah dee kop,

Ayutthaya was the capital of the ancient Thai Kingdom.  There are many theories about its origin.  Here is one that I like and seems to make sense.

Thailand was originally named after the Tai ethnic people from China.  They first arrived in the 10th century and eventually settled in Ayutthaya by the 14th century.  Located in the heart of the Chao Phraya River Valley, this served as their capital for over 400 years.

The site of Ayutthaya was attractive for two reasons.  First, was agriculture.  The hot climate and strong Chao Phraya River provided ideal conditions to grow crops year round.  The staple was rice, same-same today.  Also a big variety of vegetables.

The second appeal of Ayutthaya was trade.  This area became a major land route connecting east and west.  Traders from China, Japan, Vietnam, India, Portugal, Spain, France and Holland passed through Ayutthaya.  Some even established their own communities nearby. While known as the Tai Kingdom internally, outsiders referred to it as Siam.

By the 16th century, Ayutthaya was one of the wealthiest cities in Asia.  By the 18th century, the Tai civilization extended to most of present-day Burma, Laos and Cambodia.  With a population of 1 million people, it became one of the leading civilizations in the world.  And an enviable target to its neighbor to the west.  Soon after, Burma invaded Ayutthaya and destroyed it.

Ayutthaya today draws surprisingly few foreign tourists.  Given its history and close proximity to Bangkok (one hour drive north), I expected more visitors.  But the city hasn't escaped domestic interest.

Many Thais make a pilgrimage to see the sacred "Buddha in Tree."  I didn't understand until I finally viewed the site in person and had to wait 10 minutes for a clear photo shot.  Monks like to pose for their own portrait next to this important statue. 

Wat Mahathat, first constructed in the 14th century, is one of the few structures to survive the Burmese invasion.  After wards, it saw abandoned for over 100 years.  When re-discovered, the head of a Buddha statue had been enveloped by tree roots.  The remaining Buddha head, just over a foot tall, rests eye-level when kneeling on the ground.  Perfect for homage.

The Buddha would appear to have been an easy target for thieves, except that the tree roots have wrapped themselves completely around the face.  At first glance, it appears the Buddha is looking out from the tree.

The mystery about the Buddha in Tree persists.  And possibly enhances its mystique.  Thais are drawn to this statue which displays perfectly in spite of invasion, nature and theft.

A more recent site visited by Thais is the Royal Summer Palace.  First started in the 17th century, it was rebuilt in the 19th century.  Today, the royal family still holds official functions here. 

What's remarkable is the pristine condition of every building.  The palace gives no indication to its age.  Or its proximity to the nearby Chao Phraya River which regularly floods the city. 

Perhaps Ayutthaya symbolizes Tai resilience.  It gave birth a millennium ago to a Tai culture which still thrives today.

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