Ayutthayah lies in Thailand a couple of hours to the north by train from the capital of Bangkok on the main line to Chiang Mai. What a difference time and distance can make from how the city looks now to what it once was roughly 350 years ago and at least a full century before Anna Leonowens arrived on the scene. I had spent the day before, my first day in Thailand exploring the contemporary, cutting edge version of the country in touring the capital city. Day Two in Thailand began very early the next morning through the help of the reception desk at the hotel in catching an 8AM train north to the heart of the country.
At the main station and not completely knowing what I was getting in to I took the cheapest option for Train #75 which was a round trip ticket there and back for the astounding total of 40 Baht or about $1.25 in U.S. dollars. I mean, seriously, who passes up a two hour train ride in to the countryside for the equivalent of a fare on the subway? Track 11 was empty when I arrived at the platform but provided an interesting mix for people watching as westernized Thai mingled with saffron robed monks, villagers and foreigners cooled their heels as well as possible in the morning heat.
Soon enough the train pulled in to the station and I boarded my car and found the reason for the cheap fare: bench seating and no air conditioning. Oh me, oh my. I managed to snag a window seat and opened this as wide as possible for whatever breeze the journey would create. Despite a shower that morning I knew it wouldn't be long before the Right Guard went left on me but hey, I was alone on vacation and nobody else on that train would care or smell any better.
In its heyday Ayutthaya was once likened to Paris in size and beauty. Reaching a population of nearly 1 million strong the city hosted trade compounds on its outskirts for major Asian and European cultures, from Japan to Portugal and had strong ties to Louis XIV of France. The people called themselves "Tai," hence the current name of the country. All this whetted the appetite with visions of grand palaces, temple complexes and elaborate carvings and architecture as far as the eye could see. Instead of a major rail terminus, however, we pulled in to a three-track thru station on the edge of a town best described as a combination of boiling hot and yet simultaneously dusty beyond reason at the same time.
Ayutthaya today is like Thebes in Greece. Where both were phenomenally powerful centers of culture and commerce each is today a near completely forgotten backwater, way posts on the road to somewhere else, Ayutthaya home to 55,000 while Thebes is barely half of that. Gone, too, were the thoughts of an immense and well preserved ancient ghost town Ephesus-style as I paid a small fee to cross the river in to the heart of the city.
Several unique compounds were in fact dotted around the city and in various states of preservation behind walled grounds and offered unobstructed, full access views of the buildings. No gift shops or guided tours, the size of each building and a few informational signs provided the only indication of history and purpose. Sometimes that is the best way to really explore and imagine the scene around you. After a few hours I began to discern different architectural styles and cultural influences out of what at first seemed to be one after another of the same thing. And thanks to the walking tour of living temples in Bangkok only the day before, I could recognize different areas of a complex and understand what they were for, from a bell-shaped "chedi" to what once must have been a splendid Hall of Buddhas." Right out of Disney's "Pocahontas," however, was the highlight of the day for me in seeing a carved Buddha face in the trunk of a massive tree on the grounds of the Wat Mahathat, once the ritual center of the city. It looked for all the world like of "Grandmother Willow."
This was surely an adventure that would have been far more enlightening and enjoyable with more time, research and company. I felt satisfied in skipping over the kitschy attractions such as elephant rides and enjoyed making the most of the history all around me. I only had a day available and a train to catch back to the city but with more time and planning, Ayutthaya is a corner of the world that deserves more than just a day out of the way.