Article by Paul Stafford for TravelMag
Tourists ride on elephants in front of Viharn Phra Mongkol Bopit (Photo: Paul Stafford for TravelMag)
Siam’s former capital city still holds plenty of glimpses of its former spiritual and political glory. But to get those glimpses, it’s necessary to navigate the trappings of modern, urban Thailand.
There are two versions of Ayutthaya, and they couldn’t be more opposed. One is hardly distinguishable from some of the more suburban stretches of Bangkok, the Thai capital two hours by train to the south. Busy roads clamour with traffic; the shrill wails of barge whistles sound out as cargo is pulled along the Chao Phraya river, or one of the many other waterways that circumvent and enclose the main city; and swarms of wires slalom from one overloaded pylon to the next, while daily life somehow finds a way through the sultry heat and smog.
It was this Ayutthaya to which I was introduced outside the city’s train station late one evening. It was this city that kept me awake most of my first night, tossing and turning in sweat-drenched sheets, or startled awake whenever I was fortunate enough to drift off. It was these roads that seemed certain to pose major challenges to me, as I tried in vain to find what I’d been assured was a safe cycle route around the old city the next day. But then, ‘safe’ is a relative term.
As I pedalled along, dodging tuk-tuks packed with tourists, whose very existence seemed proof that it was possible to explore the city without sweating profusely, I caught a glimpse of the other Ayutthaya. Well more accurately, it was an Asian openbill stork that first caught my attention, with its thick beak seeming too cumbersome for its dusty frame. The stork was perched atop a weather-beaten structure that formed a shape somewhat like an upturned ice cream cone, with a much thicker, derelict column behind it, built of red bricks. This was not the chaotic, modern Ayutthaya; it was a glimpse into the past, of the Ayutthaya Kingdom’s (a Siamese empire) former capital city.
Buddha statue at Wat Mahathat (Photo: Paul Stafford for TravelMag)
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