Saturday, December 31, 2016

A day and a half touring in Ayutthaya

We flew into Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport because it is on the north side of the city, closer to Ayutthaya where we would be staying while near Bangkok because it is the hometown of my brother-in-law Chingchai.

It took us 1500 baht to hire a taxi large enough to hold the five of us and all the luggage that Sam and Nafisa had brought to accommodate their eight-month old son Abe; about a hour later we were at our hotel, the Kuangsri River Hotel,  chosen mostly for its proximity to Chingchai’s house (more in a later blog post about the pluses and many minuses of this hotel).  He and my brother Dan came by after we had settled in to walk us over to the house, about a 10 minute walk away, that Chingchai bought for his sister Walee and mother. 

We were glad to see Walee again; we had met her on our first trip to Thailand in the late 1990's, and not since.  She commented on the warm temperatures that Thailand has three seasons: hot, hotter and hottest, and that this season was only hot.  But really we have been pleasantly surprised over our four days in Ayutthaya by how temperate the weather was: there was consistently a cooling breeze in the mornings that often last through the day, and the evenings could be almost cool especially when dining at the riverside as we often did.  That evening, we ate at Chai Nam@U-Thong, on Khorean Soi 43 off Road 3477, on the banks of Chao Praya River; there is an English language menu but Chingchai ordered everything in Thai.  It was delicious; particularly memorable was a crispy vermicelli dish.

The following morning we woke up to the extensive breakfast buffet available in the hotel’s “coffee shop.”  I began by putting some western breakfast food on my plate (avaolabel items included omelettes, sunny-side up eggs, hard-boiled eggs, sausages and bacon and various baked bean preparations, croissants and other bakery, odd-looking cold cereal items plus condiments including small chopped fruits and yogurt, which I had without any cereal).  But after starting with that, I came to the realization that it was the Thai and other Asian breakfast items that were best: a variety of salads that changed from day to say, white rice or fried rice with four different stir-fry dish es which also varied from day to day; congee or “jok” a boiled rice soup eaten with condiments, bao of various kinds, generally sweet bao with kinds of bean paste but sometimes roast pork guns (my longtime favorite).  The salad table also had a collection of sliced fruit, usually pineapple and apple as well as one other, sometimes watermelon, sometimes the delicious small Thai bananas.

Krungsri River Hotel’s breakfast was plainly a stock-up meal that could last all day until dinnertime.  For me, breakfast as well as the comfortable rooms were the highlights of this hotel.

The hotel rooms were also large and comfortable.  There were four separate religious books available for guests

the pile was quite useful in propping up my plug converter which otherwise would have been leading down at an angle that prevented a firm connection.

From the upper floors, at least when in rooms looking north (in the X11 to X22 series), there was a  sweeping view along the river (including the ferry across to Chao Phrom Market)

and overlooking a nearby wat
Despite these pluses, there were many minuses to the hotel, which was completely unhelpful when it came to trying to book a car for touring or even a taxi to the airport, and which advertised a deceptive price for laundry services, then added thirty dollars extra.  Travelers should be forewarned!

After hanging around for a while at the hotel after breakfast, my brother and brother-in-law came to meet us at the hotel to take off for a day of touring in Ayutthaya.  But first, Chingchai announced that he was hungry and that our first stop would be his favorite noodle place.  So, we piled into a tuk tuk to Hia Ting (I can’t give any address better than “along the railroad tracks west of the bridge.”)

The noodles were excellent and the price was right:   60 baht per bowl, so slightly less than two dollars apiece.

There was a community shrine next to the stop,

Here it is seen from the river on the ferry

Chingchai pointed out a house across the river, where he was born; a porch laden with plants

This was, in fact, our first destination after landing at the Chao Phromh pier, because we were visiting Chingchai's cousin Goong (a nickname meaning shrimp).  The house originally belonged to his grandparents, with whom Chingchai’s parents lived when he was born.   Then they got another house further down the river (which he also showed us during our boat tour in the afternoon), then eventually they moved into the Chao Phrom market (but that is a story for a later day of touring).  Goong’s father was an older brother of Chingchai’s father, and eventually got the house for his family.  But Chingchai was often there as a child because he and Goong were very close.  Goong lives there to this day with her spry 90 year-old mother, shown below on the back porch that we had seen from the river.

Standing on the porch with all the plants and the river beside us, I found it hard to understand why someone would ever move away from such an idyllic location and into a crowded market, but taking a tour of the house (and of Aunt Ilek’s house), the answer became clear.  Dan pointed out an electrical outlet placed squarely in the middle of a wall, not down near the baseboard where it would ordinarily be placed in a house in the US.  It was there, he said, to make sure it was above the flood line.  I did not think to take a photo of it, but here is a photo of the flood line in Aunt Ilek's house, which we visited later during our boat tour:

And here is the flood line of a house along the river:

We looked around the house, including an array of family photos; then headed out into the street and hired a tuk tuk for the two and a half hours remaining until the boat tour (which Goong had helped use arrange through one of her neighbors). The cost:  200 baht, roughly $5.50.

Tuk Tuk Tour

Ayutthaya was founded by King U-Thong in 1360, and was the capital of Thailand from the 14th Century until 1767 (surviving a Khmer invasion in 1670 that was stopped at the edge of Ayutthaya), when the Burmese, whose fortunes had risen and fallen over the past few hundred years as compared with Thailand, invaded Thailand and sacked the city, destroying many buildings and leaving the picturesque ruins we would be visiting iver the course of our stay.  The kings of Thailand then moved their capital south to Bangkok, where it remains to this day.  Much of our tour was focused on the ruins left after this invasion.

The main part of the city is the City Island, surrounded by the Lopburi, Pasak and Chao Phraya Rivers; the Ayutthaya Historic Park is on the island; many of the wats are located along those rivers, on or off the City Island, and can be reached either by land-vehicle or by boat; we did both After passing an elephant camp, where Sam and Nafisa paid to be photographed sitting on an elephant’s knee (we saw tourists riding around on elephants throughout the area)


 our first visit was to the ruins of Wat Lokya Sutha (or Sutharan).  The main attraction here was a reclining Buddha

Behind it was this prang, built in the Cambodian style; generally speaking, the prangs represent a phallus and are dedicated to Shiva

Other buildings were steeples in the Sri Lankan style, or smaller buildings in the Mon/Khmer style, such as this one

Next we drove on to Wat Na Phra Men, built in 1503 and originally called Wat Phra Meru
The main building, seen here from the outside

and inside

contains a golden Buddha, highly decorated -- even overdecorated -- in the Late Ayutthaya style

This small Buddha is seated near the butt of the big golden Buddha

This smaller vihara

houses the real prize of this wat: a Dvaravati-style Buddha, seated in the “European position” supposedly dating back 1500 years; one guidebook suggested that the style is 1500 years old but that the statute was made in the 8th century,

The final wat we visited by tuk tuk was the ruins of Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the “triple pagoda.” Built in the late 1500's in front of the former royal palace, it was once the grandest of Ayutthaya’s temples.

Here is a single pagoda


And here the three pagodas in a line.


And here some of the other buildings in the complex.

There was a ruined vihara beside the three pagodas

and here, the pagodas are seen from the vihara


As we left Wat Phra Si Sanphet heading back to the Chao Phromh market area to catch our boat, we saw nearby Wat Phra Ram, built in the late 14th century

 Our Boat Tour

As our boat, arranged by Chingchai's cousin Goong (total price 2200 baht, roughly $60), pulled away from its mooring, Chingchai pointed out the riverside house where he lived AFTER leaving house where he was born, before moving into the Chao Phromh market. 
We progressed down the river until we reached Wat Phanan Choeng; built in 1324, even before the founding of the city, it is oldest working temple in the city.  Here is the view of the main building from our boat as it pulled up to the pier

The figures in this area show the multifaith character of the temple

Note the Chinese figures on the left and the Ganesh in the back in the center
In fact, here is a Chinese temple within the wat's grounds

The main hallway of the wat’s main building was jammed
with worshippers as well as tourists jostling to their opportunity to stand in the doorway to the inner sanctum, not so much to view this golden Buddha as to be photographed standing in front of it. 

The floor of the room holding the Buddha was jammed with people seated or kneeling and praying to the Buddha.

Next, we were on to Wat Phutthaisawan, first built in 1353 AD by King Ramathibodi I; main prang represents the cosmic Mount Meru


On the way in was this collection of statues of five major kings


Here is a statue of Guang Yin, described by Chingchai as a sort of a female personification of Buddha

This building holds several Buddhas

This statue in the main building of the wat is a classic Ayutthaya period Buddha

This Buddha is located in the panel of a doorway

And this in one of the outbuildings

This reclining Buddha was to be found in a stupa within the wat's grounds

Here are the “feet” of a pair of snakes that run along the steps up into one of the smaller buildings

Note the red scales along the snake

Here are the front and back of the heads of a pair of snakes running along a staircase into a building

Here is the temple’s main prang

There were golden Buddha’s ringing the cloister

The last stop on our boat tour was Wat Chai Wattaranan, located across the river from the Siriyalai Palace (which is currently in use by royal family)

It was built in 1630 by King Prasat Thong, possibly to commemorate a victory over Cambodia and in homage to Angkor, with the main prang built in the Khmer style

These Buddhas sit in the courtyard between the main prang and the river

Here are some other buildings in the wat

Leaving Wat Chai Wattanaran, we continued sailing along the rivers encircling the City Island.  We saw the steeple of  St. Joseph’s, a Catholic Church
And this is one of the several mosques we saw along the way

Ayutthaya has a substantial Muslim population; we were looking forward to the possibility of a visit to the Muslim quarter another day.  

Then we headed into some canals, aiming in part to visit the home of Chingchai’s Aunt Ilek

These canals were narrow enough that small boats were rowed across by hand

There was even a footbridge over one of the canals


And here were a few houseboats moored

Finally we reached Aunt Ilek’s teak house along the canal

This view from the outside,

and this view down the communal walkways between the houses and the porches of several houses

brought back memories of a large dinner with Chingchai’s extended family during our visit to Thailand back in the late 1990's.
After this visit, we headed back to the main river,, where we saw several tugboats pulling chains of about four barges on river   

Each barge in the group has a family living at the back, operating the business of that particular barge.

After getting back to the hotel, we went to have dinner at another restaurant, but this one  was walking distance from the hotel: we just had to walked under highway bridge beside the hotel, and then back to the riverside to eat at Ban Sansuk@Ayothaya.                

There was a lovely sunset

We were one the first diners to arrive

but by the time we were finishing dinner, the tables were full. 
Although there was an English language menu, Chingchai did all the ordering, so again I cannot identify all the wonderful dishes that we had.  He told us later that although Chai Nam offered provincial Thai cooking, Bensansuk was more modern, a sort of nouvelle Thai.

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