Monday, 4 July 2011

Lost Kingdom of Ayutthaya

An election poster outside one of Ayutthaya's ancient temples
© Andy Brown/2011/Thailand

In the three-part Thai epic blockbuster The Legend of King Naresuan, the eponymous hero rebels against Burmese rule and restores the Kingdom of Siam around Ayutthaya in 1590. He then expands the kingdom with the help of an army of elephants, ushering in a period of peace and prosperity that lasts until 1767, when the Burmese return to sack and burn the imperial city. They loot its treasures and wipe out its population, leaving the charred ruins to be reclaimed by jungle.

We went to Ayutthaya for a more prosaic reason than the Burmese – to escape the traffic and pollution of Bangkok for a weekend. The former capital is only 76 km north of the new one. It’s either a one hour drive in a mini-van from Victory Monument or two hours on a clapped-out old train, shambling down the out-dated railway tracks like an old man.

We travelled up by van after work on Friday, braving the disorganised scrum at Victory Monument marketplace to force our way into a vehicle, and arrived about 7pm. We’d managed to get a cheap deal at the Krungsri River Hotel, described by the Lonely Planet as the ‘plushest pad in town’. That may have been true but our ‘riverside view’ turned out to be mainly a motorway view and the hotel itself had the air of a mafia hangout. Scary looking Russians with shaved heads, tattooed arms and gold chains lounged around the swimming pool or at the bar.

Ayutthaya itself, however, was spectacular. The old city is on a roughly rectangular island formed by the confluence of three rivers, including the Chao Phraya which flows south to Bangkok. The river was slightly narrower here but we saw the same clumps of water lilies drifting downstream, as well as convoys of large, flat-bottomed cargo boats being pulled upstream by improbably small tugs. I often see these boats go past the river ferry in Bangkok on my way to work. Each vessel is maintained by a different family, who have a small cabin at one end. I watch them drift past, with the occupants sat on the deck talking, or in the cabin cooking or washing clothes, and wonder what their nomadic lifestyle is like.

We were staying on the mainland side of the river but there were two rival ferries close by that made regular trips to the island – the 4 Baht (8p) ferry and the 6 Baht (12p). Most people got the 4 Baht ferry which dropped you slightly further upstream by the market, so we did the same. On the other shore, we hired a couple of bikes to explore the island. It was very flat and we soon found that cycling was a far better mode of transport than walking in a hot, sticky climate. With minimal effort we generated a cooling breeze for ourselves as we sped past the market, down small sois (side streets), over canals and among the overgrown ruins of the former royal palaces and temples.

Joyce with the Buddha head at Wat Phra Mahathat
© Andy Brown/2011/Thailand

Ayutthaya was the capital of Siam for over 400 years, with 33 kings ruling from 1350 to 1767. Originally a Khmer outpost, it was named after Ayodhya, Prince Rama’s city in the Hindu epic Ramayana. It swiftly became a major international trading centre, known to Europeans as the ‘Venice of the East’. These days, the temples and palaces are all in ruins, although they’re now surrounded by well-tended parks and lakes. There were Buddha statues everywhere in various states of repair. Some had been reduced to nothing more than a pair of folded legs. Others were almost miraculously intact and dressed up in golden robes – a bizarre sight among the crumbling masonry.

The most intriguing statue was at Wat Phra Mahathat, where a solitary Buddha head gazed serenely out from among the roots of an ancient tree. No-one knows for sure how it got there, but the likelihood is that it originally belonged to one of the demolished statues and was abandoned at the foot of a tree by looters. Over time, the trees roots grew to encase the head. However it happened, it lends a definite air of mystery and legend to the temple.

It was election season in Thailand so the ancient ruins of Ayutthaya were juxtaposed with very modern election posters. Vans from the political parties cruised up and down the streets, with loudspeakers repeating campaign messages on a loop. Back in Bangkok, I attended several election rallies and debates, including one at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, where the best speaker was academic and columnist Thitinan Pongsudhirak (who later wrote an article for the Bangkok Post). It’s been a fascinating experience which I’d love to blog about at more length, but as UN staff we have to remain impartial, much like UK civil servants.

The food in Ayutthaya was fantastic. One night we went to a riverside restaurant and had a seafood and coconut curry, served in the shell of the coconut. We finished eating late and failing to find any taxis or tuk-tuks, accepted a ride home on the back of our waiter’s motorbike. The three of us hung on precariously as we raced through the darkened sois, past stray dogs and closed shops, with the wind in our hair – and Joyce’s hair in my face. ‘That was hilarious,’ she said as we crossed the bridge and the waiter dropped us back at our hotel.

Me feeding a baby elephant at the Ayutthaya Elephant Palace
© Andy Brown/2011/Thailand

On Sunday we hired bikes again and cycled out of town to the Ayutthaya Elephant Palace, a not-for-profit home for sick and abused animals, which provides rides for tourists around the city ruins, as well as occasional movie extras. The centre is built alongside the old elephant kraal (stockade), where King Naresuan kept his war elephants. Nearly a thousand hefty teak logs are still standing, painted red and forming the perimeter fence of the kraal.

We chained up our bikes and went to explore. The main attraction was feeding the elephants. The larger ones were chained by one foot but several baby elephants roamed free and we fed them cucumbers and sugar cane. While the adults would happily munch through a whole cucumber in one go, we had to break them up for the baby elephants, who would take a piece in their trunk and place it awkwardly in their mouth. “They have around 40,000 muscles in their trunks and it takes them a while to learn how to use them,” said Paul, a British volunteer. One of the baby elephants was noticeably naughtier than the others and kept running off or overturning bales of hay. “He’s so cute,” Joyce said as I tried to tempt him back with a cucumber.

Some of the elephants had been trained as painters and Paul showed us their work at the centre’s shop, where an oversized easel had been set up. “If they’re left on their own, they paint abstract pictures,” he said, indicating the more ‘modern’ works of art, “but the mahouts can teach them to paint flowers, trees and houses. The elephant does the painting but the mahout makes a sign to tell them what colour to use and the strokes to make.”The elephants clearly enjoy this activity. “Patrick [an elephant] is our best painter and he loves doing it,” Paul continued. “When we get the paints out he sometimes gets so excited that he wees and poos everywhere.”

On Sunday night we got the train back to Bangkok. It took twice as long as the van but was an experience in its own right. The station was like something out of the 1950s, with manual ticketing and departure boards. Health and safety were a distant concern. As the train approached, a guard ushered the passengers across the rails in front of it to stand in the right place on the adjacent wooden boards. The carriages were ramshackle – even ours which cost extra for air conditioning – and the train chugged slowly through paddy fields, stopping every five minutes for people to get on or off.

We got back to Bangkok in time for the final week of the election campaign. As in Ayutthaya, the streets were full of political posters and loudspeaker vans, while rival mass rallies attracted tens of thousands of people and held up the traffic for hours on end. Unlike 1590, however, the elephants stayed in their stockade as Thais across the country decided their future through the ballot box.

An election campaign rally in central Bangkok.
© Andy Brown/2011/Thailand
See more election photos »


  1. The elephants were soooo cute. The baby elephants look cute but they are still very very heavy and can trample on you and cause an accident! Haha! But luckily ours were very tame.

  2. Well, from the pic, I'm more concerned Andy trampling on the baby elephant :)

    Thanks for sharing your experience with all of us.