On a train ride to Ayuttaya Island
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The sound of the train engine was very familiar and soothing. For as long as I remember, every year I have been travelling by train to my mother’s hometown of Prae. Most of my journey then would be spent in the sleeping cars at night, and usually we had already reached our destination when I woke up. Recently, a few of my friends and I decided to take a train to the old capital of Thailand, Ayutthaya, hoping to get away from the same old Bangkok.
Only a handful people realize that Ayutthaya was the only province in Thailand that didn’t have a Mueng District, only Phranakorn Sriayuttaya District, also called Mueng Kroong Kao, as the center of the province. Situated at the heart of the city was the Historical Park of Phranakorn Sriayuttaya, or Ayutthaya Island, the proof of the glorious late capital city of Thailand.
The view of green fields spreading to the horizon from the classic Thai train with the original wooden benches was somehow sweeter. It took about two hours before we finally reached Ayutthaya train station. The cloud today was thick with a soft breath of rain pouring down, an ideal day for a bicycle ride around Ayutthaya Island without getting sun burnt or exhaustingly sweaty.
After renting the bicycles from a shop in front of the train station for a very reasonable price, we hopped on our bikes and made a turn to Preedi Tamrong Bridge, a big bridge that would take us across Paasak River to Ayutthaya Island. Looking across the bridge we could easily see the first historical site representing the old capital, Wat Sam Pluem Chedi Circle.
We crossed the bridge and entered the main road of the island, Rochana Road. Both sides were clustered with so many historical monuments and academic institutions that numerous people have named it the road of education. At the end of the highway, we saw a very outstanding big building in white and beige where six statues of Ayutthaya kings and queens stood in the front. This building was renovated from the old city hall to become the Ayutthaya Tourism Center. Apart from the information center inside the building, there is also the Exhibition of Ayutthaya history and period art gallery.
After a few curious questions with the assistants of the centre and a brief walk around, my friends and I consulted the map of Ayutthaya province and had a discussion on where to go in the time left. Since we had just half a day remaining, we decided to go cycling only in the island area. We carried on to the nearby Koom Khun Pan. It is comparable to a contemporary millionaire’s house with Roman style pillars, marble tiles, and a huge chandelier in the middle of the house. These five traditional Thai houses with the main house, minor houses, and kitchen, with a great open area around them the houses must have been the residence of well-off merchants or Ayutthaya bureaucrats with many slaves. Koom Khun Pan had formerly been the metropolis prison and was believed to be where Khun Pan himself was once imprisoned in.
After admiring the main house there long enough just so the rain stopped, we put on our raincoats and cycled to Logayasutaram temple, another old site we could not miss according to the Tourism Center. We were stunned by the gigantic white Buddha statue in a reclining posture covered in a bright yellow robe. The statue is more than 40 meters long and 8 meters high, making visitors look like miniature toys. This reclining Buddha statue was special for the arm that supports the head of the statue over the big blossoming lotus, and was hidden behind the pagoda in the ruined temple and ubosot. I was sure many must have seen a similar Buddha statue in Wat Po in Bangkok, but seeing another one this big in such a ruin was in a way telling me how great this kingdom of Thailand once was, full of people and their faith.
Then we went on to the northern side of the island, cycling along the bank of Lopburi River to the east a little where we reached Pra Srisanpet temple, the prototype of the famous Emerald Buddha temple in Bangkok. Similarly, this holy place was in the area of the Royal Palace and was not occupied by Buddhist monks. The distinctive points of this attraction are three splendid Lanka-style chedis standing in line which were built in different reigns. We went into the main ubosot of the temple to pay respects to the principle Buddha image and stay out from the pouring rain. In a rainy weekday like this, there were not too many people visiting the temple and the air was filled with peaceful solitude and enlightening silence. I was drifting towards nirvana when my stomach groaned from hunger and so my friends and I decided to leave for lunch. We had the signature dish of Ayutthaya, the delicious boat noodles, not far from the temple, and then moved on the next destination.
The rain made cycling for many kilometers around the island not so tiring because the temperature was low and winds were joyfully breezy. To my eyes, these ancient temples and old red bricks even looked more splendid on a day like this. Taking Tammikarat temple nearby as an example, though most parts of the buildings had been burned down leaving a few ruins in the area, we could still see the greatness of this royal temple in the past. Some of the ruins now were partially covered with roots and branches of banyan trees and looked even more sacred. Another highlight of this temple are chedis decorated with stucco lions, which are rare to see now in Thailand. There were only twenty lions left, and many of them were missing parts because they had been guarding the temple for over 900 years.
Crossing the road, we were met with a yard and a pond called Bueng Praram, wet and glittering from the rain. The lofty pagoda of Praram temple could be seen at the corner of the street in the distance and as I dragged my bicycle pass the yard through the rain, I could not help but wonder how crowded this place must have been in the past.
On the east side of Praram Pond, we arrived at another prominent temple of Ayutthaya, the vast Mahatat temple. We had to imagine the gigantic main pagoda of this temple from the ruins since the top of the pagoda had collapsed some time ago, nonetheless even the base of the pagoda amazed us for its hugeness. However, what attracted people to come visit this temple most must be the immense sandstone head of a Buddha image covered in banyan tree roots. Only a few from many other Buddha images in the area were still intact with heads, reflecting the beauty of culture and nature that has eroded with time.
Due to the limited time and the exhausted body from many kilometres ride, we did not have the chance to visit many other important temples. However, we didn’t miss the lovely roti bread with sugar cotton (Roti-Sai-Mai), another well-known dessert of Ayutthaya. My friends and I always bought this back for people back at Bangkok.
The last destination of our trip before catching the train back to Bangkok was Ayutthaya floating market. This biggest floating market of Ayutthaya was recently built yet properly and artistically designed and decorated to be in harmony with the ancient city. From the minute I parked my bike I realized that this floating market was really popular and successful as the word had it. Even on a weekday like this, the parking lot was packed with bicycles, cars, and tour buses. The traditional Thai house and red-bricked wall at the entrance cheerfully welcomed tourists from all over the world. We didn’t have much time so we had to miss the last special show of the market. Instead, we enjoyed ourselves walking in and out of more than 50 shops and restaurants in that lively evening. The old-style clothing of the vendors and the clean, well-arranged shops in the market admirably represented the traditional lifestyles of Thai people in a very charming and alluring way. No wonder many visitors come back to this market again and again.
On my way back on the train, I saw the moon shining its pale light on the ruins and burned buildings. The old capital has now become a world heritage for us later generations. And I thought of how everything had a start and an end. The glorious city must one day also come to an end like everything else, leaving behind only pleasant memories and good deeds that will always be remembered.