Ever wondered why Buddha heads are such an ornamental piece in hotels and art galleries? Why just the head and not the entire body? Read on to find out what I discovered on my trip to Ayutthaya in Thailand.
The iconic Buddha head nestled in tree roots.
Does the name “Ayutthaya” sound similar to “Ayodhya” in India? That is because it is indeed Ayodhya called as Ayutthaya by the ancient people of the Siamese Kingdom. The Ramakien is Thailand’s national epic, derived from the Hindu epic Ramayana, and they considered Ayutthaya to be the center of this epic. Thailand even today, though considered as a Theravada Buddhist majority(the type of Buddhism strongest in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Burma), has a very strong influence of Hinduism right from their Kings who are called Rama I, II and so forth.
Ever since my travel to Thailand this year, I have been intrigued by their history, culture, and way of life today.
For me, traveling doesn’t end when I land back home from a distant country. It continues as a spiraling journey inwards of learning more about what I saw and felt. While traveling physically ends after we come back home, it leads to a mental travel to distant histories and brings me closer to understanding what I saw.
I think this aspect of traveling is what enamors human beings the most.
You never travel to the same place, just as two human beings never read the same book.
When I informed my friends about Thailand on Instagram, I received many comments like, “Why are you going to Thailand? Innocent girls don’t go there.” I understand their concerns. Of late, the only thing that takes Indians to Thailand is the sex city of Pattaya, the cheap massage centers, and the beaches. Sex tourism has ruined the charm of Thailand for many. I hardly saw any Indian on my travel to Ayutthaya, the ruined city where every wall and tree screams of history and even in the scorching heat, reminds you of why human beings take the effort to travel.
I will take you virtually around Ayutthaya and give you some tips on traveling it better. I know it’s a rather long read. Travel pieces that are short only serve the purpose of brain jerking.
On my first day in Bangkok, we(me and my friend) wandered through the famous yet crowded-with-selfiesticks “Wats” or Buddhist temples in Bangkok. The next day we had planned for Ayutthaya which is 80 km from Bangkok. Perfect for a day trip, I say, so you must include it in your itinerary to Bangkok.
Now there are many modes of transport to Ayutthaya from Bangkok- train, bus, or private cab. We are flashpackers and always on the lookout for the cheapest yet a comfortable option. After some research, we found that we could take shared cabs that would cost only 60 Baht per person, from Mo Chit station. Mo Chit may be difficult to access from some parts of the city. In our case, we were clueless since Thai people can’t converse well in English even in the capital city.
Our Airbnb host had handed us a comprehensive printout of places to eat, tips to travel and helpful stuff. Based on that, we started our pleasant morning at 7 am. Bangkok is very hot during March, so it’s better to start early to enjoy the morning sunshine like the Thais. They like the morning so much they even have a green spinach dish called “Morning Glory”. Our stay was in Sathorn, near Lumphini Park, which is one the popular parks in Bangkok. We walked some 3kms to enter the park from our stay and were surprised to see so many people jogging and exercising there. What does that mean for us? Good FOOD, obviously.
We found the small food market inside the park that was catering to the early birds. I was happy to recognize one dish in one of the corners. I had it earlier in Malaysia and I just knew it’s called Keow-Teow soup. When you are traveling to unknown places where you don’t know what the F(ood) is going on, recognizing a familiar food or smell or anything will make you jump with joy. These are some feelings that only people who believe in traveling outside their country can understand.
We ordered Keow-Teow which was delicious and cost 100 Baht, watermelon juice at 50 Baht. We ordered two more delicious noodle soups. With the success of having found one dish, I became adventurous. I was eyeing a thick brown gravy soup that two ladies were eating with so much pleasure. So I walked up to them and asked its name, they didn’t understand what I was asking but were kind enough to order the same thing for me. It turned out terrible, after one slurp my mood darkened like an Indian drain. It must have been the innards of a pig, but with no one to tell me what it was, we just hurried out after our culinary adventure.
Now, we had to reach Mo Chit station and had no clue. After much asking around and detours, we reached the BTS station and from there straight to Mo Chit. Once in Mo Chit, some hagglers may try to dupe you with cab tours. If you can haggle and keep it within 1000 Baht for a round-trip, I would say that is a fair bargain for a family who needs comfort and can spend a bit extra. For people like me, take Bus no 2 to Mo Chit Bus station(which was a free ride, since the conductor never took money from us, even when we tried), get down there and hop into a shared cab. I slept off, and after 1 and half hour, we reached Ayutthaya.
From Ayutthaya city bus stop, you can either hire a bicycle to reach Old Ayutthaya which is an island surrounded by three rivers that connect it to the sea or take a tuk-tuk. For foreigners, they have different government pricing and it’s cheaper for Thai nationals.
We took a tuk-tuk to the island, had lunch in a cafe, and rented out two bicycles.
We walked cycle in hand and entered the nearest ruin to us — Wat Mahathat.
Wat Mahathat is interesting because of the Buddha head with the entwined roots that grew around it. It is one of the most photographed spots in Thailand and is an Instagram sensation.
As soon as we entered the complex, three pretty Thai girls in traditional wear greeted me in their characteristic sing-song Thai, “Suwaaathiii Khaaaa” This was a lucky day for us, for they said next, “Today is the 666th anniversary of Ayuthaayyaa, FREE for Tourists”. In happiness, I asked these girls to pose with me, and they were giggling at my antics. It was a legitimate reason to be happy because I saved a lot of money on the individual temple visit fees, based on the sheer luck that I chose that auspicious day to travel, with no clue that it would be an anniversary. How cool!
We went inside Wat Mahathat. And I was heartbroken at the headless Buddha statues. The decapitated meditating Buddhas almost made me cry at the heartlessness of the Burmese who invaded the city multiple times, at last burning it to the ground. Back home, I researched and found that many selfish traders cleanly cut the heads of the Buddha and sold it to private collectors in Europe and America. Many of them are housed in famous museums in Europe, and I surmise that is how it became fashionable to have Buddha heads ornamenting your office desks and drawing rooms. Next time, you buy a Buddha’s head, you know the history of how you came to buy it.
But my favorite was the famous Buddha head which had miraculously survived in the tree roots. It’s almost as if the tree was born to save this head, that it cradles in its lap. I was put-off by the number of tourists posing there, and I have to admit that even I was led astray by the peer pressure of photo sessions there, and took some pictures of myself with the revered head too.
After Wat Mahathat and its complex, we headed to the Temple of the Royal Restoration (Wat Ratchaburana), which is adjoining Wat Mahathat, and yet not so crowded and hence pleasant. There are many towers and stupas, but the main prang is the highlight. It looks like a set straight out of a fantasy series. Many young people will be found photographing and selfie-ing in ludicrously painful poses. I climbed up and then descended down a very steep staircase to view the faded frescoes. It was once full of Buddha images and some national treasures but now stands looted, and yet it is not bereft of the mystery that a glorious history brings.
After Wat Ratchaburna, we wanted to visit the most beautiful of the ruins, Wat Chaiwatthanaram, on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, outside Ayutthaya island. I have to say that bicycling is the best option around Ayutthaya because it gives you the charm of this historical place. Having fantasized that, I have to admit I am very cowardly and can not ride a cycle on the roads. I was so frightened every time a car came near me and would jump off the cycle. My friend got exasperated, and we returned the cycles and hopped onto a tuk-tuk again.
It began raining and made me feel so many emotions that my mind fails to remember now, except the memory that I felt a lot and was happy. ,
Marcel Proust said, ‘Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.’
We jumped out of the Tuk-Tuk and waited for the rain to abate a little. The clouds cleared, the sun shone a bit and we went inside the campus. This is the most scenic Wat in entire Ayutthaya since it feels almost intact and untouched by the years. I can not even begin to imagine how grand it must have been before it was plundered by the Burmese.
It has a central Prang surrounded by four smaller Prangs. The central platform is surrounded by eight chedi-shaped chapels which are connected by a rectangular passage.
These chapels now house sad, gloomy, rusted Buddha statues. Along the rectangular wall passage, lie 120 sitting Buddha statues, all headless and lifeless now.
Outside, the Buddha of the ordination hall is still alive, just close to the river. Just near the river, a drone camera buzzed as a tourist captured Chaiwatthanaram from up above the sky.
It was a magical time for me, I only had to see the architecture and the red bricks that have stood not only the testimony of time but also the heinous crime of hedonist humans, to understand my stand on earth.
Soon it rained again, and we headed back to the old city after sipping tender coconuts. We still had some evening left, so we hired another kind Tuk-Tuk who was the only nice and honest Tuk-Tuk driver we met that day. We conveyed the ruins we had already covered, so he took us to the ones we didn’t see.
He took us to Wat Lokayasutharam, which is the ancient and dilapidated version of the famous Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho in Bangkok. Though not covered in shiny gold like its richer brother in Bangkok, it is still a peaceful sight to behold.
On the way back to the main town, I caught sight of a small local market, and from a traveler’s instinct, I asked our Tuk-Tuk to stop. I told him to wait for 5 mins, while we explored the market. He was delighted that foreigners took interest in local markets, and was happy to wait. My instinct was right, there were no tourists around and the market was meant only for the locals. This meant the prices would be cheaper since they wouldn’t know how to deal with the rare tourist who happens there on his way. I was delighted to see an assortment of Thai local food in plantain leaves. I tried and amused the locals selling food, and managed to buy sticky rice cakes wrapped in plantain leaves, sticky rice and coconut cakes, another sweet that they said was made of potato starch, plantain wrapped smoked fish cakes and many sticks of Satay dripping in groundnut sauces. The tuk-tuk driver was now definitely impressed seeing that we liked Thai local food. He happily dropped us off to the cab stop, from where we boarded the shared cab back to Bangkok.
We reached Mo-Chit station and tired after all the walking, moved along with the crowd until we found ourselves in Chatuchak park. We rested in the park in the dimming evening light and overlooking the water and the moon silently thought back to the wonderful ruins that we had left behind, so much that we hadn’t explored and unraveled. I think I will go back someday, with more courage to paddle a cycle along the ruins of Ayutthaya and see the wonders of the past again.
And you my reader, if you find yourself in Bangkok, please travel to Ayutthaya. It will show you more about Thailand than the massage centers and the lady-boy shows.
Read below about me.
I know it is fashionable to shout that I have left my job to travel around the world. But that is not the truth. I am a marketer who holds a full-time job and yet travels and writes about the experiences. I am on a personal mission to inspire people to travel more and read more.
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