Travels in Two Antique Lands

Buddha_in_boh_tree

We arrived by mini bus from Kanchanaburi in Ayutthaya, the former royal capital of Thailand. First stop, our amazing guesthouse, oddly named The Prom Thong Mansion, run beyond efficiently by the charming Jeeta. Really you never know what you are going to get, and that is part of the charm of travel. The PTM is a new but old-fashioned Thai guesthouse with huge rooms full of heavily lacquered cumbersome Thai teak furniture. They obviously have a passion for Chiang Mai wood carvings as the entire place is crammed with them, save the spots reserved for two enormous tanks of tropical fish, festooned with signs saying “Watch your children, valuable tanks”!

She checked us in in jig time, and immediately pulled out maps, and a 2 day self guided bike tour of the ruins, advised us our bikes would be waiting in the morning and that breakfast (included in the $34 price) would be served from 7 til 10 in the charming lobby. Go and relax she said, take a shower and I will show you where the restaurants are. Nothing to it. Spotlessly clean, hot shower, brand new AC, what more could anyone want?

We loved biking the ruins and spent a day and a half at it. Very full of atmosphere, charmingly cock-eyed due to its sand base (Ayutthaya is on an island) made worse by the terrible flood they had on Oct 2011. The water was half way up the first floor of the guesthouse, and the Buddha in the Boh tree which you will see in Doug’s pictures was nearly submerged. Restoration is going on to shore up the worst of the damage, amazing how something can stand for 800 years through floods, earthquakes and so on and retain such a palpable sense of its soul.

Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 and became, by 1685, a city of 1 million, roughly double the population of London at that time. There were 40 different nationalities living there, and it was the major trade centre for the area as well as the royal seat, and was renowned for its beauty and culture. In 1776 the Burmese overran it taking thousands of prisoners. The capital then moved to Bangkok. The atmospheric ruins that remain today are those of the religious buildings, the wats, stupas, and monasteries, since they were built of stone, while one just has to imagine the palace and residential and commercial buildings from the foundations and roof supporting columns that remain. Somehow the decrepit condition of the religious relics adds to its charm.

Late in the afternoon of the second day, Jeeta sent us off on a boat tour around the island and through the khlongs, stopping at some of the most noteworthy wats. This was included free as we were staying 3 nights. We went with a lovely family from Quebec who are taking 5 months to travel, and a very nice German couple who told me that the reason most of the guests seemed to be German was because the PTM is featured in “the best” German guidebook. We really enjoyed this trip, as we passed all the dwellings of various types clinging to the banks, all manner of other boats like tugs towing barges sunk to the gunwales from their loads of sand, raucous karaoke boats full of Thais eating dinner and singing at the top of their lungs, tiny passenger ferries such as the one we manhandled our bikes on to at one point, and small fish boats with men throwing out the ever graceful nets.

No gastronomic experiences (we have become a bit critical) but very nice fresh seafood available at the food stalls along the river. The Quebec children had discovered roti in Malaysia so they had that and we had a huge Tom Yum soup full of various kinds of fish and shellfish (no bones Andrew).

Jeeta had an interesting story. She trained as an environmental engineer in England, hence her perfect English, then worked for the EU on air quality management, for a total of 12 years overseas. When she returned to Thailand, she took up that work, but couldn’t stand it, as like in most Asian countries it seems, bribes circumvent any regulation so her work seemed futile. Her father was building the PTM at the time to provide rental accommodation for Thais, so she and her sister, who had just returned from studying hotel management, managed to convince him to let them try their hand at running it as a bed and breakfast for tourists. He was dubious, but in the 3 years they’ve been open they’ve made such a success that they’ve opened a second one down the street, with a pool which we were free to use and did. People’s lives are so interesting.

Bidding Jeeta a sad farewell, we set off to catch the 6 hour very comfortable AC bus to Sukhothai, an even older royal seat. Lovely guesthouse this time too, a series of Thai style bungalows set in a most beautiful garden, with a cozy breakfast terrace surrounded by plants, the whole thing centred on a lotus filled pond, hence the name Lotus Garden. They too had been subject to flooding with the water reaching two feet up the walls only last October. Cannot imagine how they cleaned it up, all is absolutely pristine, but the abrupt and matter of fact manager merely commented, “This is nature, we must do it.” (For those interested, internet deal for $35)

Sukhothai preceded Ayutthaya as the capital but has been much more restored (both are UNESCO heritage sites) especially in the central zone so in many ways it is easier to visualize it in its former glory. Again only the relics of the religious buildings remain, but the Buddha images are spectacular. Sukhothai style Buddhas are different in appearance (we have now seen, over the years, tall, short, fat, emaciated, sitting, standing, walking, meditating, teaching, cheerful, sad, and even a dead buddha in Sri Lanka.) Sukhothai ones have very smooth elongated faces with an almost feline self satisfied quality. They were also the first ones to be depicted walking.

Again, bicycles are the mode of transport. We caught an open truck-like bus with benches in the back, called a sangtheow in the town, and rented bikes when we reached the site. No traffic but lots of tour groups, so we really enjoyed biking around the central and northern groups. The weather is slightly cooler here and less humid, and we are getting used to it, 30 feels pleasant now.

Sukhothai’s era as the capital was short, 1238 to 1376, and it was all but abandoned by the 16th century. The architecture is heavily influenced by the Khmer civilization of Cambodia.

We found one long day on the bikes was enough for us to feel satisfied with our dabble in antiquity so we planned to rent bikes in the town the next day and take a couple of rides through the countryside that we had read about. Alas the bike rentals have been taken over by a bike touring company and so it was not to be. Have had a relaxing afternoon on our lovely terrace beside the lily pond, we actually needed a quiet day. We are off to Chiang Mai by bus tomorrow, skipping one other place we had planned to visit as we found out the Flower Festival is on this weekend in Chiang Mai. It sounds like quite the spectacle. This guesthouse is, as Doug puts it, overrun with French, heaven knows maybe “the best” French guidebook features it!

We are loving Thailand, as you can probably tell. People are so friendly and welcoming, always smiles and pleasant greetings, and it seems “anything is possible” here if you just ask. Great Thai food too at the Dream Cafe where we are adding to our favourites list.

Hope all are well, thanks for persevering! The aged travellers

Sent from my iPad

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