High speed emotions… or when dreams come true
HAPPY AYUTTHAYA, WHEN DREAMS BEGIN TO COME TRUE: Still tired and jet lagged, we got up rather early for a self-made tour of Ayutthaya. A tuk tuk speed our way to Hua Lamphong (Bangkok central train station) where we had some fruit as a breakfast and got our first class tickets for a train ride. It included coffee and pastries, hostesses dressed in pink, and air-conditioning. After an hour, Ayutthaya was there.
Ayutthaya (Thai: อยุธย), is about 40 miles north of Bangkok, in the valley of the Chao Phraya river. The old city is on an island formed by a bend of the Chao Phraya and its junction with river Pa Sak; today, it is mostly visited for its ruins.
Ayutthaya was the capital of the Kingdom of Siam and a rich international trading port from 1350 until it was razed by the Burmese, in 1767. The Burmese burned Ayutthaya, destroying art, libraries and literature, as well as historic records. The kingdom was in ruins.
The rests of the old city are now part of the Ayutthaya Historical Park, an archaeological site with palaces, temples, monasteries and statues; all rests of the several Burma-Siam bloody struggles that also gave life to legends. According to some foreign accounts, the name of Ayutthaya was Siam; for other sources, instead, the people of Ayutthaya called themselves Tai.
Once there, hard on negotiation
When we left the station, a bunch of tuk tuk drivers assaulted us. Had I been alone or with hubby, we would have probably rode a bike around the city. With kids, and such small kids, the only way to go was tuk tuk riding… again!
Negotiation is rough, but set a base and a top limit of how much to spend according to what you want to do. If you’re in just for seeing a few temples, a short tour could be agreed for 800-1500 Baht.
Instead, if you want to see more ruins, temples and sites, the ride will take longer and the price will go up. It’s up to you, you might even want to spend the night in town for a more relaxed visit. There are nice guesthouses available in the new part of town.
Given the heat, the stairs and all the walking to be done, considering also the average attention span of a child, for us it was just going to be a couple of temples, feeding some elephants and maybe trying some local food. Then we would go back to Bangkok.
We are working hard on our transition from traditional school to homeschooling. We are still learning as parents, but we know that teaching has to be fun and relaxing, walking long trails packed with tourists, in such heat and under the sun is tiring for small children. At a certain point, all temples start to look the same for them. One thing we know though: keeping their interest alive is vital; making experiences anything but boring is a priority.
So… less temples, some interaction with elephants and getting back to Bangkok with enough time to go for a refreshing swim in the hotel seemed like a good idea.
Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon
Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon or the “Great Monastery of Auspicious Victory” is the only site off the island, in the south. Built in 1357, it is simple to see and feel old age. Every stone in the complex is able to tell a story of thousand years.
This Wat has a chedi which is a landmark in Ayutthaya, mostly undamaged, high and visible if you arrive from the east. Two sets of very irregular and steep stairs lead to the first terrace and then continue to the dome (wear very comfortable shoes!). It was also sacked by the Burmese when they finally took the city, in 1767. There are some smaller chedis in the outer courtyard but they lack their tops.
There is also a large reclining Buddha statue in the temple grounds, easy to reach and offering a beautiful example of a fine Buddha in a Nirvana position.
Wat Phra Mahatat
Wat Phra Mahatat or “Temple of Great Relics” is in the center of Ayutthaya. Here also used to live the leader of the Thai Buddhist monks. The temple was probably built during the 14th century (the early Ayutthaya period).
This site is famous among tourists for the much photographed head of a Buddha embedded into a fig tree trunk. In fact, the keeds has previously seen a picture of it and were soon fascinated. The minute we arrived there they were already excited, ready to start looking for the treasure. Let the quest begin! As long as they know they are not allowed to touch the statues, or how to step over doorsteps… As far as they know they are in a sacred place and should behave respectfully, all is fine.
They were free (and very happy) to explore among the old buildings of the past, pretending they were warriors – or even Indiana Jones. Fun for everyone. Several “Mom, look at this…” went on and on till they suddenly started yelling “Here it is, look! Look, it’s here!!!”
If you’re lucky enough, there will be no line of Japanese tourists waiting to take a picture. If not, be patient and wait, you’ll get your moment. Just remember to stand below the level of the sacred head.
Right behind it, there’s a big decapitated Buddha. My kids spent some time estimating whether it was possible for that body to be the owner of the head, analyzing probabilities according to matter, color, measurement and fortune… we laughed a lot.
Elephants… what to do?
After visiting two temples, our guide must have thought it was time for a break. She decided to take us to see some elephants to a place I really didn’t like much.
Animals did not seem to be treated badly, to be honest, but they wore circus exhibition attires and we were expected to ride on them and smile for the picture. I was looking for another approach, to be honest. Certainly I had not made all that way to teach my children that’s how to treat an elephant. After a very tense, for moments frustrating, conversation with our driver, we decided to leave elephant interaction till our future visit to Koh Samui.
My five-year old was a bit frustrated after such a mess, he was getting bad-tempered as well as sad as he started to comprehend elephants were not going to be part of our adventure. Even if we explained him we didn’t like the way animals were kept, he insisted he had no intention to be mean to them, he was going to be caring and sweet, and, the obvious and logic: “Elephants are already here why can’t I just feed them?“
What the heck could I do? It was just worthy to take advantage of the situation and teach a lesson, explain our reasons, but also see the elephants. We bought 50 Baht worth of bananas, fed them, and made everyone happy! (Well, I felt awful, to be honest!)
I must admit it was all my fault, since I had forgotten home my “research” notes. Having no address book and being my driver’s English more than limited, our coveted visit to Ayutthaya Elephant Palace will remain in our bucket list till we come back. And, of course, we took no pictures of this very tense moment!
My mood for more Ayutthaya was starting to change.
Just as we were moving on to the next temple, after three hours of intense heat, I started feeling that walking for another 50-60 minutes under the 2.00 pm sun, wandering around another monastery, doing the photo ritual, waiting in lines, sweating, etc… might have been OK for us adults, though a pointless ordeal for a five-year old.
After all, we had walked and talked about ancient cultures all day long, relating what we had seen to what we had already read back home. As far as I was concerned, they had learnt they share.
Our lady-driver took us to the station. We ate some Thai on the go and I bought our tickets back to Bangkok. We were done for the day.
It took us more than three hours to get home under the pouring rain. It was fine though, most of us could catch up with our sleep and put some order in our jet lagged lives.
And we made friends too.
A princess and a pauperess on the go
(Train experiences in Thailand: two single tickets don’t equal a return one!)
We traveled to Ayutthaya on a first class train. Seats were numbered and it sparkled! There were hostesses with high heels, coffee and pastries, A/C and no delays whatsoever. The train was punctual. All this for 374 Baht each, making a total of 1496 Bath.
I didn’t think it expensive (it was less than 10 Euro per person, after all), but I knew there were cheaper ways to travel, I wanted to try them. The problem is that I chose the wrong time with all of us so tired and then, who knew it was going to rain?
Third class tickets cost 16 Baht, small children do not pay so, we traveled back to Bangkok for just 48 Baht. The difference in price shocked me so much I wasn’t even able to process that such a difference in was going to be very visible!
One thing must be said, first class express as well as third class local trains are fine, all of them. And they all have staff on the train ready to clean and collect garbage. Both classes had perfectly clean restroom facilities. And upon arrival there was an army with cleaning weapons waiting for the train to stop and ready to get on board and do their job.
Differences were different, so to speak.
The local train arrived delayed, getting a seat was difficult (sitting together a dream: for instance, Filippo, my eldest, sat next to a Buddhist nun and, as long as he was awake, they made conversation about Buddhism with his limited English resources, now this is what I call homeschooling!).
People traveled with dozens of bags, trolleys, but also supermarket bags, fruit, vegetables and even hens in cages. Vendors walked up and down the carriage selling fruit, iced drinks and snacks. The train stopped in every intermediate station. The train was partly cargo, and this left all our train stuck for a good while on a station before those wagons were detached and we could move on.
We noticed the windows were really old when it started to rain: if you unblocked them to avoid getting wet you could get your fingers cut out, so we got happily wet and refreshed while moving slowly forward to Hua Lamphong. There was no A/C but fans worked loudly fine.
Finally, after three and a half hours sitting on very, very hard seats, we made it to Bangkok.
The rain did not allow us to take another tuk tuk nor to swim, but later that night, the weather was fine again and we could go out to enjoy some more Khao San road, spicy stir fried and Thai beer. I would have liked to go visit other neighborhoods, but we were exhausted, and Chaos San is always fun.
If you want to avoid train travel, back an forth on the same day, sleep in Ayutthaya!
Dreams do come true
So why Happy Ayutthaya? you might be wondering. Well, after all everything went smooth (at least till the elephant crisis and then we weren’t in the mood for more) the train ride was not such a nightmare, but it was long and tiring and the refreshing and desired swim back at the hotel just vanished because of the rain…
Nevertheless, Ayutthaya was happy for it was a planned destination, the magic that Buddha head in a tree can have on kids imagination was enough to make them smile happily when they found it. Their happiness made me happy, and it taught me I can be their teacher as well as their mother. I can teach on the road and that means we are one step closer to being full time nomads. There was no more to ask for, at least for me.
I also feel I taught them a train ride (as any kind of ride in life) can be done in different ways, all of them valid, all of them honest. Life has many colors, all of them interesting and worthy. It doesn’t matter if you travel first or third class. You will always make friends on the road if you’re open-minded and willing to share.