I traveled from the monkey town of Lopburi to Ayuthaya via a one hour train ride, which took us through gorgeous scenery of lush green fields with a backdrop of not-so distant mountains, whose color was ever changing due to the setting sun. The train itself was rather unlike the upscale Special Express train I had taken earlier that day from Bangkok to Lopburi. This train did not blast the air-conditioning like a North American movie theater and neither had cushy seats nor free drink and snack service.
This Rapid Transit train had hard, slippery benches that faced each other. The wooden-framed windows that reminded me of a school bus were all wide open, allowing a strong wind to blow throughout the train car. Wanting to see everything, I made sure to sit right next to the window, an experience which has helped me completely understand the joy a dog feels when sticking her head out of a moving car. The sun slowly set on the opposite side of the train, which I enjoyed watching past the smiling faces of my fellow travelers.
It was dark when I stepped off the train in Ayuthaya, the former capital of Siam. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say, I got incredibly lost and ended up walking a LONG way around to get to the island itself. (It turns out that all I had to do was simply cross the street out of the train station, take a short walk down a small road and take a 2 minute ferry across the river.) Tired of walking I checked into a relatively comfortable guesthouse in the touristy part of town, went to a restaurant not worth mentioning and turned in for the night.
The next morning I arose excited for the day, so I rented a bicycle to check out the sights. Stop number one was the famous Wat Phra Mahathat, which hosts, without a doubt, one of the most photographed trees in the world. The head of a statue of Buddha has somehow been lodged in a trunk of a huge tree. There are various theories of how it got there, but no one knows for sure. The rest of the ruins are also nice to explore, especially because it was such a beautiful day. I wish I had hired a guide as I knew very little of the area.
The ruins of Wat Phra Mahathat reminded me so much of the ancient city of Chitzen Itza in Mexico or Tikal in Guatemala, that I found myself pondering the possibility of any connection.
I decided to spend the afternoon bicycling around in no particular direction, just to see what I would come upon. My enthusiasm for the bike ride slowed to a halt, however, when I came upon a most dreadful scene.
Elephants were actually joining traffic in the streets with a heavy huda on their backs carrying tourists and a mahout, on their necks, wielding a bullhook, ready to strike should at any time the elephant become out of line. Needless to say, this saddened me to the core knowing there was nothing I could do to help those enslaved.
And so I rode on with a heavy heart thinking these would be the only elephants I would see. After all, how big is the island anyway!
But just around the corner I came upon an elephant show where elephants were expected to perform very non-elephant tasks to the tune of blasting Thai music, excited tourists and the loud busy street it was next to. All four elephants, including one baby, were rocking back and forth, showing distress. The apparent climax of the show was having a male elephant stand up on two steps, raising his height so that the entire audience could file under him for good luck. Even up on the steps, the elephant constantly rocked back and forth.
My heart sank at seeing this display of animal abuse and again I found myself in no position to be able to do anything, other than document it by taking a video. Eventually, I got back on my bicycle and continued my bike ride feeling very defeated.
Deciding that I just could not emotionally handle anymore “surprises” that day, I gladly stopped at a park just to sit and debrief. There, I discovered a group of children doing some sort of martial art, which helped lift my spirits as it piqued my curiosity. It turned out that they were practicing Krabi Krabong, a Thai traditional martial art and I enjoyed watching them hone their skills. Here I am holding the “krabi”, a long curved sword:
The most touristy thing to do in Ayuthaya is take a sunset cruise around the entire island, stopping at various Buddhist temples and ruins along the way. Prices can vary anywhere between 150 baht to 400 baht, depending on how much of a cut the travel agency charges.
No matter the price the tour is the same in the end so if you’re on a budget, shop around. It is possible to hire your own boat as well. Despite its overwhelming popularity, this is something not to miss!
Our boat held eight people and we made three 20 minute stops: Wat Panan Choeng, Wat Phutthai Sawsn and the ruins of Wat Chaiwatthanaram. The last attraction was by far the most impressive with its picturesque beauty in front of the setting sun.
Things you should know about visiting Ayuthaya…
Boat Tours: Many travel agencies and guesthouse employees will tell you that you will get both picked up and dropped off at your guesthouse and this is not the case. Tours include the five-minute ride in the back of a pick-up truck to the boat launch, but your boat will dock at the Night Market and you are required to get back to your accommodation on your own. Not to worry, as there are tuktuks waiting at the side of the river to take you wherever you need to go, and the Night Market is a good place to get something to eat for dinner. Surprisingly, there were even a few vegan options, although admittedly many of them were desserts.
Mosquitoes: Ayuthaya is surrounded by three rivers making mosquitoes an issue, especially in the evenings and close to the water. While I was there I was bitten by several mosquitoes, one of which gave me the dreaded Dengue Fever. So be sure to stop in a pharmacy and get bug repellent before heading to Ayuthaya. The higher the Deet content (95% is ideal) the more effective the repellent will be.
Have you been to Ayuthaya? Were your experiences similar?