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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Ayutthaya

This story is bit old, but that’s perfect given the city being discussed has been around for centuries. Not to mention I've got plenty of time to tell it now that we have started our night surveys for frogs and therefore have lots of down time during the day. Earlier this month, soon after we arrived in Bangkok… Mike and I decided to take a day trip to Ayutthaya (the 'h' is silent), the former capital of Siam (Thailand). Ayutthaya is famous for its ruins, remnants of a magnificent capital complete with grand palaces and temples that were destroyed by the Burmese when they attacked the city in 1767. In 1991, Ayutthaya was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its rich history.
Reflecting on days gone by
This was definitely a must-see on our to-do list, so we booked our arrangements through the place we were staying, which meant we conveniently got picked up at our hostel around 7 am in the morning. We rode in a van/bus vehicle with along with other tourists staying in various hostels throughout Bangkok. On our way there, I read a bit more about this ancient city in my Lonely Planet guidebook. “Ayutthaya was the esteemed capital of Siam from 1350 until the Burmese attack in 1767. At one point, over 400 temples elegantly displayed the nation’s wealth and splendor here. For some time, the empire ruled over an area larger than England and France combined!” This was quite impressive to me, and I allowed my imagination to run wild with images of the ancient magnificence and beauty.
When I imagine ancient Asia, I always think of elephants
The trip there took about an hour and a half, and there were many different languages being spoken inside the van on the way. The tour group was a melting pot consisting of four friends from Spain, a mom and her son from Germany, an Italian guy with his Thai girlfriend, two school girls from Japan, a girl and her grandmother from Holland, and of course Mike & me from the U.S. Our first stop was Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon… which was quite impressive, to say the least.
A glimpse of the glory
Our Thai tour guide explained a bit of the history to us, but it was quite difficult to understand his broken English and I swear he kept throwing Thai words in slyly, so I didn't catch much. That was fine by me though, I figured I could always read about it later… but I was only going to have one shot to actually explore it. As soon as he was done with his spiel, he held up a sign that said 10:30 am on it (meaning we were to meet him at that time) and then released us to do as we wished. Mike and I snapped a few shots from the base of the temple, and then proceeded to climb the stairs and check out the inside.
The view from the top
Surrounding the temple were multitudes of meditating Buddhas, which brought on a respectful and peaceful demeanor to most of the visitors- including me. It’s hard not to be in awe when you think about the fact that these temples were built long before modern machinery. Inside the temple, there was a narrow shaft that extended quite a distance, where people were releasing tiny gold flecks.
A religious gold mine
The gold flecks are a symbolic part of a Buddhist ritual known as “merit-making” -- a way to improve your standing in life, or essentially creating good karma. They are typically placed on a Buddha figure after a prayer, or in this case a shaft. Not quite sure if the shaft signifies something “deeper” but it was cool to check out. The area inside was very small, and we didn't stick around long so as to avoid disturbing the worship of the others as little as possible
Golden Buddha covered in flakes

We wandered around on the upper rim of the temple for a while, enjoying the different views from that height. Surrounding the temple are a series of simple houses that form a small monastery. According to the guidebook, King U Thong built the monastery in 1357 to house monks from Sri Lanka. Approximately 95% of Thai people are Theravada Buddhists, a branch of Buddhism that came from Sri Lanka during the Sukhothai period (mid 13th century). These facts all sound great on paper, but when you’re actually there suddenly those numbers begin to sink in… and it becomes much easier to allow your mind to grasp that over 600 years ago Thai monks were following the path to enlightenment on that very ground. Righteous!

Ayutthaya is an island created by surrounding rivers, which helped to propel it as a strategic trading location as well as an easily defended fortress. This river system connected with the Gulf of Thailand, and the resulting trade network brought the city exotic goods and visitors from many far-away lands. I think traveling to this city just a few weeks ago was quite an undertaking… even with the accessibility of planes, trains, and buses. I can’t imagine how much of an intrepid spirit you would need to possess to dare to travel here in the 16th century from distant places such as Portugal or London. But indeed, a select few had the courage to make the journey and lived to tell the tale of the grandeur of this empire.

We couldn't just take their word for it though; we had to see it for ourselves! Well, what was left of it anyhow… and the rest was left to our imagination.

Visualizing greatness in the past, while witnessing soothing beauty in the present
We headed down the stairs of the temple, and explored around the vicinity for awhile… as we still had plenty of time to kill until 10:30. We walked around the outer path surrounding the monuments, and encountered a series of signs informing us of “The Thirty-Eight Blessings.” Some of them made perfect sense, others were quite bizarre.
Easier said than done
During our walk around the temple, we came upon a side wall that held many decapitated Buddha heads. When the Burmese attacked the city, they allegedly cut the heads off of as many Buddha statues as possible, perhaps in a demoralizing gesture or perhaps to see if there was anything of value hidden inside. Within Thai culture, the head is viewed as the highest and most sacred part of the body… this is especially true for Buddha’s head. To touch anyone’s head, particularly Buddha’s head, is a severe insult. 
Disturb these guys, and heads will roll
We continued around the temple grounds and noticed a small canal that had an arched walkway bridging it. We crossed over and took a look around. At first I thought this might be one of the rivers surrounding the island, but I quickly realized it was far too small for that. Seems its primary purpose was for decoration and religious rituals.
A nearby canal
While standing on the bridge, we observed large bunches of turtles swimming about and then quickly realized there was a crowd of people feeding them from the water’s edge with handfuls of turtle pellets. So we ventured down to get a closer look and snap some photos. The turtles didn’t seem to pay us any mind… that is, once they realized we didn’t have any food for them.
"Are you gonna feed me?"
After a bit, we continued on… peacefully enjoying the surrounding sights and sounds. As our 10:30 curfew crept closer, I began to wish that we had chosen to explore this ancient city on our own… preferably on a rented bicycle. The tour had its advantages though, for a meager cost we had transportation arranged, lunch was included, and all of the admission fees to the various temples were covered. That might have added up to less if we’d done it on our own… but the convenience of not having to do any research beforehand was well worth the extra baht given our limited time frame.
Finding tranquility and balance everywhere
In our final few minutes before we were to leave this place to head to another awesome site, we found the reclining Buddha that this Wat was well known for. At more than 7 meters long (just over 23 feet) this was quite a sight to behold. We later learned from our guide that the various positions of Buddha each signify something different. The reclining Buddha signifies reaching nirvana – therefore he is ready to pass into the next life, hence his reclined position as he lies down to die.
Waiting for Nirvana to take the stage

We all gathered back at the van, and then had to wait patiently for the German mother and her son who apparently didn’t get the memo about 10:30. Finally our driver tracked them down, and we drove off to explore the next stop on our tour – Wat Phra Mahathat. This place was much more expansive, as the ruins were spread over quite a large area… but it was not nearly in the same condition as Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon. For the most part, nature had been allowed to run its course here, and many of the ruins were invaded by fields of grass and tree roots… a nice reminder of the resiliency of the earth.
Our guide giving us some background info on the site
The most famous example of this is a sandstone Buddha head that lies mysteriously trapped within a tree’s roots. No one is quite sure how it came to be there, but some say the head was abandoned after the Burmese sacked the area, and then the tree grew around it. Others think thieves tried to steal it, but gave up because it was so heavy… leaving it for the tree to claim. However it happened, it’s quite cool.
Becoming one with nature
After snapping several pictures of this iconic image, we meandered all over the ruins… slowly taking in the magnitude of the place. Throughout the surrounding area we saw many headless Buddha statues; reminders of the cruel assault that took place there so many years ago.
Careful while meditating here, you may lose your head
Walking around was an enjoyable and relaxing experience. For part of it we chatted with the Dutch girl and her grandmother about their travels and our plans to live in the jungle for the next four months. They were quite interested in this, and mentioned that they planned to spend some time in the jungles of Cambodia. I challenged them to eat some spiders while they were there, but they didn’t seem too keen on the idea.
Exploring the ruins
After a bit, we made our way back to the main entrance of the ruins to rejoin our group. There were lots of knick knacks and cheap souvenirs for sale there, but I resisted the urge to buy anything… knowing I would have to lug it around and protect it for four months before going home. Instead I spent some baht on a much needed big bottle of water, while Mike chose to quench his thirst with a fresh coconut. I marveled at the ice cream flavor selection here… not exactly your normal Ben & Jerry’s options. They had black bean, milk tea, and green bean flavors, to name a few. I decided not to try any… this time.
Mike enjoying some fresh coconut milk
 As we were leaving for our next destination, I noticed a funky túk-túk (small motorized vehicle) that was much different from the classic design I had seen all over Bangkok. It had a large plastic protruding “hood” which I later read might have been designed in Japan many years ago. Supposedly these uniquely shaped mini taxis have been in use here at Ayuttaya for over 50 years. We even saw one that was Batman themed!
Sleek and vibrant tuk-tuks decorate the streets
 Leaving the temples of Phra Mahathat behind, we headed off to another area of the city where we found an even larger reclining Buddha than the one we saw before. There were a few groups of Thai tourists here as well, exploring their national treasures and paying homage to Buddha. For many Thai Buddhists, touring different temples and monuments to make merit can be acquainted to our practice of visiting history museums in new towns. It’s culturally enriching, educational, and fun (usually).
Buddha getting a sun tan
We ventured around the small adjacent ruins, finding a leaning tower that had certainly seen better days and a wide open brick area that probably formed the base of a larger temple at one time. I snapped a few photos, stopped to meditate for a sec, and then we were back in the van.
There's no place like OHM
There was one more temple for us to explore, and then we would take a lunch break. The next Wat was called Phu Khao Thong, and the majority of it was actually originally built by the Burmese during a 15-year occupation of the area. The top section or stupa was added later by Thais after they reclaimed the region.

Wat Phu Khao Thong

This remarkable monument had 79 steps that led to a top tier of the temple, which allowed for some spectacular views of the neighboring countryside. Mike and I climbed every step, and although it was quite exhausting… it was well worth the struggle.
Hiking to the top
 Surrounding the Wat was a modest monastery that was established in 1387 by King Ramesuan. We looked down at it from above, and then later walked around it for a bit. At the top of the monument there was also a very small tunnel that would lead you inside the stupa, where a sacred Buddha image resided behind glass. The glass was covered in gold flakes, placed there by travelers coming to make merit.
To the Monastery, and beyond!
This monument had an interesting theme behind it… a part of it was dedicated to roosters. Turns out, in the front part of the monument there is a small shrine to King Naresuan, a Thai king who helped over throw a small period of Burmese rule that began in 1569. King Naresuan is revered as a national hero in Thai culture, and is especially worshipped by the Thai army. Legend has it that when he was held captive in Burma during this time of struggle, his fighting cocks were invincible and helped secure his feared reputation. This explains the connection to roosters prevalent at this memorial.
Beware the King's cock
Other than a peacefully grazing cow, there wasn’t much else to see here aside from the monastery and the monument, so before too long we were relaxing in the shade… waiting for the cue to leave.
Mooooooving on...
At this point, it was time to eat! I didn’t really know what to expect, but turns out we were getting treated to a family style meal of traditional Thai foods. This was actually my favorite part of traveling as part of this melting pot… for a small period of time, we got to sit down and share a meal while getting to know each other a little better. It was quite entertaining, and many laughs were shared despite the various language barriers. If only meals were shared between people of different nationalities more often, there might not be so much turmoil in the world.
Breaking bread... well, rice -- with our fellow travelers
 After lunch we had one final destination before heading back to Bangkok. Wat Phra Si Sanphet was the last stop on our list, but certainly not the least. This temple hosts one of the most iconic images of Ayuttaya… its three chedi (stupas or conical-shaped Buddhist monuments). My only regret is that we wouldn’t be around to see it at night time… which is supposed to be quite a fantastic experience as the temples are illuminated after dark.
The three stupas of Wat Phra Si Sanphet
This particular temple was the city’s largest, and it was used by several kings after it was built in the 14th century. Walking around these ruins, I was finally starting to get a pretty good idea of just how massive this city must have been. The drive between each of the various temples was at least 10 or 15 minutes, and in its heyday that area must have all been filled with bustling marketplaces and elegant houses. In addition to walking around the ruins, we also stopped inside the neighboring active temple to make merit. After all, a little extra good luck never hurt anybody.
Heading to the temple to increase our good karma
Inside the temple was a very large gold Buddha… I believe it was over 17 meters ( ~55 feet) tall! It was quite an impressive sight. The interior of the temple was also adorned with many smaller, golden statues of meditating Buddhas, as well as ornately decorated vases and other artifacts. Once upon a time, the temple that stood on this ground long ago held a 16m-high standing Buddha covered with 250 kg of gold, but it was melted down by the Burmese during their conquest.
Big Buddha is watching you
After we left the temple and put our shoes back on, we wandered back towards a large pond on the premises, which we had crossed over earlier to get here. As we were headed that way, we heard loud music and saw a crowd gathered around, so of course we went to go check it out. Oddly enough, we had chanced upon our first cobra of the trip! But my excitement quickly waned. I had expected to see some snake charmers, but there was nothing charming about this. Just a few kids and what I imagined was their money-hungry uncle, tormenting a bunch of venomous snakes to get some attention.
Git em boys!
We stuck around for awhile, hoping to see someone get bitten (they deserved it) but no such luck. Sorry if this seems harsh, but these are wild and beautiful animals that belong in their natural habitat, not crammed in a box until show time and then constantly stressed out. But there wasn't much we could do about it. They brought out a mangrove snake too, which was neat to see… but not in that context. Then we watched a little kid pick up the cobra and walk it like a dog… at which point I figured I’d seen it all, and we wandered on.
Taking his snake for a stroll
As we were just about to cross the pond, I noticed various colored buckets filled with lots of different pond creatures. At first I thought these were for sale for someone with an odd appetite for eels, goldfish and turtles… but then I witnessed someone buy some fish and then release them into the pond. As it turns out, this was part of a Buddhist ritual that was supposed to bring about more good fortune.
Good luck goldfish for sale
On the other side of the pond, we were in for a real treat. In a large outdoor shelter, and in the wide open dirt area surrounding it there were at least five or six very large Asian elephants parading around in regal fashion. The bigger ones were adorned with a bench-like saddle and an umbrella, fitted to offer rides around the ruins. Within the shelter, there was a woman with a microphone saying loud things in Thai over blaring pop music. Behind her, some smaller elephants were putting on a show of sorts… mostly wiggling their big heads back and forth.
A palatial pachyderm
Elephants are amazing animals, and I relish any chance I get to lay eyes on them… especially here because they are obviously native to Thailand and have had a very interesting history in this country. For hundreds of years, elephants have been used by Thai people to help win ancient wars, harvest timber, construct mighty cities, and to transport kings. Unfortunately, the state of elephants currently is not quite so glorious. Their natural habitat has been significantly reduced, and currently there are estimated to be only about 4,000 elephants left in Thailand – of which merely 1,000 are wild.
Time for a (massive) lunch break
When logging was banned in 1989, many captive elephants and their keepers (mahouts) were left without work. As a result, the intelligent ones have turned to the tourism industry to continue to pay for the astonishing 150 kg (330 lbs) of food an elephant will munch through in a day. This has produced a variety of results, ranging from circus-like shows to extremely elephant-friendly camps where tourists can learn how to properly care for these remarkable creatures. Unfortunately, I believe this particular elephant exhibition was leaning much more towards the circus side of things, which I didn't like one bit.
A beautiful baby elephant, attached to a very ugly chain
While we were watching the elephants put on a show, I noticed a couple of elephants being led by one of their keepers to the banana stand for a “small” snack. We decided to follow them and get a closer look at these awesome animals, since I was quickly tiring of watching this Thai woman dressed like a cow-girl shouting into the microphone.
Joining the elephants for a mid-afternoon snack
This was definitely the closest I've ever been to an elephant without someone watching over me or giving me strict directions. They were basically just wandering around amongst the people, stuffing their faces peacefully. I even saw one elephant consume a fruit punch looking drink out of a large plastic cup with ease. Certainly a new experience for me, and many of the Thai tourists seemed just as enthralled. 
Mind if I park here?
As many of you already know, elephants are extremely intelligent and emotional animals and in the wild they have a complex matriarchal system where an older female will lead the herd to the best spots for eating, drinking and having fun. One of the reasons they are so fascinating to humans is their vast ability to form affectionate connections and solve intellectual puzzles. For this exact reason, it is a shame to see them pushed around with sharp hooks and treated like cash cows. I’m not sure the exact level of care these animals were receiving, but I hope it wasn’t too bad. 
Peanuts please
Ayutthaya is actually home to one of the best elephant sanctuaries in all of Thailand, as well as one of the most historic elephant landmarks. The Ayutthaya Elephant Palace is a breeding center for these magnificent mammals, as well as a non-profit organization that protects elephants by buying sick or abused animals and giving them a good home. In addition to this massive sanctuary, just north of Ayuttaya you can tour an ancient Elephant Kraal where hundreds of wild elephants used to be rounded up for inspection by the King, who would then chose the finest animals for working the land or going to war. Unfortunately due to our limited time constraints, we didn’t get to see either… but perhaps after the field season is done we can make a return trip on our way north to Chang Mai.
Just a couple of buds, hanging out
Before too long, it was time for us to head home to Bangkok. So we bid the elephants goodbye, and wished them a peaceful time filled with lots of food and just the right amount of exercise. For such large animals, I’m sure they have gigantic hearts and looking into their eyes brought on an immensely calming feeling. I was happy I got to spend a little time with these wonderful creatures and I hoped that they were living a good life. When we tour around after the field season, I plan to spend even more time with elephants… hopefully seeing them in the wild as well as caring for them in captivity. For now, this was definitely a pleasurable first encounter.
Until next time... Peace out!

I’d like to dedicate this post to my brother Eric, whose favorite animal is the Elephant.
Happy Birthday Bro!

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