Soft, light, flighty..!
By Inder Raj Ahluwalia
It was the kind of feeling that caresses you like a feather touch and remains with you like a constant companion.
The day’s first sun rays welcomed me as I boarded the ‘Oriental Queen’, an ultra-luxury river cruiser operated by the Oriental Hotel, to sail down the Chao Phraya, (River of Kings). 80 km down-river from Bangkok, Ayutthaya laid waiting.
The city was waking up for the day as we sailed down the busy river, the skyline and scenery changing by the minute. The huge riverfront structures that are modern Bangkok’s commercial symbols, gave way to green fields and shacks, and the occasional pagoda visible in the distance. While the river was muddy to the point of being uninviting, the scenery on both sides was refreshing and the on-board service superb
Before you could say ‘Jim Robinson’ we’d docked at a little jetty that had more foreign tourists than wooden planks, and alighted in the heart of Thailand’s Northern Plains in mellow sunshine.
Ayutthaya is a city that has come back from the past. Brick by brick, it’s been carefully restored to its original splendour that mirrors the legacy and glory of ancient empires.
History hangs everywhere like a shroud. Capital of Thailand from 1350, and a power centre for over 400 years till its ravage and destruction by Burmese invaders in 1767, Ayutthaya today is a prime destination and priceless Thai and Buddhist relic.
Ayutthaya’s heydays in the 17th Century saw it become the most fabulous city in the Orient, a centre of pomp and glory, a place of fabulous temples built by its people in honour of their Gods, and impressive palaces for their royalty. The buildings were constructed on a grand scale, set amidst landscaped gardens and given definite shapes, all of which testify to a well-developed architectural flair.
Adhering to the city’s historic value, no fresh construction is allowed. The skilful restoration work has ensured that nothing’s been changed, nothing’s been removed. Everything is intact in terms of physical proportions. The ruins have been carefully restored. Most still show their rough, rugged beauty through elegant shapes and distinct contours. The former glory of those bygone days is back.
The city’s first aspect that impressed me is the rare sense of space that’s soothing both to the mind and body. Enhancing the effect of the overall vastness is the comparative lack of vehicular traffic and refreshing silence.
My city walking tour was as educative as it was interesting. The entire area’s replete with attractions. The architectural relics include shells of palaces that lie in the middle of large courtyards and precariously leaning pagodas partly submerged beneath vegetation. There are countless, diverse smaller structures, and a superb and priceless collection of Buddha images, some neatly lined up in a row as though part of some grand ceremony. In keeping with their religious and heritage value, the Buddha images deserve respect, which sets certain behavioral norms. It’s considered disrespectful to point one’s feet towards them or ascend to higher levels than where they’re placed. And smoking is prohibited. One must never forget that, tourism notwithstanding, this is a very sacred, religious and historical place.
Among the most important sites are the interesting ruins of the former Royal Palace, which was a complex of several buildings – something like a ‘city within a city’. Worth seeing is the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum that’s stocked with old handicrafts and Thai art treasures that span several centuries of craftsmanship. Amidst these treasures, nestles a large Buddha image called the Phra Mongkhon Bophit, a relic of infinite value.
A fairytale scene of architectural wonders awaits you at Bang Pa-In Summer Palace, which played a significant role in former royal days. The palace features a unique collection of ornate ceilings, pillars, and bright arches, tastefully merged to form this beautiful and majestic structure.
As is the case in most of Thailand, your local shopping experience can be as varied and exciting as you want it to be. While the main buildings of note are all old and historic, there’s nothing old or historic about the dozens and dozens of shopping outlets that do roaring business in souvenir sales, with voracious bargaining very much a part of the deal. The famous local souvenir is fish mobiles, but equally popular and fast-selling are other items that include silks, weaves, artificial flowers, basketry, gilded human figurines, dolls, and the choicest woodcarving. Adjacent to Bang Pa–In is the Bang Sai Royal Folk Arts and Crafts Centre, where craftsmen from Thailand’s four main regions converge and produce quality handicrafts.
No matter what your mindset, the word special’ would feature in your description of Ayutthaya. Not by any means Thailand’s main tourist centre, the city’s popularity is continuously soaring, and with good reason. You get to peep into the country’s past, get a chance to admire the superb old architecture and learn about old age-old rituals that still hold sway.
Instead of loud contemporary music, there are religious chants of monks. And in place of bright lights, here there is the glow of little candles and lamps lit in reverence to local Gods and deities.
Soulful, peaceful, beautiful! A visit is always worth the trouble.
- Ayutthaya is mainly a daytime destination from Bangkok, being about three hours upriver from the Thai capital, and accessible by ferry (3 hours) and road (2 hours).
- While the town’s a year-round destination, climate-wise, the best time to visit is from October through March.
- Some monuments require visitors to follow certain norms, like removing one’s shoes etc. It is important to ensure that one does not show disrespect to Buddha images.
- The local tourist office furnishes relevant details and also provides general tourist information.
About the author:
Inder Raj Ahluwalia is a world-renowned international travel journalist & author. His professional profile features awards from several European and Asian countries, among others.