WITH flights galore, Bangkok is a choice weekend getaway for many Singaporeans.
The Thai capital is well-known as an eating and shopping paradise, where the cost of almost anything related to our national past-times is a fraction of what we pay on our little island.
But, beyond gastronomical indulgences, non-stop entertainment, cheap massages and recurring pilgrimages to Chatuchak Market, the chaotic city that never sleeps offers so much more.
For one, it is the gateway to less visited cities, including sacred Ayutthaya — just 85km north — where much of Thailand’s history is built on.
A fabled past
Founded around 1350, Ayutthaya grew rapidly to become one of the richest and most cosmopolitan cities in Asia because of its vast, global trade links.
By the 17th century, it was the proud, wealthy home to reportedly over a million residents — more than London’s population then, making it the largest city in the world. It also had an astonishing 2,000 Buddhist temples, or wats, as they are called in Thai.
But today, Ayutthaya is a far cry from its powerful past. Countless Burmese invasions up to the late 18th century resulted in savage massacres, scattering its people, with most fleeing to what became known as Bangkok.
Only about 50,000 people now live there, and with hundreds of its glorious wats destroyed during Ayutthaya’s tumultuous years, or damaged by devastating floods and recent urban development, Ayutthaya has been proclaimed by the Global Heritage Fund as one of 10 Asian historical sites facing disrepair.
But even as facts, figures and its future seem bleak, quiet Ayutthaya is still a sight to behold. Its old city, now a Unesco World Heritage-inscribed Historical Park, sits on an island.
There, many majestic, rambling temple ruins stand stoically, reminiscent of Ayutthaya’s days of grandeur.
It was scorching when I visited Ayutthaya but the magnificent wats were so spell-binding that I did not realise that I was gradually being toasted.
Depending on the time of day, they reflect shades of orange and red, then cast looming shadows, and finally, project ethereal silhouettes by day’s end; their towering stupas akin to gigantic stone ladders leading to heaven at any time.
There are ancient monuments in almost every corner of the city, but a number of Ayutthaya’s most intriguing temples are located on the western half of the island.
Only about 3km by 2km in size, the island — surrounded by a canal at the confluence of three rivers — can be easily discovered by foot. If you have no qualms about riding an elephant, you can even feel like royalty from days of yore and see some sites atop the great animal.
Wats to see
Among the must-visit temples is Wat Phra Sri Sanphet, located in the Royal Palace compounds.
Comprising three almost identical bell-shaped chedis (Thai-styled stupas), it is the undisputed image of Ayutthaya.
The temple — used exclusively for royal ceremonies — was the holiest and most beautiful in the old capital.
It was destroyed by the Burmese in 1767 but restored in the mid-1950s.
Although only the iconic chedis stand preserved, it is easy to imagine how spectacular the rest of the temple must have been from the detailed architecture of its ruins.
Two important temples sit a short walk away: Wat Phra Ram — probably Ayutthaya’s oldest, and Wat Mahathat, where rows of headless Buddha statues in a leafy courtyard evoke an unsolicited sense of serenity.
But Wat Mahathat is best known for a mystery clinging to it: in a corner, a solitary stone Buddha head is intertwined among the knotty roots of a revered banyan tree.
Ayutthaya’s warrior king
I took a tuk-tuk ride to check out the King Naresuan Monument located north of the city. As Ayutthaya’s great hero, he was responsible for fighting the Burmese and securing the city’s independence in the 16th century. A Thai blockbuster movie was even produced to glorify him.
The monument is built just beside Wat Phu Khao Thong, at a spot where merciless battles were fought with the Burmese.
On the marble block that supports the king-on-horseback statue, pictorial reliefs narrate King Naresuan’s battles.
At its four side entrances, colourful larger-than-life rooster statues stand guard, a tribute to a myth about how King Naresuan predicted the rise of Ayutthaya through a victorious cock-fight with a Burmese prince. Thais across the country place rooster statues there as offerings.
Venice of the East
Ayutthaya is surrounded by canals and tributaries, and many residents get around by boat. On my final evening, I joined a group of tourists on a boat tour and gained a different perspective of the city that Europeans used to call Venice of the East during its heyday.
The two-hour boat-ride makes three pit-stops at riverside temples along its route. At the Chinese-inspired Wat Phanan Choeng, a narrow walkway leads to a hall which houses a gigantic 19m-tall Buddha statue, with 84,000 miniature ones surrounding it.
The final stop is at Wat Chai Wattanaram, whose ambience is enhanced many-fold at dusk.
Upon arrival at the stone embankment, dilapidated brick walls lead visitors to a pair of guardian Buddha statues, perched high up on stone pedestals in front of an imposing central tower.
Picturing the stunning silhouetted temple against a theatrical backdrop of golden sunset streaks was the perfect way to end my Ayutthaya visit.
I flew to Bangkok on Thai Airways. Frequent buses and trains depart Bangkok for Ayutthaya, 1.5hrs away.
■ A day trip from Bangkok is possible, but Ayutthaya is best discovered over at least two days. There are many temples worth visiting even outside the Historical Park; most are free, but some charge a nominal entrance fee.
■ If time permits, visit Ruen Tubtim, an intricately-designed teak house, located 5 minutes by boat from the old city’s main pier. It offers authentic Thai food, and has a rich history: King Rama VII visited it during his tour of Ayutthaya in the early 20th century because of its beauty. Today, it is a cosy guesthouse-cum-museum with many artefacts from the past. Call to arrange for a free boat pick-up.
■ Many guesthouses organise evening cruises on long-tail boats around Ayutthaya. It costs 200 Baht (S$8) per person.
■ Ayutthaya Floating Market provides an alternative to temple-hopping. The kitschy tourist market sells souvenirs and there are day-long cultural shows. The relatively-steep 200 Baht entrance fee includes a boat-ride.
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