Wednesday, June 24, 2009


1. We had originally wanted to see Sukhothai and Ayuthaya after Mae Hong Son and Mae Sot and before proceeding south to the Kra of Isthmus on the way home, but due to time constraint of having to be in Phuket before 22 June decided to visit Ayuthaya only. We had 17 June (Day 52) to see the ruins of Ayuthaya.

2. Thailand has 2 main ancient capitals - Sukhothai and Ayuthaya. Sukhothai was the capital of the first Thai kingdom which flourished from 1240 to 1360 in North Central Thailand. Some considered it the golden period of the Thai. In 1378, the armies from Ayuthaya kingdom invaded and put Sukhothai under her tributary. The Ayuthaya kingdom lasted more than 400 years (33 kings reigned from here), from 1351 to 1767, until it was invaded by Burmese forces in 1767. After a lengthy siege, the Ayuthaya capitulated and was burnt. Ayuthaya's art treasures and the archives housing its historic records were almost totally destroyed, leaving Ayuthaya in ruins. After the Burmese forces were evicted, in 1782, King Rama 1 moved his capital from Thonburi to present day Bangkok. Located on an island formed by 3 rivers, Ayuthaya housed a population of 1 mil at its peak at about 1700. Looking at the ruins of Ayuthaya today, it is not hard to imagine the past splendour of Ayuthaya. It was declared an Unesco World Heritage Site in 1991.

3. We started our tour of Ayuthaya in late morning and it was a very hot day. Our first stop was Wat Na Phra Meru, 5 mins walk from our hotel; both just outside the island. There were 4 visitors in the main sanctuary, with 2 of them praying to the Buddha image. This temple escaped destruction during Burmese attacks in 1767 as it was used by the invading army. Built in the early Ayuthaya period, its main sanctuary is 50 m long and 16 m wide with beautiful wood roof carving and a 6 m high splendid Buddha image thats made of pure gold. Behind the main sanctuary in the smaller wilaan (large hall) is a green stone a 1300 years old Buddha image from Sri Lanka, in the unusual pose of sitting on a chair. The murals on the walls are beautiful, though faded.

4. In the temple, a plague explained an interesting twist of fate that the temple played in the turbulent relationships between Siam and Burma. In 1560, after Thailand was defeated by Burma, the temple was the place where the kings of Thailand and Burma signed the peace treaty, and as witnesses they brought the Buddha image, the Holy Book and monks. In 1760 (1767, according to other sources), the king of Burma invaded Thailand and used the temple ground to place cannons and fire at the royal palaces. The king of Burma then fired the cannon himself and one of the cannons "burst out" and injured him seriously, causing him to withdraw his army back to Burma. He died at Tak, on his way back to Burma.

5. We crossed the river onto the island and tried walking to Wat Phra Si Sanphet and Phra Mongkhon Bophit, which were really not far away. But, after a few mins we found the midday heat unbearable and decided to walk back to the the Old Palace Hotel to pick up our car so that we could move from place to place in our car instead of walking. We parked our car to the rear of Phra Mongkorn Bophit in a large laterite car park. There were already many tour buses and vans in the car park. Obviously a popular tourist stop, there were many many merchandising stalls (too many I thought) along the edge of the car park and on the way to the entrances of the temples.

6. Phra Mongkorn Bophit was located on the west side of the old palace. It was built during the early Ayuthaya period, between 1448 and 1602. Its bronze Buddha image is 12.45 m high, the largest in Thailand. During the Burmese attacks of 1767, the temple was devastated, but amazingly the Buddha remained intact with some damages to the head and the right arm. The Buddha image and the temple was were repaired and restored in the 1950s. The temple was crowded with many devotees. Saw this man praying to a Buddha image just outside the entrance to the main sanctuary. After burning the joss sticks, he pasted golf leaflets onto the Buddha image.

7. Wat Phra Si Sanphet lies next door to Phra Mongkorn Bophit. The 3 bell-shaped chedis (stupas) of Wat Phra Si Sanphet, probably the most photographed temple in Ayuthaya, have practically become a symbol of Ayuthaya. The temple stands almost in the center of the main area of the old capital. Built in 1448, it was one of the grandest temples in the ancient capital, and it is still one of the best preserved on the island. The temple took its name from the large standing Buddha image erected there in 1503. The image stood 16 meters tall and was covered with more than 150 kgs (Other sources put it as 250 kg) of gold. Apparently, the Buddha image was smashed to pieces when the Burmese sacked the city and the gold carted back to Burma. Overheard a tour guide cheekily saying to a group of farang tourists that the gold could have gone to build Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Yangon. The 3 chedis were built to contain the ashes of 3 kings. The chedis were surrounded by smaller chedis placed near the outer wall, many are now in ruins.

8. Our next stop was the Ayuthaya Historical Study Centre, to catch a little more history of Ayuthaya. It is located in a building of modern design, with a open and empty ground floor, as if it was built on stilts. The wall on the ground level has a beautiful mural depicting the history of Ayuthaya, a section of which is shown on the right. We were asked to take off our shoes before entering the centre. Three big models beautifully done greeted us upon our entry - an elephant kraal (where elephants were hunted and channelled into a compound for taming), a plan of Ayuthaya island in the 17th century, and Wat Chai Wattanaram. Exhibits talk about the role of Ayuthaya in international commerce, the development of the city, and the many people who had come to stay in Ayuthaya. What I particularly like were the drawings and paintings done by foreigners (eg the one by a Dutch diplomat was particularly detailed) who had stayed in Ayuthaya when the city was at its peak. They gave us a fairly good idea of whats the city was like then. Must admit that the spendour of Ayuthaya was a revelation to me. The study centre is a good first stop to get an insight of Ayuthaya history before visiting the ruins and the temples.

9. The Chantharakasem National Museum was our next stop. Housing a collection of Ayuthaya artifacts and religious (esp Buddhism) items, the museum comprises 3 elegant building and an observatory situated in the complex of the Chantharakasem Palace. The palace was established in 1577 and was originally the residence of King Naresaun the Great before he ascended the throne. Later, it became the residence of the crown prince. The palace was destroyed by the Burmese army in 1767 and abandoned untill King Rama IV rebuilt it in 1936 and designated it as a national museum. The 1st building, known as the Chaturamuk Pavilion, contains a memorial to King Mongkut and a collection of his personal items. Made completely of wood, I found this building particularly interesting. In the Phimanrathaya Pavilion are display of Buddha images and interesting collection of photos of temples. The L-shaped building features period displays ranging from architecture to weapons, costumes and ceramics. The observatory was probably one of the tallest buildings of Ayuthaya then, and was used to study stars etc. The first picture above was taken from the 2nd floor of the tower. Unfortunately, no photography permitted again.

10. As a last stop before calling it a day, we decided to visit one of the foreign quarters. We arrived at the Japanese quarter as a bus load of Japanese tourists was leaving. The location currently houses a branch of the historical study centre, largely catering to Japanese tourists, and a retail shop. There is nothing left of the old Japanese settlement. Trade was already thriving between Japan and Siam in early 17th century and a Japanese colony was established in Siam, south of Ayuthaya, off the island. One estimate put the number of Japanese inhabitants at 1500. Another account put it as high as 7000. Apparently, they were largely Christians running away from persecution in Japan. The colony was active in trade, particularly in the export of deer-hide and sappan wood to Japan in exchange for Japanese silver and Japanese handicrafts (swords, lacquered boxes, high-quality papers). From Siam, Japan was interested in purchasing silks and other local products. In one letter between the shogun and the king of Siam exhibited at the study centre the shogun asked Siam to help procure weapons. I particularly like the big wall picture of old Ayuthaya in the main hall based on a painting done by either a Dutch or French artist (at my age, memory cells died rapidly). Unfortunately, no photography was permitted again. Other than this historical study centre and a view across to the island, there was nothing else to see at the Japanese settlement.

11. After washing up, we had a Thai food dinner at Ruean Rojjana Restaurant, beside a prang ruin which was beautifully lighted up at night.

12. It was a short visit to Ayuthaya. A longer visit would allow us to get more than a glimpse of this historic city, which for hundreds of years was the centre of Indochina and a burgeoning centre of international commerce, until the Burmese army decided to put an end to this glorious chapter of Siamese history.

13. The next day, we would be on the road south, on the way home.

No comments:

Post a Comment