Saturday, March 12, 2011

Thailand: Ayutthaya

The Wat Phra Si Sanphet section of Ayutthaya is known for its row of chedis (Thai-style stupas). A stupa is a Buddhist shrine. Note the photographs in this post are old and faded and were not that great to begin with. Hopefully, they will give you a taste of the area.

Siam keeps its ghosts close to home. Neither the diaspora of history nor the fluctuations of national boundaries affects these hearty specters who seem quite at home amidst the country's modern plethora of deities and crush of humanity. Such was my impression when I visited Thailand and the ruins of Ayutthaya 85 km north of Bangkok in the early 90s. Ayutthaya is a common tourist destination with river cruisers departing at 11:30 AM daily from the city. It is a fascinating place to visit.

Reclining Buddha with chedis in the background

Remains of a sitting Buddha. Note the tourists in the corner. Most of the other visitors were Asian.

Built in 1350, this ancient capital of Thailand was once one of the largest trading centers in Asia. Scented wood, ivory, camphor, rice, lumber and rubber were important commodities carried on the 1000 or more ships that traveled up the river each year.

Ruins of a Wiharn (a quiet place) at Wat (monastery) Thammikarat

The chedis totally fascinated me. There shape is like nothing else seen in western architecture.

At one point the city was the largest in the world with over 1 million inhabitants. Its temples and buildings were gilded in gold. Surrounded on 3 sides by rivers, canals were also dug to create a society that totally revolved around the water. Similar to modern Venetians, the citizens of Ayutthaya would travel about in dragon headed boats as they enjoyed over 400 years of peace and economic prosperity.

Such glory is always fleeting however...

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Another view of Wat Thamm

A stylized view of a chedis

In 1786 Ayutthaya was sacked by the Burmese. The city was burned to the ground and it took the conquers several days to cart all the gold away. Perhaps the ghosts never left because they are still dazed by the city's sudden change in fortunes. What allegories can one draw for modern societies? All prosperity is fleeting under the relentless crush of time and circumstance.

Seated Buddha

My memories of this trip have been reduced by time to heat, stone, the press of other tourists and the unrelenting sense that something unseen hung in the still air. I was ill on this trip to Thailand with some stomach aliment and I had not eaten for several days but managed to nibble at the nice buffet the cruise put on. The river journey was pleasant. I sat in the stern with some Brits and watched the villages and Hindu temples, with their thousands of carvings, drift slowly by.

The author on the steps of one of the largest chedis

As with most such brief travel experiences, one does not get to see it all, but does get a sense of a place and for a young adventurer traveling alone, Ayutthaya was both mysterious and sobering.

This old photograph, blurry and faded, is like a window into my memories. Was I ever that young?

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