Day 297 – 23 Dec, 2015
Ayutthaya is only 50 miles from Bangkok. A minivan takes about an hour to drive there. While I’ve taken far too many minivans on this journey, to me, they are synonymous with a rusting hunk of metal that is only a matter of time until it meets its fiery demise in a head-on collision. So… I took the train. The train is also a rusting hunk of metal….that barely moves. It took us more than 3 hours to go this distance. There were numerous unexplained delays, the lack of air conditioning would have been pleasant if we had enough breeze to blow through the windows. Instead, a group of Thai elders, having grown impatient themselves, lit up cigarettes in my coach. By the time the train sputtered into the station, I was dying for fresh air.
Too distracted with my immediate discomfort on the train, I realized that I had not made any plans for Ayutthaya, the second capital of Siam after Sukhothai. There is supposed to be an archaeological park, but where? How do I get there? Ayutthaya was founded around 1350 and for many centuries was the trading capital of the world with an ideal location between China, India, and the Malay Archipelago. In 1700, it was the largest city in the world with a population of 1,000,000. But then the Burmese invaded in 1767 and nearly burnt the city to the ground, leaving only a few temples and palaces still remaining.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this when I arrived. As with so many other places I had been, I only knew that it was supposed to be a nice town to visit and that somewhere, there are some ruins. I decided to follow the Lonely Planet-toting white people – this is usually a good strategy under these circumstances. This plan took me on a ferry across a river and right into the eager hands of a bike rental shop. Wait, no one mentioned I would have to bike here… The shop owner thrusted a map in my face with a highlighted route and insisted that it would be impossible to visit the sites without transportation, each site was entirely unique and I must visit them all. While I studied the map and tried to decide if I could tolerate an afternoon of biking in the oppressive heat, he hovered over my shoulder and barked about how his price was the best I would find and that his bikes were in the best condition.
A few minutes later, I was pedaling my way to the first site. I’m such a pushover. The cycling certainly wasn’t all bad, but the bike was solid and the gears were rusty and the brakes were sticky, par for the course. Meanwhile, the temples were unlike anything I had seen before. They towered over the more modern buildings in the town with a royal presence. The stone structures were the only ones not destroyed in the fire. Buddha statues were prevalent throughout the park, big ones, small ones, gold ones, white ones, headless ones…. The heat was oppressive but the archaeological ruins were equally impressive.
As the day wore on, each of the sites was beginning to look more and more like the last and it was more and more difficult to ignore the heavy bike and the unrelenting temperatures. I had so much as decided to concede defeat when as a happy surprise, I returned to my bike and found an elephant loitering nearby. Now we’re in Asia…
The next day I had a longer journey in mind – I wanted to go to Sukhothai, the first capital of Siam. Again, there was an archeological park and fascinating ruins and a bike shop. I took a shared songtaew, a sort of converted pick up truck where you ride in the back on a wooden bench, from the New City to the Old City. The Old City of Sukhothai is much better preserved than Ayutthaya and isn’t littered with makeshift food carts or souvenir shops. The layout seemed more compact and easy to traverse. Immediately disembarking from the songtaew, a bike store was again attacking me with flyers and urging me to come inside for a rental. I quickly scanned the map and asked the lead sales lady what was the distance of the park. She scoffed and said it is 5 km – you NEED a bike. To clarify, I asked if it was 5 km one way or both ways. Growing impatient with me, she said it was 5 km for the whole route. Decision made, I told her I preferred to walk. As I turned to leave, she said, in disbelief, “But it’s 5 kilometers.”
I enjoyed every step of that walk much more than if I had been on a rusting junky bicycle.