Saturday, March 22, 2014

Surprise - more temples!

Remember the Muaeng Sing temple ruins from the last blog post? If you, dear reader, already had enough after looking at those photos, then don't read any further. Because in Ayutthaya and in Sukhothai there are shitloads of more temple ruins!

So let me clear things up a little bit (I know it's not the first time I write this). Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, both now UNESCO world heritage sites, were once not only the de-facto capitals of Siam/Thailand, but also independent kingdoms that carried on trade throughout all Asia, if not even with other continents!  Nowadays it's hard to believe that these two cities were once really big players in world history, especially if you never heard of them before.

But let's take first a look at Ayutthaya. Situated 70 kilometers north of Bangkok (or 150 kilometers west of Kanchanaburi where I was before) it first seems like a small town inmidst of dry plains and some other remote Thai towns. Some malicious tongues might even say that there is not so much glory left from the days when that very same city was once one of the most influential kingdoms in Asia. But despite the tragic fall of that empire, some fragments of the ancient Ayutthaya stood the test of time and are still accessible; and of course I'm talking of the temple ruins.
Welcome to Ayutthaya, farang.

It's interesting that the Thais were actually able to rebuild the modern town of Ayutthaya just next to all those temple ruins, so the new town's location hasn't been relocated like in Sukhothai for example. Imagine that you're just wandering through the modern part of the city, and 5 minutes later and some streets away you already get to see some of the country's most spectacular temple ruins.

But first, what was the city's big deal back in time anyway? So between the 14th and 18th century the kingdom of Ayutthaya grew into a huge empire that (during its period of prosperity) was inhabited by more than 1 million (!) Siamese and even some foreigners from all possible nationalities. During the city's existence it was the place of residence of more than 30 reigns of kings who all lived in a palace similar to Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok. The main capital was built on a quasi-island surrounded by the Lopburi, Pa Sak and Chao Phraya river, making it an excellent location for traders who came visiting the city on the maritime route. Surprisingly, the most accurate historical sources of how the city looked like are actually of western origin!

French and Dutch illustrators drew several maps back then.
Back then the city was spelled as «Iudea».

While Ayutthaya continiously carried on trade with other kingdoms like China, Vietnam, India, Japan or Persia, they even got into contact with western countries like France, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands! Common Ayutthayan export goods were for example wood, pottery, natrual lacquers, local food products and even ivory.

It's of course needless to say that many western missionaries and royal delegates tried to convert the Siamese and even the king himself to Christianity or to gain enough political influence over Ayutthaya, but it seems that apart from some trade agreements and the authorization of small settlements near Ayutthaya the farangs didn't made any other progress in their plans.

A French delegation visits king Narai in 1685.

A contemporary illustration of the Ayutthayan boat traffic

But just as dramatic as the kingdom rose, it also fell. In 1765 the Burmese army, which was in war with Ayutthaya for quite some time, invaded the city and burned it down almost completely. After the Burmese retreated, the former kingdom fell into chaos and later Thonburi (and after that Bangkok) was proclaimed as the new capital of Siam, nowadays known as Thailand. So much for history, but now let's get back to the present and the remains of the once great kingdom:

Wat Ratchaburana at night...

... and at day. Note the headless Buddhas.

Lots of trees reign now over the once holy compounds

There are broken remains of statues everywhere

Siamese elephants now show the tourists around

This huge reclining Buddha is still frequently visited by monks

All structures are actually built of bricks

Unlike the others, this one kept his head...

Only the fundaments remain of most former temples

Such Stupas, also called Chedis, are all over this place...

And who's missing this head?

... and at least they're giving some shade.

This one can't be helped either...
These big cupolas are actually inspired by Khmer architecture

Sukhothai, another 390 kilometers in the north and a five hour bus trip away, could be described as «same same but different», when it comes to compare it with Ayutthaya. While it is quite similar to Ayutthaya in terms of architecture, or being an  UNESCO world heritage and a former Thai capital as well, there are still some significant differences.

First of all is Sukhothai divided in an «old» and in an «new» city, that are both separated by approximately 15 kilometers. This simply means that the temple ruins of Sukhothai are part of a separate historical park, while the modern town of Sukhothai is «just» a regular Thai town without ancient ruins. Because my guesthouse was located in the new town, I once more rented a trusty scooter to dash to the ruins and the nearby sightseeing areas. Speaking of nearby sightseeing areas, Sukhothai furthermore has more to offer in terms of national parks, waterfalls, lonely roads and other temples.

I guess if I'd have to pick one of those two temple sites, I'd choose Sukhothai over Ayutthaya. From my point of view it was a more quiet and authentic experience than Ayutthaya, which of course was still OK after all.

Just like Ayutthaya, Sukthothai was literally built with bricks
All temple roofs and walls broke down as well

Now where's your big trunk, huh?

Next to the Sukhothai ruins dozens of such ponds prettify the scenery

It's believed that thieves broke down the heads to sell them.

These cupolas are scientifically called «Prangs».

Again Khmer-like constructions

OK, that's enough temple ruins for today I guess. A few kilometers away from the temple ruins lies another national park called Ramkhamhaeng, which is crowned with the 1200 meters high Khao Laem mountain. For me as a proud Swiss it was of course no question to hike up that very hill. But when I just arrived that place like at 3 PM, the female park ranger at the park entrance told me to my biggest surprise that «mountain trail close now, you come tommorow», but I still could take a quick look at the forest if I wanted. Meh. But of course I wouldn't listen to reason and after all I covertly hiked up anyway. I simply didn't want that lady to spoil my day, by all means.

Well it turned out that the hiking trail wasn't guarded or anything, so I was free to go. After a 2 hour sweat-inducing march (don't forget that it was like about 33°C and humid as hell) I finally reached the peak. The view from up there was simply fantastic!

This splendid road to the national park was literally empty...
The start of the hiking trail
It's a good sign when it goes upwards...
The forest itself was again untouched beauty...

Seldomly there were some areas covered with high grass

This hiking trail was just amazing

... where some kind of radio station stood.

Finally at the peak...

But of course I came because of the view!

A perfect place for a well-deserved rest!

Down again the mountain looked even more impressive!

At the ride back to the new town of Sukhothai I also got literally destroyed by thousands of incoming mosquitoes who were reckless enough to fly into an overspeeding scooter. This lesson also taught me to never open your mouth when driving a scooter in Thailand after 6 PM...

And what else did I learn from Ayutthaya and Sukhothai? Probably that Thai toilets are the best ones on earth!

Pure, simple awesomeness. Note the «flush system» on the right.

The instructions were even better.

These general behaviour rules were quite helpful too - it's still fun to see how many tourists ignore them.

Next time I'll tell you about my trips to the towns of Chiang Mai and Pai, two everlasting destinations of common backpackers. Wohoo.

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