Nice Temples, Not so Nice Town – Ayuthaya, Thailand

Nice Temples, Not so Nice Town
Ayuthaya, Thailand

Ayuthaya’s attractions are its ruined temples, built during its heyday in the 400 years that it served as the Thai capital. These are in a similar style (although not on quite the same scale) as the Khmer temples at Angkor and the now utterly destroyed remains of My Son in Vietnam.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the largest of Ayuthaya's many old temples
Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the largest of Ayuthaya’s many old temples
Where the ruins of those places are a long way out of town, the ones in Ayuthaya are here, there and everywhere throughout the city. There are bits of ruin on roundabouts, in parks, beside modern temples and poking up unexpectedly behind branches of 7-Eleven. Most are pretty dilapidated and some are little more than piles of bricks, but others are huge and well preserved enough to hint at how grand they once were.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet is the largest of the remains and was once the royal palace. Its centrepiece is its three large white pagodas. Each of these is bell-shaped with an elongated tapering spire at the top. The pagodas stand in the centre of a world of brick towers, pillars and half fallen down walls.

This is the kind of place to explore at leisure and best when there are few other people around to spoil it. I can think of nothing worse than coming here on a tour bus and filing round the many different ruins on mass with some bloke providing a worthless garbled explanation in semi-coherent English. You could get round all the sites in one day but so what? You’d have seen Ayuthaya, but with a place like this you need to feel it, man.

Wat Chaiwatthanaram by night
Wat Chaiwatthanaram by night
Having said that, the town of Ayuthaya is a dump. The main street is a three story concrete nightmare with inadequate rainwater drainage and motorbikes all over the pavement. The rest of the town struggles to put forward a single vaguely attractive building constructed since the Burmese ransacked the place in 1767. It’s not quite as bad as an Indian town, but it’s not far off.

The stray dog situation here has got completely out of hand as well. There are packs of mangy looking dogs everywhere, loitering on all the streets and lazing around the temple sites. At night they howl to each other until the early morning. I heard a rumour that they cleared the dogs off the streets of Bangkok and dumped them elsewhere in Northern Thailand and it looks like they put most of them here. We saw one earlier with a hugely swollen left eye, protruding from its socket like a glassy red marble. I won’t forget that in a hurry.

The town may be a dump, but the ruins are great. This morning, Jo and I wondered around Wat Phra Ram in the centre of town. I climbed the tower in the middle and we meandered through the forest of brick towers and remains. As with other temples we have been to here, it wasn’t deserted, but there weren’t all that many people about and the site is large enough to absorb them. We have never found ourselves getting in anyone else’s way here.

Statues of the Buddha at Wat Phutthaisawan
Statues of the Buddha at Wat Phutthaisawan
After visiting the Wat, I made my way into the park next to it which runs all the way to Wat Phra Mahathat, around a kilometer to the East. The park has been built around a lake and includes a string of islands connected together with wooden bridges in various stages of rotting away. Each island seems to contain something to make the trip across the precarious bridge worthwhile. One has the remains of a small wat. Another contains a gold painted Buddha. My favorite of these features was a small building bedecked in tiny and dazzling mirror tiles. Half of the wall space was taken up by the two grand entrances on each side and the rest was a hideous hotch-potch of mirror, trimmed with gold paint. The roof was in green and topped by three towers like ones from the temples, also trimmed with gold. It seemed to be some sort of shrine, but it looked like nothing if not a public toilet from Las Vegas.

In the evening we took a boat trip to the mega-impressive Wat Chaiwatthanaram, supposedly modeled on Angkor Wat. It does bear some similarity with its imposing 35 metre high central tower, surrounded by four lesser prangs. All this is within a brick courtyard where we could see the remains of dozens of statues of the Buddha which once stared inwards. Beyond this, there was another ring of nine towers. It’s the most amazing monument, possibly the best there is in this city full of amazing monuments.

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