Ken May

Rebirth of the old city

How Ayutthaya survived

Blame it on the children! At least, that is what I sometimes do. I had prepared another flawless lesson plan. It was all set up in advance. Two German guidebook writers were in town, the school mini-van was reserved, and my students were primed and ready to go. The plan was to take them all on a surprise tour. I would introduce them to some obscure ruins that they have never seen before. My students, in turn, would need to explain these sites to the German travel writers. My goals were to encourage the element of spontaneity and to break them from the habit of pre-memorized speech. It all worked in theory, until Children’s Day was announced. The university needed the van to deliver toys to little bambinos across the city. Our mini-van reservation was cancelled one day before our scheduled tour. So it was the children’s fault, really, that I had to adlib in front of class. It was a holiday for children. What could I do?

The night before class I turned off my European mobile phone, poured myself an energy drink made from Chinese mystery herbs, and turned up the volume to some Arabic metal music (Rachid Taha and Aisha Kandisha). Berber grunge at 2:00 AM is probably what did it, but somehow I started getting wild ideas. I began wondering why there are so many Muslims living in Ayutthaya. There are over 131,000 Muslims in the Ayutthaya province, which is the 3rd highest rate in Thailand, excluding the south. Naturally, I looked first into Ayutthaya’s historical past. Muslims first settled in the Ayutthaya kingdom from Persia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Cambodia (more about this in an upcoming article). One important Muslim advisor, who took high office in the Ministry of Interior, is entombed on our university property. Sheikh Ahmed settled in Ayutthaya in 1595 from Persia, and even local Buddhists still pay respect at his shrine. However, this information failed to answer my overriding question: Why did so many Muslims return to Ayutthaya after its fall in 1767? This single question would later motivate this entire article and the next day’s lesson plan. My mental “hijab” started to lift.

Historians really love dates. They need dates to give life value and context. The Ayutthaya period is often listed as 1350-1767. Some detail-oriented historians argue that the Ayutthaya period actually began in 1351, and perhaps this has led to a few fistfights around the campus coffee machine. Then big league players such as David Wyatt get called up to referee and settle disputes. The truth is that these dates are bullshit. Ayutthaya existed way before Prince U-Thong established himself here, and the city continued existing long after the Burmese invaded in 1767. The only variable vanishing was an empire; the soul of Ayutthaya lived on. A tree doesn’t die in winter when its leaves are surrendered a hinter, and grass doesn’t cease growing after a summer mowing. Life comes back. However, most textbooks maintain the lie of Ayutthaya’s demise. The Burmese breached the city walls, stole all the gold, vandalized the temples, and killed everybody or forced them into slavery. Fires, famines, and epidemics ignited. Then the chapter ends. Ayutthaya ceases to exist even as an ellipsis point. The next chapter begins in Thonburi or Bangkok – depending on which edition.

In honor of the Chinese new year, I spent the rest of the night trying to stamp a fresh date into history books: the new Ayutthaya period (1767 to 2006). I wanted to revive the missing chapter. How did people repopulate Ayutthaya? How did Ayutthaya survive? Historians focus too hard on political leaders and major wars, when a more powerful story can be told about a people’s struggle to remain alive. Maybe the soul of Thailand can be seen in how families revived a conquered territory. I slowly pieced together the skeleton of a lecture. I located a limited supply of information, which I hoped would be enough to trigger the interest of students. The truth is that my class was the best resource. Students had grandparents with stories to tell. They knew old people in their neighborhood who could color in empty spaces. My goal was to make them curious. Alright, I admit I was still winging it, but with the mini-van reserved for toy runs I had few options. It was the children’s fault. I blame it on the children.

The Lecture:
When Ayutthaya was sacked, in 1767, survivors fled in all directions. Power centers shifted for a brief while to Issan (Phimai), the southern peninsula (Nakhon Si Thammarat), and the north (Fang and Phitsanulok). However, the Burmese were never able to hold the city for long. Ayutthaya was liberated within seven months by a mysterious Thai-Chinese character who had governed in the Tak province, who went by the name of Sin. King Taksin realized that Ayutthaya could still be used as a defense base against future invasions, although it was too ruined to serve as the capital city any longer. Taksin quickly allowed citizens to move to Ayutthaya to rebuild the city. Many of these people came from the power centers listed above. Taksin appointed a close relative to govern the ransacked empire (Praya Inthara Aphai).

Many people continued to die from starvation and disease over the next few years. Rice fields were pillaged to salvage whatever grains that remained. Roving bands of people survived only by raiding tombs for the gold and silver that the Burmese missed. Bandit gangs robbed and looted. King Taksin needed to find wealth to finance his continued fight against the Burmese, so he sent expeditions to Ayutthaya to track down hidden treasures. Supposedly, the Chinese had a particular skill in locating gold. They were able to haul away shiploads of valuables. King Taksin also had huge sections of forts and palaces torn down to supply bricks for the new capital. The loss of protective walls allowed flood waters to flow in causing swamps. It has to be said that this period could be defined as the second ransacking of the fallen Ayutthaya empire.

Thai people soon nicknamed Ayutthaya “Muang Krung Kao (the Old City)”. Many Thai and Chinese gradually returned to the area because the soil remained fertile. The city was still a good location to transport goods since several rivers passed through it. Residents worked as merchants, farmers, fishermen, craftsmen, and raised livestock. Nearly all of them lived on raft boats or in housing off the island. Curiously, there seems to be few early attempts by citizens or royalty to permanently relocate inside the walls of the former kingdom. This would soon start to change. After the execution of Taksin, in 1782, who possibly went insane while still in power, King Rama I took interest in Ayutthaya. He ordered some temples to be rebuilt. In addition, King Rama I constructed the Chang Bridge, which was the first one to ever link the island city to the mainland (bridges were never allowed before for defensive reasons). The front palace (now the Chan Kasem museum) was reconstructed to serve as his residence during visits to the old city. Governors and civil servants lived nearby. The economic and political base of the “Old City” was shifting to the northeastern part of the island into an area known as Hua Ror.

Ayutthaya’s population remained very low. When French priest Pallegoix was permitted by King Rama II to visit Ayutthaya, in 1834, he estimated that the population was only about 40,000 – down from a peak of over one million people. However, Ayutthaya would experience a relative population boom in 1855 after King Rama IV signed a major trade agreement with England to import rice. The Hua Ror market became the most important business center for Ayutthaya. The Chinese played a major role in this rice trade because they transported supplies by boat from small remote villages to warehouses located at the market. For the first time in Ayutthaya history, its population density was highest in the north, especially between Klong Sa Bua and Wat Tong Pu. Muslims started moving into the northwest area known as Hua Laem. Traders began to move off the river onto land. Gambling dens and brothels began to proliferate along Hua Ror. After a fire burned them down in 1897 they were granted permission to reconstruct them.

King Rama V played a progressive role in Ayutthaya’s development. He made the city the provincial capital in 1894 and promoted Ayutthaya as the regional education center (ultimately leading to the creation of our rajabhat university). King Rama V had the first railroad built that connected Ayutthaya with Bangkok. Merchants would take the train to Bangkok in the morning and return to Ayutthaya by mail boat (described by locals as either the “Green Boat” or “Red Boat”). King Rama V had the first road built inside the island, which completely encircled it. The majority of the population still lived on boats, and there weren’t any motor cars, so U-Thong Road made little sense. It is not completely clear whom U-Thong Road was actually designed for, but it might have served as a symbol of modernization and progress. The latter construction project is also bewildering, since Rama V later decided that the island would be a preserved area. In 1908, he declared that nobody could own property or land titles on the inner island.

During the reign of King Rama VI life became even more prosperous. By 1921, there were so many river boats and raft houses that, according to Phraya Boran Ratchathanin, they lined the banks all the way from Chan Kasem to the railway station. The Thai culture and lifestyle still evolved around its rivers and canals. Boats doubled as restaurants, shops, and family homes. Ayutthaya was a city of river taxis, ferry shuttles, mail service boats, barbershop boats, migrating handicraft boats, fishermen dugouts and floating markets. A small community of treasure hunters made a living by seeking the gold, silver, and cargo of sunken boats. About 50-60 of these men continue this practice today, although they have since moved from Pom Phet to Hua Laem. Most of the inner island could still be explored due to its elaborate canal system, but sections had become swampland or overgrown with weeds. Temples had been hidden by trees and chedis buried in brush. The island was considered haunted by many residents and there was plenty of poisonous snakes. A few locals ventured inside to harvest fruits or vegetables, but nobody stayed long enough to do much trade.

The absolute power of the monarchy was put to an end when a new constitutional government was installed by coup in 1932. The Ministry of Finance leadership, under Pridi Phanomyoung, who would later become a Prime Minister, heavily invested in the city infrastructure. A military base was developed in the northern Hua Laem area, the new Rochana Road linked the city to its east, and the first bridge crossing the Pasak River was built. After the Pridi-Thamrong Bridge was completed, in 1932, the river became a much slower form of travel than road. Therefore, roads were sometimes built over former canals. The new motor age was being superimposed over the traditional river-oriented livelihood. More importantly, in terms of real estate, Pridi Phanomyoung, who had a family background in Ayutthaya, approved legislation in 1938 that allowed land titles to be sold for territories inside the island. In the beginning only military officials and civil servants could own land, but eventually commoners were allowed to purchase it, too. For the first time in Ayutthaya history, any Thai citizen could formally buy and own the land inside the island.

During the reign of Field Marshall Phibun Songkhram (1948-1957) Ayutthaya was heavily developed in the name of progress. Between 1951-1957 Thailand received $149 million in economic aid and $222 million in military aid. Phibun had national highways constructed using large amounts of these funds from the United States. The new Wang Noi-Ayutthaya Highway linked the city to its surrounding provinces such as Angthong, Lopburi, and Saraburi. The Asian Highway also connected cities as far away as Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Buses and cars could easily navigate around Thailand in a short time. By the 1950s, tuk-tuks had started to filter into Ayutthaya. They had been first developed in Japan after World War II and later imported into Thailand as cheap transportation.

Motorized long tail boats were first introduced to Thailand’s water highways after the second world war, which was objected to by raft owners due to the loud noise and sudden waves. In 1957, Ayutthaya’s river lifestyle was permanently altered with the completion of the Chao Phraya Dam and the Phumiphon Dam. During monsoon season raft owners moved to the numerous canals to escape harsher currents, but the sporadic opening and closing of the dams was unpredictable so it created havoc on their homes. People started to move onto dry land, which had recently been made available for purchase. Thus, Ayutthaya Island became the city’s population center for the first time in nearly 200 years.

Ayutthaya had fully entered its modern age. Money poured into the city to develop a large number of new factories, create a provincial banking center, renovate destroyed ruins, drain swamplands, and construct more roads over ancient canals. Most of the former city walls were removed (if they hadn’t already been taken). Some locals insist that a few monuments and temples had been destroyed in the process. In fact, there are many ghosts stories about the supernatural punishment of culprits who had disturbed the past. In ways these horror stories helped locals to collectively deal with changing times. The pain of the lost empire was being literally dug up once again. The face of Ayutthaya Island was permanently altered. Modern change struck quickly. The use of Ayutthaya’s river systems for trade and transportation had become nearly obsolete. People were letting go of old traditions and new industries were taking over. Then the English teachers came, but that is another story.

The Tourism Organization of Thailand was formed in 1959. From the beginning, Ayutthaya was earmarked as a prime tourist destination. The Fine Arts Department struggled to preserve its national treasures. Precious artifacts and rare amulets were lying around everywhere. A new wave of looters, bandits, and corrupt policemen set out to steal from what remained. A very small population of lost travelers trickled into Ayutthaya during the 1970s while the Vietnam War was being fought nearby. Early tourists stayed in Chinese-operated hotels in the Hua Ror market. A few of them slept in local homes before guesthouses were slapped together to house them. By the mid-1980s, the formation of a tourist ghetto, nicknamed Khao Sarn Ayutthaya, had taken primitive shape on a dirt road, south of Hua Ror market. Thailand created its first tourism promotion campaign under the slogan of “Visit Thailand Year 1987”. In 1991, Ayutthaya was approved by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. The new era of tourism had been born. Nowadays, my students were poking around this chaotic world trying to find jobs as tour guides. They had taken for granted the recent history that led to this choice. Ayutthaya is a reincarnated city. My students are part of the process of keeping it alive.

The Assignment:
I intended this lecture to demonstrate that most of this history is recent. It is early enough to be remembered by either their parents or grandparents. The process of buying land and moving onto it was only within the last few generations. Therefore, the history is still alive. The tourism industry that thrives in Ayutthaya today began in their parent’s lifetimes. All this history can still be recorded through oral narratives. And that is exactly what I provoked them into doing.
During the lecture I broke out maps and asked them to point to the locations mentioned above. I encouraged them find remote canals and temples not recognized on maps. I prodded them with questions about the origins of their families in Ayutthaya: Why did your family come here? When did your ancestors first arrive? Where did they build a home? What is your ethnic background? How did your grandparents make a living? Students had to discuss their own history to me using English. Most of the information was already stored somewhere in their heads. They had to place their family origins into context, so they could later write about it. More importantly, they had to create a document that could be used by future generations to understand the rebirth of Ayutthaya.

I was particularly interested in personal ethnographies. Ayutthaya is a city of surprising cultural diversity. The population of modern Ayutthaya is made up of people from Thailand, China, Malaysia, Pakistan, Myanmar, Lao, and Vietnam. Historians insist that these new communities aren’t directly linked to the former empire, but it is interesting that so many ethnic villages sprouted up in similar locations as in the past. Like a rebooted computer, the city socially sought similar patterns. Many students live inside the exact zone where their ethnic groups were originally located before. There was a clear palimpsest that linked back to the past empire. For example, the Chinese now live near Wat Phanacheong and Wat Suwannaram (like before). Many Muslims returned to the area around Klong Takian and Ban Kacha. Vietnamese Christians returned to Ban Yuan near St. Joseph Church (a large number of them coming from a refugee camp in Bangkok to settle). Ayutthaya’s rebirth was like a flock of birds instinctively migrating to seasonal habitats of the generations that preceded them.

I handed each student two pages worth of question. They were instructed to conduct a 15 question interview with somebody who was at least 65 years old. The participant could be a grandparent, a relative, a next door neighbor, a monk, or somebody that they met at the market. It didn’t matter to me. What I wanted was one constructive action where each student learns from an elder. I am not the only teacher in this village. This was descriptive writing. In a rare gesture I promised them that spelling and grammar wouldn’t matter. They could make all the mistakes they want. I didn’t care. I even encouraged them to make mistakes, because it was all part of the learning process. I didn’t want them to get bogged down with complicated syntax. My objective was to gather as many details as possible. How carefully were they willing to dig? The grade would be entirely based on them teaching me more about Ayutthaya.

The Results I (The Teacher Interviews):
As a rule, I never ask my students to do anything that I wouldn’t be willing to do myself. If I require them to design a tour, then I will also labor at the same task. If I demand that they write a two page report, then my pen will be scrawling on paper at the exact same time. Since the assignment was based on interviews I conducted two of them on my own. As a foreign visitor I lack access to the target group, because I don’t know any Thais over 65 who can speak English. I was limited and confused about how to approach my interviews. When confronted by a problem it helps to speak with somebody who can listen. That is exactly what I did.

In honor of research I headed to the nearest bar and interviewed the owner. Actually, he is a good friend and local celebrity. He built this bar with his own hands; carving all the furniture and painting each picture on the wall. The bar was constructed on the exact location as his childhood home. He knows the area very well. But, luckily tourists will never be able to find his place, because his bar doesn’t have any name. Ong doesn’t want it publicized because he feels people should find it by heart. So with a toast in honor of his good heart we sat down together for an interview.

Ong (age 45): As far as he knows his ancestors lived in Ayutthaya before 1767. His family returned to Ayutthaya from Sukhothai in the north, because the former was becoming a big city. His grandfather is Thai and his grandmother is Chinese. When they moved to his present home, which is located inside the island on its southern side (by U-Thong Road), the family staked this territory out with wooden poles. It was purchased from a government official. The property was located on a swamp land and had to be drained before living there. At that time, all houses had to be made from wood in the Thai style. The family hunted and fished for food, but paid for rice with money. Wild boar lived on the other side of Chao Phraya River, but every boy in the neighborhood could swim across to hunt them. Nobody wore shoes, in fact, it was even looked down on to wear them.

There were no cars, very few bicycles, and U-Thong Road was still made out of pot-holed dirt. As a child he remembers finding Buddha images and artifacts all over the neighborhood, however it would have been considered disrespectful to take them. If you dug a hole to plant a tree you might have discovered plates, cups, or amulets (it sounded to me like finding plastic soldiers in a sandbox back in the United States). He developed his English skills mostly by practicing with tourists. He had at one time moved to Bangkok to study art and make money as a musician. As an adult he believes that Ayutthaya needs to improve its rivers and canals, as well as revive old temples. The advice he gives my students is to make Ayutthaya an important city. They must improve their lives with education and help foreigners understand about Ayutthaya.

The next interview was conducted immediately after I left Ong’s bar. I was inspired at the ease of gathering information. I had known my friend for several years, but never learned about his family history. On a whim, I jumped on a motorcycle taxi to the Moon Café. The owner was also a friend of mine. We bonded back in 2000 over a dish of king cobra and a glass of snake blood - with the bile sack still floating on top like an ice cube (I can send the story to anyone interested).

Chai was lamenting about the recent edition of Lonely Planet, which arrogantly called him a violent person. Nobody from Lonely Planet ever asked for his side of the story, nor did they place this slander into context. In America, the guidebook would have been quickly slapped with a lawsuit, but what right of address does a small businessman from a developing country have against such a powerful and wealthy western corporation? Speaking quite frankly, some tourists could use a slap for their behavior. I have seen them grab the breasts of female workers, demand discounts with the false claim that they are a LP writer, and generally act like a third generation colonist. I sometimes feel like throwing some of the tourists out myself. Our meeting was timed right, so we were able to speak candidly. Unfortunately, as the evening progressed my note taking rapidly diminished from too many drinks. I had to return a few days later to make sure that I had recorded it correctly.

Chai (age, older than me): His family was originally based in Saraburi. Both his parents were Thai. His father, locally known as Mr. Hong, worked as a teacher, but moved to Ayutthaya after switching jobs. His father worked as a government officer at the Ayutthaya courthouse. His employment required that he move around the province providing legal service, so he bought a boat house for his family to live on. It only costed 3,000 baht at the time. The family lived for many years on the boat, which was docked along the Pasak River. The Chao Phraya Dam had yet to be built. A common form of transportation was known as the “red boat”. Chai remembers taking the boat to Bangkok as a young child, and the shock of the overnight journey. People slept on the top floor and used the hull for storage and gathering. The river was very dangerous, because the rising level during monsoon season made the currents unpredictable. The raft’s location near a confluence was vulnerable to whirlpools. The family decided to move onto land after one of his siblings almost drowned. His father bought land from a government official. Their new home was located south of Hua Ror market on an unnamed street that would later be nicknamed Khao Sarn Ayutthaya (near Chao Phrom market).

On land, as a child, Chai used to hunt for bee hives to sell. They also gathered a type of berry that made their mouths turn purple. Their family owned the only house in the neighborhood. There wasn’t yet a road, but the unpaved U-Thong was located to the nearby east. Many trees surrounded his home like a jungle. Occasionally, the area slightly flooded so that he could catch fish. Chai remembers seeing a few canals being filled with sand for future road construction. Most people lived in the Hua Ror market on boats. The area was known as China town. All the buildings were made out of wood, and a large fire had once destroyed many gambling dens. The people there spoke a Thai-Chinese mix. Many of them operated successful businesses, which crossed over to Chao Phrom market near his home. Their children were the best at sports and grades in Ayutthaya. One of his strongest memories was watching television for the first time. The broadcast was of the first walk on the moon and the entire village watched it together.

His family was one of the first to welcome tourists. They shared their house with foreign visitors as a homestay. Backpackers slept on their floor. He learned to speak English from this interaction. When tourist visits increased too much for one home his family started the city’s first guest house in 1986. The accommodation was known by its more user friendly name of B.J. Guesthouse. The name was later changed to Ayutthaya Guesthouse in 1987, in recognition of Thailand’s first tourism promotion campaign (Visit Thailand Year 1987). A few hippy-friendly guesthouses opened up in the area in the 1980s (Toto, Lotus, Chantai, etc.). Before the mid-eighties travelers usually stayed in one of three Chinese hotels located at Hua Ror market. One significant event for him was when the Moon Café opened in 1994. He and his friends developed the place, so that travelers could stay up late at night partying. Too many arguments broke out at his guesthouse, because some people were trying to sleep. The Moon Café was designed to allow live music and late-night gatherings. Travelers even participated in its creation. It remains today as a prime gathering spot for westerners. The advice he gives my students is to learn by actually leading tours and interacting with travelers. Dialogues from a textbook aren’t too helpful. There are business elements that can only be understood first hand.

The Results II (The Student Interviews):
I was surprised with how much energy some students put into these biographies. Some students included photographs and graphics with their reports. Most students could clearly understand what I wanted them to produce, however there were many complications in terms of articulation. None of the students have any background in anthropology, so this type of research was very unusual for them. It would be productive to return to this teaching exercise at a later date, so we can really build upon the English components. This class was for tourism majors, however, so I didn’t emphasize syntax too much. Mostly, I wanted them to practice speaking about their family background and the recent history of Ayutthaya. I wanted them to become familiar with such informal topics. Tourists often love this side information and it can really enhance their travel experience.

Overall, the response was so good that I had a second class do they same biographic writing. The later was an English class, so I focused more on guided paragraph writing styles. In total, we have gathered 25 family histories. Ten random examples have been included below. I have paraphrased them into my own words. This should be enough for readers to get a better idea about how outcome might be improved with future research.

Sanga (age 72) – Her family came to the Ayutthaya province over 50 years ago. She believes that her family originated in the Ban Mon area of the old empire (on the western side of the island), but they might have retreated to Bangkok for a short time. They now live with other people from the Mon ethnic group at Wat Kai-Teaw near Bang Pa-in. Many Muslims live in the nearby village of Kong Ta-Kiem, but her village is not Muslim. Journeys were very uncomfortable as a child. There were no roads in Ayutthaya and bamboo forests were located around their home. They used candles because there was no electricity. People worked in rice paddies and children often studied with monks at a temple, especially if it was a big family. Most people didn’t continue education beyond high school. Near her home she has discovered old plates and bowls by the river. She believes that Ayutthaya needs to promote its OTOP program more (one village, one product). Young people should return to their hometowns to help develop them. They need to respect their family and help elders.

Say (age 72) – Her family came to Ayutthaya 72 years ago. She was born in this city and lives in an old house near the Chao Phraya River. She has a Mon heritage. They bought land from another family member and built their home by themselves. She has never found any artifacts near her home, but remembers many stories about the Burmese invasion. She believes that Ayutthaya needs to improve old monuments and develop the province. She wants young people to remember to come to Ayutthaya and study its history, because it is part of Thailand’s heritage.

Sangworn (age 68) – His family originally came from Burma. They are Mon people who moved to Ayutthaya three years before he was born. His grandfather moved to Ayutthaya to become a politician in the Nakorn Loung district. His grandfather knew a soldier who sold him the property. Families survived by farming and small business. The family business was run as a cooperative. The Pasak River was the main resource for the Nakorn Loung people. Boats were used for transportation and trade. They bathed in the river and used its water for farming, but now there are cement and steel factories. The area has become an industrial complex. They can’t use the river anymore. As a child, he found some artifacts in his neighborhood. He calls them “meed aran yik” (toy knights?). They are made from iron and are very beautiful and strong. The Nakorn Loung Palace is located near this property. He remembers several ghost stories about thieves who were punished for stealing from ruined temples. Younger men used to go to festivals to meet girls and fall in love. Sangworn believes that Thai people should teach their offspring to have passion for their hometown. Ayutthaya needs to improve, but you have to improve first the people who live in Ayutthaya. He wants young people to love Thailand and be thankful for its culture and traditions.

Mae (55) – Her grandfather came to Ayutthaya from Pakistan. He married a local woman who practiced Muslim traditions. They lived on the northern side of the island near the Pakistani mosque. When she was young the area was surrounded by forest. There were no homes or buildings in that part of the city. They bought the property from a friend and lived off the river with a big family. She believes Ayutthaya could improve the old places of the past. Young people should love the place where they live and preserve old buildings.

Chor (age 70) – His family came to the area more than 70 years ago. The family has a Thai background, which they feel leads back to the old empire. They now live in the Bangban district in Angthong. As a child there were no roads. People used boats for all transportation. He worked as a farmer. Chor believes that Ayutthaya needs to clean up the garbage around the temples. World Heritage Sites shouldn’t be cluttered with litter. Young people should be proud of Thailand and love it.

Ms. Sa-Nguon (age 82) – She originally came to Ayutthaya from Bangkok 41 years ago. She lives off the island in the Vietnamese (Yuan) district. There were many trees around her home at that time. It was quiet and not busy with traffic. The family lived in an old house without electricity. There were no televisions or electronic machines. She thinks that Ayutthaya needs to grow more trees. Younger people should preserve old places and behave themselves.

Ladda (age 72) – She came to Ayutthaya before World War II. Her family lived in a slum in Bangkok (Sam Saen) as Vietnamese refugees. The King gave this land to the Yuan people. Her grandfather moved to the Sena district to get married. The new family rented land from the Catholic church for very cheap. The family fished for a living in the Sena canals. A French missionary, Father Broza, came to Sena to promote his religion. He was a friendly man who helped many people learn the English language. Father Broza wanted to build a school for the Catholic community, so he asked this family to help him purchase land. At that time foreigners could not buy Thai property, so her grandfather became owner of “Rad Bumrung Silp” school. Her grandfather tended the school and her family became teachers. Father Broza went back to France and a Portuguese priest, Father Leona De Jesus, took over. Ladda wants the government to help increase the education level of children in Ayutthaya. She feels that younger people should believe in God and go to church every week.

Pa Chit (age 80) – She moved to Ayutthaya about 17 years ago. Her grandfather was Chinese, and he came to Ayutthaya to settle down and marry. Her family survived in the Hua Ror market as traders and shop keepers. She was given her current home by her father. She remembers that in 1967 temple looters would try to sell gold and gold leaves at the Hua Ror market. The treasure was considered state property. Allegedly, the thieves were punished by supernatural forces that made them sick or go crazy. She notes that there are more and more homes being built in the Hua Ror area. Teenagers like to ride noisy motorcycles very fast. She worries about this conduct. She believes that younger people should become interested in Buddhism and go to temples.

Dang (age 78) – His grandfather came from China and married his grandmother who was Thai. They originally lived in Prachinburi. This place had many foreigners and most people worked as farmers. During World War II, his family moved to Ayutthaya. His sister got married so the family stayed. Transportation was very different between the two cities. In Prachinburi most people used trains, but in Ayutthaya the population used river craft. The canals and rivers of Ayutthaya were filled with boats. The family survived by gardening and growing mangoes, but they could not continue because their crops were destroyed during the second world war. He then got up early in the morning to sell pork by boat. Dang believes that the government should take care of Ayutthaya’s rivers and canals. Ancestors protected the city for 417 years. They sacrificed with their blood and their lives. Therefore, younger people must also take care of Ayutthaya. They need to learn more about the city and teach it to foreigners.

Chamaiporn (age 69) – Her grandmother and grandfather both came from China. Her grandfather decided to conduct trade in Ayutthaya, so he brought his family to the city. Her family lived off the island opposite Hua Ror market, near the funeral pyre of Wat Prasat. There were many trees and temple in this area. There were many artifacts in the area: kitchenware and iron products. All the buildings were made from wood. They made their living at first by selling Moo Sa Tea (baked pork). Her aunt and mother bought a house together and shared it as a beauty shop (near Chamaiporn). She believes that the government should take better care of the canals and rivers. The streets should be cleaned more often because the city is a World Heritage Site. She feels that young people should take care of their family and be respectful. She wants the new generation to be industrious and honest.

No name (age ?) – My family came to Ayutthaya around 1923. My grandmother told me that our ancestors are Pattani Muslims. The government ordered our family to migrate to central Thailand. When my ancestors came to Ayutthaya we conducted trade with Buddhist people. My grandparents lived on a raft boat because they couldn’t afford land. We lived off the island in the south. When my grandparents got richer they chose to buy land near the Chao Phraya River, because they traded by boat. That is where my house is now. After my grandparents died my parents worked the same trade. They didn’t have the knowledge to do any thing else. In those days few people had a good education. When my mother graduated from school she became a teacher. She has a good job. She wants me to be like her in the future and to have a good life.

This exercise should be followed up with in-class discussion and more intensive writing. The first drafts tend to be a little weak. I should have provided them with samples of my own interviews first. There is a lot of potential to build English skills. I could have students work more on clarity, sequence, pronoun matching, third person narratives, past tenses, and fine-lining details. There are many contradictions on dates (Buddhist vs. western calendars) and much confusion relating to pronoun use. For example, they are supposed to write with the third person narrative (about the interviewee), but students sometimes switched to their own first person voice. There are several misinterpretations of the actual questions that I asked. The answers sometimes don’t match. Words and phrases such as “artifacts” and “making a living” should have been made more precise. Place names are also confusing because Thai words can have numerous spellings when transliterated. As a teacher I need to become stronger. I have to understand the Thai language better and become acquainted with the names of small local villages.

The next step would be to have students compare family histories to decide what is similar or different – to actually create a map of an older Ayutthaya. I will provide them with summaries of each report, so that my interpretation can be checked for accuracy. It will be interesting to learn if my understanding of their words was how students intended to write them. This activity did lead to a lot of discussion. It is fascinating how well these stories reinforced the lecture above. Perhaps I will require students to read a tamer version of it before their interviews in the future. Overall, the assignment was a success. It has a lot of potential. We have actually produced valid documents that can be used to understand the rebirth of the new Ayutthaya.
I never did fully answer my question about why Muslims returned to Ayutthaya, but this work was at least a good start. What I did learn, however, was how important the rivers, canals, and ruins still are for Thai elderly. There is a sense that the lifestyle of the true Ayutthaya will vanish, if children no longer stay here and develop respect for this past heritage. There is a persisting worry that it could all be lost. Perhaps this is the most important reason why this type of research is crucial for Ayutthaya. It all comes down to the children. It is the children of Ayutthaya, including my own students, that are responsible to keep this city alive.

Garnier, Derick. Ayutthaya: Venice of the East. Bangkok: River Books, 2004.
Gilquin, Michel. The Muslims of Thailand. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2002.
Phulsarp, Sunjai. Ayutthaya: The Portraits of the Living Legends. Bangkok: Plan Motif Publisher, 1996.
Wyatt, David. A Short History of Thailand (2nd ed.). London: Yale University Press, 2003.


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