Monday was a national holiday in Thailand. Until about mid-day Monday, though, I had no idea why; I've gotten to the point where I just accept that random holidays pop up, and if I'm lucky enough to be told beforehand that I don't have to work, I count it as a win. Apparently, Monday was (loosely translated) Buddha Day. It is therefore fitting that I should visit temples for the day, and thanks to an invitation from a lovely fellow teacher at school, that's exactly what I did!
Ayutthaya is a mere hour and some change train ride from Bangkok. If you travel from Bang Khen or Lak Si stations not too far from JJ (Chatuchak) Market, it costs a whopping 20 baht each way to get there and back on the 3rd class trains. Granted, they don't have air con, but when the windows are open, it's really quite lovely. I won't say the ride there on the train is particularly beautiful; the outskirts of Bangkok are quite dirty, sadly, and the scenery isn't anything of note. But once you're in Ayutthaya, the scenery changes quite a bit! Yes, it was hot. Very hot. But well worth it! If you're not used to the Thai heat, I'd recommend lots of water. Luckily, unlike the Grand Palace in Bangkok, wearing shorts is A-OK.
We rented bikes for the day at 40 baht each. Not too bad! The bikes are definitely the way to go; there are many temples scattered around the area, and if you only have a day (like we did), the bikes cut your travel time immensely. You could get a motorbike for something like 300 baht, which is still cheap, but I figure... why try to kill myself on Buddha Day? The bikes were a bit tricky to get across the river the few times we crossed; you either must ride over a traffic-laden bridge or take a river ferry, which requires carrying the bikes up the riverbanks to and from the ferry. Good exercise.
I couldn't tell you how many temples we visited. There were many. I'm fairly sure we traveled somewhere in the vicinity of 20 kilometers over the course of the day, according to my friend's iPhone map. How's that for efficiency?
There are plenty of beautiful places to see. I wouldn't say they are overly impressive from a historical standpoint if you've been to Europe (to which I am a bit biased), but circa 1390-ish for many of the ruins is certainly nothing to scoff at. The Thai architecture is quite beautiful.
On the downside, as a foreigner, you must pay 50 baht per temple for an admission fee (10 baht for Thais). It's not that much, granted, but if you go see just 6 temples, that turns into 300 baht just to get inside to walk around. I didn't mind paying, but just be prepared to spend a bit of money if you're making a teacher's salary in Bangkok in Thai baht. In many places, I could probably have been dishonest and just walked in; there aren't exactly strict security measures enforcing these fees. But, I have no problem supporting the cause of keeping up the sites... providing that's where the money goes. That, and surely it's bad karma to break into temple grounds without paying?
It was neat to be in the former capitol of Siam, walking through the ruins of a city that used to house one of the largest (by population) cities of its day in the world. You can't help but be sad that there isn't more left of the once magnificent temples and palace (cheers, Burmese invasions), but what does remain certainly is beautiful to see.
The various sites were also far different than historical sites I've seen in Europe in their level of organization. Whereas handrails, barriers, warning signs, and other "for your protection" measures are in place in most old places I've visited thus, this is Thailand and those things aren't nearly as important. I love it. If you don't want to fall off of the platform you're standing on, don't stand so close to the edge!
While en route between temples at one point, traffic had to stop to allow people riding elephants to cross the street. Elephant crossing. I love it. Not to mention the little elephant show we came across as we were riding. The trainers had one baby elephant dancing (literally) to some Thai music. So cute!
At one of the temples we visited, a woman told us about how the flood in 2011 affected the various temples. She told us that she was one of the only people around with a boat, and ended up ferrying people around for weeks. Her thoughts on the flood, loosely translated, were that it was great for business! Although, she did say she was sad that the flooding caused some damage to the various historical sites.
Some signs are in English, but most are in Thai. My friends joked that I was paying 50 baht per temple to get a ticket that said the place name in English. I therefore don't really know what a lot of the places were, but they were still beautiful to visit. It's a good thing I have a digital camera; I'd have gone through ten rolls of film in the brief time we were there!
Even though there were uncountable temples and various Buddhist sites in the area, every one of them had throngs of people. This was partly due to several tour buses we encountered, but also due to the religious holiday. It was neat to see all of the Thai people "getting merits," as it was described to me, by paying homage to the various sites with gifts and prayers.
One "good luck" activity I saw were people buying small fish in plastic bags at street vendors near the river. They would purchase the fish, bring them down to the river in a plastic bucket, and release them. I think it brings good luck to the people releasing the fish, but as soon as we got back up to the bank, there were twice as many fish in captivity as there were when my friends bought the fish! That seems a bit odd...
I won't pretend to understand half of the Buddhist traditions and customs; what little I do know about Buddhism is based on the Indian variety, and in Thailand things seem much different. But, I can certainly appreciate that the people around me seemed to be genuinely using their day off to pay homage to parts of their culture, and were enjoying doing so.
I've heard that you can take a boat from Bangkok to Ayutthaya and back, but I never found out how/where to do it. If I visit again, I would certainly like to try. I bet it's expensive, but hey. New experiences.
We left Bangkok at 7:30 a.m. and were back in town by about 6:30 p.m. For a day trip from Bangkok, if you're into history, I'd say it's hard to beat Ayutthaya.