Magnificent ruins offer glimpse into past

By Jill Worrall

Wat Chawathanaram. Photo / Jill Worrall

The statues of Buddha sit serenely, hands in laps and headless. Some have sat here like this in Ayutthaya, north of Bangkok in Thailand for more hundreds of years.

They grace the temples and courtyards of what at one time was possibly the largest city on Earth, and at its peak one of its most dazzling capitals. Ayutthaya, before the Burmese invasion and sacking of 1767, was the centre of a Siamese (Thai) empire that encompassed not only modern-day Thailand but Laos, Cambodia and Burma, along with parts of the Malay Peninsula and China.

Today it stands in ruins but is still a revered and treasured part of Thailand’s past, as well as being one of UNESCO’s world heritage listed sites. Most of the Buddhas might be headless (as a result of the Burmese invasion and subsequent lootings by treasure-hunters) but many still show signs of devotion – a silk sash across a chest, a lotus blossom cupped in their hands, a crumbling stick of incense.

Every year thousands of tourists come to Ayuttthaya, many by boats upstream along the Chao Praya river from Bangkok to see the ruins. The prangs (temple towers) and the chedis (the stepped structures in which relics and remains are stored) do not look as wondrous as they must once have done, but they are still atmospheric and a reminder of glories past.

Foreigners who were admitted to Ayuttaya’s royal court even described the city as rivalling Paris in its beauty.

However, Thais – along with Buddhists from other countries – also come here, and one of the most important stops on their pilgrimage is a temple ruin where a almost unblemished Buddha head is clasped in the embrace of a fig tree’s roots. It’s an auspicious combination for locals.

They also make offerings at a statue on a very different scale. The 29-metre long reclining Buddha of Lokayasutharam lies in solitary splendour, surrounded on two sides by rickety stalls selling souvenirs. But although it is open to the elements, unlike the reclining Buddha at Wat Po in Bangkok, it still bears evidence of visits from the faithful. Small squares of gold paper have been stuck to its stone limbs and lotus blooms and incense are left as offerings in front of it.

Ayutthaya, which became the kingdom’s capital in 1350, was built on an island at the confluence of three rivers. Its palaces and temples were the powerhouse of the region and, unsurprisingly, began to attract the interest of other nations keen to trade – and no doubt ensure harmonious diplomatic ties with such a vast empire. Traders from Holland, Portugal, England, China and Japan were regular visitors as were representatives of the French court of Louis XIV. Foreigners were not allowed to stay on the island but were allocated settlements on the river banks. However, little remains of these today.

The ruins and the still functioning temple of Phra Mongkonbophit sit amid ponds and golden rain, mango and frangipani trees. While visitors can do the rounds of the various sites by vehicle (or for the fit and impervious to the heat, by bike) it’s possible to view the temples from the perspective of the back of a Thai elephant.

Elephants were an integral part of life in Ayutthaya and the animals now used as “elephant taxis” are part of a programme to see them retain their working function, rather than be reduced to begging in the streets with their mahouts or keepers. The elephants and their mahouts wait for passengers under a shade canopy, many mahouts snoozing on the small bench seats strapped to the elephants’ backs.

Neither the elephant I was assigned to nor his keeper seemed impressed to be summoned from the shade to take me around the sights. At one point the elephant even decided it was going home and did a u-turn with that in mind. It seemed an unfair tussle really; several tonne of elephant versus a slight and sleepy Thai man. But the mahout won the battle of wills and we continued our way, swaying along the footpath, the red silk umbrella overhead brushing through the flame trees, showering the ground with petals.

Jill Worrall travelled to Thailand courtesy of Thai Airways and the Tourism Authority of Thailand. She stayed at the Sukhothai and Mandarin Oriental hotels.

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