We arrived in Ayutthaya at the crack of dawn, bedraggled, sleep-deprived yet still elated at the fortnight’s holiday spread out before us after a fortnight of hell at work. Joel, Kelsey and I, seasoned and worldly travellers that we are, decided to dispense with the cliche of guide books, research or any other kind of foreknowledge regarding the adventure we were embarking upon. When I dispensed with it of course I mean we forgot, being the space cadets we are. I have an excuse, my only Lonely Planet being of limited use outwith the borders of Vietnam – J&K are just dimwits.
Fortunately Lady Luck was looking out for us and no sooner had we begin to peruse the crowded, unintelligible and largely Thai map in Ayutthaya train station than a friendly Canadian clocked our predicament and chimed in with some tips. Two minutes later, armed with suggestions for accommodation, transport and tours, we set off into town, crossing the river on the adorable and almost pointless 4-baht ferry. With a destination now in mind – Baan Lotus, Lonely Planet’s top pick, although apparently booked out the previous night – we set out through our temporary home. With a remarkable tally of zero wrong turns we reached the guesthouse just as some previous occupants had checked out. Three beds for 800 baht can be a little steep but we were happy to have somewhere with air-con, hot water and free wi-fi for a while so we shrugged off our backpacks and sat down to breakfast on the fish pond out back.
Breakfast? Well, to be fair that’s stretching it a bit. When someone says ‘continental breakfast’ my mind conjures images of fresh-baked croissant and pain au chocolat, fruit salads, steaming freshly-ground coffee and a cooling glass of fruit juice. Maybe, just maybe, a pot of yoghurt if I’m lucky. Two slices of toast and a banana does not a continental breakfast make. Especially when coffee costs extra…
However I’m willing to let a place off the hook when the owner is as ridiculously happy and friendly as here. Within minutes of deciding on an evening tour of the temples we had our tickets, a map, a potted history of Ayutthaya (the king of Myanmar came, burned all the Buddhas, now Myanmar is up shit creek, just ask Rambo) and – superspecial bonus – permission, nay encouragement, to pet and play with the five pups outside, each a tad over a month old. That sealed the deal for me, the place could be infested with rats, plague and zombies and I’d still give it a good review.
After some relaxation and unwinding, letting our bodies catch up after the train journey, we boarded our tuk-tuk for the tour. Over the next three hours we were whisked around five of Ayutthayas countless sights as darkness slowly descended. We were in full sunlight for the first temple, able to peruse the ruins and reclining Buddha and appreciate the views from the top of the chedi (may be the wrong word). Soon after we arrived at the elephant kraal, more or less a home for injured, ill-tempered and even murderous elephants who are rehabilitated, retrained and obviously adored by their mahouts – none of the savage hook-marks you see on the hides of the poor creatures on the streets of Surat. Until then I had no idea just how quiet such a massive, lumbering creature could be; you feel a brush on your back mid-conversation and turn to find yourself face-to-belly with an enormous bull, strolling by nonchalantly as if you weren’t there.
Back in the cab and off to another temple, this time with the sun beginning to kiss the horizon. This brought with it hordes of bats and insects but only added to the majesty of the monument. Staring up at it from the ground with a sliver of a crescent moon alongside its peak was beautiful and humbling in equal measure. Buddhists don’t build their temples with the vertiginous in mind though, I’ll certify to that – the journey upwards, relatively mild, was like a descent into Hades on the way down.
Our final two stops were after sundown, a whistle-stop tour of similar remains bathed in eerie floodlights. That the sight was gorgeous was beyond doubt but unfortunately the time, the glare of the lights and the crowds of tourists made it a mosquito’s paradise, detracting somewhat from our enjoyment. Still, I was able to brave the mozzie-pocalypse long enough to appreciate the similarity between one of the ruins and the stereotypical haunted graveyard of many a ghost/zombie movie.
(Wow – on a train while writing, the sun has gone down and I just looked down from my bunk and out of the window opposite to see the moon reflected in a river as we sped by…)
The tour over, we were dropped at the local night market to sample some Thai fare, apparently not to be missed. I’m a huge aficionado of the night market in Surat, gorging myself on the vendors’ many and varied delicacies every other night. Unfortunately not every such market is blessed with so many culinary masterminds. After perusing the lacklustre stands we decided to fall back on the old favourite of fried chicken and sticky rice, can’t go wrong there. Erm, wrong. I selected my cuts of choice only to witness them thrown back in the vat of oil for reheating, not only that but liberally sliced beforehand to ensure a good saturation of fats. It was almost inedible, more like chicken-flavoured grease than anything else. Never mind though, you win some, lose some.
Next morning I rose at the crack of dawn to talk to Em, having missed her for the past few days due to travel. My morning thus brightened I awaited the rise of my fellow journeymen and we made our way to breakfast by bicycle before embarking on our own pedal-powered, daylit tour of the ruins. Again we decided to forego the usual cliched traveller routine of applying sunscreen – sooo 1983 – and instead decided to let the tyrannous Thai sun do its worst against our pallid complexions. Long story short, the sun won. On the bright side we did see some more amazing sites and discovered a quite fantastic burger joint (Stiky’s) which served our meals on serviettes in plastic laundry baskets. Insane? Perhaps, but I bet it saves on dishwashing time.
Our tour complete, we returned to Baan Lotus for our bags, said our goodbyes and transplanted ourselves into a local bar for a few rounds of beanie, some liquid refreshment and an unexpected shower while awaiting the train for the next stop – Chiang Mai. This holiday has been a long time coming and, while I must admit it’s not nearly as much fun as it would be if Em were here, my mind is finally and firmly set back in adventure mode. More to come…