Those who have heard of Ayutthaya usually associate it with the arresting sight of a partial Buddha statue encased in a tree, which is found at Wat Mahathat. Our guide told us that the body of the statue is buried by layers of dirt and gnarled tree branches, leaving only the head protruding. However, I’ve read from various online sources that the head was actually broken off, probably when the Burmese destroyed this temple during an invasion in the 18th century. I think part of what makes this statue so spellbinding is that no one really knows how it ended up there, or how a tree managed to grow so artfully around it, turning a shattered statue into an iconic image of Thailand.
Our day began with a boat ride from Bangkok down the Chao Praya River towards Ayutthaya. Brent and I only live about an hour away from Bangkok, yet we’ve never really put on our tourist hats when visiting this city. This is partially because I’ve never really liked Bangkok. I’m a little ashamed to admit this because I know that my negative feelings towards Bangkok are completely uninformed. We’ve traveled to Bangkok to pick up items that we can’t get in our own small town, catch transport to other destinations, or to take care of visa issues; but I’ve never tried to explore the city. It has always struck me as big, ugly, and full of people who are more inclined to scam foreigners. The cruise allowed us to take a look at some of Bangkok’s more notable sites, without dedicating a full day to Bangkok tourism. I was mainly excited to see Wat Arun. When we first came to Thailand, I saw this temple on a yellowing poster hung in a guesthouse, and I had wanted to see it in person since then.
The cruise itself, although lovely, was clearly meant for the mom-and-dad crowd. The ship’s interior reminded me of the kind of decor that I imagine my parents chose for their first house in the 80s, and the background music could only be described as “soft rock”. That said, the cruise helped me to see Bangkok from a different perspective. I warmed to the sight of glittering golden temples peeking out periodically within the string of grey office buildings. I even developed a little affection for Bangkok.
Once we had arrived in Ayutthaya, we were fitted with our bikes for the day. Our Ayutthaya tour began at Ayutthaya’s Tourism Information Centre, where our guide gave us an overview of the sites that we would be visiting that day. I had only skimmed over Ayutthaya’s history before we came, so I was grateful to learn a little about who built these temples and why. It saved me from a day of staring at really old things with no context to appreciate them. This visit also set the precedence for our guide’s relatively hands-off approach to the tour. He gave us the basics, and then let us explore each site independently, while answering any questions that came up as we went.
We began by biking to the Royal Palace and Wat Prasri Sanphet, moved on to Wat Lokayasutharam, then Wat Na Phramen, and finally Wat Mahathat.
I had known that the reclining Buddha at Wat Lokayasutharam would be enormous, but I hadn’t expected each of the toes to be nearly as long as the height of my whole body. Our guide explained that statues depict Buddha in a variety of positions, including sitting, walking, standing and reclining. These positions reflect the different stances that humans take in their daily lives. I’ve seen a particularly large number of reclining Buddha statues in Thailand, which, to me, seemed like an endearing reflection on Thailand’s relaxed culture. This reclining Buddha had a serene, yet mildly bemused expression that I liked.
At Wat Na Phramen, we saw a statue of a very round, chubby Buddha that reminded me of the images I had seen before coming to Thailand, where he is always depicted as very slender. In the least cheeky way that I could manage, I asked our guide about Buddha’s strange weight fluctuations. It turns out that Buddha’s body size is just cultural; he is typically shown as fat in Chinese culture, but slim in Thailand. Who knew?
The last stop of our Ayutthaya tour was at 14th century Wat Mahathat, which ended up being my favourite place of all. There was the Buddha statue head in the tree, of course, but beyond that, I loved wandering around the ruins of the temple, which were sprawled out over a large area. The red bricks of the walls were blackened with age, and the stupas crumbled artistically, while weathered, headless Buddhas guarded the periphery. There was beauty in the grandeur that this temple obviously once had, as well as in the unintentional ways that it had aged and declined.
*In exchange for this review, we received a discount on our tour with Ayutthaya Boat & Travel, but the opinions, as always, are my own*
Have you visited Ayutthaya? What did you think?