“Apart from the historical ruins and museums, Ayutthaya is not particularly interesting,” says my Thailand Guidebook.
From the Kantary House Hotel, on Rojana Road, I can see the bus stop going to Highway 32 toward Bangkok. The bus stop is actually a shed with about six seats and a few shopping stalls.
I walk for ten minutes West on Rojana, passing motorbike shops, houses, and canals to get to Chedi Wat Samplum, at a busy intersection with the ring road that circles the city. Here at Chedi Wat Samplum intersection, a collection of food and fruit stalls stay open all day.
At six a.m. as the monks walk barefoot past the food stalls, the smell of barbecue and sticky rice and soymilk are irresistible, and I stop for breakfast. Barbecue pork grilled over charcoal costs 3 Baht a stick, sticky rice 5 Baht a bag. The soymilk lady hands me a warm bag of the drink for 7 Baht. All in all breakfast costs me 50 US cents. As I eat, I watch locals make merit, handing bags of food over to monks in their saffron, and then bowing their heads as the monks chant a blessing.
Ayutthaya is a city of temples, and a great day to visit it is on May 19th, Visakha Bucha, the day commemorating the birth, enlightenment, and passing away of Buddha. Usually, the streets of Ayutthaya are crammed with merit makers, people from Bangkok and nearby areas flocking to significant temples in Ayutthaya such as Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon. This morning, the streets of Ayutthaya are still pretty empty save a few cars and motorbikes speeding on Rojana Road, some turning off into Highway 3058, where I am finishing breakfast before ambling off to the motorbike taxi stand.
For 15 Baht I go through a winding road toward the Japanese Settlement, which I pass on account of its whitewashed walls and modern glass windows, and chance upon the Dutch Settlement, where there is a field of houseboats.
Intrigued, I stop at the Dutch Settlement to gawk at the sometimes brightly colored riverboats and the worn brown houseboats, some with eyes painted on the brow. Ayutthaya was nicknamed “Venice of the East,” when the first foreigners, the Dutch, sailed from Mergui in the South, up the Chao Phraya River, into the Siamese capital.
Boat building the old way, carving logs into canoes and using strips of wood for bigger cargo and house boats, is still a trade in Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya remains navigable entirely by long tail boat. Its waterways surround the city center and branch off in smaller canals called klongs. Standing by the Pasak River, which joins the Chao Phraya south of the city, I see flat cargo boats loaded with rice slowly being pulled by colorful, smaller tugs.
For 3 Baht, I take a boat down Khlong Suan Phlu and fing a tuktuk. He wants 100 Baht, eyeing my camera, but I smile and, in Thai, bargain him down to the local price of 35 Baht. I bump along in the tuktuk to the North Railway Station, where there are other food stalls for locals looking for their day’s meals.
In the soi or small lane across the Railway Station are places to sit. Motorbike taxi drivers and local residents in shorts and some in pajamas sit to have patongco, a chewy fried bread, which is made in sweet (salapao) or salty (patongco) varieties. A bag of the patongco cost 10 Baht, so I decide to pick up a bag and munch on the salapao while I walk to the end of the street, waterside, where I take another 3 Baht ferry across to the Chao Phrom Market.
Chao Phrom Market looks like any other Thai market. Neatly stacked pyramids of mangosteen, rambutan, guava flanked by the more exotic dragon fruit in flaming hot pink and rows of cucumber, morning glory and kale. Giant bags of dried fish, baskets of salted fish, and deeper inside, aisles wet from poultry, fresh fish, and meat vendors’ stalls. The smell gets stronger the deeper I get into the market, so I head back to the fruit stalls and buy a kilo of rambutan for 15 Baht and then retrace my steps back to the river ferry stop.
A private long-tail boat takes me northward on the Pasak River to the Elephant Kraal. Elephants are special in Ayutthaya, having served its kings as battle animals since the city was founded in 1350 by King U-Thong. Presently, there are only about 3,000 elephants in Thailand, and about a hundred of them are in Ayutthaya.
The elephant kraal is not something a local would come to see. When my motorbike taxi driver and I park near the area where a few elephants are being bathed, no one comes to ask me to buy fruit to feed the animals (which is now illegal in Thailand), or approach me to negotiate a ride. Mahouts clean their animals, and then later ride the elephants to the hay pile to pick up a bale and walk back to drop the bale in front of the area where they eat.
It is soon too hot to stay, and the older male elephants with crooked tusks and their heads swaying to a strange music made me a little sad. The Elephant Kraal staff says that if they do not take care of the elephants, they may not have any offspring to continue the species in Thailand. As the mahout speaks to me, an obviously baby elephant jogs away from its mother and heads in our direction. I laugh, unsure what to do. “What is he doing?” I ask the mahout. He laughs as well and says, “He’s taking a walk around.”
The motorbike takes me back into town through Highway 3060 and back onto Rojana Road, where I ask him to drop me off at the North Railway. In front of the Railway station are some tuktuks waiting for fares. I hire a red one to take me to Highway 3053, past the turnoff to Big C, a hypermarket, past small temples, and then smaller and smaller houses until we reach rice fields. Left side: rice fields. Right side: rice fields. I chance upon Chana Restaurant, overlooking a rice field. The restaurant is open air with wooden tables and chairs. In the front is a stage with drums and some guitar stands, two microphones. No one is on stage in the middle of the day. It’s past noon and I decide to sit and order lunch: fresh water fish, morning glory in oyster sauce, and a plate of rice. They give me two sauces to go with my meal—the ubiquitous nam pla prik, chopped garlic and chili in a base of fish sauce, and another sauce, nam chim prik, which has crushed chili in a lime juice base. I like the piquant nam chim and drip that over the crispy fresh water fish. The meal costs me 180 Baht or around U$ 5, a splurge in local prices, but which includes a cold bottle of water, a Coke, and an excellent view of the rice fields and blue sky.
After lunch, I walk on Highway 3053 until a tuktuk stops. I want to go to the opposite end of the city, to visit the Queen Suriyothai Monument off Highway 309. The tuktuk driver wants the 100 Baht, and knowing that it takes a half hour to go to the monument, I agree. We follow 3053 up to Rojana and turn left toward the Ayutthaya Tourist Center, which reminds me of the old Palace in Saigon with its columns and impressive iron grille fence.
We turn left and follow Khlong Tho Road up to where it turns into Highway 309. The parking lot of the Queen Suriyothai Monument is empty. The tuktuk driver parks and I get out, walk to the shrine where incense is burning and there is a padded pew for locals to kneel and offer some thoughts to the revered Queen Suriyothai, whose legend says she died on elephant back fighting the Burmese Prince Prome while protecting her husband King Chakkrapat, whose animal in turn had fallen from wounds.
I stay under the cool shade of the frangipani trees watching some old men fishing on Khlong Ku Muang at a ferryboat stop. Down the same road, crossing one of the many bridges spanning the Chaophraya River, we head into a dirt road shaded by acacia. A fishball seller attracts my tuktuk driver, and he snacks while I walk around the cool grounds of Wat Choeng Tha. There’s one car here, with merit makers, from Bangkok, their car’s license plate hints.
The only other person here is a man digging a ditch from the outdoor shrine to the river.
“What is it for,” I ask him.
“Preparing for the rainy season,” he says, happy to hear Thai, “so the grounds don’t get flooded.”
“Do you get a lot of tourists here?” I ask him.
He stops digging, leans on the shovel, then says, “I don’t see a lot of farang come here,” using the Thai word for foreigners. “We used to get a lot of Thai people coming here on Buddha’s birthday. But.” And he stops talking. He grasps the handle of the shovel and gives me a wan smile.
The man turns to his task. The only sound between us is the metallic crunch of the shovel slicing through sandy soil.