Hop on a train bound north from Bangkok and in just over an hour and a half you’ll find yourself in what was once the thriving capital of Thailand. Nowadays Ayutthaya is a little more sedentary, by Thai standards at least, but the reminders of a proud past are visible at every turn. The town is technically an island being surrounded as it is on four sides by waterways and these channels are protrolled by long-tail boats and water monitors alike.
Many of the boats offer the chance to dine afloat and a turn at karaoke whilst other offer a whistle-stop tour of some of the biggest, most impressive wats in the area. But stick to your guns and take a wander, if there’s one thing Ayutthaya isn’t short of its shrines. From the small and ubiquitous kind you see scattered through every avenue and shop front right up to those that stood as the pride of the Khmer civilisation.
I visited in early February at the peak of the Chinese New Year. You could be easily believe the whole town had turned out to pay homage to its strong and shared Chinese heritage. Directly outside my hostel in fact was a marching band of local school children happily tooting and banging for the whole world to hear.
I was told at reception that these celebrations were ongoing and if I wanted to be involved I should head into the local Chinatown later and then on to the night market where the festivities would make the marching band outside seem positively low-key. Something I would surely enjoy but first a cold shower and another liberal coating of DEET.
By the time I reached the market in Chinatown the celebrations had clearly moved on and the stalls were packing down. Undeterred I found a small street-food vendor and sat down to eat some of the best sticky rice and sweet chilli chicken I’ve enjoyed so far. As I sat soaking up the local atmosphere I began to reflect on the difference an hours travel, from the light and sound show that is Bangkok, can make.
That was until everything on my plate began strobing from neon green to pink and back again like some long-delayed acid flashback. Fortunately this wasn’t the case, I had just been caught off guard by the travelling light show that is the local bus route. All six exhausts and carnival airbrush paint job of it. As bizarre as it often is, Thais certainly know how to put on an eye-catching, or should that be eye-watering, show.
Now here’s the funny thing; I couldn’t help but be impressed by the show but little did I know what yet awaited at the market. Bang Ian night market is in a different league and boosted by the New Year celebrations it borders on sensory overload. Thousands of people pack the street and wind en-masse between the hundreds of stalls selling everything from bunny rabbits in tiny dresses to household furniture. Need a new pair of pants and a fried scorpion? Bang Ian has you covered.
Blind singers and local school groups compete for donations whilst small children turn tricks antagonising boa constrictors for your entertainment. There are overcrowded and overly dangerous fairground rides, there’s a motorcycle wall-of-almost-certain-death and every fairground game from darts and air-rifles to dunk an aggressively gyrating go-go girl. All of this is to a background of thumping Thai electronic dance music. It’s fantastic.
The next morning, in search of something less stimulating but equally pleasurable, I hired a bicycle and headed off the island to visit three of the larger wat in the surrounding area; Wat Yai Chaimongkol, Wat Phannan Choeng and Wat Chai Wattanaram.
The first of the day, Wat Yai Chaimongkol, is now a temple and the grounds are home to a great many monks and statues of Buddha. This particular wat managed to escape destruction by the Burmese owning purely to the fact it acted as their base of operations. In such good repair is it that you can gain access to its main stupa to appreciate the eight bronze buddhas that sit within its alcoves or peer down at monks collecting the coins that have been scattered into every nook and cranny of its central wishing-well like cavity.
Wat Phannan Choeng is a different story altogether. A huge and chaotic complex of shrines an merit-making ceremonies all watched over by a nineteen metre tall Buddha surrounded by 84,000 smaller images. The effect is really quite something but the strange mix of devout symbols and the opportunity purchase food or keepsakes can’t help but seem a little jarring.
From here, and luckily enough, just in time for sunset I headed to the opposite side of the island for Wat Chai Wattanaram. Built in a design purposefully imitating Angkor Wat this seventeenth century ruin is magnificent to behold. It’s thirty-five metre central prang towering over everything in the immediate vicinity as a proud monument to the mother of King Prasat Thong.