For those looking to culturize themselves (new, made up word, let’s roll with it), sawatdee is how you say hello in Thai while korp kun means thank you. Another interesting bit worth noting for those interested in Thai culture is their levels of respect and how Thais show it. When saying hello or thank you or something of the sort, you place your palms together as if in prayer with your fingertips pointing skyward and your thumbs touching your body and then you tilt your head downwards like a slight bow to that person or persons (basic). When interacting with someone younger than you, you place your thumbs and thus your hands at chest height. The hands progress upwards from there for equals, elders, monks, and finally the king and his image, in which you place your hands above your head.
I woke up knowing I had a very busy day ahead of me. Today would be my one and only full day in the city of Ayutthaya so I needed to make the most of it. So after a bowl of fresh fruit, muesli, and yogurt, I hopped onto what can barely be called a bicycle and pedaled to the first Wat, or temple, on my day’s to do list. Wat Mahathat is known for its Buddha image entangled with the roots of a tree (the rest of its body completely missing) as well as mysteriously headless Buddha images. Walking amongst the ruins I couldn’t help but go back to my time in Rome while walking through the Roman Forum. Although not as old as Rome and its remnants, Ayutthaya was a thriving ancient civilization in SE Asia, having been the capital city for 417 years thanks to its natural borders of the four rivers that flow around it forming an island. I was surprised by how much free rein we had to walk through and around the ruins; as great as it was to get an up close look you can’t help but realize how much this undermines the preservation of this bit of history. While reading through the info boards, I noticed that Thailand is not living in the year 2015 but rather sometime in 2588 BE; they haven’t quite pulled off time travel but have found a different point in which to call year ‘0’. The fact that this much of Thailand’s past has survived to this day is a surprise in itself. The Burmese conquerors sacked the city and pillaged the area and soon after abandoned it, so we should be thankful this much has been leftover. Another odd thing I found is the random reasons for building such Wats or temples. Kings have decided to build these entire structures that go on for acres in honor of a war victory, peace in a family feud, or as a burial site for a relative, all on the backs of his people. Wat Phra Si Sanphet was next on the docket with its three chedis (stupas) all in Singapore style, like giant bells narrowing out upwards and forming circular rings to the tip. This Wat was designed and dedicated as the Royal chapel of the King and his family. It can be so easy to fall into the trap of losing appreciation when some wats look so similar to the rest but by the pure fact that I am walking through history should be enough to dissuade that. With a keen eye, I have even picked up on some things. The Grand Palace definitely has its purposes in the way it was laid out. Just as what I am seeing in these ancient buildings, the Grand Palace in Bangkok has the same structure of Buddha images wrapping around the main temple areas. The competition for the biggest buddha seems obvious enough with Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit temple being a candidate due to having one of the largest bronze Buddha images in Thailand in its sanctuary hall. In this temple, like many others, I have noticed worshippers shaking cups forward and back with things that can only be described as thin chopsticks as they chanted some form of prayer. Naturally the sticks would slide out, so after returning them to their original state they continued their chant. I try to take time to observe their ways of worship even if I may not understand its meaning. As weird as this may sound, I have enjoyed entering the temples for the simple fact that it is a great excuse to take off my shoes. Outside I found many photographs taken of the temples during the rainy monsoon season. The pathways that I have been walking to see the temples would be all underwater and thus the main parts of the ruins would only be accessible by bamboo raft. I can’t imagine how Thais deal with this especially as the rivers flood and take over their “basements”. Towards the west of the island sits Wat Lokayasutharam, a strong contender for the largest reclining Buddha, an image measuring an astounding 42 meters long while wrapped in its typical golden yellow cloak. Here I recognized the growing trend of offerings being given to Buddha images in the form of baskets full of fruit and flowers while accompanied by an intoxicating mixture of incense. As small as the island may be, I found a way to get lost. I don’t care how close points A and B are; I will always find myself at C wondering where the hell I am. As frustrating as that may be, I get myself into areas where Thais stare at me as if I were the first white person they have witnessed in their entire lives, so you know I have gotten off the beaten path. Another plus of that is that I found some ruins not surrounded by throngs of tourists and their package tours. To get a better understanding of the temples and Ayutthaya’s history, I visited their exhibition hall which was not overly noteworthy except for the far end being a panel of ancient Thai dishes, which I quickly scribbled down. I needed to refuel on some Thai food so I stopped at a restaurant with not too much foot traffic but enough people inside this sort of pop-up restaurant. For the best food, I look for a place that has only Thai occupants and resides far away from the tourist trapped streets. The restaurant had no English menu and devoid of Roman letters, which makes picking a dish to eat a slight challenge. Using my handy guide of Ayutthaya dishes from the Tourist Center, I pointed at the first dish on my list having no clue what it would be. Funny enough, it ended up being spicy papaya salad but the best one I have had thus far, with actually fermented crabs mixed in as the authentic dish requires. I was still hungry and tried pointing at another dish from my list but from what I recognized they did not have it or any of the others on the menu. Looking around the restaurant, I found a woman enjoying a bowl of noodles. Without one iota of what may have been cooked into that broth, I pointed in that direction and asked for one but not too spicy. The soup was delicious and after leaving the restaurant, the one Thai guy I primarily dealt with, probably a few years younger than me said, thank you in English and bowed, after which I returned the gesture. The moment felt special and genuine perhaps due to the very few white people that may eat there as well as the random, odd requests I made. The next couple of Wats were set off the island so a long bike ride was needed through heavy traffic, bordering on highway sized madness, to get there. On the way I could not help but notice how many stray dogs are on the streets. If Bob Barker doesn’t have a hobby while in retirement from the Price is Right, Thailand could definitely use him. Wat Yao Chaimongkhon is lined with so many Buddha images wrapping itself around the largest Singapore style bell temple my eyes have ever witnessed. The center bell shaped chedi or stupa was commanded to be built in honor of a king’s victory in combat on elephant back over his rival. At Wat Phanan Choeng, I found an absurd amount of Buddhas to the tune of 84,000, most of them fit into the tiniest crannies of the wall. More noteworthy than the Buddha images, I watched and listened to several monks praying and chanting in a temple off to the side. Before getting shooed away, I relaxed in the doorway hearing their melodic chants called out to Buddha. Based on a recommendation by my guide book, I found a restaurant too high class for me. My table sat on the edge overlooking the river and a temple just across the way. A solo sweaty backpacker probably did not find into their clientele image but I got seated anyways. The meals were highly priced but maybe 12 dollars at the end of the day versus the 20 plus I could spend at an American restaurant of this quality. I ordered a coconut based soup and spring rolls filled with crab and veggies and then wrapped in rice paper. The soup arrived over a flame similar to what you might find accompanying fondue; all of which was probably not meant for one person’s undertaking. The meal was good and the ambience was excellent with a man playing guitar and serenading the diners with Thai vocals. Would I eat there again? Probably not. I could find nearly as good Thai food on the streets and it is missing that edgy element of the grunge of eating on the street with Thais and their families. I ended the night early finishing a Chang beer as I needed to wake up early to catch the morning train to Pak Chong, a town considered the gateway to Khao Yai National Park and its many indigenous animals such as elephants, monkeys, black bears, sun bears, clouded leopards, King cobras, pythons, and many colorful birds, oh my!