A word to the wise: Book your overnight train tickets through Thailand three days in advance, especially if you want a bed and not a hard seat.
We knew all of this, but could do nothing about it. Thai railways doesn’t allow booking tickets online. There are a few third-party companies that can do it for you, but we didn’t have a way to contact them.
And so, we arrived in Bangkok after a grueling 10-hour trip by minibus and crazy drivers, on the far side of the main railway station. After an hour of transfers through the sky train, MRT, and something else (I don’t remember what), we arrived (breathless) at the ticket counter, hoping and praying there were two second-class berths left on the overnight train to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
There weren’t. Nor were there any seats left on sleeper buses.
When they say Bangkok is a live and hoppin’ big city that draws lots of backpackers, they aren’t kidding. I saw more backpackers on our journey through the public transportation system than the entire time we were in Cambodia (minus Angkor, I guess).
We did some quick thinking, trying to land on our feet (and still get north, sticking with our tight itinerary) and ended up getting on a train to Ayutthaya. All I knew about the place was that it was around two hours north of Bangkok and had “cool tree roots,” thanks to a short conversation with a fellow backpacker on the Cambodia/Thailand border.
For two hours we had a break, until we arrived in Ayutthaya at 8 pm with no hostel reservation or idea of where a good hostel even was. Jordan spied four backpackers that had been on the train with us and tapped one on the shoulder.
“Uhh, excuse me, where are you staying? Is it cheap?”
Two of the four turned and looked at us. “Yes, we are staying in a hostel. I don’t remember the name.”
“We don’t have a reservation or really a plan,” Jordan admitted.
“You can follow us,” one of the girls suggested.
“Really?” I asked, smiling.
“Come ride with us in our tuktuk,” one of the guys invited.
So that’s how we ended up following three French and one Belgian backpackers at night to a random hostel that might have space for us. In the end, the hostel didn’t have space for us, but the owner drove us to another property and we stayed there.
Thank goodness for the kindness of strangers, I say. The other backpackers were all studying at a university in Taiwan and were on winter break. One was studying business, another Chinese. It was lovely to talk and get to know some other backpackers in our trip. They invited us to get drinks with them after we settled in, but we were exhausted and a little far for walking.
“Maybe lunch?” I facebooked one of the girls after we checked in.
“Yes. We are free,” she responded.
The next morning we surveyed the area and learned that Ayutthaya is known for its temple ruins, the remnant of the capital city of the Kingdom of Siam. Although traders tended to call the people Siamese or Ayutthaya, some scholars believe they called themselves the Tai people (which kinda makes sense, considering the country is now called Thailand). The kingdom was founded in 1351 and ended in 1767 when the Burmese army sacked the city. Not only did they destroy the city of around 1 million people, but they interrupted major trade routes between Europe and Asia. At the time, the king of Siam had good relations with the king of France, and the city was said to have rivaled Paris.
After learning a little history, we met our new friends for a late breakfast, then went out to see the temple ruins. They had reserved a tuktuk for the day, to take them to all the sights, and for six people it was 1,500 baht.
We first visited Wat Maha That, an old Buddhist temple in the old city. Ayutthaya today spans both sides of the river that runs through town, but during the Siamese reign the city was mainly on an island in the river. In the 14th century, when built, the temple oused the Thai patriarch of Buddhism.
Today it is famous for a Buddha head embedded in a tree.
Tourists come and get photos with this stone head, famous just for being so unique. Some time when the temple was abandoned, perhaps when the Burmese destroyed the city, the head of the Buddha image fell off and rolled into the roots, creating what we have today.
We next visited Viharn Phra Mongkol Bopit, which is right next to the Ayutthaya Historical Park. A lovely restored temple, it houses one of the largest bronze Buddhas in Thailand. (I’m in the lower left corner of the photo with our French and Belgian friends.)
The image was built most likely in 1538 and was moved from place to place until its final resting point here, in Ayutthaya. When the Burmese destroyed the city, they burnt the temple to the ground. It was left in ruins until the 1920s, when plans for reconstruction began. This was how it looked prior to the renovations:
After exploring the grounds of the temple, the six of us moved over to the historical park, which was the royal palace and state temple (used exclusively for royal religious ceremonies) until it was destroyed in 1767. So this is pretty much all that remains of Wat Phra Si Sanphet.
Our driver took us to a famous reclining Buddha image, which we quickly snapped a photo of and moved on. Unique, right?
At this point we began refraining from taking photos of every ruin with every Buddha statue because we’ve probably already got too many. Jordan and I had planned to do a river tour in the afternoon, so we peeled off from our friends, thanking them for their company, and went to the boats.
The tour was 200 baht a person, booked through a local travel agency, and was two hours long. It included three stops, two of them were temples with famous Buddha images and adjoined monasteries. The last stop alone was particularly noteworthy, we thought.
Wat Chaiwatthanaram was a former Buddhist temple, on the banks of the river, and probably the most well-known temple in town. Built in 1630, it was a royal temple where weddings, ceremonies, and funerals for the royal family would take place. It was, like everything else, destroyed in 1767. It partial restoration began in the 1980s and ended in 1992, so we can enjoy it. The stone and brick are best viewed, Jordan thinks, at sunset, where the colors really come alive.
And that’s pretty much all of Ayutthaya! We bought bus tickets for the 1st class bus (similar to a cama bus in South America) that took 9 hours overnight to get to Chiang Mai. We were on our way to northern Thailand.