July 20, 2018
Before we could fully appreciate the beauty and magnitude of Bang Pa-in Royal Palace, we had to leave for our real destination: the historical core of Ayutthaya. On the way, we stopped by the Ayutthaya Floating Market where we also had our lunch at a local stop. Post-lunch, we were given free time to explore the floating market. It was also an opportunity to immerse in the local atmosphere.
Over the past few years, floating markets have become quite the major tourist attraction. Ayutthaya’s floating market does still look relatively new. It was bunch of wooden stalls built around a small body of water, perhaps a pond. Nevertheless, the shops were teeming with activities as they offer a variety of products, from local produce to souvenirs to local cuisine. The air permeated with a mixture of heat, sweat, and of scrumptious food that seduced the olfactory senses. My friends and I enjoyed hopping from one stall to another, picking souvenirs, pieces of clothing, or anything under the sun that will commemorate our stay in Thailand. For those who want a more authentic experience, one can rent a boat to circle around the market. There is also a local market beside the floating market that one can also explore although it is a carbon copy of the floating market, sans the canal.
It is now time for the highlight. From the market, we proceeded to the historical core of Ayutthaya. Founded in 1350 by King Ramathibodi I, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya became the second capital of the Siamese Kingdom, after Sukhothai in the northern part of the Kingdom. Strategically located on an island formed by the confluence of Chao Phraya, Lop Buri, and Pa Sak rivers, Ayutthaya flourished into one of the world’s largest and most cosmopolitan urban areas from the 14th to the 18th century. As the seat of power of the influential Siamese Kingdom, it was an important center of diplomacy and commerce. However, in 1767, the city was sacked and razed to the ground by the armies of Burmese king Hsinbyushin in what is now referred to as the “Fall of Ayutthaya”.
In the contemporary, Ayutthaya is popularly referred to as Krung Kao (“ancient capital”). With modern Ayutthaya reestablished a few kilometers to the east of the old city, the old city was turned into a living museum. Previously referred to as the “Venice of the East”, the old city was intersected with a number of canals and waterways. Flanking these canals and waterways are pagodas, gigantic monasteries, and the prang (reliquary towers) which once dominated the skyline of the city’s historical core. What was left of the former glory and grandeur are ruins, vestiges of the city’s immense influence and power.
Thankfully, the wicked tropical heat started to subside; it didn’t slap us with intensity once we alighted from the van. The first stop of our afternoon tour was Wat Phra Mahathat. Located at the heart of the old city, its construction is believed to be commissioned by King Boromaraja I (1370-88). It is also believed to be one of Ayutthaya’s oldest temples, and, housing the Buddha’s holy relic, it is also considered as one of the most significant temples of the old city. At its zenith, the compound once hosted important royal ceremonies. However, during the Fall of Ayutthaya, the temple was badly damaged by fire. The temple compound remains an important relic of the city’s history, with its ruins turned into a historical monument.
What was left of Wat Phra Mahathat (Temple of the Great Relic) was turned into a tourist attraction. I had very little knowledge of it when I visited in 2018. I didn’t even realize that it was the location of the famed Buddha image wrapped around the tree’s roots. It is a popular destination and social media is abound with its pictures. It was also one of the bucket list items that I wanted to tick off during our Thai tour. For visitors who want to take their own picture, please observe the proper etiquette of taking pictures of the Buddha Image. One must never be higher than the Image; it reminded me of our Temple visit in Seoul, South Korea where we were reminded never to have our backs face the Buddha Image.
Unsurprisingly, the Buddha Image was one of the highlights of our tour. However, walking around the temple compound was in itself satisfying for it gave us an atmosphere of the old city. Apart from the image of Buddha, the compound was riddled with the ruins of old buildings such as pagodas, octagonal pagodas, the royal hall, and small temples. The brick buildings started withering with time but they are encapsulated with important memories of the past. It was fun just walking around while enjoying the antiquated atmosphere. Of course, we had to take our fair share of pictures.
Our next destination was another relic of the old city. Wat Phra Si Sanphet (Temple of the Holy, Splendid Omniscient). It was one of the original structures built by King Ramathibodi I when he established his new capital. The original structures served as a royal residential palace before it was converted into a monastery and a holy site by King Borom Trai Lokkanat in 1448; a new palace was constructed to the north. It assumed the name Wat Phra Si Sanphet and, at the height of Ayutthaya’s power, it was the largest temple complex in the city.
In the contemporary, what remains of the city’s holiest, and grandest temple, are three towering Stupas, or Chedis as the Thais refer to them. Each of these three Chedis contain important relics of Thai history. The first two Chedis, commissioned by King Borom Trai Lokkanat’s son, King Ramathibodi II in 1492, houses the remains of his father and his brother, King Borommaracha III. The third Chedi was build during the reign of King Borommaracha IV in 1529. Buried in it were the remains of King Ramathibodi II. There were other structures around the compound but the Chedis loomed on the background.
Our third stop for the day is another holy ground. However, unlike our first two destinations, our third destination is one of the city’s more modern structures. Just south of Wat Phra Si Sanphet is Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit. While the structure is modern, the Buddha Image it houses is anything but. Phra Mongkhon Bophit (Buddha of the Holy and Supremely Auspicious Reverence) is believed to have been sculpted in 1538, during the reign of King Chairacha (1534-1547). A bronze seated Image, it rises to a staggering height of almost thirteen meters and dominates the interior of the chapel. The original sculpture was damaged during the Fall of Ayutthaya but has since undergone several restorations and is now one of the largest Buddha images in Thailand.
Thankfully, we got the opportunity to enter the temple where our tour guide gave us more about the history of the place. I do recall her mentioning about the 2011 flooding that submerged the city and most of Thailand. Many of the city’s important relics were inundated by the waters of Chao Phraya River. While the area surrounding the Chapel was engulfed in floods, the water never seeped into its interiors, leaving the Image virtually unscathed. Many considered it an act of Grace, some a miracle. We got to appreciate the Image in all its glory while learning more about the city’s history. We also got to pray for our own wishes. I hope all our wishes were granted, answered, or rerouted to the correct direction!
In our next destination, we got to visit another Buddha Image. Phra Buddhasaiyart is an Image of a reclining Buddha, like the one in Bangkok’s Wat Pho. The sculpture, measures 42 meters long and eight meters high, depicts Buddha at the time he enters Nirvana, with His head resting on a pillow of lotus flowers. Unlike the famed Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho, Phra Buddhasaiyart is not housed in a temple. It is located outdoors and is exposed to the elements. We had to rush taking pictures of the Image because it started to rain. The Image, however, is not easy to miss because of its size.
Thankfully, the rain started to subside when we reached the last stretch of our afternoon tour. As mentioned, the city was once known as the Venice of the East and for us to fully appreciate that, we are going to explore the city’s main canals through a pump boat. Experiencing the ancient city through a boat tour made us appreciate its old title. We also got to see more of the city, both its modern and ancient influences. One of the structures that stood was Wat Chaiwatthanaram, another ancient temple built in 1630 by King Prasat Thong to honor his mother, Wat Chai Wattanaram. The structure drew influences from Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. It is considered a great place to take a picture of the sunset.
We ended the day by immersing in the local atmosphere which reminded me of the Philippines. At the open market, we had our fill of the local street food; Thailand is also known for its exotic street food scene. Because of my sensitive stomach, I opted out of the more exotic food. And thus ends yet another busy day in Thailand!