Rockstars and Temples in Ayutthaya
Silence and stillness enveloped me as I watched the sun set behind Wat Chaiwattharan.
Chapels rose majestically from a manicured lawn. The calm of my surroundings seeped into my skin.
Beheaded Buddhas and pilfered brick walls depicted the city’s tragic fall.
Shouts rang in the distance.
My tour guide frantically waved his arms as I slowly approached the river. Birds swept across temple peaks, dancing in the valleys between.
When I reached the boat, the tour group of twenty burst into sardonic applause.
I looked at the time. I was two minutes behind.
Under the humbling eye of Buddha I remembered that I was no longer in the land of pura vida.
I was in Ayutthaya.
Earlier that day I arrived from bustling Bangkok to the fallen city.
Less than four hundred years ago the city of Ayutthaya was believed to be one of the largest in the world, operating as a trade center between Europe and Asia.
After Bangkok it felt like a small town.
I checked into Tony’s Place with Sarah, a friend I met last year in Puerto Viejo, who serendipitously arrived in Thailand the same day as me.
We were greeted by a slender Thai man with slicked back hair and tight jeans.
“Sooooo you’re from Sea-AT-tool…. Kurt Kohbaaaayne, Jimi Hendrixxx, Puurrl Jam.” He drummed his hands on the desk.
“Are you a musician?” Sarah asked.
“BINNNNGO!” he said, pointing his hand in the shape of a gun. “But I can’t tell you who I am.”
He flashed his iPhone then withdrew it quickly, offering us a glimpse of a man on a red carpet.
A few guesthouses and tourist restaurants littered the street while Thai life passed by.
The local market sold strands of marigold flowers, grilled meat on sticks, young coconuts, plastic hair barrettes, exotic mushrooms, and bedazzled smartphone covers.
One of the few food stalls displayed colorful plastic baskets filled with herbs and vegetables.
The owner smiled and chatted with locals while he dished out meals from a single pot.
“Kin chay.” I called to him. My Thai was limited to “hello”, “thank you”, “young coconut”, and in this case “vegetarian.”
He smiled and grabbed handfuls of mushrooms, dumping them into a pot hot enough to obliterate the ebola virus. Sarah and I watched in awe.
We ate on mismatched plastic plates he washed in a bucket beside his one burner propane stove.
I drizzled the dark sauce over fluffy white rice and nibbled on mushrooms, eggplant, and kabocha squash.
My tongue curiously examined the foreign flavors. My nose ran from the heat.
Back at Tony’s Place “The Rockstar” arranged an evening tour of the ruins across the river.
While we waited he told stories of his life in Bangkok, about his world tours, and expressed his affinity for Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.
“Now I’m tired of that life. I need a break,” he sighed.
In the fourteenth century when King U Thong fled Lopburri from a smallpox outbreak, he discovered an island surrounded by rivers. He named it Ayutthaya and declared it the new capitol of Siam.
Hundreds of years later The Rockstar came to Ayutthaya to escape the burden of his own fame.
The world blurred into a Monet of electric light from the back of the tuk tuk. Tour guides corralled us into wooden boats decorated with rainbow ribbons and strands of fresh marigolds.
We spent the next hour rushing on water from one temple to the next; wandering on land unsupervised without a guide.
When I arrived at Wat Chaiwattharan I gave myself the permission to linger. To feel what it meant to actually be there.
You know what happened next.
That night I sat alone in the dark abandoned dining room working beside the daylight in the Western world.
Mosquitoes feasted on my exposed legs.
Tourists performed drunken spectacles in the street.
The Rockstar stepped out for a cigarette.
He handed me two grape candies in silence and walked away.
In the morning Sarah and I rented bicycles and rode through city traffic to reach the ancient temples.
We sweat under the Siam sun.
I was beginning to suffer from the ubiquitous temple overdose.
Pleased Westerners rode elephants down paved city sidewalks.
Mahouts napped in howdahs saddled on the gentle beasts’ backs.
Faced with the ugly side of tourism, I chose to look away.
We stopped at a roadside market for a bottle of water and a break.
Stalls sold slaughtered pig heads, live fish, young coconuts, used clothing, and coca cola.
A vendor approached me. “Ahhhh you’re from America!” he shouted excitedly.
“I have Tiger Woods!”
He opened a box filled with hundreds of metal tiger key chains with disproportionate male genitalia.
“You want to buy??”
We ended our day at Wat Lokayasutharam, famous for its reclining Buddha.
I approached the impressive statue and bowed to a woman selling lotus flowers on the street.
“You buy for Buddha. For good luck,” she said gesturing to her baskets of perfect white and pink blooms.
“I already have luck.” I smiled and pointed to the white string tied around my wrist.
Two days before, a monk blessed me in a temple in Bangkok, giving me a bracelet for protection and luck.
She saw the string and nodded warmly in agreement.
I turned towards the Buddha, took a step, and felt a soft smack against the back of my head.
A bird had just shit on me.
“Good luck! Good luck! Good luck!” she laughed.
I headed for the restroom to rinse my luck away.
That night I boarded the overnight bus for Chiang Mai.
I smiled at Sarah and slipped on the fuzzy pink eye mask my mother sacrificed before I left.
The lantern festival was beginning in a few days and I had bypassed Cambodia and Laos to ensure I would make it to Chiang Mai for the big release.
There was also someone waiting in Chiang Mai who I very much wanted to meet.
I could not predict the adventure that would soon transpire. How it would unfold or what I would feel.
But in that moment I acknowledged that I had the health, the courage, and the means to find out.
I had so much more than most.
I had good luck.
How I Got to Ayutthaya
From Bangkok I took the skytrain to the Victory Monument terminal. There I purchased a direct minivan for 70 baht ($2.33) to Ayutthaya. We arrived just outside the city an hour and a half later.
Where I Stayed in Ayutthaya
I stayed at Tony’s Place which is on the main guesthouse street along with a few bars and restaurants. The connected bar and restaurant had great vibes for chilling out at night. It’s worth staying here just to get to know The Rockstar.
What I Ate in Ayutthaya
My favorite places to eat in Ayutthaya were the markets. The street market around the corner from Tony’s Place is where we had our inventive vegetarian street meal. I also bought young coconuts and fruit here for breakfast. Along the river is a night market with street carts selling phad thai, grilled fish, roti, and other Thai treats.
What I Did in Ayutthaya
The first night we arranged the two hour boat tour available at any guesthouse in Ayutthaya. It takes you to three temples across the river. The trip would be amazing but they rush you, only giving you twenty minutes at each temple. If you can figure out an affordable way to do it on your own I would highly recommend that.
The second day we rented bikes for about 30 baht ($1) and explored the temples in the old city. It’s easy to get “templed out” so I recommend selecting a few to prioritize then allowing yourself to wander through the beautiful fields and quaint local streets.
Have you been to Ayutthaya? What have I missed that you’d like to share?