Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Bali, Cambodia, and Thailand: September 27, 2009

All material including photographs are ©2009 Ronald Dunlap / Doglight Studios

We were up early again and did our usual routine. Out front of the hotel the only taxi at the cab stand was the same guy that had driven us yesterday. As we were walking past, he came over to talk to us. He knew we were unhappy with yesterday's outing and offered to take us to Ayutthaya for half price. I said we'd do it if we could pay him at the end of the trip, if we were satisfied.

Ayutthaya was the ancient capital of Siam between 1351 to 1767. It faded into history as a result of being sacked by a Burmese army. Today, it is still one of the spiritual centers of Thailand and is popular with both tourists and the Thai people. Ayutthaya is located 40 minutes north of Bangkok, and we made good time, getting to the outskirts just before 8:30.

The city is big, and you can't hope to see it all in one day. The usual plan is to visit four temples, spending thirty minutes to a full hour on each one.

The first temple, Wat Yai Chai Mongkol, was built in 1357 and is still an active religious center. We bought our tickets (THB 50 each), and made our first encounter, the Reclining Buddha. It was early, so there weren't many visitors to disturb the beauty of the place. The Reclining Buddha was restored in 1965 and is partially covered by a large ruffled orange robe. His face looks spotted, but close up one can see that it's patches of gold leaf. The devoted buy the gold and annotate the statue with it. Maybe in a hundred years the whole face will be covered.

From there, we went to the main stupa with its many Buddhas. I climbed up and spied a garden that looked very interesting. I found my way down and walked to it -- it had residences for the priest that lived there, and was very lovely.

The building that houses the main Buddha was crowded with worshippers bringing offerings and praying. I waited at the side while Ann explored the interior. I'm a little shy that way.

Our second temple was Wat Mahathat. It's more of a ruin than any of the other sites; there isn't much activity other than tourists walking through. The Buddha's head is surrounded by tree roots; it is used in much of the advertising for Ayutthaya. Decades ago, the head had a sloppy restoration that spoiled its look, making it cartoony. Outside of that, I couldn't find much to recommend a visit here. There is one building that had what looked to be attached papyrus columns, giving it a somewhat Egyptian feel.

On the way to the third temple, we stopped at an elephant ride concession to grab a couple of shots of the elephants carrying clients out to visit the surrounding monuments.

Temple three was Wat Phra Si Sanphet. This was a combined working Buddhist temple and much older Buddhist ruins; at least that's what I think. There isn't much specific information about the temple, but its image graces the tickets of all the sites in Ayutthaya.

I walked around the working temple and found the entrance gate to the older section, where I paid my THB 50 entry fee. A local camera club was conducting classes at the front, so I moved around to the back and climbed up one of the three stupas. I got into a door-like recess and shot the stupa across the way. Someone had decorated the area with Bird of Paradise flowers. I had to watch my footing, as there was a gaping hole a couple of steps in back of me that I could have fallen into.

I shot for a while, then headed back to the taxi. On the way, I walked past a beautiful young lady who was playing a musical instrument with a sign asking for donations for education. I wasn't sure if it was for education in general or her education. I took a couple of pictures of her, but I could see that she was a uneasy, so I made my $1 donation and continued on. It took Ann another 20 minutes to finish her shooting. While I waited, I just relaxed in the taxi, which was parked in the shade of a very large tree.

The last temple, Wat Chaiwatthanaran, was built in 1630 as a memorial to King Prasat Thong's mother. Fronting the Chao Phraya River, this is one of the most popular destinations in Ayutthaya. At one point in the city's history, scavengers beheaded some of the Buddhas, carting them off for sale, and stole bricks from the temple's superstructure. In the late 1980s the government of Thailand stepped in and began restoring the place. Today, this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They are helping to fund a moveable concrete barrier to protect the site against flooding when the river rises above normal levels.

This had been a much better experience than yesterday -- we hadn't been taken advantage of -- and we were feeling a bit better. On the way back to Bangkok, we asked the driver to drop us off at Jim Thompson's house, which had been converted to a museum-like experience of a traditional teak house. Jim Thompson was an American expatriate who single-handedly revived the Thai silk textile industry in the 1950s and 60s. A lot of mystery surrounds this ex-military intelligence officer who disappeared on Easter in 1967 in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia. No one's sure what happened, but there are lots of theories.

We got there and found that you have to purchase a ticket for a tour of the house and then wait until your group is called. We decided to get lunch in the restaurant but missed our tour time in the process, so after lunch we went into the silk shop. I got a scarf similar to the one I had bought in Siem Reap, as it helps with cushioning the camera bag strap. Ann bought a couple of silk pieces as gifts.

It was early afternoon as we walked up to Sukhumvit Road and turned east towards our hotel. We did some shooting of the Siam Paragon shopping center and the street scenes, then hailed a taxi and went back to Patpong to get some shots of the architecture in the afternoon light.