The mangy flea-bitten scabby cur silently followed me along the lane and growled showing it''s fangs.
"Nice doggy....go away doggy...."
It came up close and glared at me until I fled down the lane. Then with a howl to the moon it exhulted that it had repelled the intruder to it''s territory, and trotted back to the rest of the feral pack.
Ayutthaya is on the tourbus and backpacker tourist trail but step away from that and you will find a pure, friendly and sometimes terrifying Thailand. By the time I reached Katchanaburi on the river Kwai I had had enough of the impersonal backpacker route and was desperate to get away from the banana pancakes, ''Lonely Planet'' snobbery and penny-pinching ways of International travellers. I craved Thailand in all it''s raw form and in Ayutthaya I found it.
Getting to and around Ayutthaya
To get to Ayutthaya from Bangkok is very simple. There are over twenty trains a day from Hualompong station, and it''s a good way of breaking up a journey to Chiang Mai or the Lao border at Nong Khai as night trains leave from Ayutthaya station. You can arrive in forty minutes from Bangkok early in the morning, explore the ruins throughout the day - then catch the night train at night. The station is on the eastern part of the city, over the moat on the Chao Phrom Road. tuk-tuk''s from the station to hotels costs about twenty bahts. The station itself is really entertaining. There are absolutely no announcements or overhead directions in English so you will have to resort to a phrasebook or ask a fellow traveller. In the waiting room everyone is usually sprawled on benches and there are chickens and dogs roaming the tracks. About 5.00pm the national anthem comes on the loudspeaker and the entire station gets up and starts singing while martial music is played.
Although I left by train, I cut out Bangkok and arrived by bus from Katchanaburi. This takes about four hours from the river Kwai and you must change buses in the immaculate town of Suphanburi. This way you can take a train north to Chiang Mai from Ayutthaya and cut out the bedlam of Bangkok. I ended up with my backpack on my knee as the bus filled to capacity with Thais and it stopped every five minutes to pick up people from bus stops at the edge of rice paddies. When it did eventually empty I was left alone with an overcurious Thai woman who kept comparing my hairy white arms with her smoothe brown ones. Still, I did want to experience the real Thailand.
You can also reach Ayutthaya via rice barge form Bangkok. Tour agencies sell these trips for about 600 baht a day where you travel up the Chao Phraya for four hours leaving you about two for Ayutthaya. Tuk-tuk''s can be hired for the day for about 500 baht and can whizz you from ruin to ruin, but I hired a bicycle for 40 bahts a day. These rickety contraptions can be hired from the guesthouses and can be left at the ticket kiosks while you visit the ruins. Ayutthaya is as flat as pancake which makes it a good cycling bet. The roads aren''t busy near the ruins but if you travel along the U-thong road things can get very hairy. It becomes hard work to avoid the beeping songthaews, mopeds, pedestrians etc. And if you think the Thai''s are laughing at a big hairy foreigner on a bicycle - well, they probably are...
The Museums of Ayutthaya..
To put these piles of red stone and rubble into some kind of context you must visit one of the Museums of Ayutthaya. Both are very close to each other down the Rojana Road and with reasonable airconditioning they make a good place to escape the sun and humidity of this tropical town for a few hours:-
Chao Sam Phraya National Museum: (30 baht)
This is where all the swag looted from the ruins ends up. At the end of a gravel drive is a huge wooden house fronting a lake, nine rooms house the treasures found in the city. Ornate statues dot each room including a priceless golden fish taken from Wat Rajpuna which was once it''s sacred icon. There were some wonderful 17th tapestries depicting Ayutthaya as it was - an amphibious city where everyone paddled from A to B in a canoe. Everyone lived on houseboats as they do today in Thonburi on waterways which stretched for hundreds of miles.
The airconditioning here only gets five out of ten as it is mainly creaking whirring fans.
The Ayutthaya Historical Centre: (100 baht)
This is a ultra-modern high-tech museum built by the Japanese. The story of Ayutthaya is told via television screens, models and multi-media presentations. The museum is along Rojana Road and is surrounded by lakes and an impressive high-tech drawbridge. Inside is one enormous room with the exhibts around the sides. The models of ancient Ayutthaya were superb especially the 10ft wide one showing the city in it''s heyday. And I loved the one showing the kings royal elephants being herded into a kraal. The importance of religion was another theme with moving tableux showing phimai (peasants) peeping at the Royal barge as it went by, knowing if they were caught it was instant death.
Light sensors activate chanting as you move around. And the airconditioning gets eight of ten. In fact, you may not want to leave.
Accommodation and Nightlife
At one point while you are in SouthEast Asia you will use a traditional squat toilet.
It will simply consist of a hole in the ground and a bucket and scoop nearby to wash things away. You have to squat sideways and it is rather uncomfortable. I can''t imagine how the older Thai''s manage it - practice, I suppose.
Of course there are four-star accomodation in Ayutthaya with flush-toilets and hot showers. These stand on the outskirts and cater fro the tour-parties and overnighters from Bangkok. There are really only two - the U-Thong Inn and Ayutthaya Grand Hotel could really be called luxury hotels at 1,000 bahts each.
The Thais head for the guesthouses just north of the market/bus station on Nereusan Road. Budget travellers head there too and the three major ones are T&T guesthouse, Old BJ guesthouse and Ayutthaya guesthouse. Each cost not more then 100 baht a night and for this you get paper-walls, creaking fan and downstairs cold shower. The service, however, is very friendly and you cannot beat the price. These are generally family run and a typical guesthouse downstairs is one room filled with coke-crates, a small library and a group of Thai''s practising their English. They will cook your chilli beef in front of you and go fetch the blender to make the milk-shake while the son plays on the guitar.
Opposite the three guesthouse is the only farang (foreigner) bar in Ayutthaya. One night I went over and met some of the British expat''s who had settled in Thailand. After a few beers I began to learn more about Thailand then any guidebook. According to them it is a very class conscious society with the monarch being inviolate and even the placing of his portrait in an office is a matter of serious debate. Farang''s are a special category and are viewed as comedy - that is why we get away with so much. And each expat had a Thai girlfriend who had introduced them to her family, which in Thailand comes first. This was also a ''singsong'' bar and had a number of girls dancing lethargically to the music. Not enjoying this, I made my excuses and headed back across the road.
I had to walk through the territory of packs of mangy scabby stray dogs. Several followed and growled at me. One had had his teeth removed and his lower jaw extended so his bottom teeth portruded. I had asked one of the expat''s earlier why there were so many mangy dogs in Ayutthaya?
"Simple.....no one has gone out and shot them lately..."