THE LOST CITY
Words: SHRADDHA UCHIL
Photographs: HASHIM BADANI
GREAT FROM India
GREAT FOR Ruin-hopping
You’re headed into Ayutthaya, the ancient Siamese capital, a short drive from Bangkok. You’re expecting to find a walled enclosure filled with structures that have withstood the ravages of war and time. Instead, as you drive in, you notice crumbling temples with modernity sprawling around them. Step in and you realise that Ayutthaya is not divided into old and new towns – the modern city is quite happy to coexist right in the crevices of the antiquated one.
Founded by King Ramathibodi I in 1350 AD, Ayutthaya soon became a prosperous land, drawing merchants from across the world. And it remained that way until it was invaded by a Burmese army in 1767, which wrenched away not just its glory, but also its riches. To get a better idea of the destruction wracked on the city, visit Wat Mahathat. Founded in 1374, it was the kingdom’s most important temple. Walking in, you’ll notice visitors crowding around a strange relic – the twisted roots of an ancient fig tree cradling a stone Buddha head. As you venture further into the complex wondering where the rest of the statue might have gone, you’ll meet with a sombre sight – dozens of Buddha statues, all seated peacefully, but all missing their heads, which were mercilessly hacked off by the Burmese invaders. Still, a walk around here is a calming experience, as visitors pay attention only to the iconic Buddha head. There isn’t much of a temple left to see at Wat Lokkayasutharam, but the 42m-long reclining Buddha is yet another highlight within the Ayutthaya Historical Park, which is a pleasure to explore by bicycle when the weather permits.
Set off on a ruin excursion by boat to Wat Chai Wattanaram. En route, make a quick stop at Wat Phanan Choeng, which houses Ayutthaya’s tallest Buddha idol. Continue the boat ride glimpsing ruins silhouetted in the evening light, rows of stilt houses, and villagers out fishing. Your final destination is the Wat Chai Wattanaram, with its 35m-tall central structure. Built in the Khmer style by King Prasat Thong in 1630, this temple’s architecture is vaguely reminiscent of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.
Take a break from all the temple-hopping and head to Roti Street to be treated to an interesting Thai dessert – roti sai mai – which is a reflection of Ayutthaya’s very old Muslim community and as much a part of its history as its monuments. You’ll find men at work, stretching and pulling at a pliable glob of melted palm sugar until it resembles strands of hair. This resultant candy floss is rolled up inside savoury, crêpe-like rotis.
When you’ve had your fill, move on to Wat Na Phra Men, a rare early Ayutthaya-style temple, which, surprisingly, wasn’t destroyed in the 18th-century siege. It survived because the Burmese used it as a base from which to attack the nearby Royal Palace. Today, the towering structure continues to stand strong, as if expressing its worth. The city may no longer be as illustrious as it once was, but it still calls out to people from far and wide. Pervading its ruins are memories, dreams and stories of a fallen realm, stories that want to be told. Soak it all in.