April 18, 2012
Our visit to Thailand happened to coincide with the Songkran Thai New Year’s festival. It is a four-day celebration that is an occasion to visit family and friends and even make resolutions, similar to New Year’s celebrations in other parts of the world. But what makes Songkran different is the water.
The throwing of water signifies a way to cleanse or pay respect to individuals passing by. This has evolved to people walking around with water containers or plastic water guns to ‘greet’ others. Along the street it is even more extreme. There are groups who post themselves at the side of the road with buckets or hoses who douse anyone who passes by. Another step up from this are the pick-up trucks that roam the streets, filled with people sitting in the back who heave buckets on other pick-up trucks. Getting wet in April, which is the hottest month of the year, also provides an opportunity to obtain some relief from the heat.
We were in Ayutthaya for the majority of the Songkran celebration. Before we went out each day we placed our wallets, cameras and phones in ziplock bags to protect them. We also utilized the free bikes offered by our hotel to cover the large sightseeing distances and to allow us to move quickly through any roadside water stations. This had mixed results.
The roads were busy, so we rode single file, Darren usually in the lead. Time and time again, we would pass a water station and the revelers would only notice Darren right as he was passing by. This meant that they were ready for Sandy right behind him and she got the brunt of the water. Once you were wet, then others assumed you were a willing participant and things escalated from there. So Sandy ended up soaked. But it was all good fun and not so bad because of the heat and the precautions we took. The only problem was when talc was included in the water mixture. This created little clay-like lumps all over us, but fortunately it did wash out.
However, the real attraction is the city itself. Ayutthaya was capital of the kingdom of the same name from about 1350 to 1767. It is estimated that close to one million people lived here in the early 18th century, making Ayutthaya one of the largest cities in the world at that time. In 1767 it was destroyed by the Burmese army and much of the historic city is in ruins today. That said, there are many sites to visit, both on the ancient city’s island, where the Grand Palace was located, and on the riverbanks surrounding it.
These series of wats or Buddhist monastery temples contain other structures, including chedis (also known as stupas and containing relics) and prangs (towers). We didn’t want to get “templed out” in the two days we were there so we planned to visit just a few wat sites rather than try to overdo it. The first one we visited was Wat Yai Chaimongkhon. It is located to the southeast of the island and contains rows of Buddha statues. We also climbed up on a ledge to view the entire wat area.
We moved onto the island and visited two wats while cycling by several more. Wat Maha That, built in 1374, is famous because it contains a Buddha head surrounded by a growing tree. It actually moves a few centimeters a year. Right across the way was Wat Ratchaburana which has a commanding prang tower with massive carved figures. We climbed steep stairs to the top. We then cycled off the island to Wat Chaiwatthanaram on the west bank of the river. The skyline is in Khmer style and reminded us a little of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. This was one place we could not walk into, due to flood damage that had occurred a few months ago.
At the end of the second day we made our way to the train station to wait for our overnight train. The Songkran celebration was still in full swing with loud music playing. Even the train station staff was running around with plastic water guns, joining in the fun. Soon we boarded our train and left the ancient city of Ayutthaya behind as we continued our journey to the north of Thailand.