For once we woke up relatively early and after a hearty breakfast we were ready to embark on a temple tour on bikes. Tania with Mateo, Oskar on his own, and me with Luca. The first two temples were close to the hotel, the next two on the other side of the river to the south east and a good 6km away at least, and in the middle of the two was the old fort overlooking the confluence of two rivers.
Wat Phra Mahathat
Started in 1374 this was to become the most important and sacred temples in Ayutthaya. At one point it was home to the Supreme Patriarch, and Buddha relics were enshrined in the principal pagoda. It was destroyed and burned in 1767 during the last war between Burma and Ayutthaya. Its most famous site is the head of a statue of Buddha that is entwined in the roots of a tree which, it is said, grew around the head to stop it from being stolen.
This was another huge temple complex and as we entered the gate there was a kind of serenity that enveloped us. The red bricks showed the tide marks of the recent floods, trees were peppered around the site and underfoot was mostly sandy soil with the odd patch of grass. From the trees came the eerie call of a bird, which when answered by the boys (especially Mateo), replied but at a higher pitch.
It was easy to spot where the tree-entwined head was as there was a crowd surrounding the spot, and we duly followed in their steps until we were presented with the sight we had long anticipated. It was quite a moment!
Once the people had passed on, we had the chance to stand and contemplate a little and let our romantic fantasies run away with us as we imagined Burmese soldiers trying to carry the head away, only for them to drop it as it was too heavy, and then the tree wrapping its protective roots around the stone to safeguard it from harm.
We continued on, for the head is very near to the entrance to the temple, and as I said this is a huge complex. The remaining walls give an indication of the grandeur and magnificence of the place with many connected buildings and rooms aligned from West to East, and smaller side temples, I’ll let the photos show you…
As well as this feast for the eyes and lens, there was also nourishment for the soul and fuel for the imagination. The site was calm and peaceful save the occasional bird call and so vast that it was easy to lose oneself and escape the tourist parties and guides. Small paths wound through the structures and steps led us upwards to suddenly open vistas where once stood huge halls. It was fantastic.
After an hour and a half we regrouped at the main entrance and then jumped on the bikes for our next destination, a short ride away.
This much smaller temple was founded in 1424 AD by King Sampraya to house the ashes of his father. Entering through a grand hall you can see the burial shrine behind it which contained the ashes and burial offerings, it contains two dungeons which you can visit, but the doors at the end of the steps are closed off – but it was quite exciting to descend into the darkness (the lights were’t working) holding onto a rope and wondering what we would find down there in the impenetrable dark.
Some of the carvings and plasterwork were still intact intimating the former beauty of the place, and all around were headless statues of Buddha. This site did not evoke the feelings of the previous temple, but the atmospere was still quiet and contemplative.
We left the temple and headed down to the south of the island to see the old fort. Not much of this important fortification remains, but we had caught a glimpse of what it would have looked like from the museum we had visited the day before.
Bidding adieu to the assembled fishermen on the riverside we once more mounted our trusty metal steeds to make the dangerous and exciting journey to our next temple. This involved crossing the main road bridge to the island – 6 lanes of assorted traffic whizzing by, fortunately there was a sort of cycle lane that we tucked ourselves into. Once over the bridge we had to turn right at the roundabout and this meant crossing 3 lanes of traffic and then getting around the roundabout. Racing off from the traffic lights we got the jump on the tuk-tuk and motorbikes and with clear hand signals and 360 degree vision we made it safely to the other side without any problems…. our hearts were beating a little faster though!
Then it was pedal onwards for 3km or so until we arrived at our next temple of the day.
Wat Yai Chaimongkhon
This is a working temple, and for the first time in a while we found statues that still had their heads! The temple served as the headquarters of one of the sects of Buddhism. Entering over a bridge spanning a large pond containing fish and terrapins with a fountain or two creating a gentle tinkling sound in the water, we found ourselves instantly at peace. The site is not huge, but it certainly gave a flavour of how a living, working temple from the heyday of Ayutthaya would have been.
Statues of Buddha lined the walls, all bedecked in golden sashes, and well-worn steps led up to the golden statues at the top of the Chedhi.
It was well worth the extra km to get here.
Cycling on to the east we arrived at a modern Buddhist temple just across the river from the old fort.
This temple was modern. Cleanly finished in white and housing a very large sitting Buddha all in gold. As we arrived the assembled devotees were paying for cloth to cover Buddha. These were then thrown over Buddha’s shoulder, and the remaining metres and metres of fabric thrown back down to the people below. Sitting on the floor, the cloth was then pulled over our heads whilst a monk recanted a blessing. A real privilege to have arrived just at this point in time. Shortly after, another monk nearby offered up blessings with water sprinkled on our heads and a prayer said over us. The monk was pretty mischievous for an old fellow and succeeded in soaking Mateo the most! The kids found this a great game.
It was time to head home, and grabbing the bikes we went down to the river crossing by ferry boat, unsure as to whether we would be able to get the bikes on the boat… but we needn’t have worried, they’re very accommodating here!!! And for dinner we found a lovely little restaurant in the market by the hotel; the lady owner was really sweet too, which helps.
So, our time in Ayutthaya comes to an end. Off back to Bangkok tomorrow and then onto Cambodia and Siem Reap for the marvels of Angkor Wat. If Ayutthaya was an appetiser, I cannot wait for the main course!