Wednesday, April 4, 2018

April 1st – Ayutthaya’s Temples and Tourists

A trip out to Thailand’s ancient capital, Ayutthaya shows you some of the splendours of Thailand’s past, and some of the challenges of its present. To get out there, you have to battle through Bangkok’s grid-locked traffic, passing by some massive infrastructure projects designed to alleviate some of the worst traffic in the world.

A huge number of enormously tall flyovers and Skytrain supports are now carving monstrous scars of concrete through the city – they might improve the traffic situation, but this city will get even more claustrophobic and even more like a version of Bladerunner with every passing year.

Then, from this glimpse into a slightly disturbing future, you get a glimpse into a more refined past when you arrive at Ayutthaya, and discover a few of its enigmatic old temples – relics of Thailand’s medieval hey-day.

Our first stop was at the Summer Palace of the Thai Kings, mostly built in the late 19th and early 20th century. This was the period when the Thai monarchy had come under the influence of the west, so the neo-classical palaces and pavilions looked like they’d be more at home in St Petersburg, rather than out here in the tropics. To help cope with the heat, the tour included golf buggies for us to drive ourselves around in – an experience that some enjoyed just as much as seeing the palaces themselves!

Then we went to Wat Matahat, one of the most atmospheric of Ayutthaya’s array of ruined temples – its brick towers sitting at angles due to the passing of the centuries, its statues of the Buddha in ruins or enigmatically enveloped in tree roots. Unfortunately, some of that atmosphere was diluted by the fact that the temple was inundated with tourists.

Thailand as a whole is wilting under the stampede of Chinese tourism (30,000 a day visit the Royal Palace in Bangkok!), so there were lots of Chinese groups here, but Ayutthaya in particular has become hugely popular with Thai tourists too – apparently a highly successful domestic soap opera features its temples heavily, and the locals have become obsessed by it (they like to dress up in historical Thai clothing to visit it). Anything that tempts them away from the ubiquitous shopping malls can only be a good thing, but a place like this benefits from having a serene, mysterious atmosphere. These ruins are in danger of being ruined.

We visited a more modern temple where we were blessed by a friendly monk, before a lovely lunch in a local hotel. Sadly, our final temple visit had to be cancelled because of the sheer numbers of tourists thronging it – we couldn’t even get close.

Thailand still has so many fascinating attractions that you can see why so many people want to share in them. However, it needs to manage tourist numbers carefully or word will get out that it’s not worth the hassle.