Nov 20, 2015
It was Winter 2015 – low season in Indonesia – and I got myself some time and money to to a SouthEast Asia trip, pretty much like most backpackers do. On planning what to see in Thailand, a friend of mine suggested Ayutthaya. There were some red Angkor-Wat-style temples in the travel guides, and I thought: why not?! It was one and a half hours from Bangkok by train (slightly less if you take a minivan), and on the way to Surin, where I later went to attend the Elephant festival.
At the time we rented a motorbike and rode around, from temple to temple, not caring so much about History, but mostly to capture interesting views and relax.
As I became aware of its dimension and the former greatness of temples and palaces, I did some googling. So I found it was the former capital of the Ayutthaya / Siam kingdom, erected from the decline of the Khmer empire, on the 14th Century and lasting until the 18th, when destroyed and burned by the Burmese (1867). The kingdom was slightly smaller than actual Thailand. Chiang Mai and the North were independent. Ayutthaya was a sort of confederation of provinces under the rule of a king – though the capital was an important trade centre in SouthEast Asia, mainly in the 17th Century.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to visit the country and to conclude a treaty for permission to trade. During my visit, I came across the ruins of the Dominican church of San Pedro, conveniently located by Chao Phraya river (where all the overseas trade would necessarily go). It was excavated and preserved by Calouste Gulbenkian foundation, whose headquarters (in Lisbon, Portugal) were 2 min walk from the University I took an Art History degree, many years ago. However, I never heard a single word about it, neither in college, university, nor even when I concluded my own PhD, in History. That was a bit humiliating but, at the same time, an indicator on how biased and partial our university studies were.
In fact, San Pedro was only one of the tree Catholic churches (“São Paulo”, for the Jesuits, and “Madre de Deus” for the Franciscans) erected on the Portuguese settlement. It “was probably the biggest western community in Ayutthaya with a population estimated at 3,000 people.”. …And all this time I knew nothing about it.
Despite swallowing my pride and assuming my ignorance, Ayutthaya was a quiet, charming, place to visit, with nice river views and lakes, ruins and temples, and a busy night market. (There is also a “floating market” nearby but that’s nothing but a tourist trap. Food is inexpensive and tasty, but there is no real market going on. Neither it is “floating”, as it’s an artificial lagoon with restaurants and shops built around).
As for the real night market, it’s located on Ban Ian Road, starts around 5 and doesn’t stay open until late. Food variety is awesome with lots of curries, grilled and fried fish, century eggs, pork meat, different kinds of sweets and bugs! Tasty, crispy, recently fried crickets, grass-hopers and silkworms made for locals (meaning, not the mushy ones, often seen in Khao San road).
Below: Insect snacks, form Ayutthaya night market. On the right, it’s the detail of a cracker, actually made of insect larvae. Nutritive, tasty and sweet.
Overall, being for a bit of History learning, food tasting, or just chilling and relaxing from frantic Bangkok, I believe Ayutthaya surely deserves a visit. At the time, I stayed for two nights, and it proved to be a good choice. On the first day, I could do some exploring after the Bangkok train trip and checking in. The second one allowed me to go to some temples away from the centre and avoid the crowds of daily trippers. Next day, I headed to Surim for the largest congregation of elephants on Earth.