Temple town

 

 

The Thai city of Ayutthaya is an hour-and-a-half’s journey by train north of Bangkok.  Central Ayutthaya stands on an island, surrounded by a natural and manmade moat consisting of the Chao Phraya, Lopburi and Pasak Rivers and the Klong Muang Canal.  In 1991 it received World Heritage Site status from UNESCO in recognition of its many  ruins, of temples, monasteries and palaces, which are leftovers from its four centuries as capital city of the Kingdom of Siam.  This golden period of its history came to a destructive end in 1767 when Burmese forces seized and razed it.

 

Though most tourists are content to visit a handful of key sites in Ayutthaya, there are plenty of less well-known historical landmarks dotted across the city, both inside and outside the World Heritage Park and within and beyond the boundaries of the central city’s moat.  For example, standing across the road from our hotel just north of the Klong Muang Canal was the modest, unpublicised and unvisited but perfectly pleasant Wat Hasadavas.

 

 

During our recent holiday in Thailand my partner and I had a single day to spend temple-hopping in Ayutthaya, so we hired a tuk-tuk to shuttle us around half-a-dozen of the most auspicious attractions.  If you’re accustomed to the spacious tuk-tuks of Bangkok, be warned that the Ayutthaya tuk-tuk is a different species.  It resembles one that’s been crossbred with a pick-up truck, with the driver sitting in a cab at the front and the passengers sitting in a cramped compartment around the back.  Passengers of above-average-Thai height, like myself, will regularly knock their heads on the roof.

 

After a quick visit to the museum above the local tourist information centre, to get some background information about the places we were planning to visit, we headed across the Pasak River to Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon southeast of the central city.  As well as being the first temple we went to, it was also probably the busiest with tourists.  It has a handsome if slightly discoloured main chedi whose upper chamber is accessible by a flight of steep stone steps.  Around it stand many timeworn but intact Buddha statues and there’s also a giant reclining one, mostly swathed in a huge golden-covered sheet.

 

 

It was here, unfortunately, that we spied a couple of strong contenders for the title of ‘Biggest Knobhead Tourist during our Trip to Thailand’.  Firstly, a British woman carrying a baby thought nothing of placing the baby on a plinth and changing its nappy in front of a large statue of Buddha, so that for a few minutes one dirty baby-arse got waggled at the most sacred image in Buddhism.  Secondly, a seedy-looking guy with a North European accent, in the company of three backpacking British girls whom he was desperately trying to impress, scrambled up atop another plinth that was also near the large Buddha statue.  “Look at me, look at me!” he exclaimed.  “I am zee Spiderman!”

 

From there we headed back over the moat to the central city and to the Heritage Park proper, where our first stop was Wat Mahathat.  This site, dating back to 1374, contains lots of beehive-shaped prangs built of rust-orange and ash-grey bricks, some with subsiding foundations and a slightly lopsided tilt; and a few tapering chedi, and tiled paths and pavilions, and some grey-stone Buddhas.  The most photographed item at Wat Mahathat, though, is a stone Buddha face peering out through a gap in a dense mesh of tree-roots.  I remembered seeing this the previous time I was in Ayutthaya, back in 2005, and it was quite a tourist draw then.  But Thailand has since opened up to the Chinese tourist market and today the crowd looked ten times bigger.  There was even a security guard seated on a chair next to the roots and face, hurrying the sightseers on if they took too long with their selfies and held up the queue behind them.

 

 

Five minutes’ walk along the road from Wat Mahathat is Wat Ratchaburana, a structure that resembles a vertical torpedo – well, half of a vertical torpedo, one that’s planted in a mass of arched brick porches and stone staircases.  It looks particularly impressive when seen framed in the doorway of the site’s entrance.  I climbed a staircase to a point midway up its side, from where I had a good view of the surrounding premises – lines of nearly disappeared walls, stumps of demolished chedi and prangs, and patterns of lawns and pathways.  I was also unlucky enough to spot the ‘I am zee Spiderman’ guy from Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon wandering down below.  Even from a distance, he sounded obnoxious.

 

 

In central Ayutthaya too is Wat Phra Mongkhon Bophit, which contains one of the biggest bronze images of Buddha in Thailand.  According to a sign, it’s ‘9.55 metres at the widest point across the lap’ and ‘12.45 metres high without the base’.  I have to say, though, that I got as much enjoyment from walking along the passage around the main image and looking at the smaller-scale Buddha figures and Buddha heads on display there, with their offbeat colours and embellished surfaces.

 

 

Next door is Wat Phra Si Samphet, the entrance to which features a monument with the UNESCO plaque certifying Ayutthaya as a World Heritage Site.  This has rows of fantastically ornate chedi, resembling cakes that’ve been iced by a psychopathically decorative cakemaker.  There’s something very organic about the flowing lines and curves of the structures here, which make them seem almost part of the surrounding woodland.  Lounging at the top of a narrow, off-limits staircase climbing to an opening high in the side of one chedi was a black-and-white dog.  He looked like he was guarding it and I hoped that if ‘zee Spiderman’ guy flouted the rules again and ventured up the staircase to do more showing off, the dog would bite him on the bum.

 

 

Also close by is Wat Phra Ram, another vertical, torpedo-shaped structure in the style of Wat Ratchaburana.  Actually, this one seems even taller and more elongated and has the look of a rocket on its launchpad.  The raw colour of its brickwork – which was maybe the result of the light, which at this point in the late afternoon was starting to dim – gave this site an eerier, more primordial feel than the others we visited.

 

 

Our final port of call that day was the sizeable complex of Wat Chai Watthanaram, southwest of central Ayutthaya and by the shore of the Chao Phraya River.  Here we witnessed another witless intrusion by an idiot tourist.  Despite the very visible signs telling people not to do this, someone was operating a drone and having it buzz around the site’s highest pinnacles.  However, Wat Chai Watthanaram did treat us to the most gorgeous spectacle of the day.  Getting to its entrance involved walking along a path by the riverside, from where we had a stunning view of the complex silhouetted against an evening sky of faded pink and violet.  Meanwhile, the setting sun peered between its chedi, prangs and treetops and burnished them with orange light.

 

 

The heavy metal temple

 

 

The northern Thai city of Chiang Mai has larger and grander temples than Wat Sri Suphan.  However, this particular one, which is located a little way south of the city centre, down a lane off Wualai Road and in the district containing Chiang Mai’s silversmith trade, is my favourite temple there.  That’s because of its key building, the ubosot (the ordination hall).  Since 2008, the neighbourhood’s silversmiths have worked on the decoration of its exterior and interior, fashioning adornments for them in silver, aluminium and nickel, so that today it stands as a spectacular, gleaming showcase for their talents.

 

 

The building is encased in concave slabs of silvery-tiled roofing and it bristles with serpentine blades (bai raka) and barbed sculptures.  A multiplicity of engravings cover its outside walls.  There are emblematic images for Asian nations like Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand itself, though as a resident of Sri Lanka I was a little perturbed not to find my current country of abode represented there*.

 

 

Also adorning those outside walls are pictures of iconic historical landmarks from around the world like the Great Wall of China, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Roman Colosseum; of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; of the animals of the Chinese Zodiac; and, weirdly and totally unexpectedly, of the Hulk, Spiderman, Captain America, Iron Man and other characters from the Marvel superhero universe.  Actually, this was a pre-taste of the surprises that awaited me when I entered the building.

 

 

As a place of ordination, the inside of the hall is off-limits to women.  So, armed with my better half’s camera, I ventured in and snapped as many pictures as I could for her.  The gorgeous, shining Buddha at the far end of the room gives the interior a feeling of levity and serenity, but if you turn around to the walls and study some of their details, the effect is rather different.  It’s gloriously, at times crazily baroque and over-the-top.

 

 

Among the silvery adornments are a huge, intricately inscribed sword; a creepy-looking garuda (a part-human, part-human creature of Buddhist mythology, much featured in Thai religious architecture); a huge gaping maw rimmed with needle-like fangs and containing a whole crowd of ghouls and demons; and a couple of crowned and bearded Thai mermen.  Indeed, the amount of blades, shields, skulls, devils and monsters on display made me feel that I wasn’t so much inside a temple as inside a silver reproduction of a heavy metal fan’s bedroom.

 

 

Finally, outside again, you’ll see seated under a big shiny parasol a statue of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh, looking resplendent amid copious yellow garlands.  In Thailand, Ganesh is known as Phra Phikanet and among the qualities he’s associated with are creativity and success.  No wonder they have him decorating the insignia for the country’s Department of Fine Arts.

 

From Wikipedia

 

*And talking of Sri Lanka, as today is April 14th, a Happy Sinhalese and Tamil New Year to you all.

 

Tourist-geddon

 

 

It grieves me to say I didn’t particularly enjoy my visit to Bangkok’s 255-year-old Grand Palace complex until the last half-hour of it.  And my lack of enjoyment was solely due to the hordes of sightseers packed into the place.  The complex has an overall area of 218,000 square metres, but that didn’t prevent the courtyards and thoroughfares from being so crowded that there wasn’t room in them to swing the proverbial cat.

 

(I haven’t been so put-off by the crowds at a major tourist attraction since the day several years ago when I went to the Vatican.  The nadir of that visit was when I entered the Sistine Chapel.  I was barely able to pause for a moment and look up and admire Michelangelo’s angels and demons because of all the bodies around me and the fact that the guards kept herding everyone along, across the floor and out through the exit.  Dan Brown, that was all your fault.)

 

One reason why the Grand Palace was choc-a-bloc was because of the preponderance of tour parties.  They oozed through the rest of the sightseers with squawking, flag-bearing tour-guides at their heads or simply sat along the tops of the low walls looking exhausted.  Also, the statues and building-facades were clogged with huge numbers of people taking selfies.  Incidentally, has anyone made a horror movie yet wherein a serial killer starts murdering tourists by shoving their selfie-sticks down their throats?  If so, I’d pay money to watch it.

 

I found it bewildering that so many people were posing for photos in front of images of Buddha.  As a resident of Sri Lanka, I’m used to Sri Lankans getting upset about people doing this at their country’s Buddhist temples and shrines, which they find very disrespectful.  (However, taking a picture of the image itself, without some halfwit grinning and making peace-signs in front of it, is okay.)  I guess in Thailand there are just so many dumb, narcissistic tourists using these sacred images as backgrounds for their selfies that the Thais are unable to enforce any rules against it.  (I found it odd too that many of the tourists snapping pictures of themselves in front of Buddha seemed to come from a country I’d always regarded as a Buddhist one.)

 

But I suppose I should have been thankful for small mercies, because the truly thick tourists who came to the Grand Palace weren’t allowed inside.  I’m talking about the ones who ignored all the advice to enter the place ‘respectfully dressed’ and then were surprised when the palace security staff saw them, raised their hands and said, “No way.”  Needless to say, these were all Westerners.  I’m thinking of one guy who was refused entry because he appeared in skimpy shorts, below which his legs were slathered in swirling, Celtic-y tattoos.  Or a woman who turned up in a pair of jeans so full of holes that they might have been worn by Warren Beatty at the conclusion of Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

 

Anyway, enough of the grumbling.  (I realise I’m hardly in a position to complain about the volume of tourists at the Grand Palace when I went as a tourist myself.)  There were some things I really liked about the place, for example…

 

 

I liked Phra Mondop, a library-building containing items of Buddhist scripture.  It had soaring, enamelled and gold-leafed pillars and a conical roof that was byzantine in its amount of detail.  It was also notable for the golden naga-like creatures slithering down the tops of the curving stair-walls outside it.  Each creature ended in a hydra-esque cluster of necks that supported five human faces.

 

 

I liked the dozen hulking statues of what I believe are known locally as yakshasThese are ogres with blue skins, snarling faces, goggling eyes, bat ears, snub noses and boar tusks, and clad in tiered, lampshade-like helmets and intricately-patterned armour.  The complex had many gorgeous statues, in fact: including one of Cheewok Komaraphat, who was doctor to Buddha and the founder of Thai herbal medicine; and ones of some gruff-faced Chinese men with tendrilled beards, which were imported from China in the early days of Thailand’s current Chakri Dynasty; and ones of some camp-looking lions.

 

 

And I liked the mural paintings depicting the Ramakien, Thailand’s national epic.  Many of these showed a battle between demon-king Tosakanth and the human king Rama – who enlisted an army of monkey-warriors (led by the ubiquitous monkey-deity Hanuman) to fight against the demons after Tosankanth kidnapped his queen.  Amid the murals’ imagery was what looked like the kirtimukha, a vast Hindu / Buddhist monster customarily depicted as a giant face in the process of swallowing everyone and everything.  Meanwhile, lines of armoured monkeys could be seen standing, with arms and legs outstretched, around the lowest levels of the tiered stupas that flank the Prasat Phra Dhepbidorn (Royal Pavilion).

 

 

Although I mentioned earlier that during peak visitor-hours in the Grand Palace you couldn’t swing a cat, there were actually a few real cats slinking about the premises, admirably unfazed by the mayhem of the tourist crowds around them.  Here’s a picture of my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, about to photograph one of them.

 

 

By the late afternoon, closing time had come and gone and the palace staff had succeeded in steering most of the crowds out through the exits.  We were among the very last stragglers.  An unexpected and eerie – but pleasant – quietness descended over the complex.  The only things preventing it from being wholly silent were a rustling breeze, the tinkling of small, swinging bells, and the chanting of monks from the main building, the Chapel of the Emerald Buddha.  And, finally, I felt glad we’d made the effort to come here.

 

 

Houses of the spirits

 

 

I recently visited Thailand and soon after my arrival I was out and about with my camera, snapping pictures of one of my favourite Thai things: spirit houses.

 

I’ve written before on this blog about San Phra Phum, as they’re known locally.  They’re the miniature buildings you see outside nearly every Thai home and business, held aloft like bird-tables on wooden pillars, fragranced by smouldering incense sticks and often garlanded with flowers.  Their raison d’être is to provide accommodation for the spirits residing on the premises and to keep those spirits contented, so that they don’t move into the human building and cause ghostly high-jinks there.

 

 

Spirit houses need to be carefully positioned in relation to the neighbouring human abode and a Brahman priest should be consulted to identify the best spot for it – which is usually, I’ve read, north of the human house so that there’s no danger of the spirit house having a shadow cast over it.  Once the spirit house is erected, certain things are placed inside.  These include a representation of the angel-like Hindu deity Phra Chai Mongkol, who bears a sword and a bag of money, presumably to ensure protection and good fortune for the house’s ethereal inhabitants; human figures to keep the spirits company; dolls’-house-style pieces of furniture for their comfort; and possibly models of horses and elephants, to help them get around.  I’ve even seen spirit houses cluttered with model cars and other toys, to give the spirits something to play with; and ones bedecked with strings of fancy coloured lights, to allow them some illumination after nightfall.

 

 

One memorable sight I saw recently was in the northern Thai town of Chiang Mai, while I was passing a construction site.  An old building had just been demolished and a new one was shortly to be built there.  Nearly everything in the area had been flattened and a digger was prowling around, removing the last remnants of the old building – but remaining untouched and intact in the middle of the rubble were a pair of spirit houses.  Apparently, it’s a bad idea to destroy spirit houses and render their inhabitants homeless.  So even Thai developers who wouldn’t think twice about bulldozering an old human property need to exercise caution in how they treat the miniature wooden dwelling next door to it.