Jan 012008
 

Ayutthaya

Bangkok is only the most recent capital of Thailand, whose various predecessor kingdoms date back more than a millennium. Ayutthaya (also spelled Ayuthaya and Ayudaya, and pronounced eye-YOO-tea-yuh) was the capital of Thailand from 1350 to 1767, when it was sacked by the Burmese. A few years later, the capital was re-formed in Bangkok and Ayutthaya’s temples — looted of their gold by the Burmese — fell into disrepair. Today, they consist largely of brick ruins with beheaded Buddhas (some were destroyed by the Burmese, while others were crudely broken off for the antiquities trade before the city became a protected site). Still, you can get an impression of the grandeur of the city during that time.

Morning dawned cool and windy. After a run through the hotel buffet, we visited three historic temple sites. The first, a forest monastery spared in 1767, features a large reclining Buddha and the impressive Great Chedi Chaya Mongkhol, surrounded by numerous seated Buddha figures. A spirit house on the temple grounds, dedicated to the spirits that have something to do with deceased children, was packed with cute stuffed animals.

Our second stop was the relatively modern Wat Mongkhol Bophit with its enormous bronze Buddha and crowds of devoted, and the adjacent ruins of Wat Phra Si Sanphet, one of the main royal temples destroyed in the invasion. After marveling at the scale of the buildings and snapping numerous photos, we browsed the adjacent market and gathered to try a couple of local specialties. Two savory snacks of fried fish skins, tasting similar to pork rinds, and fried fish bones, were accompanied by a spicy and vinegary dipping sauce and pastes of green chillies and roasted red chillies. We then sampled roti sai mai, a very thin round reminiscent of a mu shu pancake, colored green with pandanus extract, which you fill with cotton candy-like threads of palm sugar, roll up and eat as a guilty pleasure. As we left, the winds died down and we felt the true heat of mid-morning in Thailand central plain.

We paused briefly to photograph the reclining Buddha at Wat Lokayasutha, whose minimal ruins featured a prang in the Khmer style. We then proceeded to Wat Mahathat, another of the main royal temples that lies in ruins. The most famous image in Thailand might be the head of a sandstone Buddha that became lodged in the roots of a bodhi tree at this temple. Tourists took turns photographing or posing with the image as if to say “Yes, we really did go to Thailand.”

We turned our vans North and stopped for lunch at a gas station about an hour down the road. Part cafeteria, part snack shop, the restaurant served acceptable versions of fish mousse, panang beef curry, chicken with Thai basil, deep fried mackeral with a spicy fermented shrimp dipping sauce, and a yellow curry with astringent cashew (acacia) leaves.

We snacked in the car, and then about 3 hours further North we stopped at a roadside stand to watch long, thin slivers of bananas being fried into chips. We also sampled the wares, from savory to sweet, and even some uncooked bananas. We had eaten so much today, I started having to turn down snacks!

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Sukhothai

Sukhothai, which means something along the lines of Dawn of Happiness, is the original capital of the Thai kingdom. Formed by two generals from lands previously held by the Hmong and Khmer peoples, Thailand was intended to provide a homeland for Thai peoples from Southern China who were not free to rule themselves there. It was here that Theravada Buddhism was made the national religion of Thailand, and the initial Thai script was introduced. But Sukhothai was soon eclipsed by Ayutthaya, so it stood more as a center of learning than of power and the deterioration here was more as a result of nature than military action.

The Rajthanee (Ratchathani) Hotel is rather basic. For example, there does not appear to be any extra padding in the mattresses to cover the springs. But there is air conditioning, and we can live without hand towels and washcloths for a couple of nights.

For dinner we strolled down the street to a large open-air restaurant. Inspecting dishes by flashlight, we had a good sized deep fried whole fish with a sweet and spicy sauce, deep fried shreds of mackeral meat with a spicy green mango dressing, small oysters in a mysterious gooey sauce, good sized shrimp split lengthwise and lightly dressed with a red curry sauce, and a stir-fried green vegetable. We passed around the Mekong and had a few takers. (I still don’t like the stuff.)

As we waited in the hotel lobby for laundry information, the hostess from the hotel restaurant came in and asked us where we were from and invited us in for food, drink and, you guessed it, karaoke. I came back down around 9—PM to check out the song list, and the hostess seated me at one of the few tables not occupied by a very large party. I ordered a beer, and she had the waitress bring a glass for herself. This seemed very odd; I began to have flashbacks to that hostess bar on Maui. But it turned out to be very innocent and after sitting through a prize drawing of some kind, I got up to sing. The hostess signed me up for Hotel California, which seems to be de rigueur if you say you are from California. For seconds I sang the Whitney Houston song One Moment in Time (an octave lower than she sings it), which I have been waiting to sing in public for the first time. The audience was kind, but the real surprise came when it was time to turn in for the evening: the bartender returned my money and thanked me for singing. Perhaps the register was closed for the evening, because really, I was not that good. But I promised to return the next night, so perhaps I will make up for it.

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