“Happy families Asian people are all alike“– Leo Tolstoy
Waking up at 6:30 am was an immense challenge. I had hardly slept at all – the price to pay for having a good time in a good company the previous night. But if I wanted to do that Ayutthaya trip I already paid for – I’d better get up. The arrangement – as is customary in Thailand – was that someone would pick me up from the hotel reception. The guy showed up about on time and I asked him if it was possible to wait for five more minutes till I put something in my mouth. He said “no problem” – he had to “do something” and “wait me five minute outside.” So I took the chance to gobble a quick snack and five minutes later, as agreed, I was out.
At 7 am the Khao San street was practically empty. This backpacker inferno, the mother of all crowded tourist streets – empty? One of the only people around was my guide – papers in his hand, waiting. I told him – here I am, I am ready, we can go, etc. This produced a somewhat confusing reaction – the guy stared at me, with his eyes showing bewilderment and he started murmuring something to himself that I could not understand. For a minute or two there we were – me, standing nearby and him looking around as if waiting for someone or something – the tourist van?
Five minutes later my actual guide shows up from the entrance of a neighboring hotel and waves at me to join him.
Yes, that’s right! I had fallen victim to the phenomenon that Asian people look all the same to Europeans.
Typical inconspicuous Asian people
OK, in fact it is not hard to distinguish faces – if you pay attention (!). That is, if you took a closer look at the person when you first met them. I had just glanced at my guide for a second at the hotel lobby – still sleepy and longing for food. I had paid zero attention to what clothes he wore, what his face looked like, etc. So I had mistaken a bystander for my guide. I think that he was some Vietnamese tourist who had come to enjoy Thailand – and got “confronted” by some unknown white foreigner instead.
The one day trip to Ayutthaya – the ancient Thai capital – consisted of: getting there in a packed-full van, visiting an old Buddhist temple, going around ruins, having lunch, taking a stop at the famous giant reclining Buddha statue, visiting a traditional Thai house, checking yet another Buddhist temple, going back. It might sound boring, but it is extremely hard to get bored in Thailand (… when a recent edition of Playbeing Magazine headlined an article with the words, ‘When you are tired of Ursa Minor Beta you are tired of life’, the suicide rate there quadrupled overnight).
A small piece of Ayutthaya
We headed to Ayutthaya in a 12-seat van. The van would stop at various hotel entrances to pick up more tourists who had signed up for the same trip. Our van was then joined by two more vans, making it a group of around 30 people. Half an hour into the tour it was all too clear to everyone that our “friendly and fluent in English” guide (as advertised in the tour brochure) was without a doubt the former, but unfortunately not the latter. It was very hard to understand him and at times it just felt like he was speaking in Thai. In fact some native English speakers seemed to grasp even less than I did, giving me a chance to help two British girls with some interpreting. Truth be told, I could do that only because I had brought along a travel guide by National Geographic. (said travel guide soon proved practically useless for just about anything but descriptions of sight-seeing spots, and I dumped it in Chiang Mai. But it did a great job on Ayutthaya.)
Our Thai guide’s mode of operation was this: bring them to a location, talk incomprehensibly for a while, then tell them – “OK, now you go around free, we meet at car in one hour.” The upside was that during this “go around free” time we were spared the constant effort of trying to grasp what he said. The downside was that it was not possible to ask questions – and I had plenty of those. About the murals at the temples, about statues and buildings… The National Geographic was too brief.
Inside a Buddhist temple at Ayutthaya - who is who and who takes care of what? You tell me!
The guide was a short man, I’d say in his late thirties, and – he told us – he was not married, as he did not make anywhere near enough to support a family. From the way he spoke, it was clear that he had learned the language largely on his own – and I have no idea how and where he did that.
NOTE: It is easy to ridicule Thai people’s command of English – and in fact a lot of people do so. However! Such attitude does not take into consideration several very importan facts. Fact one – most Thai people earn very little money and have had no chance of getting a good education with English lessons at school. Fact two – even if you secure a job in the tourist service industry you are usually not paid much, because the money go to the owners of the tourist operations. So, who do you expect to be your guide for the sum you paid – Tiger Woods’ mother’s brother himself? Give these people some credit – or at least be considerate of the reality.
The Ayutthaya ruins were my first encounter with ancient Thailand – a much welcome change from the big, fast-moving and noisy Bangkok. Ayutthaya had been the kingdom’s capital for about 400 years, up until 1782. This period ended with the coming to power of general Chao Phraya Chakri, e.g. King Rama I. I am mentioning this useless information for the sole reason that the current king is a descendent of said Mr. Chakri. Nowadays Ayutthaya is a place where the remains of hundreds of buildings – temples, palaces, administrative buildings – stand.
On the ruined walls hundreds of decapitated Buddha statues were neatly ordered for the tourists to take photos of.
Ruined Buddha statues
Our guide stressed how Ayutthaya had been ransacked, pillaged and destroyed by the evil Burmese, who also took with them its most prized statues and golden treasures from the temples. What he did not say was that in those times Thai armies were doing the exact same thing to their Burmese and Cambodian and Lao neighbors. It is simply absurd to take the higher moral ground – inflicting as much damage as you could to your neighbors was the norm of the day.
We also had the chance to visit a true-size replica of a traditional Thai stilt house – which I found very interesting, especially the way the extended family coexisted there. The family patriarch and his wife had a separate section of the house all for themselves, while all their children, married children and grandchildren lived in separate sections, all coming together in a nice inner yard. More information here. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Architecture_of_Thailand).
At Ayutthaya I saw yet another great example of how the carefully edited photos in the guide book differ from the unedited reality. There is this beautiful Buddha head, embraced by the roots of a tree that had grown around it. In the travel guide there was a photo much like this:
Buddha head in tree roots
And here is, courtesy of me, some context
A pic is worth a 1000 words
A further enrichment to the environment – not present in the picture – was some tall American guy in his fifties who had come to enjoy the marvels of Ayutthaya with his tiny 20-something old Thai female companion.
We also visited a big new Buddhist temple, and the giant statue of a reclining Buddha
Reclining Buddha Ayutthaya
Can we please pretend that there are no dozens of tourists just outside the camera’s range?
The van got us all back to Bangkok about 4pm. I did enjoy the trip and heartily recommend it – and you can find more information and photos of Ayutthaia here. But I’d also say that when (later on this trip) I visited Angkor Wat in Cambodia it truly blew Ayutthaya away.