July 13, 2003 Bangkok (Krunthep), Thailand
A day trip to Ayuthaya
Last Sunday, I went with some friends on a sight-seeing tour of Ayuthaya the previous capital of Thailand. It wasn't a coincidence that we went on one of the days Ayuthaya is the most crowded, as the trip was inspired by a long holiday week-end and Sunday was the day before Kow Pansa (English spellings differ -this is my spelling for today), which marks the start of the "rains retreat", a two month period in the rainy season in which monks are supposed to stay within a their temples, and not wander around. It is said that this was decided by the Lord Buddha himself, as during this time, rice fields are planted with young rice plants and there are many small animals about, and the Buddha was concerned that monks traipsing around the countryside would damage crops and trample small creatures. It is also supposed to be a good time for monks to dedicate themselves to reading and meditation. Since the rains retreat starts after the planting of the rice fields, many young men are free to don robes for the duration of the retreat -there is little to do in the flooded rice fields during this time.
Kow Pansa is celebrated with readings of Buddhist text in many temples - sometimes around the clock. It is also a time for making merit - doing good to help influence one's fortunes in this life and after. Donating to temples is a traditional merit-making activity as is paying one's respects to the Buddha. It is also a time of lent - people should refrain from violating Buddhist precepts that apply to them (there are various sets of precepts for laymen, novice monks, monks, lady monks, etc. (My interpretation is that they think people should refrain from having a really good time during Kow Pansa.)
It was nice to get out of Bangkok and be a tourist for the day. The two hour train ride (which amazingly cost only 15 baht, about 36 cents) per person, was so packed that we had to stand all the way. See the enclosed photo. For the first hour of the trip, three of four old ladies carrying large buckets of ice with drinks in them and such fine foods as chicken-on-a-stick continually squeezed up and down the aisles while selling drinks and food to passengers who stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the sweltering tropical heat. What a trip that was!
Landing on the station platform, we wasted no time in bargained a tuk-tuk down to 30 baht to take us to the bus station to reserve seats for the bus back to Bangkok before the afternoon rush. We really didnt' want to have to stand up in the train all the way back to Bangkok in the afternoon heat. We had ignored the driver's offer to guide us around the city for 150 baht an hour as we figured it would take us 4 or 5 hours to see the place, and we'd be paying him just to wait around for us. A lady wearing a change belt and standing in the middle of the road in front of the bus station told us that that they didn't sell reserved seats, but not to worry because busses left for Bangkok every fifteen minutes in the afternoon. Iain pointed out that if there weren't' good seats on the first bus we encountered, we could get off and take the next bus, thus laying our concerns about getting back to Bangkok in comfort to rest.
We flipped though Iain's guidebook and selected the old Royal Palace grounds as a destination. Again, we bargained with the tuk-tuk driver and managed to get there for 40 baht for the four of us. We pulled up to a closed gate overlooking a muddy field overgrown with weeds. A wooden replica of part of the Palace was in the distance. The driver repeated his offer to guide us, but we selected another site from the book and went on for another 40 baht.
Ayuthaya is in Thailand, close to Bangkok, so it should not surprise you to hear me say that it was hot. From the amount of water accumulated on my skin and inside my clothing, I felt as certain that the humidify was much higher than in Bangkok. Maybe it was the lush green growth and the wet ground, or maybe it was that we were walking all over the place in the sun. Well, you get the idea - wet people in the hot sun, looking at ruins of old buildings and statues. The ruins we're really that special to me, but I managed to get half a dozen interesting shots of dogs in and around the ruins and temples.
At the first site, there was a sign with images showing visitors some kinds of disrespectful behavior NOT to exhibit. One can only imagine that these behaviors came to be on the signs because some people were thoroughness. I've enclosed a picture of a piece of one sign that I found both amusing and disturbing at the same time. Disturbing that anyone would need to be told not to do this. I was even more disturbed when I realized that the warning was also written in Thai!
I find it surprising that so many people spend hours and hours planning trips to exotic places like Thailand but don't take the time to find out what constitutes acceptable behavior to those same places.
After the first set of ruins, we set off to find a restaurant. Iain's guidebook recommended a restaurant and we flagged down a tuk-tuk, which duly carried us directly to it. The recommended restaurant looked more like a bar, but fortunately, a guest house with attached restaurant, named "Tonie's" was night next door, and it looked nice and clean. Happily, they also had a working fan. So there, we managed to relax for a while. A cold beer in the shade with the pleasing breeze of a fan, and some delicious Thai food. What more could one ask for?
Thus fortified and refreshed, we left the hospitable environment of Tonie's and hailed yet another tuk-tuk. On to another temple and its adjoining ruins.
There were throngs of people attending the temple to tamboon on this special day. "Tomboon" is Thai for "make good", and is important in the context of Thai Buddhism in that doing good, particularly with respect to things Buddhist, is thought to help assure a better life the next time around, or maybe even help them escape the physical realm altogether. The other enclosed photo shows several of the devout paying respects to one of two Buddha image set up on either side of the front of a temple in Ayuthaya that hot, rainy and steamy afternoon. The people touching the image are applying small squares of gold leaf to the image, an act that comes after an offering of lotus buds, joss sticks, and lit candles. Worshipers give a 20 baht donation in exchange for these items which are then left at the image.
Within a minute or two of flowers, lit candles and glowing joss sticks left at the images were carried by away volunteers to make room for more offerings. While this was going on dozens of people constantly dropped small coins into tin cups (there is a ritual involving tens of little cups) and then beat a set of large bells with wooden clubs. A very busy and noisy places to be. And did I mention that it was really hot?
Some people carried large yellow candles (meant to look like bee's wax) that are meant to provide light to monks during the rainy season. The largest candles are over a meter tall and are intended to burn constantly throughout the season. I am told that there is a trend toward donating florescent lights this year, and sure enough, when I got to the BIg C store near my apartment that night, florescent lamps were on the shelves along with the other traditional Kow Pansa gifts.
After the temple, we walked around some nearby ruins, then having snapped our last pictures of the day, made our way back to the bus station to find the welcoming sight of a large, air-conditioned bus waiting for us. We found seats and leaned back and enjoyed the air conditioning, not caring what it was going to cost us. As the bus left Ayuthaya, we were asked to pay 45 baht each (about US$1.00) for those comfortable and wonderfully air-conditioned seats. I slept most of the way back to Bangkok.
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