Note: The blogs of this trip probably won’t be as detailed anymore. It is taking too long for me to finish and get them posted!
We left Siem Reap on a mid-morning flight, headed to Ayutthaya (pronounced eye-YOO-tee-ah) by way of a train from Bangkok airport.
Ayutthuya lies about 85 km north of Bangkok. Founded around 1350, Ayutthaya became the second capital of Siam, and was once a thriving capital city of 1 million inhabitants, making it the largest city in the world by 1700. In those times it was known as one of the finest cities of grandeur in the world, with gold-laden palaces and trading vessels arriving from all over the world. All this came to a quick end when the Burmese invaded Ayutthaya in 1767 and almost completely burnt the city down to the ground.
Today the only remains of that great capital are the temples and palaces as they were the only buildings made of stone. Characterized by reliquary towers and monasteries, they offer a glimpse of the impressive city as it must have been seen.
Ayutthaya is not a big tourist destination, and so it is difficult at times to communicate with the heavy language barrier. But it was well worth the visit and the difficulties of navigation.
Flying into Bangkok from Cambodia brings you to Asia’s oldest airport, Don Mueang Airport. Opened in 1914, it became a regional and low-cost airline hub once the new airport, Suvarnabhumi, was built. From there, it is a short walk over a catwalk and through a corridor to the train station, but if you don’t have directions you may miss the corridor. We almost missed it, John spotted it at the last second before we passed it.
This would be a first-ever train ride for both of us. We found the ticket booth, and I was able to secure 2nd class tickets with almost no trouble, even with the language barrier. We had about 40 minutes until the scheduled departure of the train, but I also knew from research that trains in Thailand were rarely on time. We both used the restroom, and grabbed some water. It was stinking hot!
We sat for a little while and a train or two arrived and departed. We started to doubt ourselves about being on the correct platform. Everything is written in Thai, and the trains don’t have any identifying numbers or names. Before the arrival of each train, a voice comes on the speaker and announces something, but all in Thai. I stood up and looked around and looked down at my ticket, and I must have looked confused because an older Thai gentleman approached. He asked me something in Thai and I just looked at him blankly. He smiled and motioned at my ticket questioningly, and I held it out for him to see. He examined the ticket and then looked at me and nodded his head and said, “Yes, wait here.” He motioned with his hands, letting me know we were in the right spot for the train.
When the next train approached I tried to listen intently to hear the word Ayutthaya, but the voice spoke so fast I couldn’t tell if it was announced. “How are we going to know if our train comes?” I said to John, half laughing. As the train slowed to a stop, a woman came over and looked at my ticket and said, “yes, yes.” pointing at the train. We grabbed our packs to board the train where the conductor checked our ticket and motioned us aboard. Thank goodness for the kindness of strangers. Back home, I walk by tourists every day in the spring and summer on my way to and from work, and I have always made a point to stop and help if I see someone who looks lost or is looking questioningly at a map of the city. Karma was paying off.
Third class tickets in Thai train travel are cramped, hard, wooden seats with first-come-first-serve seating. Paying $1 to $3 US more gets you a second class ticket with a reserved and more comfortable and roomy padded seat. No brainer!
The best part about the train was the large open window. It was great to have the fresh air pouring in to the hot train car, and it gave a great view of the countryside passing by.
An hour and half of travelling through small villages and stopping at a station or two, and we were at our destination in Ayutthaya, about 85 km north of Bangkok . Since we couldn’t make out the announcements, we had to really watch each station to catch the station name, which thankfully was always written in english as well as Thai on the station signs. I’m still not sure if the conductor would have told us when our stop came.
As we exited the station we came upon a long line of taxis and this region’s version of a tuk tuk. Each region of Cambodia and Thailand has a new and different tuk tuk! This time they were small mini trucks with benches in the back. We tried to bargain with the tuk tuk drivers, but they weren’t budging. I was a bit frustrated because I knew from my research that they were asking double what we should be paying. Then a guy with a car offered us a ride for half of what the tuk tuks were asking, so we accepted.
We checked in to our mid-range hotel and dropped our bags in our room, which was just okay. We could hardly complain for $20 a night. It had a/c, private bathroom, two beds, and a lovely pool. Simple, but fine.
It was about 2pm, and we went in search of a tuk tuk that could take us to see some of the old temples and palaces of the city. We went half a block before finding a young man who spoke a little bit of english, and he offered us a a 3 hour tour of most of the sites for 600 baht, or about $22 Canadian.
I asked him to first take us to the elephant sanctuary. I really wanted to see elephants on this trip, but didn’t want to ride them or in any way contribute to the suffering that these animals go through at the hands of the tourism industry. Back home I had spent many hours researching sanctuaries, some of which claim to be sanctuaries but are not. I landed on this one on Ayutthuya, and that was part of the attraction of visiting here.
As requested, the driver first took us to the sanctuary, located at the old Royal Elephant Kraal where elephants were once herded and captured. We got out of the tuk tuk and basically walked straight up to a baby elephant. I just couldn’t believe it! Here I was, petting and talking to a BABY FREAKING ELEPHANT!
It felt a bit strange to just walk up and interract with these wonderful animals. We eventually noticed a girl at a table with baskets of vegetables. We went over to ask her some questions, and we were able to purchase a basket of vegetables to feed the mama elephants. They didn’t give us much instruction, just passed me the basket and said not to feed the babies.
The mamas were tied up to posts, and they just stood there, swaying back and forth. When they saw me with the basket them moved towards me and out came the trunk, probing me and the basket for food. I gingerly placed the first cucumber within reach of that trunk, a little nervous about getting too close. These are enormous animals, and when you are near to them you can really feel the majestic power that they have.
The little mischievious guy kept poking around us, untying my shoes and trying to get into my pockets. At one point he wrapped his trunk around John’s ankle and lifted his foot up while he head butted him in the butt, like he was trying to trip John. It was hilarious. The woman told us that the babies are always learning and that this one was a male and liked to try to be in charge. An alpha male issue!
Here’s a video of the little guy trying to trip John:
As we were leaving, a guy called me over to him and an adult male elephant. This was even scarier, as this guy was bigger than the females and he had big tusks! I learned he was actually just a teenager. The guy back me up against the elephant and I felt a bit uneasy about it. Then suddenly the elephant was wrapping his trunk around me and squeezing me in a “hug”. It was a bit unnerving.
He then called John over and took our camera to get a few shots of both of us with the elephant.
We left the sanctuary and headed to visit the “ruins” of the old city. I can’t remember what each was called, so I’ll just post the photos.
The sun started to go down as we neared the end of our three hour tour. It was quite beautiful to be amongst the temples at dusk and sunset.
We were very pleased with how much we were able to see in just three hours, and we tipped the tuk tuk driver nicely. We went to a restaurant around the corner from our hotel for some delicious pad thai and the first beer I actually enjoyed, Chang!
The next day we were up pretty early and we decided to go for a morning walk through the town. We started by entering the market across the street to catch the early morning set up. The first thing we encountered was a rat the size of a small cat. And he wasn’t afraid, he just walked slowly in front of us. Ugh.
We wandered through the stalls as they set up for the day. Some were already serving breakfast to customers, such as this monk.
There were some really interesting things for sale in the various booths.
During our walk we found out the hard way that the stray dogs in Thailand are much different than the stray dogs in Mexico. There are just as many, maybe even more, in Thailand, but they are not friendly, starving, and timid as in Mexico.Quite the opposite! They are actually quite aggressive. and they look to be well fed (but still with a host of ailments such as skin conditions, deformities, etc.) We learned quickly that if you pass a street dog, you can not turn your back on them or they come in for the attack. We learned this when one almost bit me right on the leg after we passed! Rabies is pretty rampant in Thailand, so this would have been a real bummer for me as I would have had to be holed up for days, even weeks, getting the rabies anti-viral shots. Luckily, John shot into protective action and screamed and batted at the dog until it went away. From then on we had to be on alert when we saw dogs, as almost all of them would either bark and run at you as you approached, or saunter towards you, lowering their heads while they gave a throaty growl, waiting for you to turn your back. So we’d have to turn backwards and walk backwards and yell at the dogs until they stopped and ran away. It was a bit frightening!
After traversing much of the city and getting lost a few times (it’s very easy to get lost here as all the streets look the same and there are no tall buildings and interesting architecture to mark against) we found our way back to the market. It was a lot more lively now, and we took another walk through.
We came across these strange buses quite a few times, they would blare music. I’m not quite sure what they were all about, but we liked the Michelin Men all over the front.
Free range organic chicken in Southeast Asia! Everywhere were chickens running around with babies. One guy told us that they don’t “keep” chickens like we do here. The chickens basically run free and forage for their own food.
After a light lunch and a swim at our hotel, we went back out and decided to walk back to the elephant sanctuary. This was a long walk, about four hours in total there and back. But it was well worth it for the experience we had.
The road to the sanctuary was a rural two-lane road with very narrow shoulder on one side where we walked. They drive on the opposite side of the road in Thailand, so we were walking with traffic at our back, which was a bit unnerving. It was hot, and luckily we brought lots of water because there were no stores to buy any along this road.
There was a lot of garbage strewn about in yards and at the sides of the road, and plastic water bottles EVERYWHERE. We passed by many homes that made me flinch from the rudimentary nature of the structures, the obvious poverty. But almost every person we passed by in their home or yard waved, nodded, or smiled widely at us as we passed. Many people had little roadside stands selling fruit, bbq’ing meats, and deep frying foods. Each of them waved and smiled as we passed. They all seemed so full of joy and simple pleasure in their lives. What we saw as poverty and sadness was not what they felt. They were happy, seemingly stress-free, and enjoying life in the simplest of ways. No rat race, except the race to catch the rats they were bbq’ing (I swear some of the cooked meats looked like splayed rat bodies).
I had my camera but didn’t take any photos of these folks or their homes. I just felt like I didn’t want to intrude. We were given this opportunity to just exist here and be part of this whole culture and experience and I didn’t want to pull out my camera and be “the tourist”. I didn’t want to make them feel like they were an exhibit at the zoo. At the same time I wish I could have captured some of what we saw and the people who were so welcoming and friendly without saying a word.
We spent an hour or so at the sanctuary, again just watching the babies play. This time I started to notice a couple of things that bothered me a little about this ‘sanctuary’. I had been so full of adrenaline yesterday that I never really noticed or thought about it, but the mothers were all still tied up in the same place, and this gave me the impression that they spent a good deal of time in that one place, rocking back and forth.
I then started reading the pamphlets they had available and realized that the big males you could see off in the distance were used for elephant rides in the city every day. They said it was a way to keep them moving and to earn money for the sanctuary. But that gnawed at me, because I know what is involved in getting an elephant to allow people to ride him. A LOT of abuse and a lot of beatings. One could argue that these elephants were rescued form the tourism industry and not raised by the sanctuary, but I still think they shouldn’t be encouraging riding the elephants.
At the same time, the elephants looked very well cared for and loved, and a lot of them were abused and mistreated before they came here. Perhaps it wasn’t the best and most idea situation, but the sanctuary was clearly making an attempt to help, and many of the elephants there were saved from the hands of nasty, cruel owners who would make them work long, gruelling hours.
On the way back we passed by the Elephant Monument. This was honouring the strong role that elephants played in war in the past.
As we fought off a few more dogs on the walk back, I started to notice all the dishes of food out at the “curb” and it clicked. People here are Buddhist, so they believe in the value of all living things. Although they do not keep dogs and cats as pets, they set out food for them each day, and they do not mistreat them as happens in Mexico, rather they show them affection. Dogs and cats in Mexico are starving and abused so they are not trusting, they are timid, and they are hungry. Here, the are treated so well that they have no fear. In fact, they feel equal to humans in the pack! Interesting.
I wanted to stop and eat here! It smelled delicious.
As we neared our hotel the sun started to descend. It looked so strange in the sky, and we finally figured out that it was a result of pollution.