Turn Down for Wat

My first rule of travel? I always go for the window seat.

DSCF3070When Wellington was chosen as the third (and current) settlement to serve as New Zealand’s capital, one of the reasons chosen was our stunning natural harbour. With Wellington Airport sitting on the edge of the harbour, the view tends to be worth the price of a ticket alone.

So any time I fly, I try to take the window seat. I departed from Auckland instead of Wellington, but I was hoping my late night arrival may be greeted with the lights of a new and exciting destination…

…but alas, an elderly couple didn’t books seats next to each other, so the flight attendant made me change seats. Thus a woman was re-united with her husband, and my elbow was re-united with the serving trolley. But hey, things could be much worse!

It’s been thirteen years since my last international flight – a school trip to Japan – but this was my first solo trip overseas. Nine weeks, across nine countries, speaking nine languages (…although I didn’t end up using much Latin in the Vatican). This time I wouldn’t have any teachers to save me should I get lost, miss my train, or bump into a still-alive Elvis Presley (turns out he’s now a Japanese bloke in Akihabara. Nice enough bloke, he offered to share his whiskey with the entire class. We declined.)

We had a late departure on account of turbulence – the pilot requested to instead change the flight plan to avoid the worst of it – so by the time we arrived at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport, I was thanking my earlier self for telling the hostel I was landing two hours after the arrival time provided by the airline. Three trains later, I was at my hostel…but not until after I had an education in Thai traffic laws. I really shouldn’t have assumed Thai motorists would stop at what New Zealanders would call pedestrian crossings, but luckily I survived to learn from that mistake!

I got some sleep despite the humidity, woke up before my alarm, and then went out for my first meal in Thailand. I’d planned on seeing Ayutthaya on day one, rather than risk being stuck outside of taxi range on the same day as my next flight. However I had enough time to take the scenic route to the railway station, and my hostel didn’t do breakfast. I walked a few blocks passing schools, apartments, and neighbourhood shrines – with nobody trying to sell me postcards. I loved every minute of it.

After wandering for blocks to find nothing appealing (and being hounded by some of Bangkok’s stray dogs) I accidentally found Wat Traimit, the temple of the Golden Buddha. I didn’t have time to go in, but being in a tourist site did offer the advantage of English speaking locals. One of the tuk-tuk drivers was kind enough to advise me that the railway station was several kilometres away, well out of walking distance. And when he heard I was planning a trip to Ayutthaya he broke the bad news that trains were not heading there due to maintenance, but because he felt so bad for me he’d give me a tour of some equally interesting sights in Bangkok for a discount.

I thanked him for his offer, walked down the road for five minutes, then got on the train to Ayutthaya.

Wat Mahathat

My train arrived at Ayutthaya after an hour through shanty towns, shopping centres, and ride paddies. Again, window seat. The train station wasn’t within walking distance of the main sites, so I took my first tuk-tuk ride after my first experience haggling. I later found out I paid twice as much as the usual fare, and the driver dropped me off at the wrong temple (Wat Phra Si Sanphet rather than Wat Chaiwaithanaram), but the fare difference was pocket change by NZ standards. Plus the driver threw in a sealed bottle of ice-cold water, so all was forgiven.

I initially declined the offer of an audio guide – even though I didn’t know much about the site, I figuered it would slow me down during my visit to a large site in a short time-frame. After passing through the gates, I was entranced. I wanted to know more. I went back outside after less than a minute, then handed over enough baht for the audio guide.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet - Copy
Wat Phra Si Sanphet

Ayutthaya served as the second capital of the Siamese Kingdom from 1350 until the 18th century, when it was destroyed by the Burmese. Until I researched what my options were for two days in Bangkok, I had no idea it even existed. Now, it’s the first thing I suggest to anyone heading to Thailand. The site was still flooded in parts after heavy rainfall the night before, but not enough to cause any inconvenience. If anything it added to the experience, as lowered courtyards became photogenic ponds.

Perhaps the most photographed site at Ayutthaya is Wat Mahathat. The temple complex has many Buddha statues which were beheaded by Burmese soldiers in 1767, and remains so today. The site was left overgrown until the 20th century, when restoration work uncovered a Buddha head entwine in the roots of a Bodhi tree.

Way Mahathat
Wat Mahathat

Lunch was the best pad thai I’ve ever had. I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring as much of the complex as possible – again haggling with drivers and dodging stray dogs. I returned to Bangkok in the early evening shortly after the street food vendors near my hostel had set up their tables. Dinner consisted of whatever interesting morsels I pointed at – I have no idea what I ended up eating, but that just added to the experience!


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