Our eight-night stay left enough time for a day trip out of Bangkok’s metropolis. Ayutthaya, the historic capitol of Thailand and a UNESCO World Heritage site, was the obvious destination. We were in luck. In the last month the historic floods of 2011 receded. Ayutthaya had been cleaned and was open again for tourists.
To get from Bangkok to Ayutthaya the best option for us was the train. First by foot and riverboat we reached the station. Trains run frequently from Bangkok’s central train station taking a little more than two hours to get to Ayutthaya. We planned on “splurging” for second class. A website told us that the round trip fare for two 2nd Class tickets would run five US dollars. But when we reached the station we found that no trains with this “luxury” seating class were available. We’d ride in 3rd Class with everyone else. Roundtrip fare for two ran us just 60 Baht or less than two US dollars. Soon we were on the train and heading to Ayutthaya.
“I bet they are in Chicken Class.”
At least that’s what I imagine you are thinking.
And yes, it is true; we were indeed in “Chicken Class.” But on this train Chicken Class did not mean that the rail car was stuffed to the gills with bathing challenged riders hanging precariously out of the windows and sitting on the roof. We’d have to wait to get a full Chicken Class train ride experience elsewhere. A third class seat on the train to Ayutthaya is pretty much like traveling the lowest class of a slow local train anywhere in the south of Europe. At least it is similar if you overlook the well-caged and well-behaved poultry in the passenger compartment.
One difference between Thai trains and those in Europe is the food. Though we were not hungry and did not eat, the food rolled through rail cars on carts actually looked edible. In fact it looked good, like something that we’d go out of our way to eat. And it was cheap.
Possibly our opinion of Third Class on a Thai train might have changed if we checked out the “facilities.” This time there was no need for us to use the bathroom. Perhaps that was a good thing.
On reaching Ayutthaya we immediately hunted down a pair of rental bikes. Before we could hire two bicycles we had to run a gauntlet of tour offers.
“Ayutthaya is too large to tour on a bike in one day,” the bike rental person insisted. She pulled out a map and circled all the places we should see.
“You should take a tuk tuk or a car tour.” She would of course arrange a tour for us, if we came to our senses.
Ayutthaya did not seem that large on the map. So we just continued on and rented a pair of bikes for about what our train fare cost. It turned out that Ayutthaya is not too large. A bike is a perfect way to explore the temples. Hiring a car or tuk tuk is not needed.
Soon we were out on the roads. Ayutthaya is situated on an island created at the confluence of the Chao Phraya, the Lopburi, and the Pa Sak rivers. For us the location on an island in the midst of a flood plain had two advantages. First, we could not get too lost as long as we didn’t cross over a waterway. (Getting lost is a particular concern when a jumble of what looks like artful scribbles fills street signs.) And second, the terrain is dead flat. Being level is a good thing. Our bikes had only three gears none of which were suitable for riding anywhere on Planet Earth. Fortunately the rental bikes’ brakes worked fine as long as we were riding into a headwind and had a full city block to stop.
Ayutthaya’s historical park includes the ruins of the old city. King Ramathibodi I founded Ayutthaya in 1350. The city was the capitol of the Siamese kingdom until its destruction by the Burmese army in 1767. The Thai kingdom was friendly towards foreign traders, including the Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians, Japanese and Persians, and later the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and French. The foreigners were allowed to establish villages outside the walls of the capital. In the sixteenth century, European traders reported that Ayutthaya was one of the biggest and wealthiest cities in the East. Today all that remains of the once grand historic capital is a collection of impressive ruins scattered across the island.
Sometimes juxtaposition is everything. Ayutthaya is similar to Cambodia’s Angkor. Like Angkor, Ayutthaya is today an extensive and expansive collection of ruined ancient temples and public buildings. Indeed there is a connection between ancient Angkor and Ayutthaya. The Siamese and the Khmer were rivals and it is thought that a Siamese invasion lead to the downfall of the Khmer Empire and Angkor. But for a traveler today, Ayutthaya is a poor cousin to the temples of Angkor. If we had seen Ayutthaya first it would have been more impressive. After all it is a striking collection of prangs, stupas, and temples in various stages of ruin. Unfortunately for us, coming near directly from Cambodia’s Angkor region made for a tough comparison. Angkor’s temples, more extensive and more intact, are simply grander.
This time for us the journey was the destination. We enjoyed more the train and our bike ride than we did the ruins of the old historic city. And the best part of the travel came at the end. What we remember most and will likely recall the longest is the tuk tuk ride from Bangkok’s train station back to our hotel.
We hadn’t planned on taking a tuk tuk back to our room. Out of the train station we were in a queue trying to take a mythical “metered” taxi. A metered taxi, we had read, avoids the tuk tuk negotiations and the feeling that we might not be getting as good a fare as we should. Reaching the front of the taxi queue we were ready to enter a cab but it was not to be. A skillful diversion left us in the hands of a truly maniacal tuk tuk driver. In Bangkok, we too often found ourselves skillfully diverted.
“How many Bangkok tourists do you think are killed in tuk tuk rides each year?” I shouted to Becky over the roar of our tuk tuk’s modestly muffled motor and the rush of city traffic nearby.
It was a bad time to ask. Whipping through Bangkok’s heavy traffic at light speed in a tuk tuk is just not a good time to contemplate one’s mortality. I should have just continued to ponder polishing the dirty letters on the moving city bus just inches from my forehead. Or I could have focused on the feel of Bangkok’s warm moist air as it blasted through the open-air passenger compartment. Moving fast, the tuk tuk brought the distracting complex smells of the city stirred thick with exhaust fumes in a jet past our noses. Anything was better than thinking how bad a traffic accident would be at full speed in a light-framed tuk tuk.
Our driver had serious skills. For us, that was not a good thing. With the whining roar of the LPG engine, he whipped the tuk tuk about go-kart style, weaving between traffic, splitting lanes, and using whichever side of the road was fastest. If a partially open sidewalk would get us to the destination sooner, he’d use that. He seemed to know what he was doing. Every short cut seemed well planned; every dodge away from the oncoming delivery trucks was just in time. Still I wasn’t taking chances. I clutched the tuk tuk’s handholds hard waiting for this scene from a James Bond movie to pass.
“I do this all the time,” our driver shouted with a laugh looking back as we plunged directly into the traffic chaos.
Perhaps he noticed my white knuckles or that the blood had departed my face.
I grimaced a smile not sure what “this” meant. Did he mean he routinely violated every traffic law ever written in just one block? Or was it that he frequently scared the shit out of unsuspecting tourists? Or was it something even more unimaginably frightening like he often played chicken for a full block against a rush of oncoming traffic?
Our driver continued on testing the limits of the three-wheeled trike tire’s adhesion as we sped around corners and into the narrow back alleys. An empty one-way single-lane road was an excuse to go faster, to jam the throttle against the bulkhead as parked cars flashed by just inches away. Always we’d exit the alleyways like we were shot out of a canon and return to the main road dashing across several lanes of traffic just in time to make a turn in front of a rapidly approaching bus.
Perhaps our driver realized that I was, at some core level, enjoying his attempt to set a new record for the number of moving violations in a single tuk tuk ride. And perhaps this was egging him on. Indeed, the tuk tuk thrill ride was more fun than it deserved to be. It would be the new best ride at your local amusement park. Soon, perhaps too soon, the ride ended and we were back at our quiet riverside hotel. With our hearts still racing, we were almost disappointed that the ride and our day were over.