In travel, as in life, it is the journey and not the destination that is the most important thing. Or so we are led to believe. Whoever came up with this maxim clearly hasn’t tried to get a Bangkok tuk-tuk to take them to the railway station for less than five times the fare a Thai person would pay, or without having to stop at a dodgy shop selling overpriced and possibly fake semi-precious gems.
By the time I found a tuk-tuk willing to only overcharge me by 200 percent I’d almost given up on going on a trip to Ayutthaya, the magnificent ancient capital of the Thai Kingdom. It would have been a mistake to have turned back, both the journey and the destination were wonderful, but tuk-tuk drivers don’t make it easy.
It was a scorching hot day, barely a breath of wind and a wall of humidity. The sort of day when even the smallest of physical exertions is ill advised…a perfect day to spend wandering around a large ancient city with hardly any shade. I bought my train ticket at Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station, and went off to find a cold drink before getting on the train for the two hour journey to Ayutthaya.
As I stood on the platform watching the world go by, I noticed a cooling mist of water being sprayed from the roof of the station. On a hot day, this gesture towards climate control was greatly appreciated. Sadly the train had no such facilities. I snagged a seat next to an open window, but for much of the journey the train moved at a leisurely pace and the hoped for breeze never materialising. I found myself welded to the plastic seat.
The journey took us through seemingly endless Bangkok suburbs, past a slum area with wooden shacks crammed up against the rail tracks, at a snails pace. Finally, we hit open country and our tempo picked up. The scenery was luscious green, but flat and uninspiring farm land – I get enough of that in the Netherlands – and we made several stops at tiny stations without anyone at them.
Eventually we arrived at the modern city of Ayutthaya, where a gaggle of tuk-tuk drivers were vying for people’s attention and money. I popped to the toilet and by the time I returned my choice was somewhat diminished. Only one tuk-tuk driver remained, but he and his wife didn’t seem interested in using their sudden monopoly to exploit me.
We struck a deal and off we went towards the wondrous UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ayutthaya Historical Park, home to the ancient Thai capital of Ayutthaya. The city is an island sitting at the confluence of several rivers. These formed a natural protective barrier from enemy attack, which served the city well until the 18th Century.
Here the Lopburi River and the Pa Sak River join the Chao Phraya River on its journey from the mountains to the Gulf of Thailand. In 2011, these three rivers overwhelmed flood defences and devastating floods struck the region. Hundreds of people were killed and over US$40 billion worth of damage was inflicted, including massive destruction in Bangkok. The flooding also caused significant damage to Ayutthaya’s ancient buildings.
The ancient city covered a vast area, incorporating hundreds of kilometres of canals, grand palaces and dozens of temples. To do it justice you would really need two or three days. I didn’t have that luxury. I wanted to see some of the sights off the island, including the remains of a Dutch trading colony which was established here in the 1608, but there just wasn’t time and, if I’m being honest, the heat and humidity were just too much.
It was so hot that I was bathed in sweat most of the time – there is only so much of that you can endure before needing to climb gratefully into a shower and a clean set of clothes. I divided my time exploring some of the beautiful ancient temples on the island, and one off the island, vowing to see the rest next time.