Monday, 4 July 2011

Preview: Ayutthaya

About an hour north of Bangkok is a small city of approximately 50,000 people. Within it, on a river island of around ten square kilometres, are some spectacular temple ruins, placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1991. Here, over 250 years ago, hundreds of buildings covered in gold would have positively shone in the sun, populated by kings, the royal family and their vast entourage, as well as numerous monks, with the common populace being allowed no more than the privilege of gazing upon this golden wonder from the squalor on the other side of the river. These days it's just an echo of its former self, a historical park existing only as a reminder of its glory. This is Ayutthaya, once one of the world's largest cities, covered in gold, and a kingdom that spanned over four hundred years, dominating the region.

The story of Ayutthaya in many ways is the story of south-east Asia. While Europe was going through its petulant adolescence from medieval times to the Industrial Revolution, reaching new heights of creativity but at the same time fighting almost continuous wars within itself, so south-east Asia was developing its trade, wealth and craftsmanship but crippling itself with a series of wars. By the 14th Century, the Khmer Empire in Cambodia was fading, and it was time for a new kid in town. Enter the delightfully named Prince U Thong. He founded Ayutthaya, possibly upon much older ruins, in 1350, thus both establishing the Ayutthayan and Siamese kingdoms (they were one and the same thing back then). The Thai people had been drifting south from their native Yunnan province in China for some centuries prior, and this was the moment that cemented them as their own independent civilisation.

And they were quite good at it. Within a century, the already-weakened Khmer Empire based in Angkor (home of Angkor Wat, one of my chief contenders for a Wonder of the World) had effectively been taken down, and Ayutthaya was growing strong. By the mid-16th Century, it had gathered numerous vassal states, who paid regular tribute upon a little "military persuasion". This is essentially the reason Ayutthaya became so rich and covered in gold - it ran a very effective protection racket. By 1700, up to a million people lived in the vicinity, making it one of the biggest cities on earth, and a majestic capital for a powerful kingdom. And then on 7th April 1767 - it was all over.

Unlike many civilisations which fade out for numerous complicated reasons over a period of time, the abrupt fall of Ayutthaya was just because of one - the Burmese. For centuries, the Thai and Burmese had been sparring partners, fighting numerous tit-for-tat wars, stealing each other's gold, and enslaving hundreds of thousands of people in total misery. As both were at the same technological level, this could have continued for a lot longer, but Ayutthaya had secretly been harbouring another enemy - itself. Of all the civilisations I've read about, Ayutthaya has to take the blood-smeared cake for the most infighting and political intrigue. In its 400 years of existence, the entire royal family was murdered no less than five times. If the Burmese weren't killing them, they were killing each other. Without a law of regal succession, it was a bit of a free-for-all to become the next monarch, with sons, brothers, nephews, cousins, generals and their wives all scheming, poisoning, executing and plotting against each other - before getting stabbed in the back themselves. It's a miracle the kingdom prospered as long and as well as it did.

Weakened by constant intrigue, the Burmese ransacked Ayutthaya utterly, massacring the population. They stripped the city of its gold - some of it, it is claimed, was melted down and used for the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, which is later on my list. Art, literature, libraries and historical records were destroyed. From a great city of hundreds of significant buildings, only the ruins of about thirty major temples remain.

Although it spelled the end for Ayutthaya, the Thai people certainly weren't finished, with the Burmese being repelled and a new capital, Bangkok, appearing. A new kingdom arose, with the current Chakri dynasty in charge, with the common-sense law of succession of the eldest son first. Remarkably, considering the chequered history of succession, this wasn't formalised until 1924, to sort out the confusion when King Rama V got a little carried away and had 97 children. Even more remarkably, this law appears to have been put on the backburner again since 2006, when the constitution failed to mention it and put succession into the murky hands of "constitutional practice". With an ageing king, a jittery political situation in Thailand which has seen a recent military coup and violent protests, and rumours the king favours his younger daughter to succeed rather than the eldest son, the Chakri dynasty has by no means learnt the lessons of Ayutthaya. Although at least Burma doesn't seem poised to attack.

I'm a little unsure what to expect from Ayutthaya, I must confess. The photos look good and there is a great sense of history, but I do wonder if the glory is really a thing of the past and the impression will be more of ruins of a former Wonder. The actual size of the historical park site is just under 3 square kilometres, which while not huge may still be a little sprawling to regard it as a single distinct Wonder. Individually, the 400-year-old Wat Chaiwatthanaram appears to be the most spectacular ruin, a 35-metre tall temple, the first temple of King Prasol's reign and built in honour of his mother. Compared to some of the much more famous locations I'll be visiting, Ayutthaya is quite an unknown quantity.

I'll be visiting Ayutthaya in October, and will give a fuller account of it and my impressions then.

Reviewed 21st December 2011.

1 comment:

  1. Visited there in 2009 but did not fully realise the city's history. Thank you for enlightening me.


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