Tuesday, 20 December 2011

10. Wonder: Ayutthaya Historic Park

(For the Ayutthaya preview, please click here.)

What links Angkor Wat and the Angkor civilisation, Shwedagon Pagoda and the Burmese civilisation, and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the modern Thai civilisation? The answer is Ayutthaya, the city and civilisation. From 1351 to 1767, this city sat as the majestic capital of the Siamese kingdom, secure as a river island behind 11 kilometres of city walls. In its latter couple of centuries, it was pretty much the gold capital of the world, attracting Chinese and Europeans traders, and was a thriving world city of a million people (massive for its time). It was the pivot between ancient and modern south-east Asia, driving the final nails of the coffin into Angkor then centuries later, like a Phoenix from the flames, allowing Bangkok and the modern Thai dynasty to rise from its ashes. The vast amount of gold plundered by the Burmese is thought to have helped, in no small way, the 1769 rebuilding of their national icon, the Shwedagon Pagoda.

These days, this one-time great kingdom can be reached by a 200 Baht (40p) Express train from Bangkok (30p if you take the "Ordinary"), taking around two hours, or three if you happened to catch the 8.20am Express on the Monday 19th December just past (we spent the first hour in bursts of a hundred metres followed by long pauses). After the tourist-herding of the Thai islands, as well as the sometimes aggressive Bangkok taxi drivers, the freedom of simply getting on a train and arriving in Ayutthaya, then finding a tuk-tuk driver who immediately gave a wholly reasonable price, was deeply refreshing. He took us across a bridge, onto the island, which is approximately a blobby ten square kilometres (you could walk around it in a little under three hours), and to our guesthouse of choice. On the way, we got our first glimpse of ancient Ayutthaya - the phallic tower of Wat Ratchaburana, towering in the distance.

One of the first things I had to decide was this: what is Ayutthaya? What is my Wonder? Ayutthaya was a civilisation that at its peak spread across Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and the Malay Peninsula. Clearly, I am not judging that. So am I judging the city itself? No. Just as I don't count the entire ruins of Bagan as a single Wonder, just as I won't be counting the cities of New York or London or the totality of Angkor or any spread out area of multiple buildings, I can't count the city of Ayutthaya as a single Wonder. The island itself is about ten kilometres square, but there is plenty of ancient construction outside of the island, and the entire province is over 2500 square kilometres. Thus, my choice of Wonder is the UNESCO-listed Ayutthaya Historic Park, taking up around a third of the island - roughly the same area as Central Park - and featuring some, but not all, of Ayutthaya's most recognised buildings.

And none of these buildings, or the Historic Park as a whole, are Wonders.

Burness and I agreed, as we cycled round the site, that unfortunately Angkor Wat and the overall Angkor area have kind of spoiled it for all other ancient temples. It's kind of difficult to compare. Angkor Wat is massive, and the Angkor site needs days of cycling or sightseeing to appreciate it. The condition of the Angkor temples varies, but some are still in good shape, and even the more ruined ones are impressive in their sheer size and scope. Burness also made the excellent point that one of the impressive features about the Angkor temples was the massive stones, individually weighing tons, used to build them. The sheer size and weight of the construction materials is enough to inspire awe in buildings made 800 or so years ago.

But the Ayutthayan temples are brick constructions, or at least that is what is mostly on show these days. In fact, most of them are comprised of three things: laterite, brick, and stucco. Laterite is an easily cut type of soil, which upon exposure to air slowly hardens, making it ideal for the foundations and unseen internal parts of the temples. It is common in Angkor also. Brick was then used for the actual bulk and physical form of the buildings. Finally, stucco, a material not dissimilar to plaster, was covered over the brick, and formed and sculpted for the outer appearance. The true aesthetic appeal of Ayutthaya would have been in the stucco - the ornate depiction of Buddhas and mythical creatures, as well as the detailed decoration, all across the temples. And unfortunately, virtually all of it has gone, leaving just the brick core.

And that underpins the problem of most of Ayutthaya, and certainly the Historic Park: it is very, very ruined. It is not difficult to see that in its full glory, resplendent in many tons of gold, with colour paintings, and boasting elaborate craftsmanship, Ayutthaya would have been a wonder to behold. It became a trading partner of first the Portuguese, then the Spanish, the Dutch, the English, and the French, all of whom were impressed by it wealth. "A city of unbounded wealth and grace, of palaces of gold, giant fortresses and elegant teak homes" one visitor said. Ayutthaya also sent ambassadors to Europe, including meeting with the French Sun King, Louis XIV, at another of my Wonders, the Palace of Versailles. But the gold and glory have been gone, long stripped away, and all that remains are the crumbling brick ruins of a former majesty.

There are four main temples in the Historic Park area, that we visited in the order of Wat Mahatat, Wat Ratchaburana, Wat Phra Ram, and Wat Phra Sri Sanphet. Like Ayutthaya (Ayuthaya/Ayudhaya/Ayudhya/Ayodhaya) itself, and pretty much any Thai word or name associated with the place, all have spellings that vary from source to source, whether in history books, Lonely Planet, Wikipedia, or at the site itself. Wat Mahatat (Wat Maha That, if you like), first of all. The name means "Temple of the Great Relic" and it was built from 1374 to 1388 by the third king of Ayutthaya, the snappily-named Borommarachathirat I. Enshrining relics from Buddha himself, it was the city's spiritual centre. It was also Ayutthaya's tallest building, with a central prang (a prang is a cone-like spire, originally from Angkor but adapted by Ayutthaya to make it more vertical and finger-like) of 51 metres. These days it's just rubble though, surviving the Burmese looting of 1767 but finally collapsing between 1904 to 1911, depending on sources. Old photos still exist of this prang, and it looks pretty impressive. It typifies the Ayutthaya experience, former glory turned to rubble. The suggestion has been made that the collapse was not just due to wear and tear, but a deliberate sabotage by looters; after its early 20th Century collapse, it was systematically looted of all the treasure hidden within. All but a handful, uncovered during a 1956 excavation, which found a treasure chest, a Buddha relic inside a golden casket, and several golden Buddha images, buried ten metres underground and beyond the reach of the looters.


Walking around the ruins of Wat Mahatat and using a little imagination, some of its former glory can be seen. The area is packed with stupas, shrines, halls, and Buddha statues. In its time, who knows, perhaps it could have been a Wonder. The central 51-metre prang, elaborately decorated, would have been quite something. But it's no longer 1388, or 1767, and in 2011 all that remains are old brick structures looking dangerously at the point of collapse. If it was transplanted to Angkor, it wouldn't figure as a significant stopping point for the tour groups. It does, however, contain one of Ayutthaya's defining images, the head of a Buddha embedded in the roots of a bodhi tree.

Just next to Wat Mahatat is Wat Ratchaburana (also called Rat Burana, Racha Burana, or variations), perhaps the best preserved of the ancient temples. That's not to say it's terribly well preserved, but its central prang still stands, and still has much of its stucco and sculptures intact. To me, they seem in suspiciously good condition, given the rest of the site, but I can find no evidence suggesting they are reconstructions.

It dates from 1424, established by Borommarachathirat II, the eighth king of Ayutthata and great-nephew of the third king of Ayutthata, Borommarachathirat I, who established Wat Mahatat. If you think a five-king gap seems a lot for a great-uncle and great-nephew, you'd be right. Dynastic struggles were a running theme of the entire Ayutthaya kingdom, which in its 417 years had five different dynasties and 33 kings, not to mention an astonishing 70 wars. The early days of the kingdom saw plenty of bloodshed and usurping to the throne, and Wat Ratachaburana is testament to that: Borommarachathirat II built it on the site where his two brothers had been cremated. How had they died? On the battlefield, fighting each other for the throne. It's also notable for having been looted as recently as 1957, perhaps inspired by the finds at Wat Mahatat in 1956, when professional looters dug into the temple crypt and stole a bunch of precious items.

Next was Wat Phra Ram, which is kind of like a poor man's Wat Ratchaburana. It has a similarly-sized central prang, but in greater disrepair, and a faintly anonymous collection of similar shrines and stupas. It dates way back from 1369, started by the second king, Ramesuan, as the cremation site of his father, King U Thong, the founder of the Ayutthayan civilisation. In typical Ayutthayan fashion, however, Ramesuan was usurped after less than a year on the throne, and a new dynasty began, and it was likely his successor, Borommarachathirat I (i.e. the founder of Wat Mahatat) who finished it.

Finally, we have Wat Phra Si Sanphet (meaning, roughly, "Temple of the Honourable Buddha Sanphet", the Sanphet referring to a large Buddha statue that once stood), probably the poster boy of Ayutthaya, or at least sharing that position with the Buddha's head in the tree roots, and Wat Chaiwatthanaram (a picturesque temple across the river). Once, this was the site of the Royal Palace, the home of the king, although being made of wood it has now completely gone. It is now defined by its three identical stupas, lined up symmetrically, each containing the ashes of kings: the 11th king of Ayutthaya, Ramathibodi II, who established the site, plus his elder brother and father. Dating from 1492, they are a little newer than the other three main temples in the Historic Park, and Burness and I were instantly agreed were the most striking.

Individually, the stupas, a smudgy black over a white stucco covering, would be nothing to get too excited about, but lined up as triplets they make quite an impression. Despite a tour group joining us, the feeling that this was the stand-out temple was immediate and never wavered. Perhaps there is a visual harmony in the symmetry of three identical and fairly large stupas that made walking around them a pleasure. Transposed to Angkor, it could be argued that they wouldn't be the stand-out piece, but then again, there isn't anything in Angkor quite like them. Wat Phra Si Sanphet and the relics of the three things are undoubtedly the highlight of Ayutthaya Historic Park.

There are other temples and statues within the Historic Park, but to describe them all would be cumbersome for everyone, and I refer you to a guidebook if you really want details on each. There are also some significant temples outwith the Historic Park and the island, but again they aren't directly relevant to this review.

On a technical level, you could say that Ayutthaya was my first real disappointment of my Wonder-hunting. Not just in the temples being a bit more ruined than expected, but also the Historic Park being less a single area packed with ancient artefacts, and more a small collection of distinct and separate temples separated by roads, and surrounded by a small, modern city. It didn't really feel like a park, more of a bunch of shabby brick buildings on an empty piece of land. However, I have to say, I don't actually feel disappointed. I liked Ayutthaya a lot, and although I think I did the the Historic Park justice, I don't feel I spent enough time in the city itself. As a Wonder, it can't compare to some of the biggest and best, but the city I found enjoyable to spend time in. Hiring a bicycle and cycling around was the perfect way to visit the ruins, and give more time I'd have loved to have explored some of the surrounding area (I managed a two-hour boat trip around the island, checking out a couple of temples, but it was merely scraping the surface).

Ayutthaya - the city and the old ruins - are also recovering from the immediate aftermath of flooding. A month or so ago, anyone who turned on the news couldn't have failed to notice the news of the Thai flooding. This focussed mostly on the encroaching waters into Bangkok, but Ayutthaya is 76 kilometres north of Bangkok, and took a real hit. The owner of my guesthouse told me that for weeks people were virtually trapped in their homes as up to two metres of water filled the streets, and the watermarked evidence was shown to me. Homes, shop, restaurants, everything was submerged. The ruins were affected too. Although the builders of Ayutthaya would have expected occasional flooding, this would have been with the temples prior to their ruin. Ruined temples are much more susceptible, and UNESCO are now trying to find out what damage has been done.

As a result, the city was still in recovery mode when I visited. Tourism has taken a body blow, and so to encourage it there was free entry to all the temples. But the free entry was also to make allowances for the fact that many of the buildings were cordoned off while the damage is assessed. Usually I'd have been allowed to get closer and explore more. Even before the floods, a simple walk around the ruins made it clear how fragile some of these structures now are. Some are in semi-collapse, some are at unlikely angles that suggest they will one day join the rubble of Wat Mahatat's central prang. A month of flood water will surely not have helped.

Ayutthaya (pronounced Ah-yoota-ya - it's a weird word to say out loud) was named after the home of Rama, (a representation of the Hindu supreme god Vishnu) in the mythical Hindu epic, the Ramayama,  and means "Undefeatable City". The name held true for four centuries until the Burmese comprehensively trashed it during a ten day period in 1767. They took the gold, burnt down the buildings, destroyed the libraries and historical records, and ended Ayutthaya's time in the sun. But ironically, the ruins we see now are not just due to the Burmese, they are largely due to the Thai people also. In the aftermath of the fall of Ayutthaya, a new capital and dynasty of the Thai people was established, at Bangkok, and to construct the Grand Palace, now seen at the heart of the city, the walls and bricks of Ayutthaya were plundered. In a form, Ayutthaya lives on.

As you can probably tell, Ayutthaya isn't a contender for being a Wonder. It is a hugely important and significant historic site, and a very interesting one to visit, but as a breathtaking structure or set of structures designed to take your breath away it doesn't really rate. Nonetheless, I'll subject it to my criteria.

Size: At one time, the tallest building would have been a 51 metre prang; these days the tallest is probably less than 30 metre. There are still a fair spread of ruins around, and some of them are sizeable, but none in the realm of gigantic.
Engineering: Impressively done, but not pioneering. Brick is a pretty easy medium to use, and the temples were constructed quickly as a result.
Artistry: In their time, they would have been elaborate and ornate, and likely magnificent. Now they are evocative in a ruined kind of way, but the fine details are mostly gone. The striking symmetry of the three stupas of Wat Phra Si Sanphet is the highlight, with Wat Ratchanurana's central prang, in pretty good condition, also indicating what has been lost.
Age/Durability: Some are almost seven hundred years old - but they show it. UNESCO are onboard to try and arrest the ongoing crumbling.
Fame/Iconicity: Although a highly significant slice of south-east Asian history, the existing ruins are not all that famous, and most visitors to Thailand pass them by. I don't see this changing.
Context: A Historic Park of ruins on an island, and within a region full of ancient ruins, Ayutthaya has plenty of history floating around. But visually, the park is very flat and not a cohesive unit of ruins, and there is no point you can stand at to see all the main ruins.
Back Story: Tremendous, and the most notable element on Ayutthaya. The story takes off from where Angkor finishes, and leads on to the modern Thai nation.
Originality: The Ayutthayan kings made no pretence at anything other than being influenced by the Khmer, i.e. Angkor, empire, and this shows in the existing ruins. However, they adapted it to their own style, with the phallic central prangs being the most obvious.

I enjoyed visiting Ayutthaya, and if in Thailand again would definitely like the chance to give it a closer look as I feel my time was spent on the Historic Park only and didn't give the rest of the city much of a look-in. The Historic Park is interesting, with attractive ruins, and a fascinating history, but the grandeur that would once have been has now long gone, and we are left with ruins. Some still impress, but they are not in the same league as the big boys of the World Wonders. So I would have to place Ayutthaya Historic Park at the bottom of my list, a little below the Marina Bay Sands.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Angkor Wat
2. Sydney Opera House
3. Borobudur
4. Petronas Towers
5. Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
6. Shwedagon Pagoda
7. Banaue Rice Terrace

Interesting Places
Ananda Temple in Bagan
Marina Bay Sands 

Ayutthaya Historic Park

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.