Sacked City (Thursday, November 24)

We spent Thanksgiving day, 2005, visiting the ruined city of Ayutthaya, which had been the capital of Siam until the Burmese captured and destroyed it in 1767. Khun ST, who couldn't spare her car and driver for a whole day, very kindly hired a substitute to drive us there. (We had still not met her on this trip, but she had invited us to be her guests for dinner on the next night, Friday.) Khun ST not only provided transportation, but also arranged through a friend of hers who owns a restaurant in Ayutthaya to have the monks (and us as collateral honorees) offered a meal there.

The van picked the monks up first and then came for us at Saladang Place. This was unfortunately the wrong direction for a journey to Ayutthaya, and they were so tied up in traffic that our expedition got off to a considerably later start than we'd planned. But once outside the city we moved quickly enough, and we got to Ayutthaya in time to visit Wat Yai Chai Mongkon before it was time for the meal. (This would have to begin at eleven in order to be finished, in accordance with the monastic rules, by noon.)

Jayanto had visited Ayutthaya before, but Dorothea and I (and presumably Tan Punnyo, who hadn't been there either) weren't sure what we'd find: acres of headless Buddha images and piles of bricks? I'd read a comment by an anonymous tourist who judged that 20 minutes would be plenty of time to see Ayutthaya, instead of the full afternoon his tour had spent on it. But I suspect that he may have looked at Ayutthaya with the eyes of a man who wished he'd gone to Disney World instead of Thailand. It's a fascinating place for anyone with an interest in the country and its history.

Ayutthaya had once been a wealthy and thriving city, one of the biggest and richest in Asia, and the Europeans who began to arrive in the 16th century wrote about it in awed tones. London was said to have been a mere village by comparison. The Portuguese came first, setting up an embassy in 1511, and the Dutch, English, Danes, and French all followed during the next century. Merchants from China and Japan were there as well. In the late 17th century the French built St. Joseph's Church, which still stands in Ayutthaya, though not in its original form. Like the rest of the city, the older church was destroyed by the Burmese in 1767 (who were obviously not interested in religious discrimination), but missionaries rebuilt it in the mid-19th century, and the guidebooks say that Catholic worship has been continuous there for 300 years, so they must have managed somehow in the interim.

Ayutthaya was a center of power under a single line of kings from the 14th century to the 18th, a reasonably good record for dynastic continuity. After defeating the weakening Khmers in 1431, Ayutthaya ruled an empire that included — besides all of modern Thailand — Cambodia, Laos, and a good part of eastern Burma as well. Its art was based partly on that of the older Thai capital Sukothai and partly on lingering Khmer influence. The latter is very visible in Thai temple architecture, which often includes the corncob-shaped, bullet-pointed towers called prangs and sometimes features ground plans that echo the design of Angkor Wat.

The level of craftsmanship was very high. Shortly before coming to Thailand we had seen a traveling exhibition of art from Ayutthaya that included Buddha images — always a primary artistic form in Thailand — but exceptionally beautiful furniture as well: ebony inlaid with mother of pearl in such vital yet exquisite designs that I couldn't help indulging myself in the idle wish that some of those craftsmen had applied themselves to making banjos. Of course, the furniture we saw in the exhibition had survived because, when the Burmese sacked the city, this furniture was somewhere else. Siam had other prosperous cities besides its capital.

The conquerors — raging, one supposes, over past defeats and indignities real and perceived — made a point of destroying everything the Thais considered valuable, including Buddha images, which we might think that, being Theravada Buddhists themselves, the Burmese would hold sacred. Headless images are everywhere around Ayutthaya. I've read that resentment of the destruction has not entirely died away in Thailand even now. It's logical to suppose that nations who share the concepts of impermanence and karma would behave more circumspectly toward one another, but in war, of course, everything goes — an expression that can be understood in more than one way.

Our first stop, Wat Yai Chai Mongkon, was outside the city, though not far enough to have escaped destruction. It's still active as a monastic establishment, with a resident Sangha, and in addition to its ruins has a few modern buildings. A large central chedi survived the destruction intact. Some visitors, not including ourselves, were climbing a very steep flight of stairs up the side, their reward not access to the interior, but an impressive view of the city and its ruins. According to the Eyewitness guidebook, King Naresuan built the chedi to commemorate — ironically enough — a victory over the Burmese in 1593.

Just to one side of the stairs is a large, benign, seated Buddha image, no doubt restored. The gardenlike grounds include courtyards lined with dozens of Buddha images, all complete (and each adorned with a yellow monastic cloth draped over one shoulder). A note in a guidebook Jayanto had with him indicated that images had been brought here from other sites, and this presumably explains why those we saw at Wat Yai Chai Mongkon still had their heads. Another survival (though it, too, has undergone a good deal of restoration) is a large reclining Buddha. Complete today, it lies outdoors among the ruins of the temple that once housed it. The image is whitewashed and dotted with patches of gold leaf applied to it by devout Thais as an act of veneration.

At the back of the modern temple building is something we saw nowhere else in Thailand: an image of a seated religious figure, similar to the Buddha in many ways except that it is quite plainly obese. Heavy-set images are common in China, influenced by older representations of a benevolent god associated with prosperity. Although Chinese Buddhists usually identify these images with a legendary monk called Pu Tai ("cloth bag," for the sack of gifts he carries) rather than with the historical Buddha, this distinction has generally been lost on Americans (other than those with a special interest in Buddhism), who often think that the Buddha is fat. One of my college classmates was dubbed "Buddha" by his insensitive friends after putting on weight.

But in Thai tradition the Buddha is always represented as a youthful, slender man, except in a few images that represent the time he spent as an ascetic before his enlightenment. In these images he looks so starved that his skeleton is plainly visible. This image at Wat Yai Chai Mongkon, however, is not only fat, but — as if to emphasize the point — it's attended by two sculpted pigs. Jayanto and Punnyo thought that it might represent a certain disciple of the Buddha who, according to tradition, was well on his way to enlightenment, but was so handsome that women kept hurling themselves in his direction. Although not seriously tempted, he found his meditations being constantly disrupted, so he deliberately made himself fat (by an act of will, not by eating more than a monk should) in order to stop attracting women. Our informants were at a loss, however, to explain the pigs.

We spent so long at Wat Yai Chai Mongkon that we didn't reach the restaurant until well after eleven, our arrival greatly relieving the anxiety of the staff, who had been expecting us for some time. We approached the door through a garden, and inside we found lots of lush vegetation and tanks of big fish. Khun ST's friend who owns the restaurant — another of our absent benefactresses — has been a fashion designer, and the decor included, besides vegetation and fish tanks, an eclectic combination of rustic antiques and mannequins in modern clothes. The clothes were made of material that looked traditional and "folky," so the mannequins looked quite at home.

We didn't linger in this room, however, but were led out onto a porch overlooking the river, and from there down a gangplank to a big riverboat moored alongside, which is part of the restaurant. Under a roof shading the deck, we found separate tables set for us and for the monks, but they were low, Thai-style tables, at which diners had to sit on the floor. I began nerving myself up to make this effort, but Dorothea expressed her doubt that I'd be able to make it through the meal, and I was greatly relieved when the young woman in charge had a regular table set for us on the porch up above. The monks stayed on the vessel to take their meal.

The food was excellent, featuring fish and big river shrimp. The river we were overlooking is the Chao Phraya, the same one that runs through Bangkok. A couple of smaller rivers join it at Ayutthaya, and canals were dug to connect them so that the royal center of the ancient city was surrounded by water. According to a French map from 1695, several adjacent neighborhoods were also "moated" by a combination of rivers and canals. It's questionable whether all these canals were defensive in purpose; rivers and canals have always served as roads in Thailand, and to a small extent they still do.

After our Thanksgiving dinner (a circumstance of which we remained unaware), we went to visit Wat Na Phra Mén ("Nah Prah Mane"), which is unusual in Ayutthaya in having been spared destruction in 1767. The story goes that the Burmese pointed their cannon at the wat, intending to demolish it, but that on the first shot the gun exploded and killed the king of Burma, ending the sack of the city. (In another version, the king was directing the cannon to fire at the nearby royal palace, but if so, it's clear that the explosion didn't put a stop to the destruction, for the palace is long gone.) Whatever truth this tale may have, it sounds good to the Thais for obvious enough reasons.

The large temple building has had its share of restoration to overcome the effects of time rather than devastation, and contains a crowned Buddha image almost 20 feet high that dates from Ayutthaya's heyday. The high carved ceiling overhead is painted in traditional style, red with gold designs. Behind the large temple is a smaller one housing a stone Buddha image said to have been made in Sri Lanka in the seventh century. The Buddha is seated on a chair, and Dorothea was impressed with the serenity of its face and the grace of the rather primitive figure. I put my head in the door of the temple, but seeing that I'd have to sit on the floor I elected to keep my shoes on and stay outside looking for picture opportunities. Dorothea and Jayanto spent some time there, however, she contemplating the image (of which she took a good picture), and he talking with a Thai monk whom they met there. (Like the wat we had visited in the morning, this one still has a resident community.) The monk gave them both amulets that he said had been blessed.

Meanwhile, I took pictures of three small chedis, one completely overgrown by a bodhi tree. In keeping with a common custom on monastery grounds, the tree was wound about with scarves to indicate that it was holy and should not be cut down. Bodhi trees generally get this treatment, because of their association with the Buddha's enlightenment. But the monasteries sometimes protect other kinds of trees in the same way.

Our next stop, still near the site of the old palace, was Wat Phra Mahathat, whose name means "large sacred image." The destroyers had done their work very thoroughly in this area, and little is left of the wat except a ruined chedi or two and a large seated Buddha image that must have been brought from another site if not restored on the spot. It presides over a tranquil courtyard that had no doubt been the floor of a big temple.

However, Wat Phra Mahatat also has the most photographed sight in Ayutthaya: a Buddha head (presumably detached from its body by the destroyers in 1767) that has been almost completely enclosed by tree roots. It was surrounded by a fence, where a sign enjoined visitors "Please don't stand over the Buddha's head." I assumed that this forbade posing for pictures while standing next to the tree with one's head higher than the Buddha's — which would have been obviously inappropriate, since it couldn't be done without violating the little precinct defined by the fence. Later, however, Dorothea said she thought it meant not to come up near the fence without keeping one's head below that of the Buddha. If so, it was too late; I had already violated the injunction. Fortunately, no one in the vicinity seemed surprised or offended. I plead well-meaning ignorance.

We got back in the van and drove around a very large block to get to Wat Phra Si Sanphet. In the days of Ayutthaya's glory it was the royal wat, standing next to the palace and housing the kings' monuments, like Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok. The wat had two big temples that faced each other at opposite ends of a row of three large chedis, interspersed with four mondops (small buildings, high and square in shape). The chedis, which held the ashes of three 15th-century kings, are all that remain intact, and only one of the three survived that way; the other two have been restored. The larger of the two demolished temples housed a standing Buddha image more than 50 feet high and covered with 150 kg of gold according to one source, 250 kg according to another — either 330 or 550 pounds. The image was created in the early 16th century and given the name Phra Si Sanphet; at that time the name of the wat was changed to match. The Burmese destroyed the Buddha image, stripped off the gold, and melted it down. Later Rama I, the Thai king who founded Bangkok, had the remaining pieces of the image collected and brought to Bangkok, where they were entombed in the Phra Si Sanphet Chedi at Wat Pho.

On our way to the wat, we passed a sign for the Elephant Kraal, an enclosure formed with huge posts made from tree trunks. In the old days of Ayutthaya, an annual roundup of wild elephants took place there. The present enclosure, in a different location, was used for the same purpose into the 19th century. (One of the last times was in 1890 when king Rama V held a roundup there to entertain the future Tsar Nicholas II during a state visit.) Though the kraal is no longer in use, an enterprise set up nearby was selling rides on a half dozen or so colorfully draped elephants. We passed on the kraal and the ride, but snapped a picture of some Thai tourists whose pachyderm parade happened to go by as we were getting out of the van.

The ruins of Wat Phra Si Sanphet were a long way from the parking place, a hot walk across a nearly treeless field. Dorothea raised her umbrella for shade — it was the hottest part of the afternoon — but I continued to rely on my Tilley hat (which I have to admit was pretty soggy most of the times I wore it). The three chedis — bell-shaped in the Sri Lankan style, but typically built higher and pointier by the Thais — are no longer gilded, but their plain gray stone was attractively set off by frangipani trees, which continually display lovely white blossoms and drop fragrant petals on the ground. Other trees stood among the tumbled ruins, creating shade that, in the pictures, looks cool and comfortable. (It wasn't.)

We were hot and tired, and the way back to the van seemed even longer than it had when we came. We were approached by children selling postcards, something we hadn't seen previously except on our brief excursion into Cambodia at Preah Vihear (and were to be overwhelmed by when we went on to Angkor a few days later). We held out at first, but finally I yielded to an irresistably cute little girl of seven or eight. She asked an outrageous price for the postcards, but I fearlessly bargained her down to a slightly less outrageous price — which would require her to give me change. I asked if she could do this, and she nodded. I handed her the bill and she took out a little wallet in which some coins were visible behind a plastic window. She tried to get at them, but strangely enough, though she struggled and struggled, she just couldn't open the slot wide enough to budge the coins. At length I understood what my part in the drama was supposed to be, and I graciously waived my right to the change. Her mother, watching from a short distance away, must have swelled with parental pride.

The last place we visited in Ayutthaya was Wat Chai Wattanaram, which stands a little apart from the rest of the city beside the Chao Phraya River. It was built in 1630, rather late in Ayutthaya's history, but has a Khmer look about it, with a high central prang surrounded by smaller chedi-shaped towers — each containing an entrance to the central precinct — at the four corners and at the mid-point of each side: eight in all.

All the towers have been restored, and green lawns are planted on all sides, giving the wat a complete and self-contained look that in the late afternoon light exerted a good deal of charm. We had been restored by our ride in the air-conditioned van, and were eager to look around. The restored prang and the structures surrounding it are not the whole wat; there was a large temple building between this enclosure and the river. Traces of this are visible, but the building is well and truly gone; two large Buddha images now sit in the open, facing the river, where the temple's shrine used to be. We saw other images of the Buddha here and there around the site, but none that had escaped damage.

The view of the river from the terrace where a temple once stood was very peaceful. Directly across from us, on the other side, was one of the Queen's residences, although only a boat landing and a small building near it could be seen. A little farther up, a humbler but still sizeable dwelling overhung the water. On our side, at the edge of the green lawn, stood a broad, dark green shade tree of a sort that I had often seen in pictures from Southeast Asia, but hadn't encountered previously during our trip. When I pointed it out to Jayanto, he said that trees of that kind used to provide shade in the center of almost every Thai village, but they have been disappearing rapidly. After devouring just about all that remained of the country's forests, the insatiable furniture industry has now begun to strip the villages, and although he had seen many trees like this (he couldn't recall the name) when he first came to Thailand in 1997, most of them were now gone.

The drive back to Bangkok gave us another opportunity to rest our feet and recover from the heat. We approached our hotel by driving up the length of Saladang Road toward Silom Road, as we had already done a few times, and we'd begun to notice some restaurants that looked attractive. So, after saying goodbye to Jayanto and Punnyo and resting and refreshing ourselves a bit, we walked a few blocks back down to the nearest, a place called Anna's. We didn't know anything about the restaurant, but we weren't ready to tackle Silom Road again (and besides, we didn't know anything about the restaurants there, either). Anna's — named for Anna Leonowens, the Englishwoman whose highly imaginative memoir was the raw material for "Anna and the King of Siam" and "The King and I" — was a big place and full of people. Most customers were Thai, but the restaurant's style was definitely American and so were at least some of our fellow diners. At three different times during our meal we heard the wait staff sing "Happy Birthday" (in English, not in Thai) to someone. The menu offered cakes and puddings for dessert. On the other hand, a lot of the entrees sounded either too hot or too weird. But our cautious choices — satay, green curry, and a vegetable dish — were all good.

This section last updated 3-5-2007