Okay. Motor coach tours. I think we’ve all had to endure at least one. Like childhood diseases. Bus Tour=Chicken Pox. I think it’s just part of traveling. A bunch of tourists band together and brave the wilds of foreigner-land en masse (except that they don’t really like each other).
The last motor coach tour that Pete and I were on was to Stonehenge and Salisbury in England, and at the time I was about 400 pounds, and the bus was really more of a mini-van. Fat man. Mini-van. Scenery or not, that sucks.
This tour, however, was actually quite a delightful day-trip to the Thai countryside.
One of the options when deciding where to go after Bangkok was Angkor Wat in Cambodia—a sight, like the Great Pyramids, that I’ve always wanted to see in person. The Thai equivalent is the ruins at Ayutthaya, which served as the capital of Siam from the 14th through the 18th centuries, when Siam/Thailand was more or less constantly at war with its neighbor to the West, Burma.
Ayutthaya was hit hard by the Thai flooding in November. In the photo to the right, our Tour Guide, Mr. Pole, shows us the mark left by the highest level of the flood waters. As you look at these images, bear in mind that a month before we arrived, this area was in water over six feet deep.
Mr. Pole was a delightful guide. Our first stop was the Bang Pa-In Summer Palace on the way to the ruins.
Um… Have I mentioned that the Thais love their king? Here he is again, greeting us at the entrance to the Palace. For an 84-year-old, he really does get around.
Unlike the Grand Palace in Bangkok, the Summer Palace is indeed vast, in the style of Western summer palaces of the Victorian Era. Think of Livadia under the Romanoffs. It’s glorious.
We were able to rent a golf cart so that mom could more easily access the grounds. They rent golf carts. I know… It’s slightly surreal. I mean, I won’t pretend there isn’t a slightly Disneyland-ish feeling to the procedures.
But it was a lovely, lovely morning, and we had a lot of fun just tooling around the beautiful grounds. Cue slideshow:
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I mean, how can you not love a place where there are herds of topiary elephants roaming the gardens?
Also worthy of mention is that this (like, say, Windsor Castle in England) is a working Royal Palace. So it’s rather heavily guarded by the King’s Private Guard. They’re everywhere. It’s a little unnerving.
To be honest, I could have tooled around this place for hours. It’s quite serene, a nice break from busy Bangkok, and I didn’t catch a fraction of the history that I should have captured.
Still and all, it was soon time to go. So we drove our little Royal Golf Cart back to the entrance and re-boarded the bus for the trip to the meat of the excursion: the ruins at Ayutthaya.
Drive drive drive. Bus bus bus. Did you know they drive on the left in Thailand? Singapore, too. And there’s always a small, irrational part of me that looks out at the road and wants to scream, “YOU’RE ON THE WRONG SIDE! WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!”
But in case you were wondering what Thai highways are actually like, they’re quite nice. And Thais, like Americans, seem to rely on Road Talismans.
I’m sure you’ll all remember this one:
“I don’t care if the rain gets ruder
Long as I have plastic Buddha
Walking on the doorframe of my bus…
You may think that you’re a goner
But floods just float you to Nirvana
When Buddha’s truckin’ with you in your bus…”
But on to the Ruins. The ruined city at Ayutthaya, like the Great Pyramids, Angkor Wat, Macchu Picchu, Stonehenge and the like, is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And it’s absolutely breathtaking. A great deal of it is brickwork, and the maze of temples, stupas and headless Buddhas actually stops you in your tracks.
Did someone say slideshow?
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Frankly, even without the rest of the ruins, this tree would be enough to merit UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The story is that the buddha’s face just grew there.
Okay. so we all tell the occasional fib.
But it is perfect placement, and a beautiful, compelling image. The Buddha Tree. An excellent thing to have seen with your own eyes.
So, we’re walking around, exploring like everyone else, and my little knapsack brushes by one of the bricks, and it falls to the ground.
Let me repeat that:
I visited a 700-year old UNESCO World Heritage Site.
AND I BROKE IT.
This is why they hate Americans.
By this point, the day was getting hotter. We’d seen a LOT of beautiful, beautiful things and my capacity for Thai history, culture and religion, I will completely admit, was breaking down. Honestly, I couldn’t really tell where one temple ended and the next began. And, again, honestly, I couldn’t hope to begin pronouncing even the first of them. Ratchaburana Temple, Phra Sri Sanphet Temple, LokayasuthaTemple, Phanan Choeng Temple, Sha-Lee Temple…
(Threw that last one in just to see if you were paying attention.)
Our next stop was a relatively more modern temple complex where there was some mild coercion to contribute to the temple funds and the monks. What the hell—these people live on alms. They don’t eat otherwise. They hardly eat as it is. How can you begrudge them?
For example, this tiny little temple is inhabited only by a MONUMENTAL buddha and a single monk in a saffron robe who beckons you forward and beatifically places a nylon bracelet on your wrist.
There is a conveniently-placed basket of money in front of the monk, to suggest that you might donate something in exchange for the nylon bracelet. I don’t know what place nylon has in Thai Buddhism, but I am led by this experience to believe that it holds some great mystical significance.
Rama rama polyesta rama.
At another temple, we were encouraged to use the “Mystical Fortune Machine” to foretell our future (for only 10 Thai Baht—about a quarter). San Franciscans who know the old Playland at the Sutro Baths and its Museé Mécanique will recognize this type of machine instantly.
“Sure,” you figure, “I’ll play along.” Like fortune cookies, you assume that these fortunes will be innocuous and vague, or at least rosy and pleasant. Sure enough, Peter draws smiles and happy puppies and shit when he spins. What do I get?
“Like being dumb?” “Illness?” “Forthcoming child shall be a baby girl?”
No offense, but Fuck You, Buddha Machine. At the very least, you should be able to recognize a big queen.
In fairness, the icon in this temple was described to us as “one of the most beautiful Buddhas in the world,” and it really is.
It just needs to calibrate its machinery.
The last stop on our little cultural tour was to see another Reclining Buddha.
I know. Buddha Buddha Buddha. Temple Temple Temple. (Just like Rome is Jesus Jesus Jesus, Church Church Church.) But this Buddha was really monumental. Look at Pete in this shot for an idea of the scale. It’s the second of the Three Great Reclining Buddhas of the world. We saw the first at Wat Pho the day before. They never told us where #3 is. But I think I can wait awhile to see it. This guy was outdoors, so bear in mind, again, that a month earlier, it was reclining in six feet of water.
Plus, in the nearby gift shop, there’s a whole shelf of carved wooden penises, so you can always shop if you’re not into the whole Buddha thing.
(I’m sure that, like nylon, this has some religious significance that is lost on me, a heathen westerner.)
Anyhow, as we left, I couldn’t resist snapping this Reclining Pooch right in the shadow of the Reclining Buddha.
At this point, like the Buddha and the Pooch, the Motor Coach Folk were really starting to look a little wilty. The English man across from me who’d recently had knee surgery looked like he might faint if he wasn’t given a sausage, and quickly. His wife had already melted into a lightly-tuberose-scented puddle of Caucasity.
Luckily, the ride back to Bangkok was by boat along the Chao Phraya, the “River of Kings.” It was just lovely, and very restorative after an extremely active morning of sightseeing.
Slideshow? Well, if you insist…
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It’s always good to have a captain who can sit at the bridge with his feet actually touching the floor. Oh, wait…
Oh, And mom got absolutely shitfaced on mai tais.
(Or am I?)