Ayutthaya

Day 3

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Bangkok is a huge city: 8.2 million people with a population density of 14,000 per square mile1 (compare this with New York City’s similar population but with a density of 28,000 per square mile2). Chelsea and I couldn’t possibly see all that the city has to offer in the few days that we were there. We were happy with what we did see, however, and decided to venture outside of the city a bit.

Our destination for our second full day in Thailand would be the country’s capital before Bangkok: Ayutthaya. We decided that this would be our place to visit the morning of our trip, during breakfast. We had to scramble to pack and get out on the street to find a taxi. It took us some time, but we finally found a cab that would take us to the Bangkok Train Station, informally called Hua Lamphong. We arrived with 30 minutes to spare, so we purchased a coffee, sat for a few minutes, then boarded the train to get a seat.

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In Hua Lamphong station, checking out all of the folks sitting in the lobby.

Ayutthaya is about an hour drive north of Bangkok. By train, this trip take about two hours and change. Chelsea and I were fortunate enough to get a seat, so the trip was comfortable and seemed quick to us. We mainly focused on what passed us outside the windows: a tantalizing combination of small villages, farms and open grasslands. We stayed alert for our own stop, though this was not necessary as the conductor of our car made sure to stop by our seats and tell us personally that our stop would be next. What amazing service…

We debarked the train and immediately searched for bike rental places. If you know me and Chelsea, you know that we have some pretty good experience with riding bikes in urban areas. We decided that this experience would translate well in another country. What we didn’t expect was the difficulty of finding a bicycle for rent! The places near the Ayutthaya train station were not renting that day, so we took a ferry to the other side of the Pa Sak River.

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On the ferry, heading from the west side of the Pa Sak River to the east side.

There we easily found bikes to rent for the day. We rode less than a mile from the bike rental place to the Rama Public Park to visit Wat Mahathat. We were both amazed by the size of the site, having seen wats in Bangkok that were much smaller than this wat in Ayutthaya. Having been built in the 14th century, this entire complex was a shell of what it once was: the center prang, once standing at 164 feet tall collapsed in 1904 and again in 1911 to now only stand about 25 feet in height. Regardless of the disarray of the temples and prangs, the complex was still a sight to see, even with the hot sun rising over our heads.

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The umbrella isn’t for show: the sun was blistering that day.

After visiting Wat Mahathat we regrouped on our bikes and rode west toward Wat Phra Si Sanphet. We rode along a busy road to get there, so we were glad to see a dedicated bike lane on the side of the road as one would see in major US cities. What we did not expect was that this lane would be used by all kinds of bikes: bicycles and motorbikes alike. We carefully trekked along on our 1970s era cruisers, eventually arriving at Wat Phra Si Sanphet. After purchasing our tickets (30 baht each), we walked into the complex, our eyes locked on the three spires rising into the air.

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The Wat Phra Si Sanphet chedis really dominate the Ayutthaya sky.

We took our time as we walked alongside the three chedis that stood imposingly in the center of the complex. Despite being built in the 14th century, the chedis still showed incredible detail in their design. The complex included ruins of old temples and halls, all enclosed by a border wall.

Nearby Wat Phra Si Sanphet is Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit, a modern Buddhist temple. Unfortunately, the temple was closed for renovations (this was a frequent occurrence for us, as we were visiting in the off-season). We took some time to rest, apply sunscreen and plan our next steps. We created a route around the city that would allow us to at least ride past some of the recommended sites. What we did not expect was that the map given to us by our bike rental place would not be to scale. The route we planned was much longer than we wanted it to be, and we missed several places that we planned to see. One thing we did come across was our first exposure to elephants. There was a herd of around eight or so elephants at Khun Phaen’s residence, each with a mahout lounging in a saddle on its back.

With the sun beating down on us, the temperature rising, and the traffic becoming worse and worse, we decided to continue on our way to Wat Phra Ram. While not the largest of the three complexes that we saw that day, Wat Phra Ram still retained its large central prang, something that Wat Mahathat lost decades ago.

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We really enjoyed the detail of the central prang  at Wat Phra Ram.

While there, we watched a group of schoolkids pass us and begin to climb up one of the four sets of stairs that led to the doors of the central prang. Not understanding a word that they said to each other, we enjoyed watching local children play in the centuries-old structure that had such strong significance long ago. They yelled at us in English as we snapped pictures of them and waved from afar.

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Children playing on the central prang at Wat Phra Ram. They yelled at us in English after we took this picture.

From there, we journeyed on our metal stallions back to the place where they once came. Tired, sunburned, hungry and partially dehydrated, we took the ferry back across the river and found a vendor selling fried chicken wings. We took our bag of chicken and the cold water we found to the train platform and refueled there. After few Chang beers and some happy toast, our train to Bangkok arrived on time. We climbed on board, found a seat next to a sleeping man, and rode in the quiet Thai night back to the country’s largest metropolis.

While exhausted, our night did not end there. We were hungry from our long day, so we decided to stay local for dinner that night. A ten minute walk from our hotel took us to Thipsamai, a local restaurant known for its pad thai. When we arrived, we stepped into the line that extended into the street. Quick service got us into the restaurant about ten minutes later. Our waitress handed us the menu. They were not just known for their pad thai: all they served was pad thai.

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The menu at Thipsamai. Easy and simple! 

While waiting for our food, we noticed that the walls were adorned with American, Australian and British news articles that touted Thipsamai for its original pad thai dish. We looked around, seeing mostly tourists in the shop. We didn’t care: we were tourists, and a good pad thai dish was what we wanted. We shared both dishes and they were completely clean in a matter of minutes.

On our walk back, we were sucked into a small beer shop by an overwhelmingly friendly and outgoing shopkeeper. I can honestly say that I have never seen someone so proud of his or her beer selection. He continually touted his “Thai craft beer” as he pointed to the glass door of the small refrigerator. We checked a few of his bottles, and while they were definitely craft beers that I had never seen before, none of them were brewed in Thailand. Wanting something local, I picked up a Leo from the selection. His face dropped as I placed the lager on the counter. Thank goodness Chelsea was there with me and picked something from one of the shelves which he had been referring to. This picked his spirits back up as we paid, and we walked down the quiet Bangkok street back to the hotel.

…but we didn’t make it back just yet. Feeling positive after our experience with our bottle shop friend, we decided to see Khao San Road during its prime time of 11:30pm. As we grew closer and closer to the street, we saw more drunk tourists stumbling, heard louder house music blaring and rejected more offers for shirts, food and tuk-tuk rides. We turned down the once quiet road that we experienced only two days earlier and found ourselves in an environment that we could not possibly expect. The quiet shops that lined the streets had transformed into bars. The street that saw scooter and car traffic by day now was flooded by bleary-eyed, drunk youths. At first we enjoyed the transformation, watching extremely drunk hooligans stumble from one side of the street to another. As time went on, however, we became less and less entertained by the ever increasing crowds. We strolled along Khao San Road and another sister street nearby, though quickly made our way back to our hotel for safety: hearing the seventh man yell “ping pong show” in our faces and making popping sounds with his mouth was enough for us.

 


1- “Table 1 Population by sex, household type and household by type, average size of private household by region and area: 2010”. Statistic tables, NSO website. National Statistics Office. Retrieved 18 September 2012.

2- NYC Pop: Community Facts for New York city, New York, United States Census Bureau. Accessed May 26, 2017.

Bangkok

Day 2

It is difficult waking up in a new time zone at 9:45am, when your body is accustomed to 10:30pm. The mental grogginess is somewhat overwhelming, and physically your muscles do not move with any type of coordination. Your bed, which is an automatic upgrade from an 18.3-inch wide airplane seat, is incredibly more enticing than it normally would be at home. The air conditioning, which keeps out the extreme mugginess and heat of a Thai morning, makes you even less excited to leave your bedroom.

But, what makes this all easier is knowing that you have a complimentary breakfast at your hotel, which ends promptly at 10:00am. It was this fact that rushed Chelsea and I out of our beds and downstairs to the garden of our hotel.

Our stay at the Baan Dinso Hotel included a complimentary breakfast each morning, something which we made sure to take advantage of.  There were three options on the menu: an egg and meat dish (Western option), a prawn soup (Eastern option) and a vegetable spread (Vegan option). Our standard go-to during our stay at the hotel was the egg and meat dish, which was definitely satisfying, though I did try the prawn soup one morning which was still delicious.

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That is a super tired smile.

We took our time eating breakfast and pulled out our customized Google map on the laptop. While sipping our tea and coffee we strategically planned our morning events, knowing that we would have to move quickly from one place to another to avoid missing any sites before they closed. Sometime during our planning session, we were joined by a seemingly friendly and lethargic cat, who later revealed his unfriendly, food-seeking nature.

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He looked like a Henry, even though that is an incredibly un-Thai name.

As the day was planned and we realized that it was reaching 11:00am, Chelsea and I quickly finished breakfast and readied ourselves for the day. Our first step was to buy a sim card for the mobile hot-spot device that we decided to bring. We asked one of the employees at the hotel where we could buy one and she told us that Khao San Road would be our best bet. We took our packs and off we went.

Khao San Road is a stretch of about four blocks that transforms from an urban market by day to a crazed and well-traveled party spot at night. We experienced the former on our first venture out into Bangkok, and were quickly exposed to possible problems with the language barrier. We entered into a familiar-enough 7-Eleven at the recommendation of the Baan Dinso employee. Chelsea and I desperately struggled to select the correct sim card for our needs, eventually settling on the 8 Day Tourist option. From there, the 7-Eleven employee working with us then began working on registering the card. He rejected the hot spot when we offered it to him, explaining several times in Thai and in English that he needed a cell phone to get the sim card registered. Red in the face and somewhat nervous, we stepped away from the register and fumbled through our day packs for any cell phone. After what felt like hours of trying to get the sim card out of my phone, we returned to the register and offered the device to our hopeful savior. He looked at the phone, then looked at us, and finally rang up the sim card and asked for payment. We gave him the Baht he requested, then he turned to the next customer in line for servicing. Taking our tiny plastic card with us, we decided to get on with our day and figure the technology out later.

Walking through Bangkok as a foreigner is an experience in and of itself.  In the land of Thais, Chelsea and I stood out like a sore thumb. Stepping outside of 7-Eleven, we were bombarded with requests for taxis, tuk-tuks, clothing, purses, food… Wanting to be polite, we calmly addressed each petition as it came, as we knew where we wanted to go and how to get there. One man approached us for a tuk-tuk ride, explaining that he could show us all around the city. After our first rejection, he maintained the smile on his face as introduced himself as a Columbian transplant to Bangkok. He wanted to show us how to get to our next destination quickly, and offered to do so for free by foot. Chelsea and I never really said yes, we just continued to walk in the same direction in which we were originally going. He walked quickly ahead of us, turning from time to time to chat quickly about a Wat or our own personal lives. We deviated slightly from the path that we laid out on our map, and he quickly ushered us into a travel agent store before shaking our hands and leaving. A friendly woman greeted us as we entered, and took us to a desk where another smiling woman asked us about our travel plans. With our Colombian guide gone and our first breath taken after entering, we realized that this may be some sort of a tourist scam. We explained that we intended to go to Chiang Mai after Bangkok, and had no plans after that. The seated woman, offering little information, explained that she could help us purchase our tickets to and lodgings in Chiang Mai. My mind raced during this time: what would make a salesman walk 20 minutes with a couple of tourists to a travel agent? Why did this woman offer to purchase something for us every time we mentioned a new thing that we wanted to do? After a few moments, I finally realized that we were most likely in the middle of a scam: the travel agency books tickets, lodgings or events for tourists at higher than normal prices, and our Colombian friend receives a small kickback for his service of bringing the tourists there. “We actually have everything purchased that we need already, so thank you for your offer.” I replied confidently to the woman behind the desk, just before watching her smile quickly turn into a disappointed and misunderstood frown. Chelsea and I quickly made our way out the doors, while the other employees there asked us about our travel plans. We didn’t look back.

We set our sights on a dock called Tha Tien, intending to take a ferry across the Chao Phraya River to see Wat Arun. We wandered through a few tiny streets, eventually stumbling on a checkpoint where we had to show our bags and our passports. We complied, as the guards there were friendly and seemed to want us to go through. We collected our belongings and continued, only to realize that the checkpoint was the way into the Grand Palace compound, the de jure residence of the King of Bangkok. The fortified complex is surrounded by four enormous walls, which Chelsea and I followed until we found the entrance. Once inside the walls, we understood why this was one of the most famous tourist sites in Thailand: well groomed grass, Wat Phra Kaew and its Emerald Buddha, gold statues and monuments at each turn, buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries, gorgeous murals, and the palace itself. We spent a few hours in there, reading each of the information placards placed about and even becoming celebrities when another tourist asked if he could take his picture with us!

After the palace, we continued on our way to Tha Tien. A friendly tuk-tuk driver offered to take us to the dock for 10 baht each (about 30 cents) after he takes us to see a giant standing Buddha statue.

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Nothing like a five-story golden Buddha statue on a hot, humid day.

We agreed, mostly because riding on a tuk-tuk was on our bucket list but also because we thought it to be a deal. The driver repeated the offer multiple times throughout the trip, eventually throwing in another place to visit: “Thai fashion.” Neither of us knew what that was, though it all made sense after we arrived at a tailor shop. “John” was our guide at the shop, and he took us into a private room and showed us some lovely pictures and fabrics, offering to make suits, shirts and dresses for us. We politely declined everything, slowly making our way back outside to the tuk-tuk driver while John’s smile grew weaker and weaker. Back in the tuk-tuk, the driver was less talkative than before, and dropped us off at a dock that was farther south than Tha Tien. At this dock, we were greeted by several people offering boat tours around the canals Wat Arun. We told the tuk-tuk driver several times that we did not want to do such a tour, though he decided to drive us there regardless. We found a Chinese couple who had the same misfortune, and who were also looking to take the ferry to Wat Arun. They joined our team and the four of us made headway as we rejected every tailor, masseuse, tuk-tuk driver and ferry captain who offered us a “great deal.” The Chinese couple ended up purchasing a bag of mangoes and the ferry tickets for us. We never did learn their names.

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Chelsea at Wat Arun, sitting at one of the four prangs that surround the larger prang in the center. 

From there things were a slight blur. We did Wat Arun, walked down the river to Wat Pho, then headed back to the hotel for showers and rest. We decided to hit Bangkok’s Chinatown for dinner, hearing that they have a wonderful night market on Yaowarat Road. We walked the 30 minutes through Bangkok streets to get there, and the long walk in the hot, humid weather was worth it. We walked up and down Yaowarat Road, eyes opened wide at the multitude of food options available to us. We called it quits after a fried noodle dish, two Chang beers (the large ones), pepper soup (which is as spicy as it sounds), Thai crepes (aka Khanom Buang), and a rice and pork dish.

Chelsea Noodles Chinatown Bangkok
Yes, that is a cast iron plate and yes, the noodles were crispy on the bottom…

Our walk back to the hotel was slow and strenuous, tired from the day and groggy from the food. We slept well that first night, excited for our second take on Thailand’s biggest city.