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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.