We had always meant to visit it but never got around to it: Ayutthaya.
The remains of the ancient city state which in the course of its 4 centuries of existence (from the 13 to 17th centuries) gave birth to the Thai culture and nation.
Situated north of the ever expanding mega city of Bangkok, Ayutthaya was one of the best known tourist attractions in Thailand. It was easily reached by organised groups on a day trip.
To be sure, there wasn’t much left of that ancient capital. Like many of the towns and cities built in Asia during in the past, most of Ayutthaya’s buildings and houses were constructed of wood. These were burnt down in the last days of Ayutthaya when it was conquered by a Burmese army. The monasteries and stupas however, built of brick and mortar or carved stone, survived.
They were only relics remaining from the once flourishing metropolis.
Like so many great cities which arose in the pre-industrial era, water played a crucial role in the rise of Ayutthaya – in distant Europe, Venice and Amsterdam being two striking examples of this.
Lying on the confluence of three rivers which flowed into the Gulf of Siam, it became a major trading centre as an increasing number of European ships – from Portugal, Spain, Italy, England and Holland appeared.
Prosperity led to wharves, roads, buildings and monasteries being built. The city state was ruled by a Royal Family and the society was rigidly hierarchical. Religion and dynastic rule went together. As Ayutthaya grew in prosperity, it became a magnet drawing people from far and wide and also, a major military power able to field huge armies. At the same time, it became the birth place of a culture and identity which later formed the foundation of the Thai nation. If there had never been an Ayutthaya, there would never have been a Thailand. And so too, one can also surmise that the legacy of Ayutthaya – dynastic rule by a Royal Family backed by the army and supported by an institutionalized Buddhist hierarchy – might not also have formed the negative legacy of that ancient empire. Thai identity was created in a crucible of obedience and subjugation underpinned by religiously condoned fatalism on the part of the mass of workers and farmers.
We finally got to visit the ruins of Ayutthaya as a result of visiting a friend in the city of Khon Khan in the north east of Thailand; from there, we took the bus to the town of Phrar Nakong, a town situated near the ruins. This gave us the advantage of being able to visit the ruins in the early hours of the morning, when it was cool; the organised tourist groups who came from Bangkok generally didn’t arrive until around 10am (by which time it was hot and the ruins blasted by the powerful tropical sun).
We had expected Phrar Nakong to have a tourist area, with hotels and tourist orientated restaurants. Surprisingly this was not the case; it was a genuine Thai town. Perhaps because most tourists visited Ayutthaya from Bangkok on a day trip. But also, and this was something we didn’t realise until we spent our last day in Bangkok – tourism was a long way from its old pre-Covid levels. The Asian nations in general (China simply being the most extreme example) have been very slow to ease their border restrictions – a stark contrast indeed with Europe. Even during our visit to Thailand, everyone was wearing masks.
Walking around the suriving relics of a once large city state, I wondered about how people experienced their lives then. Happiness I imagine, was not a relevant concept then; this is a modern invention. Life was about survival and the acceptance of one’s lot. A sense of fatalism was reinforced by a Buddhist hierarchy – and in modern Thailand, I tend to see the very same forces at work.
At the same time, I reflected on the story of Ayutthaya which unfolded over the course of 4 centuries – an unbelievably long time measured against the standards of our modern times in which change is the only constant. Yes, we are living in an unprecedented time, which is why it is necessary for us to revisit places and times long buried under the sands of time and re-imagine how it was, how people lived and experienced their lives.