Ayutthaya

 

 

David Whitley takes out the context and history in Ayutthaya as he experiments with an ignorance-is-bliss method of getting over temple fatigue 

 

Under normal circumstances, I am a complete sucker for stories and context. I don’t just want to know what something is – I want to know its background, how it got there and what has happened to it since. The why is vitally important.

 


I have found one exception to this, however: Temples.

 


In south-east Asia, you can look through any guide book and temple after temple after temple will be listed in the main attractions. No-one wants to admit it, but this isn’t because every single temple will knock your socks off – it’s because there’s not much else to list and they need to fill space. South-east Asia doesn’t do sight-seeing and museums in nearly the same way that Europe, North America and Australia do. It’s a being destination rather than a doing and seeing destination.

 


Consequently, it doesn’t take long for temple fatigue to set it. See a couple, and the next fifteen are increasingly boring.

 


One way to tackle this is to get context – to either read up on the temples or get a guide who can explain why they were built and go into detail about what individual shrines and carvings mean.

 


I’ve tried this before, and it has had the wrong effect. Instead of making me more interested, it’s made me more bored. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t care about the machinations of long-dead kings, and that I’m not even faintly fascinated by what the engravings and carvings depict.

 


It has felt like a test of endurance, standing and listening to a guide explaining things that bore me rigid. That’s no fault of the guide – it’s just the same thing that would happen if a mechanic tried to tell me how all the bits of a car work or a scientist tried to talk me through DNA sequencing a weasel. They’re just things I’m not interested in, and I’ll die perfectly happy never knowing about them.

 


Ayutthaya is Thailand’s top temple city. The country’s former capital is full of the bloody things and visitor options are generally looking round temples or looking round temples.

 


Taking previous experience into account, I decided to experiment. While I’m sure Ayutthaya has a long, labyrinthine history, it’s one that doesn’t have all that much relevance to modern Thai society. I’m sure there are knowledgeable guides, but that’s not what I wanted. I wanted to look at the temples in complete ignorance. Maybe the way to enjoy looking round them was to completely take them out of context and just appreciate them visually? Stripping the story and context away, and just taking them in as incredible buildings, might offer a different perspective.

 


So we got on a boat. There are a few boat tours of Ayutthaya’s temples available, which generally moor up by three temples to allow you a quick look. The person running the boat tends to have little or no English, and is thus useless as a guide. And that’s exactly what I wanted.

 


First stop was Wat Chaiwatanaram which, from my limited architectural knowledge, bears more than a passing resemblance to Angkor Wat. Unlike at Angkor Wat, however, I had no-one to explain what everything was. It was quite liberating – I could just use my eyes and see what I liked. The ruins are currently under conservation, but I was struck by two things in particular – firstly that the temple was made of red brick – something I don’t associate with this part of the world – and secondly that it’s laid out in a very orderly pattern. This sense of pattern, with one central prang being surrounded by eight flanking towers, is strikingly pleasing to anyone with OCD.

 


The second temple is very meh – lots of fussy, colourful roofs and some statues of former kings on thrones – but the third ends up being utterly fascinating. Wat Phanan Choeng is a mazy riverside complex of buildings, some simple and wooden, some grandly given all the usual sparkly trimmings. As we arrive, a monk is outside, tying up his own boat. This is an active monastery rather than a ruin.

 


The star attraction requires ducking through a few little alleyways to get to and the removal of shoes before entry. The main hall has a small entranceway before you turn right to be faced with an absolutely gigantic Buddha statue. It fills the room that was almost certainly built around it, with the tiered roofs and pillars decorated in what looks suspiciously like Christmas wrapping paper.

 

It looks fantastic – sometimes seeing a bloody big Buddha is all you need. Knowing who made it or why it’s there is of such secondary importance that it’s irrelevant.

 


More to the point, if I’d been listening to a guide drone on about the history and significance of the Buddha, I wouldn’t have walked around the back of it.

 


There, I found an army of women, methodically folding up orange robes like we would do bedsheets from a washing line. The robes were piled high in baskets; an indication of how many the monks must get through. I hadn’t got an insight into the history of the temple – but I had got an intriguing one into the present.

You can get Thailand included as a stopover on your RTW here