Forgotten Capital: Ayutthaya, Thailand
Ayutthaya is Thailand's secret. More than secret, I venture to say Ayutthaya has simply been forgotten. Once the capital of the Kingdom of Siam, time has forsaken it into oblivion.
Well, maybe I'm exaggerating. Though the odd truth is that it took three trips to Thailand and a couple of empty days in Bangkok in which we constantly asked the Tourism Board what we might do around Bangkok for the reluctant secret of Ayutthaya to be revealed – an architectural treat merely 85 km away. And, when it was finally revealed, emphasis was stressed on the floating market (which is worth a visit too, certainly), rather than the magnificent ruins.
After visiting, I'd usher a word of warning to travelers: Even if time forsook this city, do not neglect it, for it is wonderful. The closest comparison would be the striking temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Certainly not a destination to skip.
fIn fact, Ayutthaya is a wonder for history lovers such as myself. At one point in its history, it was the world's largest city – with a total of 1 million inhabitants in the 18th century! One could even say it was the capital of South Asia, a massive trading post ideally located between China, India and Malaysia.
We can grasp the size by taking into account what has been lost to time. The best way to visit is in a bicycle, pedaling in the sweltering Thai heat from beautiful ruin to beautiful ruin. Most of the remains are temples, since just about everything else had been originally built from wood. And yet there's so much to see – with such a massive amount of temples (and distances between them) the city must indeed have been enormous.
In fact, the Royal Court of Ayutthaya exchanged ambassadors far and wide, including with the French Court at Versailles and the Mughal Court in Delhi, as well as with imperial courts of Japan and China. And to top it all off, King Louis XIV of France's ambassadors compared the city in size and wealth to Paris.
But unlike Paris, and unlike Bangkok, when visiting Ayutthaya, we've got the pleasure of having the place practically to ourselves. The ruins are not concentrated on one spot, but rather spread out, and, as we ride our bike from one complex to the next, we get the feeling we're almost discovering them.
The temples are massive, and Buddha statues are kings of the land. We find them in all shapes and size: lying down, sitting in a meditative position, standing up, clad in colorful cloth that the local population provides.
In this heart of South-east Asia, the jungle is overwhelming. Beautiful and lush, it has claimed parts of the old city, burying the remains in a thick tangle of vines and leaves. Nature meets a decayed human civilization, and the result can be stunning.
I'm not exaggerating when I say it reminds me of a smaller Angkor Wat, particularly Bayon Thom, the Buddhist temple within Angkor Wat. Its tall structures stand elegantly against the cloudy skies, the many Buddhas seem to laugh at some inner joke – perhaps they've found a method to overcome the strain of time. And, maybe, despite being somewhat overlooked, Ayutthaya has also broken free from the count of years. It's not what it must have been at its zenith, but it certainly is a wonder to behold.