Ayutthaya and the Wedding

December 23, 2006

The rattling train hadn't kept me awake. The second class train was mostly empty and the seats were large with plenty of leg room, as if they had been designed for farang rather than Thai. I was the only farang in the car, the rest Thai. In the sleeper car, just in front of us, were lots of farang, crowded into tight sleeper berths for quite a bit more money. Given the swaying of the train, I didn't see the sense in a sleeper. Then again, I had Sangsom to nudge me off to dreamland. The sun had risen and the day was beginning to warm, a feature I hadn't had to worry about since leaving Phitsanulok. Chiang Mai is several thousand feet above the sea and the temperature was quite pleasant. Ayutthaya is down in the plains and I might actually sweat once more. This being my most serious problem, I decided that life was most definitely good. When the train slowly clanked to a stop at Ayutthaya, I hopped out and went in search of food, for I had not eaten for 16 hours.

Across from the train station was the normal collection of street stalls and I found an old woman who made me a particularly nice plate of khao paht khai for 20 B, which I ate while a romantic Thai couple tried their best not to see me. Well fortified, I walked into the street and flagged down a tuk-tuk for a lift to the Riverview Place Hotel, which was where the farang for the wedding were staying. Wallapak had given me a piece of paper, written in Thai, with the name and location of the place, but the driver didn't seem to know where it was and wanted rather a lot of baht for the short ride (or so I thought) to it. Deciding to save 50 cents and see a bit of the city, I struck out on my own.

The money saved was well worth it. After walking five minutes down the road, I crossed the Chao Praya (the same Chao Praya that I had been on in Bangkok) on a high bridge and spotted the high rise building of the River View Place. The day was hot and the air thick, but Ayutthaya spread out like a miracle in front of me. Everywhere I looked I could see a wat or monument of sorts. Standing on a bridge, gazing, doing nothing, I realized the sad truth that if a foreigner of the "wrong" nationality (or, rather, of the "wrong" appearance) did the same thing on a bridge in the States, they might attract some unwanted attention from a government body. The Thai didn't seem to have the same fears that we do.

I was hot and sweaty when I reached the hotel, whose door had something called a doorman, who smiled at me as strolled into the airconditioned lobby. Men in suits and women in dresses were behind the counter, smiling and speaking to me in excellent English as I tried to check in. I wasn't sure if I would even be let in. The well dressed guests, the immaculate staff (I was in love with a woman in red dress already), these things were not what I was used to. However, I was handed a key and was allowed on an elevator sporting a "No Durian" sign, which delighted me to no end.

The room was cavernous. The approximate size of my apartment back in Washington, it was in every other way superior. Hardwood floors instead of my dreary brown carpet. A porch high enough up so that I could sit and see the monuments of Ayutthaya instead of my neighbors windows. A kitchen with marble counters instead of my 1970s vintage plastic. When I found out later how much it cost, I almost wept. Not at the expense, but rather the lack of it.

I was eagerly anticipating meeting up with my friends, but didn't know how to contact them or even if they had yet arrived. John and Tamara were coming from Cambodia. Volker and Jane from Laos. Chad and Lori from Sri Lanka. Kevin was coming from Los Angeles, Mark was somewhere in Thailand, Mike and Wallapak the same. I was just as eager to see something of Ayutthaya and so unpacked quickly and set out for a stroll through town, not especially caring where I went so long as I went.

I buried myself in the dense market place, filled with smells that I could only describe as primal. The drying fish. The freshly butchered meat. The lemongrass. The barbequing squid. Jammed with people, including a few farang, the market was a delight. This was the living present and not the ancient past. This was a place that I couldn't experience through a guidebook or a photoalbum or a website. I had to be here to get this. Eventually overpowered, I left for the quieter grounds of the street, walking in the direction of a large wat complex that my guidebook told me was only a few kilometers away.

Wat Ratburana was one of the many ruins in Ayutthaya. The former capital (before the Burmese sacked it in the 18th century) was itself a UNESCO World Heritage site. Wat Ratburana reminded much of the ruins at Sukhothai, but with a more human feel. The headless Buddhas (the Burmese again) didn't detract from this.

The wat was next to another wat, and that next to another and another, just like Sukhothai. Unlike that place, Ayutthaya had people living in it, a life to it.

I wandered through the grounds, climbing up and down the steep staircases, thinking about where my friends were and what sort of stories they would have for me. I parked myself on a ledge and sat in the beauty, waiting for the light to get a bit more interesting, waiting until my friends could be found.

I waited as patiently as I could for the sun to dip lower into the hazy air of the plains, but I could not wait long enough. I had to find my friends. I worked with what I had and made rapid strides in the direction of the Riverview.

While the prospect of finding my friends tore me away from the early evening light at Wat Ratburana, I couldn't pass up a night market just beginning to get going. And in the night market I found a woman pounding up some som tom, which I definitely couldn't pass up. The blazingly hot salad, exploding in chiles and lime, was going to be sorely missed when I returned to the land of iceberg lettuce with ranch dressing. I rang Wallapak via a pay phone next to the market and we made plans to meet up shortly, as they were just getting ready to leave Bangkok, a short drive to the south.

I picked up a few bottles of Singha on the walk back and settled in to my room at the Riverview to watch the sunset from my porch overlooking Ayutthaya. If I had to wait, I might as well watch the sunset in the warm air, trying not think about how cold and wet it was back home. The sun sank, the beer was finished, and my eyes closed for a short nap as I waited. An waited. And waited. It seemed like an infinitely long time before I heard from Wallapak again. They were, she assured me, almost there. Only another half hour. My eagerness was beginning to cause a rupture in my guts, but when I saw the familiar shaved head of Volker in the parking lot, everything was right once again.

A few hours later all were gathered and my body hurt again, though this time from near constant laughter at the various adventures and misadventures of my friends. Of course, this was aided by copious quantities of Singha, karaoke, mounds of food, and a sense of being at home, of being with friends, of being with family. I couldn't remember anytime in recent memory when I had felt so comfortable, so peaceful, so happy. If attachment is the price of happiness, perhaps it is a burden worth bearing.

I could feel the Singha still flowing in my veins when I stumbled down to breakfast in the morning. A bowl of fried rice with the magic stuff (bird chili in fish sauce with lime and garlic) woke me right up and had me feeling almost healthy. At least, it did until I drank down six cups of coffee while talking with various people. A fleet of tuk-tuks took us out to the elephant park, which was not where the guidebook said it was. Instead of being on the outskirts of town, it was inside the historical park itself.

Feeling queasy, I declined to ride a pachyderm and instead milled about with Volker, Jane, and Lori as the others went on the swaying ride.

Herding fourteen people together into a walking tour of the old palace and Wat Phra Si Sanphet proved to be a bit challenging. But I wasn't really tracking what I was seeing. It wasn't the crowds of Thai schoolchildren in their uniforms, running here and there. Nor was it the distraction of the hot day. Rather, I was there with friends, and my concentration was on them.

It wasn't that the wat wasn't amazingly beautiful, or that I was wat-ed out this early in the day. I hadn't really realized how isolated I had been on this trip until strolling through the wat.

It was why, I realized, I had grasped on so tight to Flora in Chiang Mai. I didn't have to cling tightly now. My friends were not going anywhere fast and I'd see them again in Vancouver anyways. For now, I could simply enjoy my time with them. The fact that were were in Thailand was just a bonus. A fabulous bonus, admittedly.

I lived separate from them, divided by an international boundary, but well within reach over a weekend. It was the time when stuck in town by myself, cut off from the backcountry by weather or laziness, and alone in my apartment, that I felt their absence most intensely.

Having people that understood me, that I trusted with everything I had, including my life at times, was something I cherished. I just wished I had access to them regularly, instead of monthly. The ability to simply meet up for lunch, or for a drink, or to grill some meat on a back porch with a view of the mountains. Day-to-day things, rather than a whirlwind weekend trip.

The parental units and most of the others packed themselves into tuk-tuks for the ride back to the hotel and a nap before the evening festivities. Mike, John, Kevin, and I however decided to stroll leisurely back, as there was no great rush, nothing important to be done for a while, and walking in Thailand, at least during the "cool" season, is rather pleasant.

Rather than heading directly back to the hotel, we instead wandered into the downtown area of Ayutthaya, near the market I had visited yesterday, and found a little cafe where plates of succulent squid and other delicacies were had. Mike, a squid lover, dug into the yam plaa muk, a spicy salad made of barbequed squid, chilis, and lime, and started turning bright red, sweat rolling off of him. I happily munched away on the same dish.

"You're getting old, Mike."
"Shut up you bastard."

No sooner had we exchanged the tableside conversation than I began sweating profusely as well. It seems that the Thai bird pepper is unique amongst chili peppers in its heat delivery. I had been experiencing this in Thailand and should have known better, but I never passed up a chance to taunt Mike. The heat from the bird pepper grows slowly, beginning as a sort of itch, a sign, and building in fury, like looters in a riot, until a sort of volcanic state exists. The salad was very, very good.

The plan for the night was a simple one: All the farang and Wallapak's family were to meet at a riverside restaurant close to the hotel, eat far too much, and swill lots and lots of Singha. Accordingly, after a revitalizing nap, the wedding party convened at said restaurant, just as the sun was lighting the river up with its pink glow.

The plates of food started coming immediately, along with the bottles of beer. Yam plaa muk, of course, came out, along with a glass noodle salad, a whole baked fish, curry in a hollowed out coconut, stir fried water spinach with chilis, a plate of prawns, mounds of food.

A plate of small fish fried and dressed up with a sweet chili sauce was especially good. The small fish had to be (or, rather I had to) eaten by had, the meat sucked off the skeleton in the most primal way possible.

Eventually the food stopped coming as no one could eat any further. But the beer didn't stop flowing. Bottle after bottle of Singha was brought to us by a smiling "lady-boy" working as a waiter. Or waitress, depending on your point of view. He, or she, had a thing for one of the farang, a tall strapping Norwegian. Constant proclamations of love were had, putting the reserved Norwegian off his game, but delighting the rest of us to no end.

All good things must come to an end eventually, and the prospect of a 4am wake-up call finally fought its way through the haze of Singha, driving us back to the hotel and sleep. After all, three hours of sleep was better than none.

My wake-up call came far too early for my Singha-addled body. Moving in a fog, I managed to get into the dress clothes that I had brought across the Pacific, including getting my tie properly wrapped around my neck, and stumbled out into the warm morning air to join the others on a bus that would take us to the wedding. There was no talking, no chatting, only peaceful, deep breathing as everyone fell quite asleep.

The wedding was being held at a crafts center about an hour outside of town. A lovely setting with lakes and flowers and traditional Thai buildings from the different corners of the country. Being a traditional Thai ceremony, I was not able to follow much of what went on over the course of the seven hour wedding.

Monks chanted for quite some time, and we processed here and there, leaving the groom's symbolic home for the bride's. Some not-so-symbolic bribes, involving real money, had to be paid. Some dancing took place before yet another ceremony involving the pouring of water over the hands of the bride and groom by the various attendees of the wedding.

It was with some joy that the wedding seemed to come to a close at 1:30. Not just joy for myself, but Mike and Wallapak both looked exhausted. Rather than having Thai food at a Thai wedding, the wedding banquet was of a Chinese theme, consisting of many excellent courses and finished off with a wonderful bean-coconut desert.

Still feeling the effects of the previous night and this morning's early rising, I happily slept on the bus back to Ayutthaya, and then slept some more back at the hotel before the evening's festivities began. A dinner cruise along the Chao Praya provided a nice, refreshing way to end the day, though every one was looking forward to a good, long sleep.

Despite my best intentions, I couldn't sleep much past 7 am and so found myself with a solitary Kevin at the breakfast table, eating a plate of khao tum kai with fish-chili sauce about three hours earlier than I wanted. As the hours drew on, various people joined us until we had filled three long tables with farang and a few Thai. Mike was very happy that the wedding was finally over and expressed as much. His new bride, looking sheepish, quietly informed him that it wasn't quite done, that there was one last little thing they had to do. Nothing much, Wallapak said. Just plant bananas and sugar cane in the mid day heat.

A large crew was heading to the nearby town of Lopburi to see its famous monkeys and whatever else it could offer. Not wanting to travel much, nor to herd up, I decided to stay in Ayutthaya and spend a mellow day with Mark, Volker, and Jane. Accordingly, as the large group headed to the trainstation, the four of us took a tuk-tuk into town to look for an internet cafe and to browse the market place again. We found internet in the backpackers ghetto section of town, separating as there were not enough computers for all four of us. Volker, Jane, and I were in a guesthouse which featured cheap digs, expensive food and drink, and persistent guides and drivers who wanted to show us the town for what amounted to a small fortune.

We couldn't find Mark again and so set out for Wat Ratburana on foot. As I had been there on my first day in Ayutthaya, I decided to sit in a cafe and have a plate of yam plaa meuk, with a Singha of course, while Volker and Jane saw the sights. We agreed to meet up at Wat Phra Mahathat, just next door, after both of us had finished with our respective activities. Wat Phra Mahathat is famous for a Buddha head set inside of a tree. Or, rather, the tree had grown around the Buddha head.

The wat held more of interest, however, than the Buddha head. Like just about every wat in town, Phra Mahathat featured many headless Buddhas, courtesy of the Burmese when they sacked the place.

However, it also seemed to have a higher concentration of Buddhas-with-head than any other wat in town. Large stone Buddhas, wrapped in golden silk under a pale blue sky, seemed much more appealing at the moment than loud monkeys in Lopburi.

It wasn't that I had anything against monkeys, but rather that I didn't especially want to make monkeys the focus of my day and the cause of a train ride. I didn't want monkeys to be the reason that I trailed along in a large group, forsaking the pleasure of moving at ones own pace for the annoyance at moving with the collective. The three of us were able to mill about until satisfied, then move on.

Looking through the guidebook, there seemed to be an interesting wat on the outskirts of town, but given the heat of the day it seemed a bit far to walk to. As always, there was a small collection of tuk-tuk drivers lounging just outside the walls of the wat, all of whom would be more than willing to drive us to Wat Phu Khao Thong.

Driver 1: "For you, special price. 90 baht." (the price is always special)
Me: "Ah, too much. Short drive." (I have no idea how far away it is)
Volker: "60 baht!" (Neither does Volker)
Driver 2: "Long drive! 100 baht." (Driver 2 is a little unclear on the special price)
Me: "Only two kilometers. 60 baht."(If it was 2K, we'd just walk)
Driver 1: "No, no. Five kilometer." (He's probably right)
Volker: "Five kilometers? 50 baht!" (German precision)

Roars of laughter broke out over Volker's bargaining tactics and reasoning, but the drivers were unmoved in the end to relent. We finally decided that a coin toss would settle the matter. Heads and we paid 70 B, tails we paid 80 B. A coin flip would determine if we had to cough up an extra quarter. None of us could care less about a quarter, but it seemed the right thing to do. Volker tossed the coin and we paid 70.

Wat Phu Khao Thong really was about five kilometers outside of town. Given that I was sweating even while standing still, the ride in the back of the tuk-tuk felt very refreshing. The driver, knowing that we'd need a ride back into town, dropped us off and took a nap in the back of the tuk-tuk, awaiting our return.

The soaring white chedi was distinctly tilted to one side, much like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and was easily the most striking wat that I had been to in Ayutthaya. It was marked on the map of Ayutthaya in my guidebook, but not described at all. Another great place that the authors had left for people to discover on their own, it was completely free to enter.

We climbed the many stairs to the top of the chedi and were afforded a wonderful view of Ayutthaya and the central plains of Thailand, at least those parts that we could see through the thick, hazy air.

After poking around a small temple behind the chedi, which featured a statue that seemed to be either a laughing Buddha or a very happy monk, I left Volker and Jane and strolled out along the long entrance road leading to the wat to look over a monument to the king who was responsible for the construction of the Wat Phu Khao Thong.

An army of roosters decorated the front of the monument. A fleet of life sized ones were commanded by several massive ones taller than me. The rooster is, it seemed, a symbol of royalty, or at least of power, in Thailand.

Along the base of the monument were many iron-relief works featuring various valorous deeds done by the king or perhaps by other giants of Thai history. Some depicted scenes of battle against enemies, others the struggle with the natural environment.

Atop the monument was a ferocious iron statue of the king himself, seated on a charger and brandishing a large spear, protected the wat from whatever dangers might beset it, most likely the Burmese.

Satiated, I returned to the tuk-tuk, passing Volker and Jane on their way to the monument, and sat in the shade drinking a cold can of Beer Chang. This was much nicer, I thought, than monkeys. Beer finished, Volker and Jane back, we paid the driver a bit more to take us on to Wat Chai Wattanaram, which we had seen lit up yesterday night as we cruised along the river.

Flocks of Thai school children ran about the wat, presumably on a field trip. Having been coated in sweat all day long, and being a bit tired from the last few days, it was somewhat surprising that we spent an hour at the wat. We should have been fully wat-ed out. But the beauty of the place was immense, and the light was getting just right, and once the school kids departed there were only a few visitors in the expansive wat. It just felt right to linger for a while longer.

As always, we eventually made our way back to the hotel for a rest and then another dining and beer swilling experience at the restaurant inside the River View. We were together again for one last time in Thailand. Over Wallapak's favorite dishes, we shared our plans for the future, and made some new ones as well.

Chad and Lori were heading to Ko Chang, an island in the Gulf of Thailand, for a few days of lounging on the beach. John and Tamara were heading to Burma for a week before flying back to Vancouver and the start of the school year. Mike and Wallapak were going to honeymoon somewhere, but kept their plans mostly secret. I had planned to head south of Bangkok to the small fishing village of Pradchuap Khiri Khan, where there was nothing to do other than eat what was reported to be the best seafood in Thailand.

As Mike and Volker and Chris (not me, but rather Mike's brother) sang karaoke, including the mandatory Stairway to Heaven, Sandra, Kevin, and I instead made plans to go to Hua Hin, a tourist town with a beach a bit north of the fishing village. I didn't especially want to go to a tourist trap, but my experience in Thailand and thus far shown me that every place has its own charm. Besides, Kevin was a friend and Sandra was proving to be an interesting and able companion. I had almost a week left in Thailand before I, too, had to return to the rainy Pacific Northwest to begin teaching once again. The Springtime was very far from my mind.