Visitors to Thailand, especially those fortunate enough to have multiple visas stamped on their passports, always disembark at Bangkok’s sparkling airport with an air of eager expectation. It’s as if no matter how many visits a foreigner has notched, he expects a pleasant and totally new surprise to be lurking around the corner.
This vibrant, sprawling and often frustrating city has its share of detractors: too crowded and hectic, some say. Others sniff that it lacks refinement, while some look at its traffic and pollution and say that they’ve peeked into a futuristic nightmare where environmental horrors are the norm.
Whenever you hear the city mentioned it’s always about traffic, crowds, smells and above all the excruciating heat. And, of course, no mention of Bangkok can be complete without at least a mention of its red-light district in Patpong and its gay relative in Soi Pratuchai.
Sure. Those lurid topics are part of its existence, but shiny skyscrapers are going up daily, and clean wide avenues are slowly replacing dog-eared streets that still sway to the rhythm of noisy, fume-spewing tuk-tuks and buses.
Bangkok still has a ways to go, but no matter how you slice it, it was, is and will be one of Asia’s premier joys. Still it’s a shame that many will leave without venturing further than its more famous tourist attractions like the splendid Grand Palace and the hotel verandahs along the Chao Phraya River without discovering a tantalizing Thailand that lies impossibly nearby.
One of the most colorful side-trips consists of a jaunt to Ayutthaya, the old Siamese capital, about 50 miles north of Bangkok.
This is a spectacular ruined city that compares favorably with Mexico’s Palenque or Guatemala’s Tikal. It is a wonder in the true sense of the word and reachable by a 4-hour boat ride on the Chao Phraya River or by a 1-hour bus ride from the center of town.
At a cost of about $65, including guide and lunch at a truly local restaurant, Ayutthaya Boat and Travel, a small company with offices spitting distance of the old city, offers enticing bicycle and boat tours of the ruins. The best is a 3-hour guided tour of the sprawling ancient complex that can easily be arranged through Trikaya (trikayatours.com; 866-355-0984) an excellent boutique tour company specializing in all things Thai.
The bicycle tour is a leisurely ride through ruins that still retain their regal mien long after their glory faded into the pages of history.
It’s a joyful, colorful ride winding through open markets where the smells of spices and food mingle with the scent of plumeria growing wild all over the historical site. There’s perhaps no better way to gain a smidgen of Thai history than in this huge complex that was a formidable political and economic force that began blooming around 1350 until it was sacked by invading Burmese in 1767, its residents trampled to death by elephant cavalry.
Presently, Ayutthaya is one of the great remnants of Thai culture and is an obligatory tourist stop, along with Bangkok’s Grand Palace and the aforementioned sex shows.
While bicycling through Ayutthaya, one must keep in mind that this great site was an island-city crisscrossed by canals where superb temples cast their shadows along the banks. The original rulers were peace loving and were overthrown by warlike kings (Lords of Life) from the north in the 14th century.
These were absolute monarchs who ruled with an iron fist, ultra-nationalists, ruthless kings who maintained power through terror.
But what a city they built.
Today, a ride will expose visitors to a blend of architectural delights still mirroring the splendor of by-gone days in ruined temples, spires, long rows of Buddhas and grand structures.
Indeed, pushy postcard vendors and sellers of tacky schlock notwithstanding, Ayutthaya manages to retain a semblance of peacefulness and grandeur.
If the ruins are mind-boggling today, one can only imagine what early British, Dutch and Portuguese traders felt like when they stumbled upon the resplendent capital centuries ago.
They came to hustle spices, teak and hides, but were fortunate enough to see a city unlike any in this part of the world. At is zenith, Ayutthaya was a true world capital and a source of inspiration.