Monday morning, Jon and I got up early and headed to the train station. The Bangkok train station is fascinating, full of all kinds of people-- Thais, backpackers, other tourists, and groups of what I could ssume to be Muslim pilgrims or tourists or nomads..... We got on the train, 3rd-class seats, which are benches, basically, but not uncomfortable. While we were waiting to for the train to leave, a little girl kept waving at me and blowing kisses through the window. She was sooo cute.
As the train went though Bangkok, I could see the poorer neighborhoods out the window, houses made of wood and tin that went right up to the tracks. There were many people washing and filling the carts of sliced fruit that we brought on the streets. There were people walking down the tracks, or biking alongside of them.
Then we got into the countryside, where I saw fields and small towns, and small, quaint train stations. Some of the towns were clustered along rivers, and the wooden houses were built on stilts. There were birds in the fields, and I even saw some water buffalo! They were just chilling in a river. Fishermen were throwing nets into the rivers, and boys were swimming.
The Ayutthaya station was small, but surrounded by food vendors and stalls renting bikes for the day. We ate at a hostel...I had amazing basil chicken...mmmmm...and a fresh watermelon shake. Then we took a ferry across the river and rented some bikes from a very helpful woman who gave us a map and showed us a good route to get around town.
We took off down the hot and busy streets of Ayutthaya, surrounded by motorcycles and cars and food carts, but were soon confronted with a very old-looking brick wall surrounding an open area spotted with trees. It was the first compound of ruins we were to visit, th
e ruins of a temple from the 1300s that was destroyed during the Burmese invasion in the late 1500s. The grounds have not been restored, and there are hundred of stone Buddha statues in varying broken-ness, almost all headless. I am still wondering if they were beheaded on purpose during the invasion, since there are some that are in recesses in walls that are intact, there is no real evidence of damage around the statue, just a clean break at the neck.
The temple compound, like the other temple ruins we saw that day, were sprawling grounds of spires, walls and Buddha statues, all made of stone and brick. You could climb up one of the spires and enter the chamber inside, which was small but held some Buddha images which were collecting offerings of incense and flowers. There were steep and narrow stairs inside that led down into a small chamber whose walls were covered in what seemed like gold-leaf paintings. I was a little scared of the stairs. I do, remember, have an irrational fear of descending stairs. :)
After a few temples, we decided to go out in search of the elephant kraal, which was where they used to keep the royal elephants, and we had heard that there were still elephants there to see, maybe doing the rumored painting or soccer-playing. We followed our rough map over the river and down a winding road surrounded by palm trees and Thai houses, more and more into the country. Right when we were about to give up, thinking we had missed a turn or something beca
use we found ourselves almost in the middle of nowhere, I caught the scent of elephant in the air. For your next question, I have no idea why I can smell identify the smell of elephant, I can't have possibly smelled it many times in my life. I did ride one once, when I was r
eally young, and I remember multiple circuses with elephants in my past... but whatever the reason, I was sure I caught a whiff of elephant. So, we kept going, and maybe 100 yards down the road and around a curve we found the old kraal. It was just an empty courtyard surrounded by whitewashed walls with a pagoda in the middle, but from the observation area on the walls, we could see elephants in the distance behind the kraal. So, got back on our bikes and headed in that direction.
I don't like to think too much about what we saw, but I think it needs to be said. What we found was an elephant farm/training center/whatever that did not take good care of its elephants. At first it seemed nice, but when we got closer, it got a little more sketchy. First of all, I think it was one of those places that tour groups take you, or that you sign up to stay at on the internet, because there was a group of Westerners in matching t-shirts learning how to prepare the elephant food. It didn't seem to be a walk-up place, but there was nothing that told us to keep out, so we parked our bikes and wandered up.
The first bad sign was a literal sign near where we parked our bikes that advised us to only take photos with a license. Strange, eh? Then we saw that all the elephants were chaine
d up to a corral-looking place, with only a few feet of chain, and were all struggling t
o walk forward but couldn't. The baby elephants were walking around, but the young men/boys that were obviously supposed to be taking care of them were kicking or hitting them. We saw one boy kick a baby elephant in the face. They looked healthy...well, as far as we can tell about elephants, i.e. they weren't really skinny and they didn't have visible welts. But we got right out of there. It didn't seem like a place we wanted to be, though I did wonder about the group of tourists...if they were bothered by what was going on, and how they could be a part of it.
Upon our return to the city, we found the royal palace and the temple next to it. It was getting late in the afternoon, and there were crowds of people at the temple and rows o
f vendors around it, selling souvenirs and, of course, food. Let me take this moment to point out that this was Chinese (lunar) New Year. Many Thais have Chinese heritage, and the Chinese New Year was a big holiday. This temple had a HUGE golden Buddha inside, which was really awesome but we didn't get to see up close because there were people worshipping inside and swarming up and down the stairs, and I didn't want to get in the way.
After some more wandering around the grounds, and seeing people taking elephant rides and Thai families playing in the grass, we headed back to return our bikes. We got some dinner from a street cart and headed to the train station to wait for the train. My basil chicken, unfortunately, turned out to be waaay too hot to eat (even Jon couldn't eat it...I thought I was going to die after a few bites), but my pastry-pancake thing with condensed milk drizzled o
ver it was great.
Some of the best times I had in Thailand were waiting for public transportation, or riding it. That train station was full of life and people, and it was a nice place to sit and people watch as the sun went down. The ride home was great, at least the second half. The train was very crowded, so we had to stand. About an hour in, I got really dizzy from dehydra
tion and, though I caught the signs early and bought and drank a bottle of water, I still had to go get some fresh air in-between the cars. For a while I just leaned against the wall, and I quickly felt better, but the doors were wide open and the stairs were just asking to be sat on. Jon was brave enough to go first, but after I realized that there was plenty of room and guard rails to hang onto, after Jon told be he had seen other people sitting in the doorways on the train, and after I realized that I don't often fall forward while I'm sitting down, I sat on the top step, far from the edge, and watched the world go by outside. It was beautiful. It was dark, and you could see the lights from all the houses go by, and feel the cool breeze in your face. The tracks were smooth, but once we got back into Bangkok they got a little rough, so I got scared and stood back up.
Like I said, it was Chinese New Year, so Jon and I decided to go to Chinatown
when we got back. We walked from the train station, and after getting a little lost, we found Chinatown packed to the brim with people, almost all in red clothes. The temples were lit up and decorated, people were lighting incense and monks were sitting at tables selling...something? Incense? And there were other monks serving food under big white tents.
The streets were packed, and there wer
dragon parades that you couldn't even see until they got right next to you. There were booths everywhere, and a stage with Chinese dancers. Mostly, though, it was mass insanity, and we left after not too long, since I got tired of trying to get through the crowd while guarding my camera bag. We made the mistake of getting a tuk-tuk (the taxi-like things with open backs, like a motorized carriage) on the opposite side of Chinatown than our hostel, so it took a while to drive through it (our driver clearly decided going around wasn't worth it and drove right through the middle of the madness). It was a good thing we had negotiated the price before we got in.
Back at the hostel, I showered off all the dust and sweat that had accumulated during the day, and fell right asleep, exhausted after a wonderful day.