Saturday, October 30, 2010

“Suffer Lonesome Living in the Forest”

For more pictures from today’s adventures, please click on the album to the right called “Thailand: Ayutthaya.”

On Friday, Jeff and I met Surin, the guide from a few days before, at our hotel in the morning. We had scheduled the day with him to go to Ayutthaya and see the ruins of the ancient capital city of Thailand. At 8:30am we were out the door and on our way. Surin told us that it would take about an hour and a half to get to Ayutthaya and that we had a few stops to make on the way.

IMG_0720 Our first stop was an art school started by the Queen in the late 20th century, in order to preserve Thai crafts and to train people into an occupation. Today, as Surin told us, people must apply and it is difficult to get in. We walked around and since it wasn’t a weekend, we were the only tourists there. It was pretty incredible: glasswork, woodwork, metalwork, weaving, sewing, all sorts of crafts each had their own section of the vast compound. We saw several people working in the stained glass area on individual projects. Some of the students were young, maybe high school age (15-18), but others were older. Some were handicapped and some were not. There seemed to be a real mix. Surin spoke to several of them to find out where in Thailand they were from, proving to us that students came from all over the country.

IMG_0729 One of the most impressive shops was the weaving area. Not only were there huge looms for cloth sewing, but a room just for basket weaving with – I think – bamboo. We watched how they stripped pieces until they were as thin as thread but still stiff; weaved, with just their hands and maybe a hook like a skinny crochet hook, to pull strands around and through other strands; and created amazing works of art (purses, baskets, hats, small containers and large ones too) using different colored woods. One woman was working on a small enclosed container and there were so many different “threads” that I couldn’t even imagine how she could create patterns as she was doing. It was really amazing and made me reflect that I don’t often even consider how things are made. I just see a product and don’t think about the fact that someone made it, possibly with just their own two hands and nothing else. Pretty cool!

It’s an incredible social project. If selected, a person comes and is paid a small sum each day and given free room and board. When their six or seven month training period is over, they have a craft and an accredited or well-known school name to cite as their background training, and so are immediately employable. The grounds were pretty and as I said before, pretty big. Included on the grounds were the lodgings of the Queen for when she visited, a huge, beautiful building housing two huge showrooms of the best work to come from the school, and another showroom of goods for sale.

IMG_0734 There was also a separate part of the grounds that was a lake, surrounded by examples of Thai architecture from all over Thailand. We went into one house, climbing up since it was on stilts, and seeing how each room was a separate building surrounding a central, open air area. Surin assured us it was representative only of a very rich person’s home, but it was still fascinating. This part of the Queen’s project reminded me of Williamsburg, where you can go to see colonial-style buildings and foods and goods. The same kind of feel went with these houses and I could just imagine a flood of tourists and locals coming through to enjoy the beautiful grounds.

Tourists have the option of buying from the individual showcases in each craft’s work area or from the main showroom. I wasn’t clear, but my assumption was that buying the student’s work was like buying from an apprentice as opposed to a “certified” artist, and this assumption was supported by the fact that I bought two glass elephants for 60 baht ($2) direct from the glasswork workroom and it would have cost quite a bit more from the main showcase.

IMG_0739 After Jeff and I made a few purchases, we were off to Ayutthaya and lunch. Surin had chosen a very specific route to drive, however, and so it took a bit longer than Jeff and I had expected. It was completely worth it, however, because we saw – as Surin had hoped – the effects of the flooding, firsthand. The temples, homes, cars, shops, restaurants… all under several feet of water. We saw areas that had been sandbagged, but the water submerged them. Even the road had been blocked off, so that IMG_0743 there were actually three bodies of water: to the west, flooding from the river; the road was it’s own stream of muddy water; and to the east, a dam had been opened so there was a lake where no lake had ever been before, and it went on and on and on. We saw roofs  go by, not floating but just peaking out above the waters. People had gotten plastic boats to row themselves to and from their homes. There were homes that had obviously been built on stilts to protect from the annual flooding, but IMG_0744 even the elevated parts were underwater.

We passed many people wading through the water, some up to their chins, doing who knows what. Some were swimming, others seemed to be gather up items washed away, one lady was even washing her dog. It’s hard to remember, sometimes, that natural disasters have victims who keep on living and struggling long after the TVs and newspapers have tired of blaring the bad news of their situation. We drove for about an hour through flooded areas, sometimes having to wait as a vehicle, stalled out, was pulled out of a particularly deep section of road. At one point, a Buddhist monk was working his way off a little plastic boat – much like the saucers that Walmart sells as sleds – and Surin stopped and offered him a ride. The monk took him up on the offer and we drove him about half a mile down the road to where he departed and headed towards the flooded temple there.

After this hard look at reality, Surin took us to a roadside sit-down food vendor and ordered us up some noodle soup. Jeff got the spicy one, which while not crazy spicy was the kind of spicy that just heats up your mouth and doesn’t cool off. I got a beef one. For 30 baht apiece, or $1, we ate our fill.

Next up was Wat Yai Chai Mongkol, where there is a reclining Buddha and several huge chedi (or stupas).

IMG_0760 There was also a part of the temple where there were several Buddha images and along one side, several poses of the Buddha with a flame in front of each. Surin explained that depending on the day of the week you were born, the Buddha was in a specific pose. In this same place, you could make a donation and received an open canister filled with sticks, which you shook while kneeling in front of the Buddha shrine area. If you shook it a certain way, one stick would work its way out and fall to the ground. You then looked at the number on the stick and used it for whatever purpose you had in mind; some people, Surin told us, would use the numbers for their lottery tickets, which is a big thing in Thailand. In our case, however, we went to the back part of the shrine and took a piece of paper corresponding to our number, and read our fortune from it. Mine was a little depressing:

“Just like an unmated dove, life seems cheerless and sorrowful. No one pays attention. Suffer lonesome living in the forest. Good fortune is not in sight. Lose favor with friends and relatives. Beyond this year, long happiness approaches. Legal case is not defensible. Wait for favorable circumstances before making decisions. Better not rush.”

Oy! I guess my face reflected my dismay at reading my fortune, because Surin reassured me that this was just for fun. Still! Lonesome living in the forest?! I say again: oy!

Well, we walked a bit more around Wat Yai Chai Mongkol and Jeff and I climbed to the biggest chedi there to see a few more Buddha statues inside and surrounding it. Along the outside square, life-size stone Buddhas sat all along the wall, each with his own yellow cloth draping his body.

IMG_0776 Our next stop was a bit of a surprise as well: an elephant park! That’s the best name I can come up with, anyway. There were maybe eight elephants, most adults but a few young ones as well, just wandering the area where were were sitting or walking. Surin bought a basket of fruit and we got to hand this to the elephants, who took it in their trunks. We actually saw an elephant drinking from a Coke can through a straw! It was pretty amazing being around these huge animals as they just roamed around. Some were in an area with ladders, all decked out in finery and awaiting tourists to give rides to. We didn’t end up doing this, but it looked like fun!

IMG_0786Just nearby was Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit, were there’s a huge Buddha statue housed. Jeff and I walked in to take a look and admired the fact that this Buddha was preserved from several hundred years ago, although restored several times since then. When Surin joined us after parking the car, we wandered over to the adjacent park, which was the runs of Wat Phra Si Sanphet. There are still the three massive chedi there; each houses ashes of an Ayutthayan king.

We walked around here quite a bit, exploring the ruins of the ancient royal palace. In case you didn’t know (and as I learned), Ayutthaya was the capital of the region from 1350 to 1767, when it was attacked and torched by the Burmese. What remains is reminiscent of Greece, to me, with its temples and partial stone statues. There are eroded walls and statues. Surin pointed out many stone Buddhas which had been purposely beheaded or otherwise desecrated by the Burmese. Some areas were still recognizable as common features of a royal palace, such as the ordination hall. Nothing remained of the hall itself besides foundation stones and some steps and wall fragments, but there were still recognizable marble tablets at each corner, which signifies the ordination hall.

IMG_0789 I think it was there that we found the puppies. There must have been a dozen little guys, yipping and whimpering and being very cute-puppy-ish. They were all on an elevated pedestal, peering over the edges or playing or curling up. We spent probably ten or fifteen minutes petting and playing with them, before assuring ourselves that they could get down by themselves and that their mother was somewhere around.

IMG_0809Next, and lastly, we headed to Wat Phra Mahathat, which had once been one of Ayutthaya’s most important temples, with high prang (towers) and a huge compound. It’s all in ruins now, although some of the smaller towers remain in ruined fashion, leaning precariously. One of the neatest things here, besides seeing how sunset was making everything take on a whole different hue, was a stone Buddha’s head that was somehow  encased in a banyan tree’s roots. It’s pretty creepy, especially because the Buddha and the banyan tree have significance in relation to each other (I think he was sitting under it when he achieved enlightenment, according to Buddhist belief).

After this day of seeing ruin, both current and historical, and experiencing Ayutthaya, it was time to head back. Surin did not take us back through the flooded area, opting for a cleared highway instead, and we got back to our hotel around 7pm. We said good-bye to Surin, nabbing another if his business cards so that we could recommend him to others. Hey, if anyone’s planning on coming to Bangkok, let me know – Surin is a fun tour guide full of good information and interesting, off-the-beaten-path places to experience. His prices are good and his heart is too. When asked, he gave us his perspective on the current political situation, which I only partially understood, but it was fascinating nevertheless.

After relaxing in the cold hotel room for a bit, and satisfying our computer addictions, Jeff and I headed out for massages at Body Tune again. We both got one hour traditional Thai massages, which consisted primarily of stretching every part of our bodies. I liked it, although it was a far cry from the type of massages I’ve experienced in the US. I felt more limber and stretched, though, which felt really good. And it cost something like $10 or $15! Afterwards, we meandered back through Patpong, determined to see some of the not-seedy nightlife. We picked a restaurant on the street with many ethnic choices and each picked a Thai dish. I don’t recall what we got, but I know we both enjoyed our meals. We each had a glass of wine with our meal and watched the people passing by, taking guesses and which ladies might be lady-boys.

We switched to a different place more central to the area and each got a mixed drink, for the purpose of continued people watching. It was fun, although one image stays with me that is not a pleasing one: just below us on a crowded sidewalk filled with tables and people, were two older, portly white men and, between them, an incredibly young looking Asian boy. Now he may have been in his high teens or low twenties, but I can’t believe he was any older than that. He looked slightly pained and out of his depth, as one of the men patted his knee a few times, or rest his hand on the kid’s thigh. He smiled and nodded and spoke when spoken to, but otherwise looked subtly terrified. Maybe Jeff and I were reading the situation wrong, but it really seemed as if this was a situation where the kid had been ‘hired’ by the two men. It made my stomach go into my throat and I tried to think of a way to extricate the guy from the situation, but before my plan was formulated, they all got up and walked away down the street, one of the white guy’s arms around the young man’s shoulders.

After that, we decided to head back to the hotel. It was pretty late – maybe one or two in the morning – so we couldn’t take the sky train. I convinced Jeff to take a tuk-tuk with me. Tuk-tuks are the open-air, three wheeled dealies driven ruthlessly through traffic. We were pretty close to our hotel, so it was only about ten minutes of exciting, frightening and fast weaving through traffic before we stumbled into the hotel and, exhausted, fell asleep.



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