I wonder, as I’m standing looking out over history what the birds might think when they glide over Ayutthaya. Do they notice, as I do, the blatant inconsistencies in the landscape? The scourge of modern man is plain around me, albeit not quite to city extremes. Still ugly multi level buildings mar the horizon with their blockish shadows, and give stone laughs watching trees wither at their feet. Shops with bars on their windows sit row after row at street level, but keeping out or keeping in I cannot say. The fluorescent glory of 24 hour convenience stores are a plague on every corner. Motorcycles and cars beeps and toot and generally forget that inside their metal armour they are nothing but blood and bone.
But there is something else on the horizon too. Something that throws me too even if the birds pay no heed. A series of ancient remains, the fossilised leftovers of a kingdom, a civilisation, a people. Century old temples, shrines and monasteries are spread almost at random around this island city. Of course, at close inspection there is no randomness at all. Only that randomness that comes when the march of progress obscures even the slightest shadow of what existed before. In thrush Ayutthaya was once a bustling capital, a centre of trade, royalty and politics. Now it appears thoroughly forgotten. Tossed aside in favour of that modern blemish that is Bangkok. From core to edge her people live amongst ghost and ruin. They wander the streets and their footprints walk across history, their shadows play on the bricks of time. It is beautiful in a way I fear I might never be able to describe.
We explore Ayutthaya with bicycles and a damp, oft folded tourist brochure circa 1980. There’s a stickiness in the air we’ve grown accustomed to during this Thailand adventure. It feels almost like an embrace now every time we step outside our unusually luxury air-conditioned reprieve. It’s not hard to find the temple sites, they seem to be on every street or two, wedged rather unceremoniously in some cases between 7/11s and concrete housings and offices. More challenging is figuring out where to go first.
The cost to go back in time is little more than loose change, if it is anything at all. Wandering into our first temple site is akin to stepping through the thin walls of a bubble. Crumbling red bricks swallow modern sounds like a vacuum. Cars and bike revs subside and the gentle tunes of birds and bugs wash over us. There is a peculiar feeling to us, so used to the overwhelming crush of tourist crowds. We are totally alone. Around us the ruins of a grand temple stand and lie, like giant toys abandoned on the grass. There could be others here, but they seem to be spellbound by the same volume phobia that holds my lips tight together and revels in the silence. I feel inclined even in whisper to Dean who walks beside me, equally speechless. I lift my eyebrows towards him, and mouth a silent “WOW” and he nods excitedly and points out a line of ancient stone buddhas sitting in a line. Their yellow cloth sashes have long disappeared, weathering away into almost invisible piles of beige hair at their base.
Red bricks contrast sharply with the tropical green grass. It grows high in some places, obviously too hard to reach by mower, which makes the entire exploration seem very archeological. It’s rather an appealing fantasy for me to imagine that we are the first to stumble across all the many wonders that Ayutthaya has to offer. We might be far-flung archeological explorers or historians. Or, just as appealing, simply adventurers who have uncovered something never before seen by modern man. In our current settings it seems totally plausible, and I maintain the fantasy as I walk, photographing everything in the manner of cataloging. When we meet other people, after climbing deep into the guts of one of the temples to look at a tomb, it really is a shock. Inside the temple and our own minds, we seem very much alone.
Over the course of the next four days Ayutthaya becomes our new world to explore. We cover kilometre after kilometre on our less than trusty rented bikes, and see more than our minds can begin to understand. In one temple, instead of red bricks we encounter an entire structure of white, plastered and shining under the tropical sun. In another, the outbuildings become a maze for our curious minds, and we run around like mice seeking out treats and exit routes. In some sites there are signs of remodelling, opportunities taken to slow the destructive halt of time. In others any intervention might come too late. The bricks fall away under the weight of every wet season, and what doesn’t fall is pushed and shoved and contorted by tree roots until the original shape becomes a mystery. At one sight we come across a gigantic laying buddha, swathed in enough golden fabric to cloth a small army of monks. At another a tree has swallowed a buddha head, giving it the most unusual perspective on life in the present time. At all sites, there is wonder, beauty and peace.
Jumping on a minibus bound for Bangkok and the grumbles of reality and civilisation a few days later, I wonder again about the birds. Do they look, as I have, on Ayutthaya and wonder just what happened here? Do they see the fragile remains of what came before? In the end I can only assume that they simply see it as it is and move on, gliding above this confusing landscape on a warm updraft, onwards to the horizon.
This post originally appeared on BarefootBeachBlonde.com, the pre-evolved version of Maps And Mandalas. I’ve republished it here with its original date because I love it that much.