Through my eyes

living my life without regrets

Saturday, April 04, 2015

24. Ayutthaya, Thailand - The King and I - Palace

Ayutthaya, Thailand

North of Bangkok lies the old capital of Siam, Ayutthaya, built in 1350 but severely destroyed by the Burmese in 1767. Ayutthaya is a UNESCO site, a buzzing town today that grew on top of or beside the ruins of the Khmer Empire, one of the largest empires the word has ever seen. When London, England had 60,000 inhabitants, Angkor Wat, Cambodia (part of the KhmerEmpire) had over one million occupants for example. The history of Thailand and the Thai people, and Cambodia and the Khmer people, is intertwined and is fascinating and complicated.
Current King Rama IX (His Picture is Everywhere)

If one looks at how the larger regional geographical map changed over the last 2000 years or so, it becomes clear that Indochina is the proper name for this area. Maybe this area will always be squeezed in between the superpowers of India and China. The giant countries of India and China have influenced even today, the other smaller, more diverse, culturally different countries squeezed between them. Thailand today is not the Siam from years ago. Sure, the roots are there but Siam, the former name of Thailand, was much larger. But then the Khmer Empire, the builders of the famous Angkor Wat, was even larger than Siam.

One of the countries always opposing (arch enemy) Thailand was Burma (Myanmar). Battles raged between Siam and Burma back and forth. A war, then peace! A war again, then peace again! Back and forth. Sometimes this side won, and then the other side had the upper hand. Almost always boundaries shifted from one country to another. Today's Thailand is the result of negotiations and wars that were fought not only with the Burmese but with the French, the Americans, the British and the Japanese. Ayutthaya is a proud reminder of a time when Thailand was still Siam and the most powerful country in the Indochina region. The history books tell you that Siam was never conquered by a European or any other country. Somewhat true, but a lot of concessions to avoid wars were made by Siam. Large portions of their empire were given away to foreign powers, France especially, to avoid wars. Those chunks of land, after France gave up their colonization policies, are today's Laos and Cambodia. Some of you may think I forgot Vietnam but Vietnam was, like Burma, never really part of the Siam Empire, not even part of the Khmer empire. Vietnam has a fierce streak of independence, as does Burma, evidenced as late as 1975, when the Vietnamese kicked out the Americans. Vietnam is a story all by itself. Indochina is this large part of land between and around the Mekong River and the Chao Phraya River. Those two large rivers dictate politics, economy, social order and heritages.
Summer Palace of King Rama IX

However, back to Ayutthaya! We visited the summer palace of King Rama the IX, the present, 87-year old, very much revered, yet ill king of Thailand. Bang Pa, the palace, dates back to the 17th century. Here is a long winded history of the palace.

According to the chronicles, King Prasat Thong (1629-1656); had a palace constructed on Bang Pa-In island, in the middle of the Chao Phraya River. It is reported that King Prasat Thong was an illegitimate son of King Ekathotsarot (1605 – 1610/11) who in his youth was shipwrecked on that island and had a son by a woman who befriended him. The boy grew up to become the Chief Minister. After usurping the throne, he became known as King Prasat Thong.

Summer Palace of King Rama IX
This King, Prasat Thong, founded a monastery, Wat Chumhon  Nikayaram, on land belonging to his mother on Bang Pa-In Island, and then had a pond dug and a palace built to the south of the monastery. The chronicle reports the name of only one building, the Aisawan Thiphaya-art Royal Residence, which was constructed in 1632, the year of the birth of his son, the future King Narai (1656-1688). It is not known whether the palace was in use until the fall of Ayutthaya in1767. However, by 1807, only a memory of the palace remained, for the site was neglected and overgrown.
Summer Palace of King Rama IX

The palace was revived by King Rama IV of the Chakri Dynasty, better known in the west as King Mongkut (1851-1868) from the (the King of Siam - from “The King and I”) who had a temporary residence constructed on the outer island in the Neo-Classic style. The permanent residence, Wat Niwet Thammaprawat, was built by his son and heir, King Chulalongkom (Rama V).

The present-day royal palace dates from the rein of Rama V (1868-1910), especially from 1872 to 1889, when most of the buildings standing today were constructed.  Today the palace is used occasionally by the present-day King Bhumibot Adulyadej (Rama IX) and the Queen Sirikit as a residence and for holding receptions and banquets.
Gardens at the Summer Palace of King Rama IX

The palaces we visited were huge. One can rent a golf cart to visit all the grounds and buildings. We walked but I wished I had rented one of those carts, the area is humongous, the buildings and grounds large and kept in tip-top shape. No picture taking is allowed inside some buildings, army sentries guard strategic points. Furnishings are gold covered and the décor is opulent in all the rooms. This décor is not familiar to me so I cannot say I liked it very much. The feeling of rigidity and
Gardens at the Summer Palace of King Rama IX

formality did not make the residence a cozy place. Some 39 buildings inside the walled off grounds with formal gardens, parks, lakes, waterways, bridges and statues, fixtures, monuments and offices, made it nearly impossible to see it all. Carol and I walked as much we could but after hours we were plainly worn out. Walking in the heat and humidity, climbing stairs, listening to explanations in English with a heavy foreign accent takes its toll.

Summer Palace of King Rama IX

Manually Cleaning at the Summer Palace

Summer Palace of King Rama IX

Summer Palace of King Rama IX

Summer Palace of King Rama IX

We were next taken for an Asian themed lunch to sit down and cool off a bit.

Elephants in Traffic

We are Getting Good at This

After our cooling off period we ended the day by visiting the UNESCO ruins of the old Ayutthaya proper and rode elaborately decorated elephants decked out with paladins, beside the walls of this ancient site. I noticed that an elephant can stop traffic. We walked right among the cars, crossed traffic-filled streets, lumbered along sidewalks and every bike, car and walker stopped and gave us, sitting high on an elephant, the right of way. Might is right, I thought. The elephant was unperturbed and knew the way and did not care a bit about what traffic congestion it caused. 
Ayutthaya Ruins

The ruins showed severe destruction but it is still very evident that the accomplishment of building this site and this complex was extraordinary. Remembering all of this was built around the year of 1350, makes it simply amazing. Topping that is the mathematical accuracy and layout for each building according to the heavenly calendar.

Ayutthaya Ruins

Some parts of carvings were highlighted only during an Equinox or Solstice for example. Doors or archways were lined up perfectly according to specific directions. The whole setup, the details and the mythical meanings are evidence of a very developed culture and society, and a very high level of knowledge. A fascinating area, yet totally ruined by war, burned down, purposely destroyed by the ignorance of a few.

Beautiful Thai Dancers Entertained Us On Board

Amazing How They Position Their Hands

Thai Dancers

No comments: