Riding Elephants in Ayutthaya, Thailand
The Elephants of Ayutthaya
I worried about this for quite a while before leaving home. After all, while riding an elephant in Jaipur, Jackie Kennedy radiated elegance in her silk shift with matching handbag and gloves. Images from the Days of the Raj leapt to mind. A fawn or pale olive hat with an enormous brim, perhaps, tied around my chin with a flowing scarf of white silk – but such outfits are difficult to pack.
The barefoot mahouts mount their beasts in a jiffy. After the elephant delicately raises a foot, the mahout uses this as a step and in but a moment sits cross-legged on the animal’s neck, turning round to chat and point out the highlights as our elephant tiptoed her way along the streets.
I did discover, however, that elephants love cucumbers. While waiting in line we bought a small bucket-full. As each elephant had a break from tourist duty, she’d trundle over (for all the elephants were female) to enjoy a drink and a cooling hose-down by her mahout. Then she’d come to the waiting tourists looking for cucumbers – there was no point in trying to hide them. She’d take the offerings delicately from our hands, more than happy to let us pat her. A word from their handler, and the elephants returned to carrying tourists around Ayutthaya.
Some seventy kilometres north of Bangkok, Ayutthaya was founded around 1350, and became the capitol of the Siam Kingdom. An island seated at the confluence of three rivers, it quickly became a major trading port, and by the 16th century had grown to be one of the largest, and wealthiest, cities in the Orient. The court of King Narai (1656-88) developed strong links with the court of Louis XIV, whose ambassadors compared the size and wealth of the city to Paris – some estimate that by 1700 Ayutthaya was the largest city in the world, with over one million inhabitants.
Dutch and French reports of the 18th century portray a grand city, with large palaces and flotillas of trading vessels from all over the world. In 1767, however, the Burmese invaded, and the city was almost entirely destroyed. The abandoned city became overgrown by the jungle, and restoration work didn’t begin until the 1950s.
Under the tropical sun, riding atop an elephant is a perfect way to view the remaining palaces and temples. (Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the ruins cover some 290 hectares.) In many ways it is much like wandering the Roman Forum, with many places to visit, but the sense of past greatness is palpable. Lavish architecture crumbles into the grass, yet the world has moved on, and a vibrant town has grown around the ruins. Indeed, one giant prang (or reliquary tower) serves as a roundabout.
After mounting a small platform, our elephant stood alongside, and somehow we shimmied into a brightly coloured seat, complete with decorated canopy. On the other elephants the seats swayed with every step, yet our ride felt smooth and effortless. The heat and humidity of the day were no longer a problem.
The Ruins of Ayutthaya
Written by Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, this book details the wars which led to the demise of Ayutthaya. Since its publication in 1917, it has become Thailand's most famous history text.
Ayutthaya: A Forgotten City
The most famous wat (or temple) in Ayutthaya is Wat Phra Mahathat. Thoroughly ransacked by the Burmese, all that remains are numerous stone prangs, many defying gravity with their drunken angles. Here is the famous Buddha In A Tree – a serene face looks out from between the embracing roots of a bodhi tree. The space is considered holy by the Thai, and one is expected to kneel when taking a photo. To the back of the large complex sit a row of headless Buddha’s, patiently meditating as the grass creeps over them.
Bangkok’s famous Golden Buddha probably came from Ayutthaya. Ten feet long and weighing five and a half tons, this solid gold statue was at some time covered in stucco and coloured glass, probably to conceal its value form the invading Burmese. When it was taken from Ayutthaya is unknown, and not until it was being moved from a disused temple in 1955 was the stucco damaged and the gold underneath revealed.
Other sites to see in Ayutthaya include the Wat Chai Wattanaram, a replica of Angkor Wat built by King Prasat Thing in 1630. It symbolizes Mount Meru, the abode of the heavenly gods. Largely intact, it gives a hint of how the old capital must once have looked. The main river runs beside this temple complex. We looked onto one of old palace compounds – Ayutthaya once boasted three palaces. Beautiful stairs, covered with lanterns, lead down to the water’s edge. It is easy to imaging the river covered with barges, small fishing boats and large trading ships.
If wandering Ayutthaya by foot or bike, it’s best to remember elephants have right of way. Motorbikes are happy to contest this, scooting almost between the animals’ legs in an endless battle to overtake all cars and other bikes. A group of wizened old ladies sat in the middle of the footpath, selling various beads and cold drinks. Our elephant stepped right around them, the women not even bothering to glance up from their gossiping. Next our elephant tip-toed through a tiny gap between a parked car and a fence, when she could’ve easily have crushed the car underfoot. Next our elephant stuck its trunk through the back of school bus, to the endless delight and squeals of the kids inside.
And what to wear? A hat and sunscreen are always essential in the tropics, plus comfortable shoes. Most importantly of all, a small hand-held fan (bought at any stall) gives an elegant solution to the heat and humidity. I never managed, however, to master the art of matching gloves and handbag.
(c) Anne Harrison
© 2013 Anne Harrison