It seems like I had been planning a solo backpacking trip overseas for ages. In late May 2016, I finally took off for a trip through South East Asia like I had always wanted to. I was dismissive of all deterring arguments. I cared not what was happening to me or around me. This trip was all that mattered right now.
This is about when I got to Ayutthaya, a small town 80 kilometers north of Bangkok.
The bus reached Bangkok at 5:30 AM just as promised. I was somewhat relieved that it wasn’t earlier than expected as we had consistently experienced in Myanmar. It is no fun to catch an overnight bus that drops you off in the middle of the night. Bangkok was humid and the wet roads spoke of recent showers. The sun had crossed the horizon but was struggling to break free of the clouds that cluttered all around it. I wasn’t complaining. I walked up to the bus stand that was supposed to get me a bus till Hua Lampong Railway Station.
The city was more active than I had expected it to be at 6 in the morning. People were going to their offices and taxis zoomed past with passengers going from somewhere I did not know to some place I did not care. What time did the offices start in Bangkok? 7 AM? I waited 10 minutes for the bus but the route number that I was waiting for (159) did not make an appearance. I decided that I would prefer walking to sitting around in the humidity. At least that way I had a fixed estimate of reaching the station. I started walking towards the Railway Station, passing through the streets of Bangkok.
Early morning activity in Bangkok
It took me 40 minutes to reach the station and I was sweating like a pig by that time. I went up to the ticket counter and was greeted by a well disposed officer. He smiled and I smiled back.
(O - Officer, M - Me)
O : Sawasdee Krab.
M : Sawasdee Krab. Ticket to Ayutthaya. Next train.
O : Okay. types something on his keyboard and shows me the screen 20 Baht.
M : Okay. handing him the money What time is the train?
O : 7 o' clock. Platform 9.
M : Khob Khun Krab.
Wait. 7 o' clock? I looked at my watch. 6:58.
M : Train at 7?
O : smiling Yes. Platform number 9.
Fuck! I picked my bags and ran to the platform. Fortunately it was the first platform I hit after the counter. I could see the train standing at a distance. The first coach was 2nd class. No. I ran on to the next coach. 3rd class. Yes. I jumped in and breathed a sigh of relief. I adjusted my luggage and checked my watch. 7:00. But the train did not start till 7:06. I felt a little stupid but it was alright I guess.
Hua Lampong Station
This train only had a few people scattered about on the seats randomly. The trains coming into Bangkok were jam packed though. That time of the day. The train slowly made it’s way through Bangkok. There were frequent stops at stations or otherwise. There was a wind through the window every time the train moved and it helped me drift off to sleep. After Don Muang, the train ran at a consistent pace and we were in Ayutthaya by 8:35 AM. I was not up to walking the three odd kilometers to the hostel so I entertained a tuk-tuk driver who took me to the hostel for 80 THB. Ayutthaya seemed like a pretty laid back place from the back seat of the tuk-tuk. It had wide roads at right angles and not too many people or vehicles.
Ayutthaya from the back of a tuk-tuk
Wandering in the Lazy Town
The hostel was probably the coolest one I have been to yet. There was a lot of random stuff all around and the decor was something of a chic - antique setting (to borrow the term from one of the reviews I had read). The check in time was at 1 PM but I was offered a place to put away my luggage and the common bathroom to freshen up.
I sat a while in the hostel and then left to wander as usual. I made a rough plan on a map and then disregarded it, as always. I walked past the museum and the temples. I was in no mood to pay and watch something so redundant. Dao had already given me an idea of what to expect. Golden Buddhas sitting inside gaudy temples. No thank you! I walked along the riverside till I reached a market. I went into the market and examined the produce on sale. Fresh fishes, barbecued ones, sandals, vegetables, etc. I got out from the opposite end. People looked at me with curiosity and were quick to smile when I caught their gaze. I was already liking Ayutthaya. There were few people, fewer tourists and the locals were warm and welcoming.
Scenes from the market
As I wandered around, I started thinking why people did not wander much. It is so much fun to explore the unknown lanes of a new place. There are unexpected relics, waving children, barking dogs, exquisite food and what not! I never quite understand the fun people find in sticking to the “tourist area”. Maybe it’s a sense of familiarity and convenience that keeps them there.
Wandering around Ayutthaya
I picked up some charcoal grilled chicken (kai tod) and ate it with relish as I walked back to the hostel. Even the food was cheap here!
SEA Tip #4
Northern Thailand is cheaper than Southern Thailand.
I went back to the hostel and checked in. My bed was not quite ready so I sat in the common room listening to blues and jazz play on JBL speakers. I sat reading the book a while and then took the map and headed out again. This time I went in the direction of the main temples but I was still not in the mood to pay for my entrance. The sun was out and the weather had become hotter. I walked around the temples and saw some beautiful green stretches between them. This city gave me a feel of Anuradhapura. There were beautiful parks and the temples were not crowded together like it was in Bagan. I was half expecting this place to be like Bagan by the way, but thankfully it wasn’t. The temples had low walls so despite not paying the fee, I was able to see most of them by just walking around them. They were quite beautiful and oozing with history, but it was the parks that I really fell in love with. They had these small ponds and lakes and lots of birds. I felt like going for a run which I planned on doing every single morning but those plans were never executed.
Wat Phra Ram
The Ayutthaya Parks
Ayutthaya’s main city is full of wats (temples) and the region is quite well preserved. No new buildings encroach the land and the city has spread out far from these relics. The Buddhas in the wats curiously have their heads cut. Apparently these heads were cut off and sold to private collectors in the western market. The temples are a curious mix of Hindu and Buddhist structures. There are the bell shaped pagodas and the phallic shikhars of temples to be seen together in the same complex. It reminded me of a recent article that I had read about the spread of Indian culture in south-east Asia. Even the name Ayutthaya is derived from the capital of Ram Rajya : Ayodhya.
Wat Wat everywhere
Headless Buddha statues
I returned to the hostel to take a bath and do some laundry. I have discovered that regular laundry helps me get through the task faster and easier than making a pile and dealing with it all at once. Also, I have been slowly growing appalled at my bag’s contents. I used to be somewhat proud of my packing skills. No more. I ended up leaving my sandals and slippers in this hostel. No point carrying them around if I am not going to use it. The new “Aquashoes” that I had picked up seemed to be doing really well. I will be dropping more stuff further in the trip.
I ran into a traveller’s nightmare : bed bugs. I was dead tired when I went to bed that night, having had travelled all the way from Koh Tao and had gotten an excuse for a sleep in the bus to Bangkok. But as soon as I put out the lights, I started itching. I saw one on the white bed sheet and killed it. Then I remembered that I had seen the hostel staff fumigating my bed earlier in the afternoon. Goddammit! I went down and got myself shifted to another dorm. I also took a hot water bath and washed my clothes in boiling water. I stayed up for a while to see if this one had bugs. It did. I killed two and then tried sleeping with the blanket below me, a technique that had saved me in Baijnath. I woke up the next day with more bites.
I was ravaged and sleep deprived. I was fixing myself some toasts for breakfast when Poon, the manager of the hostel came up to me and apologised for the bugs. He offered to refund a night’s worth but I just asked for a clean bed instead. He told me how he had to close the hostel for a month a while earlier to deal with the bugs. Now they were making a reappearance. It’s not exactly the hostel’s fault that there are bugs. Bed bugs have nothing to do with cleanliness. They spread by infesting luggage of travellers and hitching a ride to the next destination. I decided to give the place another night before deciding whether to get out or not. I took another scalding hot shower to rid myself of any bugs. But it’s never simple once you have been bitten. You feel them even when there is nothing on your skin. It’s a horror.
The otherwise super cool hostel
Pickle of Nostalgia
I had some excellent noodle soup for lunch and then walked around like the day before. My camera’s battery died at the first temple but I pushed on. I am not a photographer, so I can always revert to mobile or no photography. I saw the reclining Buddha and a few other temples. Most of the ruins don’t have an entrance fee. It is just the more popular ones that charge a small fee. I completed most of the old city on foot today. There was not much left anyway so it was a shorter walk than the day before. On the way back I saw Ganesha and Saraswati idols, amongst others, kept under a tree. Hinduism was definitely alive in this city.
While I was walking back to the hostel, I saw something that made me double back. I expressed my desire to taste the edible and the elderly lady who was sitting at the stall offered me a piece. Yes! This was what I had thought it was : ber ka achaar or wild berry pickle.
Ber ka Achaar!
I used to have it as a kid when I went to my grandmother’s place in Tatanagar. I bought a small pack from her, must have been 250 grams or so. Then I went to the Phra Ram Park and found a nice spot in front of the lake to sit down and enjoy the packet of pickle. Three school girls sat at a distance, probably bunking school. I ate every piece with relish, recalling random memories of my childhood. I used to sneak into the store room to steal the achaar. I couldn’t remember who my accomplice used to be? Kunal Bhaiya? Kanika Didi? Why did Ma and Nani stop making these? I think it was too much effort. My mouth was scraped by the seeds and I had a small pile of them in front of me. I sucked the last drop of the sweet and sour syrup from the plastic packet. I laughed when I thought of how Ma was so disapproving of eating so much of this achaar. Stomach ache; heat; I did not care. I was happy!
I ate all that!
I resumed walking to the hostel. The girls had been caught by the police officers patrolling the park and been sent away. For some reason it struck me as amusing. I picked up a “Lipton Iced Tea” from Seven Eleven. I was drinking a LOT of iced tea these days. It helped me keep myself hydrated. I could hear “Another One Bites the Dust” from outside the hostel. A pleasant change from the blues and jazz. I went inside to see that the hostel dwellers had discovered the vinyl collection. I browsed it to find some really cool albums. There was Dylan, Beatles, Queen, The Who, Clapton and more. I spent the rest of the night playing random albums and reading. I got talking with an English boy who was travelling after graduating from school. His name was Luke (hopefully not Skywalker!), Manchester United was his club and he lived a little south of Manchester. We talked about EPL, the upcoming Euro, his travel plans and mine. He was the most soft spoken English guy I have ever met. I had to strain my ears to listen to what he was saying and many a times I laughed and nodded without a clue as to what he had said!
The common room slowly cleared out and once again I was the last one to leave. A Thai guy started playing random tunes on an electric guitar. His style was nice and dreamy. I listened a while and then went to bed myself. Time to face the horror again. How I wished the bugs gone. This hostel would have been perfect otherwise.
Happy that I had been bitten just twice in the last night, I decided to extend the stay in this hostel. But part of the reason was that I was lazy to find another place for a couple of days.
Pro Tip #8
If bugged, leave as soon as possible. That’s the only way to deal with bed bugs. Check your clothes or heat dry them as soon as you can, take hot water showers yourself and get the hell out!
I was drinking coffee when a Thai girl started talking to me. This was Bella and we had crossed paths last night when I spooked her out while she was going to her dorm. She was really excited that I was from India and wanted to know more about the country. She worked as a safety engineer near Ayutthaya and was also a tattoo artist. Her energy was contagious. She wanted to travel and was trying to find a reason to do so. She asked everyone their’s, hoping to find one that appealed to her. She was surprised to learn that I was married and wanted to know how it worked between me and my wife. Her boyfriend was dominant and possessive and did not like her going out. I guess Thailand was similar to India in this regard. We talked for a bit and she taught me some Thai words. She also told me a place to go eat and I went there with Luke to grab a bit.
That particular place had sold out it’s stock though. So we sat at the noodle soup place and had a bowl each of delicious noodle soup. We talked about the English economy and how easy or difficult it was to find a job there. Luke was going to be the fourth generation of his family in the company that he was going to join. I told him about my drifting in the Indian startup scene. He had his apprehensions about this way of life.
Luke and I went exploring the town together later that afternoon. We rented out a couple of bicycles and went towards one of the spots that looked interesting on the map. We cycled through some pretty roads with a lake on one side. Then we got to the first stop, a very European looking memorial of some crocodile slaying and shark fighting king (Monument of King Naresuan the Great). It would be interesting to read his legend.
Crocodile slaying King Naresuan the Great
There was a stupa (Wat Phu Khao Thong) right next to it and we climbed up it’s steep stairs. A light wind was blowing and a mullah was calling out for evening prayers from somewhere close by. Both of these soothed our tired mind and body and we stood on the top level for a few minutes. There was a door open to what seemed like the inner chamber of the stupa and we went inside. I did not even know that stupas had an inner chamber! The inside was a small heavily decorated room with idols and banners. I came out quickly because it was really hot and stuffy inside.
Wat Phu Khao Thong
The final destination that I had in mind was Queen Si Suriyothai Memorial. The road till was a pretty uncrowded one that was lined with green paddy fields and small rustic huts. The ride in itself was quite enjoyable and the memorial looked exquisite! It was flanked by a lake on one side and a European style boulevard on the other. We had approached the Memorial from the behind, in my usual style, and went around the encircling road. I spotted a dragon lizard (water monitor) and tried to follow it for a better view but the shy creature slid into the lake when I got too near. Luke seemed to be enjoying this little adventure.
Beautiful roads make for a happy ride
We went around to the front of the memorial. A biking gang was clicking selfies and a few more people were celebrating the day out. But there was no foreign tourist there other than the two of us. It seemed extremely weird that people did not make even this small an effort to get to such a gem of a place. I guess it’s true what they say about the “backpackers”. They are all following the same beaten path, one after the other, living in the echo chamber of reviews and travel books.
Queen Si Suriyothai Memorial
We made a small stop at Wat Lokayasutharam to see the reclining Buddha before heading back to the hostel.
Buddha be chill
I sat in the common room after taking yet another bath. I read for a while and then bid Luke goodbye before heading out to hunt for food. Luke had his train to Chiang Mai in a bit. I ended up at the riverside market opposite to the museum that I had seen on the first day. The place was really lively at night. There were sea food stalls that I skipped. I ate some pork sausages that were passable and a Roti Mataba at a Muslim stall. It as more or less a Mughlai Parantha. I topped it with some iced tea. All for 90 THB!
Back in the hostel I watched The Hateful Eight with one of the guys from the hostel staff. The volume was a problem for some of the people sitting in the common room and I had to repeat some of the dialogues out of memory. When I hit the bunk, someone in the room, probably the one below me, started snoring really loud. I somehow managed to sleep, though.
I was not bitten during the night, at least none that I could make out. But I woke up to one of the girls talking on her phone with her parents. They were trying to figure out whether there were bugs in her bed or not. I later saw that her entire leg was covered with bites. Anyway, the three guys in the dorm apart from her (myself included) assured her that there were bugs and she freaked out some more.
I went out to the balcony and saw that the sun was out. It had been an overcast few days thus far. That was when I suddenly decided to end my stay in Ayutthaya. I unpacked my luggage and inspected it thoroughly. I also went along the seams of the bag. Then I repacked everything and went to take another bath. Once I was done, I checked out and returned the bicycle. I managed to grab a bite at the chicken and rice joint that Bella had suggested the previous day. It was really good! Then I picked up my luggage and got out of the hostel. It had been a weird stay and I can still not make up my mind whether I loved it or dreaded it.
Bella's recommendation 👍
I could not find a tuk-tuk so I started walking. After a while, one stopped and picked me up. It already had two women inside. They were French and this was the day that I learnt that Quechua is a French company and not Brazilian as I had previously imagined. One of the girls had been in Thailand for six months now, teaching English in villages along the Myanmar border. The two were travelling eastward. I talked to them till it was time for their train. Mine was in another half hour. I managed to consume another glass of iced tea in that duration.
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Previous posts in this series :
And here is the complete album of the Ayutthaya leg of the trip.