An easy day trip out of Bangkok, this tour kicks off with a visit to Bang Pa-In, the spectacular Summer Place, followed by a lazy boat trip across the Chao Phraya River, and finally to the island of Ayutthaya, the legendary Kingdom of Siam's former capital. Visually rich and architecturally astounding, it is an excursion that inspires. It is also a veritable treasure-house for photographers.
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First stop, Bang Pa-In. The journey from Bangkok takes little more than an hour and then we disembark to walk the magnificent grounds of Bang Pa-In Summer Palace, where royalty comes on special occasions. Overlooking the waterways, the many buildings are a curious mixture of turn-of-the-century European styles that strangely compliment the very red Chinese pavilion and bejewelled Thai pavilion.
Along the way, we stop to smell various varieties of Jasmine, planted in honour of HRH the Queen. We walk through sprawling landscaped gardens, across fairytale bridges decorated with Chinese flowerpots and magenta coloured bougainvillea, stopping at each site to listen to a story our guide has up her sleeve.
The Floating Pavilion
The floating pavilion was a favourite place of the Crown Prince to sit in the afternoon and read poetry. There are also rumours of royal trysts. The Lookout observatory tower was where royals would do their star gazing or look out over the countryside. And lining the pathways are many mango trees, the fruit of which is reserved for the royal households. Hedges trimmed to resemble elephants and mice, the rabbit and the moon are remnants of a symbolic horticulture celebrating folk tales.
The Red Rooms
We pass an orange stream of novice monks enroute the Chinese pavilion, here no doubt on an educational tour. This is the only building we are allowed to enter. Walking barefoot on the cool ornate tiles is wonderful after the heat outside in the gardens. The interior is richly red lacquerwork and intricately carved ebony. We walk upstairs to view the magnificent furniture, as well as a mind-bogglingly intricate camel bone carving of a dragon.
Once in Ayutthaya, the first stop on our expedition is Wat Mahatat. Upon entering, you walk among blackened brick and plaster ruins, all reminders of the Burmese raid on this once glorious city. Around the corner in an inconspicuous spot is the incredibly famous image of the Buddha's head entwined in the roots of a fig tree. Nobody is sure of the true origins of the head. Although made familiar by photographers, it is still a haunting sight. We are reminded to crouch if we want a picture taken with the image, as no-one should stand higher than the Buddha.
Phra Mongkon Bophit
Outside Phra Mongkon Bophit, children are holding bird cages and praying in acts of merit-making. Streams of worshippers pour libations of lotus oil over the Buddha in preparation for Songkran (the Thai New Year in April). We are happy to move to the shade inside and gaze upon the serene gold leaf covered Buddha image. This very same statue was once beheaded by a stroke of lightning.
The most tranquil smiling Buddha image is found at Lokayasutharam. The reclining statue is 37 meters long and 8 meters high. His head rests on a lotus bud and in the crook of his arm are offerings of flower garlands and incense. His skin is shimmery from being rubbed by gold-leaf bearing visitors. He is draped in a bright yellow robe, brilliant against the sky.
Wat Na Phra Meru
We head to another temple, Wat Na Phra Meru. This is the original building, with gorgeous columns and fading wall paintings. But most auspicious are the two Buddha images. The first is golden in the half lotus position, surrounded by ornate red columns. The other image is more unusual, a Dvaravadi Buddha image of strange green hue in seated posture and royal dress. This is before he attained enlightenment. Surrounding him in the chapel are truly ancient murals. The reason this wat is still intact is that the Burmese used it as a camp during their occupation. It is from here that they fired canons towards the Royal Palace.
The Royal Palace Ruins
We approach the Royal Palace with a sense of expectancy. However, looking around and walking the expansive empty spaces, it is evident that not much has survived. Pervading the ruins, which have burned to the ground, there are memories, dreams, poetry. The grounds are expansive and one can only imagine. Our guide walks us to the area of the hall near the riverside City Hall. This is where royalty once sat watching the royal barge procession on the Lopburi River.