Saturday, May 9, 2009

Ayutthaya

At its height, the kingdom of Ayutthaya had no rivals. European traders, arriving in the Thai capital in the 1600s, described a city of glittering spires and majestic temples, awe-inspiring in its wealth and power. Sacked by the Burmese in 1767, Ayutthaya remained in ruins after the Thai monarchy expelled the invaders and built their third and final capital in modern-day Bangkok. 

Today, a mid-sized, modern provincial town has sprung up around the ruins. Less than 80 km from Bangkok, Ayutthaya is one of Thailand's major tourist attractions, and Terry and I decide to pay it a visit. To escape the searing heat, we take a late-afternoon van from Bangkok's Victory Monument, arrive in the evening, and get a room. 

At night, the major ruins are lit up, providing a romantic backdrop to the town's quiet activities. On an evening stroll we come upon two warriors on elephants, festooned in traditional 17th century Thai military garb, practicing the battle routine they put on for tourists, on a traffic island in the middle of town. After watching this anachronistic display for awhile, we grab dinner at the evening market, and retire for the night.

At 4:30 AM I wake up, mentally composing a letter to my ex-wife that I never intend to send. Listening to the geckos clicking over the soft whir of the air conditioner, I decide to sit outside. Even at this hour, the air is hot and sticky. The monsoon is still a couple of weeks away.

The sky begins to lighten. A truck pulls up and idles outside the hotel gate. I see a barefoot monk, with his saffron robes and begging bowl, making his morning rounds. An impossibly pretty girl comes out from a door marked, "Staff." We smile - always the smile in Thailand - and exchange greetings: "Sawatdee khap," I say. "Sawatdee ka," she replies.

Rooster crows nearby. Motorcycle passes by. The truck driver and a man are engaged in quiet conversation. A woman walks by carrying two baskets on either end of a pole perched across her shoulders. Two birds, thrush-sized with magpie coloring, dive-bomb me on their way to a nearby tree. 

A light breeze awakens the sticky air. An old monk stops outside the gate. A middle-aged man walks up to him, steps out of his sandles, and drops a bag of rice into the monk's bowl. The man presses his palms together before his lowered head as the monk issues a chant of benediction. 

Now the buffed nickel sky is really starting to blue. The birds begin to make their morning ruckus. Multiple layers of sound - motors, animals, alarms and voices - begin to invent themselves. Over the roof of a nearby house comes the first ray of the sun.

3 comments:

  1. I gotta hit Ayutthaya & Sukothai next time I'm there. You do realize how much reading your posts hurts me, right?

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  2. Just a little correction on the "begging bowl" Although it may seem from an outside perspective that monks are begging. The bowls are actually considered "offering bowls." Thai's believe it's very auspicious to give anything from bottled water, scoop of cooked rice, to dish soap and toiletries. Basically anything to help with their daily needs at the temple. People actually wait each morning for the opportunity to give to them.

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  3. Thanks, Cary, for the clarification.

    Indeed, while begging was the Buddha's original intent, in Thailand this has become a highly formalized ritual, with lines of people often waiting for the monks to pass by. It's an ironic ritual too, as the Thai monkhood has in fact become very corrupt, with some of the top monks driving around in Mercedes, sporting gold watches, and controlling vast reserves of wealth. I'd say you have to go way into the countryside to find monks who actually need the donations!

    The whole idea of "gaining merit" is one I'd like to understand more, as it seems to inspire a whole range of Thai behaviors, from giving to monks, to picking up dead bodies after traffic accidents (the police won't touch them). Like the idea of gaining or losing face, it's part of a giant calculus that always seems to be going on in people's minds - very difficult for outsiders to understand.

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