Ayutthaya (eye yu' die aah) is billed as the cultural capital of South East Asia and I won't argue with that but it does persistently disappoint. I confess I have only been there once but I convinced myself without much effort that once is enough. This is a purely personal viewpoint and one that will cause the purists to shout and if you ask my partner she will say 'oh yes it's very nice'.
In their defence it does have some redeeming features that truly delight but the problem is, there are not enough of them to outweigh the transients, and asking a Thai doesn't help much because they will not say a bad thing about anything in case what goes around comes around.
World Heritage Site!
The traffic flows freely along the huge avenues and being a small inland island it is easy to learn your way around. The traders like to do a deal and will massively reduce their asking prices, which are not excessive to begin with. The sheer number of temple ruins and the scale of some of them is astounding. The streetlights I have never seen anywhere before and I am still trying to figure out how they do it? It is spotlessly clean, the air is fresh, the food is good, the gardens and parks are delightful and the birds sing from the trees, so what is wrong with Ayutthaya?
The half-assed expressway gets you into the city but out is a nightmare. If you are leaving southbound stay in the right-hand lane and not middle under the sign that says Bangkok. This shortfall in my powers of observation resulted in my taking the city inner ring road to the junction for those coming out of the southern city limit heading for Bangkok. I used this junction to turn right (see Rules of the Road) because there was no sign to say I could not. Around the corner was the shortest, oldest, most obnoxious Police Officer in Asia who upon seeing a falang driving the car flagged me down. He insisted I get out of the car so he could parade me to all the passing motorists and told me I had turned right where I should not. It is dangerous to argue with an Officer as he can have you blacklisted and you will not be allowed back into Thailand for five years but I could not help but point out to him that his attitude was unnecessary and I had not committed an offence. He said there was a sign and I replied that I was going to walk back and have a second look.
As I stepped away he grabbed my arm and I had to point out to him that I was not under arrest. We now had a stalemate of a Police Officer who didn't care much for tourists and considered them a piggy bank, a smart-arse falang, and a wife hurling abuse at the Officer. Me yelling in English at her to shut-up and get back in the car whilst the Officer couldn't understand, had no means of calling for back-up, and didn't want to lose face. He let go of my arm and asked for my driving license. I suspect he was starting to feel foolish and it wasn't helpful when my missus said so when, as he tried to write my details on the ticket, he realised he couldn't read English either. He then said he would have to keep my license because I refused to translate the details for him and I had to forcibly retrieve it from his hand. I was fast concluding that an arrest was inevitable as he now asked me for my passport, which is what he should have done in the first place, but I held it out for him and wouldn't let it go whilst he wrote out the bogus ticket. He asked if we could pay him here and now, be very careful how you put it to an Officer in Thailand but usually you can pay them off when they are alone with no witnesses and this was the first time an Officer had asked me so direct.
I was under no misapprehension he needed some money, but the other half was having none of it. Presumably, because he thought I would report him, he wasn't happy about this and it meant I had to go back into the city to the Police station and join the queue to pay the fixed penalty so I wasn't happy either. The fiasco continued as he pointed to the rental company's sign in the rear window and told me I had to call them and inform them of the penalty. I replied OK and turned away. To which he called me back again and said "dee ow nee" (immediately). I cared not whether he understood when I answered f**k off as I waved him away and thus was my introduction to Ayutthaya and I had to spend the next three hours listening to the other half complaining as if I'd had no component part in the debacle. Sadly, this sums up the authorities attitude toward tourists in Ayutthaya. A city that doesn't at any time feel welcoming or homely. It feels more akin to a Doctors waiting room complete with a rudely intrusive receptionist.
Why go to Ayutthaya
A very nice lady in Suvarnabuhmi airport the previous day who was trying to sell guided tours went off and fetched some mini guide books of places that I had mentioned. Amongst them was Ayutthaya and it is noticeable that it only contains temple ruins and illuminated elephant rides. If that's what you're into after travelling half way round the world then you'll love it but personally I couldn't see it any differently to Blackpool and donkey rides. Nevertheless it does provide a useful map and temple locations which you need so you can pick the ones you want to see.
These booklets are printed by amazing Thailand and you can get them from any tourist information office and usually they have lots of great suggestions. This one suggests trips to buy palm leaf fish mobiles, basket weave, and rattan products in Thanon Rachana (or you could try Blackpool Promenade) and traditional Thai painting (try Pattaya's Artist's Alley instead, they're cheaper and far better). Or you can watch crafts like muslims making roti sai mai (candy floss in bread) or Thai's making palm leaf fans. If you think I am being negative, I kid you not, these are genuine excursions and whilst there are plenty of them to choose from, what they all offer does not improve.
Here and there though it takes you by surprise. The Ceramic Shop in Si Sanphet Road has some really nice pieces and outside the main entrance to Wat Chaiwatthanaram is the nicest old dear and her granddaughter selling the usual resin statues. I picked out a pair of Jak's to put either side of my Buddha much to the annoyance of 'her indoors' who says Jak should be outside. To my annoyance when I said ok I'll put them outside she said no because someone will steal them. We still bought them but mainly because of the old lady's bargaining prowess.
Street traders are not allowed so there is no ghai yang, ghai pot, moo tod etc. and I never saw ice cream motorbikes or cold drinks (I must be missing Blackpool too much) but that's just what you want after rambling over one of these giant monuments. While scouring the web on my asus eee I came across this quote: 'get to Ayutthaya before 2pm, because that's when they stop selling beer in the shops' and I was glad to discover it wasn't me being picky, and when I clicked the link it was about the U-Thong Inn Hotel that had been recommended to us by the tourist information office.
The restaurants are absolutely average with McDonalds, KFC, Kuay Tiew Pad and a range of Riverside Restaurant all of which sell the same thing. We did find something along Thanon U-Thong on the left side of the road where the only sign read กาแฟสด which spells Gafare Soht (Fresh Coffee). If like me you are coffeeholic it helps to know some of these signs. It didn't look like a restaurant but the missus yelled stop and I don't need much encouragement when it comes to coffee hot. The only customers were Thai and the food was good and generally speaking you will find that Thai and good food belong in the same sentence. What saddens me is that this place was tucked away and disregarded by the tour guide. In fact everything that is in the back-streets that is worth seeing is shunned.
With the impending need for a hotel we got out the guide book which I had come to mistrust and the netbook. We wanted somewhere outside of the city centre and both steered us at the Good Inn Hotel. It offered individual bungalows and I have used these before and enjoyed the stay. The chap said 400 Baht so I booked three, one for us two and one each for the kids. To my horror when the youngest turned on the TV it showed xxx porn - at 3 in the afternoon? I told the receptionist it wasn't suitable and we wanted to go somewhere else but he insisted on blocking the channels. Then I asked for the keys to the doors and he said they didn't have keys. I locked the doors from inside before closing them and on the way out told him when we return we will have to break in. Funny thing when we returned at 11.30pm he was waiting for us at the security gate and gave me the keys. After that it went downhill. The bed was too hard and had an incontinence sheet fitted. Cars came and went all night long and slammed the doors each time and there was constant drunken giggling. World Heritage? More like Amsterdam on tour.
There are Tuk Tuks although the liveries are more conservative than anywhere else. Regardless they are still recognisable. Jakayaan Sam Loht with christmas tree lights all over will run you around the illuminations after the sun goes down. There are the hop-on taxis but I couldn't fathom the routes and if you ask they will only say "Where yew go" and "wan hunnerd bar' ". That isn't meant as cynicism because they genuinely are trying to be helpful, but they also want your money and out of season it is at a premium. There are also Taxi Meters but I reckon you could spend more on fares than you could on entrance fees and the best option to tour the temples is hire a car or book a tour. If you book a tour be ready to tour the souvenir shops and local product workshops which are about as interesting as a 'new age' market.
I'm not saying don't visit Ayutthaya. Just be aware that it is sanitised, cleansed, window dressed for a better class of visitor and not the riff raff as Basil Fawlty would say.
Ayutthaya is by no means a holiday destination. It would best be described as a pretentious metropolitan museum where the authorities consider the tourists a bloody nuisance. If you want to stay over go to Saphanburi or Ang Thong for a hotel and if you only want to see a few temples just go for the day and take a picnic. Though you may have to eat your picnic in the car!