Ayutthaya, Thailand’s ancient capital

Yes, the blog design went through a serious makeover, improving not only readability, but also letting images stand out more. As a few readers noted, I am still catching up on older escapes and adding them gradually. This post is about Ayutthaya, Thailand’s ancient capital, which I visited during September 2013.

  • Ayutthaya (or Ayudhya) is perfect for a day trip from Bangkok and easily reachable by train.
  • Tuk tuks are ubiquitous around the city, some originally decorated. However, cycling is convenient and a healthy and cheap alternative to get around.
  • There are several Unesco Heritage temples, palaces, and museums scattered around the city and worth a look.

In 1700, Ayutthaya was the largest city in the world with 1 million inhabitants and served as the trading hub of the world attracting merchants from both East and West. It was Siam’s second capital after Sukhothai and its grandeur abruptly ended when the Burmese army invaded Ayutthaya during the Burmese-Siamese war 1765-67. Although initially the 20,000 Burmese soldiers were outnumbered 3 to 1, a tactic pincer movement allowed them to surround the city forcing the Siamese to retreat within Ayutthaya’s gates and prepare for a long and tiresome battle they’d eventually lose.

The war lasted till March 1767 and included naval battles outside the city walls during the rainy season. Eventually, the Burmese dug tunnels and mined the city walls after which they invaded the city. What followed can only be described as a Quentin Tarrantino-style slaughter during which thousands were killed and the city was burned to the ground.

September is the wettest month in Thailand with an average monthly rainfall of above 300mm. One weekend predicted clear skies and I hopped on a train to Ayutthaya to witness the remains of the ancient capital myself. The city features multiple temples and monasteries, most getting gradually rebuilt. Entry fee to the temples varies, but is generally 50-75 baht.

I first visited Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the largest temple with impressive chedis topping the landscape. Next to it, Viharn Phra Mongkol Bopit hosts one of the largest (~12.5m high) bronze Buddha images in Thailand.

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Inside Viharn Phra Mongkol Bopit, people pray and are shaking containers with fortune sticks. This practice is called kau cim (or kau chim), aka Chinese fortune sticks. The way it works is that you shake until a stick jumps out of a bamboo container. All sticks are numbered and you search for your number on a board covered with post-it-looking messages. Once you find the matching post-it, you can start deciphering the often vague and sometimes negative message. A colleague picked up the following “You are in trouble and unhappy. You face obstacles and interruption. You might have to take the fall for other people’s mistakes. No luck, you have to be patient and see it with wisdom.” Mine was more positive!

thai ice cream

Outside the temple, men are selling ice cream made with a sorbetière, a traditional ice cream maker relying on traditional laws of thermodynamics. Interestingly, you can extract heat from a sugary liquid by melting ice and eventually turn liquid in ice cream.

Image source: Pinterest.

I found Wat Phra Mahathat the most interesting temple and resembling some of the ruins of Angkor Wat which I had visited previously. The image below shows a stone head entangled in roots coiling more like reptiles than plants. Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?

Wat Lokayasutharam or the temple of the reclining Buddha features, well, features a reclining Buddha draped in yellow sheets. Ten toes, check.

In front of Wat Phu Khao Thong, a golden pagoda, a collection of colorful statues of chickens (roosters) keeps guard. The meaning of these statues is not entirely clear. Online research gives a broad range of answers such as:

“Kinda like an advertisement to get the customers’ attention that particular restaurant has the best roasted chicken” (Yahoo! Answers always proves to be extremely useful!).

“The future King Naresuan was heavily into rooster fighting when he was a prisoner in Burma.”

The latter seems most obvious, but I am open to other wild theories, too.

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Bang Krachao, Bangkok’s Hidden Garden

Click here, zoom in, switch to aerial view, and you will witness the BIG GREEN SPOT.

  • This green spot is known as Bang Krachao, part of the Phra Pradaeng District.
  • Often the Bangkok locals are not even aware of this place.
  • Lush, green forest is ubiquitous and serves as a perfect day trip a stone’s throw away from Bangkok.

I had previously written about Bangkok and its spectacular skyscrapers and bumper-to-bumper traffic. However, an urban oasis is surviving amid rising skyscrapers. Welcome to Bang Krachao!

It was a surprise when I found out about Bang Krachao. I was exploring Bangkok on Google Maps and spotted a big green area below Khlong Toey market. I first thought it was strangely colored cloud, but zooming in, I realized it was a huge forest!

One week later, I sampled fruit and veg at Khlong Toey market and decided to walk down to Wat Khlong Toei Nai, a temple next to the Chao Phraya River where the most popular activity is feeding (very fat) fish alongside the river. The Klong Toey District (Toei and Toey are used interchangeably) is known for its slums but walking around I have never had any trouble, but one should obviously be streetwise and not flash any expensive items such as cameras. Alternatively, one can take the MRT to Khlong Toey MRT and then take taxi.

I followed locals’ indications to the Klong Toey Pier which is nothing more than a pontoon next to the river. A little “ferry” (actually a long-tail boat) brought me to the other side of the river for 5 baht (0.15 USD; one way).

Once crossed the river, I was dropped off at a pontoon next to a wooden house that is hosting little shops selling sweets and renting bicycles. I decided to walk but took note of the prices: cycling should not set you back more than 100 baht for a day or 50 baht/hour. The alternative is the omnipresent motorbikes which will happily drive you from A to B.

Bang Krachao is a collection of lush forest and mangroves. Traffic is scarce and you can follow narrow pathways on stilts snaking through the jungle while listening to, well, nothing. How refreshing for Bangkok!

A 30 minute walk brought me to Sri Nakhon Khuen Khan Park. Entrance to the park is free and many locals were picnicking in the shaded pavilions. I decided to explore the park a little more and walked into a labyrinth of dirt tracks lined with trees. The park is not well maintained with many wooden bridges damaged but still features in the middle of the park a watchtower from which you can spot tropical birds.

Getting hungry, I hopped on a motorbike to Bang Nam Phueng market, a floating market open during weekends. Surprisingly, this is the first floating market where I witnessed more locals than tourists. Indeed, the market is very popular with locals looking for curries, way-too-sweet coffee, and of course, Thai sweets. Everyday, I’m reminded that eating is still the Thai national sport!

After the market, dusk set in and a group of very territorial dogs seemed they were interested having me as desert. Hence, I decided to hop on a completely random bus which dropped me off back in the concrete jungle of Bangkok.

Bang Krachao is the rare, surviving green lung of Bangkok. The question is: for how long?

 

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Spectacular Views Over Bangkok

Many adjectives apply to Bangkok: dirty, noisy, busy, but especially BIG, HUGE, and MASSIVE!

  • I want to share some views of Bangkok’s skyline since readers in the West often don’t realize the dimensions of Asian cities.
  • For the sake of exploration, I climb the All Seasons Place Commercial Complex in Bangkok, Thailand.

  • Buildings as far as the eye can reach. This city never stops growing.

Attentive escape readers remember reading about the Sathorn Unique Tower, a 49 stories-high ghost tower in Bangkok’s city center. Clearly, not all large-scale construction projects have proven to be successful in the past. Today, however,  Bangkok feels again like one large construction yard with tower cranes dotting the cityscape.

One big real estate bubble according to an ex-Goldman Sachs banker I spoke. He explained, “Think about it. To me it’s common sense. You see construction projects being launched every day and some of the projects are even sold before before completion. However, take a closer look and you notice that the occupancy rate of these high-rise building is low, very low. I’d say up to 50% of these fancy condos are empty.”

He continued with a sigh, “Everyone has clearly underestimated the demand-side in this entire game. How many people can afford renting or buying a 100k USD apartment? The amount of expats is lower than expected. Bangkok is not yet Singapore. Of course, there is a select group of Thai people who can afford such apartment. However, wealthy Thai will typically only buy the newest apartments or will wait because they know that new apartment blocks are completed everyday. There is a religious factor, too. Thai homebuyers are reluctant buying or renting property where a death took place – either a natural cause, accident, suicide, or murder – because they believe that the property is infested with ghosts or spirits of the deceased previous homeowner. Interestingly, the death also affects the sale or rent of an apartment on the same floor!”

Finally, he joked. “In this country, you should always monitor the health of your neighbors because once they die, it can influence the value of your apartment! What is true, is that there are some town houses for grabs, but only Thai can buy them. Anyhow, if I’d have 100k USD and would have the choice between buying a house in Europe and Bangkok, I’d choose the latter. At least it’s sunny.

It reminds me of Dubai where the real-estate market completely collapsed between 2007  and 2010. There is a reason why the Burj Dubai was rebranded Burj Khalifa. We all too often forget this.

Back to the streets of Bangkok. Surprisingly, Bangkok is still remarkably walkable and a public transport system (BTS and MRT) serves the modern part of the capital, especially the shopping malls. Thou shall shop.

One of Bangkok’s highest skyscrapers is the All Seasons Place Commercial Complex, just next to the Conrad hotel. Some security staff wanders the building, but nobody really seems interested asking questions.  Hooray for lousy security!

Enter a random elevator.

Select highest floor.

Exactly 49 floors higher, I exit the elevator and see that the top floor is (update: was; seems that a company has decided to pay the sky-high rent for the sky-high office) completely empty and could easily host a 500-person army of office workers. The 360-degree view is amazing and includes the Baiyoke Tower II -nicknamed BMW Tower because the tower consistently displayed BMW advertisements across its 85 floors- Bangkok’s highest skyscraper.

 

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Climbing The Sathorn Unique Tower: Bangkok’s Ghost Tower

In 1997 the Asian financial crisis hit.

I was unaware of the existence of this crisis due to the fact that (a) I was too young to realize, and (b) Western world’s education system unevenly distributes weight to, well, Western world study topics.

Thailand’s economy had been growing at an average annual rate of 9% and had been the fastest growing company worldwide for ten years. This Asian economic miracle led to a variety of real estate projects and Buddhist temples ceased to be the highest structures in Bangkok.

Then things got nasty.

Triggered by a strong exposure to external shocks and collapsing asset prices, the 1997 Asian financial crisis struck Thailand with great force.

The deadly mix of a credit crunch, currency depreciation, bankruptcies, couple of IMF bailouts, and massive layoffs, put many real estate projects on hold. Numbers colored blood-red:

  • The Thai stock market took a nosedive and lost 75% of its value.
  • The Thai currency, the Thai baht, lost 40% of its value in 1 year (to the US$).
  • The Thai GDP decreased 40% from US$ 170bn to US$ 102bn in 1 year.

Next, the crisis quickly spread out to Indonesia, South Korea, Philippines, and Malaysia.

Today, more than 15 years later, most real estate projects that had been started before 1997 have been completed. However, we can still trace relics of the 1997 Asian financial crisis in Bangkok. The most notorious reminder is the Sathorn Unique Tower, aka Ghost Tower. When finished, it would have looked like the adjacent State Tower with a shiny golden rooftop dome and fancy restaurant. Indeed, the lebua hotels and resorts group has installed the highest open-air restaurant called Sirocco and accompanying Sky Bar at the top of the State Tower.

As for the Sathorn Unique Tower, the project was abandoned but offers equally spectacular views of Bangkok’s skyline and the Chao Phraya River. Without the cocktails. Climbing this tower has been on my bucket list from the moment I landed in Bangkok. I decided to rope in a colleague, packed water and food, and caught the skytrain to Saphan Taksin BTS station.

We managed to gain access to the Ghost Tower through the adjacent parking tower and started climbing stairs. Many stairs. The skyscraper counts 49 stories and the elevators are obviously not working. But where there is a will, there is a way (up). What struck me was the blissful silence, a stark difference with Bangkok’s constant bumper-to-bumper traffic. Calm in the chaos.

The tower has a very particular architecture with Corinthian columns and distinguished balconies. Some floors were nearly finished and already equipped with bathtubs. But the tropical climate is replacing the concrete jungle with the real jungle. Time stopped in 1997 and nature is slowly taking over again. Years of decay have silently peeled off the concrete exposing its metal skeleton and somehow providing a fertile substrate for plants. We even spotted several trees growing out of cracks. The tower could easily serve as an excellent case study for Alan Weisman, the author of The Wold Without Us.

The real star attraction is of course the rooftop. It is not exactly the place where you would like to be during a thunderstorm, but the view is magnificent.

The Sathorn Unique Tower proves to be an excellent billboard for Coca-Cola and Mitsubishi, but how long will it be lording over Bangkok? Torrential rain already brings down chunks of metal and concrete, and the tower will surely face stability problems.

Bangkok seems always under construction and you can spot advertisements for new condo projects everywhere you go. The real estate madness continues with tower cranes dotting the horizon. Same mistake all over again?

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