Among the Splendid Ruins of Ayutthaya

I like to pretend that my short time in Ayutthaya, ancient capital of the kingdom of Siam, was spent in the manner of a ruler from that era: whisked from magnificent stupa to impressive monument in my personal chariot, all doors open to me. In reality, of course, I bounced along in the back of a tuk-tuk and paid the same entrance fees as everyone else, but when the afternoon sun is beating down and you only have a few hours in a place when you’d planned to have two days, you have to inject a little romance where you can.

Astonishing what one color against stone can do.

Astonishing what one color against stone can do (no filter)

Ayutthaya is a World Heritage site, and as such it’s better maintained than many tourist sites in Thailand. All the guidebooks suggest renting bikes to get from one site to another, which sounds nice in theory, but in practice it still means dodging terrifying traffic and sucking in mouthfuls of exhaust. Some friends did bike to different temples, and they said those were the problems exactly, plus it’s super hot, of course. So all in all, I’m glad I paid $20 for a driver to take me door-to-door for three hours.

ayutthaya

Tiny me in there for a sense of scale

Tiny buddhas at Wat

Mini buddhas at Wat Phra Chedi Chaimongkhon

The city of Ayutthaya was founded in the 14th century, and at its peak at around 1700 CE it had 1 million inhabitants, which made it one of the largest cities in the world. In 1767 the Burmese invaded, burning the city to the ground and committing blasphemous acts like cutting the heads off the stone buddhas in the temples. The kingdom would be fought over and rebuilt over the next few years, but the capital was never re-founded on the same site, and it’s remained in ruins to this day.

One of the many headless buddhas

One of the many headless buddhas

Wat Phra Mahathat

Wat Phra Mahathat

Some of the temples seemed to be out of use, while others contained buddha statues, yellow or saffron cloth coverings, and other signs that they were still active places of worship.

I think he looks downright cozy

I think he looks downright cozy

Guards stationed themselves by the head in the tree of Wat Phra Mahathat to make sure people took respectful photographs. It’s considered disrespectful to put your head above that of a buddha or monk, so any time you’re in a temple you have to watch yourself. Since this particular head somehow got wrapped up in the roots of this tree, it’s even lower than statues usually are, and you have to kneel on the ground to make sure you’re not breaking any taboos.

Mortal Kombat

Mortal Kombat?

I visited Wat Phra Sri Sanphet, which a fellow American told me was the site of some scenes from Mortal Kombat–look familiar, anyone?

Reclining buddha of

Reclining buddha of Phra Budhasalyart

The reclining buddha of Phra Budhasalyart, according to legend, got in that position because a giant was boasting about how big he was, and how therefore he didn’t need to pay proper respect to the buddha. The buddha made himself bigger than the giant and just laid out on his side, like, hey, what’s up, we can play this game if you really want to. (I presume the giant was humbled, though accounts don’t say.)

Wat

Wat Phu Khao Thong

The last stop of the day, Wat Phu Khao Thong, was one of the nicest simply because the sun was going down and the site was deserted. Once my driver dropped me off at the bridge that served as the entrance, it was just me and a determined evening jogger as the sun descended and the temple folded itself in shadow. It was a peaceful end to a busy afternoon of temple-hopping, and kudos to my driver for arranging it that way.

A peaceful good night

A peaceful good night

Bumming Around Byron Bay

Byron has a way of making you stay longer than you’d planned, I’ve heard more than one person say. This can happen in various ways; some people take up surfing and never want to leave, others get into the relaxed nightlife, and some of us get stupidly ill. Oops! I spent about four weeks in Byron Bay, three weeks longer than I’d intended. Obviously, I spent a good part of that recovering from shingles on my eye, but there was plenty of time for other, much more fun activities.

Lots of fun street art here

Lots of fun street art here

I stayed with Heather and her daughter Ruby-Mae,  second cousins on my mother’s side, and their short-term tenant, Sophie. They live near Arakwal National Park, and a short walk up the hill behind their house takes you to a great lookout in the middle of the peninsula, so you can see water all around. On the day of the solar eclipse, I went up there to watch the sunrise, and then we stuck around for the eclipse. I was scared to look at the sun, even with the emergency blanket everyone was using as a safety measure, so I looked at a woman’s pinhole camera, and tracked the moon’s slow progress across the sun in shadow.

Sunrise over Arakwal

Sunrise over Arakwal

Waiting for the eclipse

Waiting for the eclipse

Heather owns several horses, so a few times we went up to the field they live in and I watched her feed them. We drove through the countryside, which to my mind looked like the English countryside, so I can see how settlers would want to make it look like home. It seemed to go on forever, so imagine their surprise when they went farther west and hit the Outback. Heather points out that a quick way to tell the difference between Australian and English fields (other than the different plant life, of course) is the barbed wire. They use hedges in England and barbed wire fences in Australia.

I think this one was Handsome Phil

I think this one was Handsome Phil

countrysideWe went to a show in town, which was billed as a theatrical event but was basically a stand-up routine. The comedian was clearly very nervous, and the audience was very patient with him for a long time, but he never really got going, just kept asking us what it was like to live in Byron and fumbling with the mic while his video cameras recorded every misstep. Then he finally told a joke, and it was “I have a bestselling book, you may have heard of it, it’s called the Bible,” which is not only not funny but is not original. I was still willing to give him more time to redeem himself, although Heather, Ruby-Mae, and Sophie were ready to go. Then he told another joke, which was something about how women will ruthlessly tear out your heart, and I was ready to join the exodus of people streaming from the theater. I’ve never walked out on a show before—it felt weird! But definitely right.

We had an ice cream and wandered around the night market, speculating on how much of the show was done in earnest and how much of it was Andy Kaufman-esque performance art. I think he’s just a bad comedian, but if you see a movie about the greatest trick ever pulled on an audience and I’m sitting in the front row looking shell-shocked, we’ll know it was all part of a master plan.

Beanie, looking contemplative, instead of getting overexcited and trying to pee on guests, which was her usual MO

Beanie, looking contemplative, instead of getting overexcited and trying to pee on guests, which was her usual MO

Several times, we took the dogs for walks down the road, at a place they call “the lakes.” This includes a large lake surrounded by tea trees, which turn the water the color of brown tea, as well as a path over a hill to the beach. One time we walked along the beach and I saw lots of blue jellyfish up on the sand. They were just lying there, a little shiny in the sun, and as large as a dinner plate, and they looked really cool, but I didn’t have my camera with me, sorry.

The tea tree effect

The tea tree effect

We barbequed by the ocean, in sight of the most expensive hotel in Byron, where all the celebrities stay. Australia has barbeque kiosks set up all over the country, with clear instructions pasted to them. We cooked up some burgers and corn and ate it while watching the ocean and feeling the wind rise. Finally, the months-long drought ended, and we ran back to the car as the rain the town had been waiting for arrived at last.

I'm not sure why this is such a blurry action shot, but anyway that's what the grills look like here.

I’m not sure why this is such a blurry action shot, but anyway that’s what the grills look like here.

Dinner at the beach

Dinner at the beach

We went to the farmer’s market, which is similar to all the other farmer’s markets I’ve been to; mostly white, middle- to upper-middle class people, everyone in a great mood, delicious food. The difference here is that a third of the customers were barefoot, which is much more common down under than back in the States. I thought it was a bohemian Byron thing, but then I saw people going into superstores barefoot in other towns and concluded it’s the relaxed way of life here.

To market, to market

To market, to market

I ate very well in Byron. Ingredients are incredibly fresh here, and I’d make myself lunches with ripe avocadoes and tasty sourdough bread that had just been made the day before. Heather is an excellent cook, and she included me in the family dinner each night, so I had curries, pasta dishes, and all sorts of tasty things while I was there. I made a feeble attempt to repay her kindness by making a dish my last week there, one they’d never heard of: chilaquiles. They went over well!

Lunch time

Lunch time

Dinner time

Dinner time

One Saturday, the local Buddhist community had an opening ceremony for their peace stupa, the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere. We drove out to the Crystal Castle and joined in the ceremony. We walked around the stupa three times, turning the prayer wheels as we went. Those prayer wheels each contained rolls of prayers for peace, and the idea is that as you turn them, you increase their effectiveness. We watched the monks, who had come down from Asia for the occasion, do their own circuit of the stupa, and after one last prayer, the ceremony was over (we arrived toward the end).

Spinning the prayer wheels

Spinning the prayer wheels

byron stupa monks

Then we walked over to the main building and looked at the huge collection of crystals they have here, a lot of which come from South America. I walked in the meticulously maintained gardens, and admired the statues and crystals they’d mixed in with the plants.

Graffiti on the bamboo!

Graffiti on the bamboo

One of the many giant crystals found at the Crystal Castle

One of the many giant crystals found at the Crystal Castle

The center of the gardens

The center of the gardens

I spent some time wandering around town, picking up prescriptions, indulging in treats at cafes, walking the beach.  Byron is a funny town, a mix of surf shops, head shops, and designer clothes shops. They have a great restaurant scene here, something like 90 eateries in this small town.

Boutique

Boutique

Surfer's choice

Surfer’s choice

Stay in the flags!

Stay in the flags!

I went to a few concerts at local bars and restaurants with Heather. It’s a big music town here, which is a draw for their family, as Rick is a musician (he was on tour while I was there). We heard some rock covers, reggae, and a few originals over the time I was there. It was great to see a town so enthusiastic about live shows.

On my last day in town, Heather drove me up to the lighthouse. There’s a little museum at the top which has the old lighthouse chair and light on display, as well as a few other items. (Heather and Rick own a lovely, detailed scrimshaw from the mid-1800s, which they’re considering donating to the museum.) We walked down the path to the lookout, which declares this to be the most eastern part of Australia. Then back up the hill, and we saw the goat, a holdout from when the government decided to reverse their earlier policy of introducing goats and instead wanted to remove this invasive species. This goat in particular is a crafty one, and has never been caught, so the Byron lighthouse still has a goat guarding its hills.

Far out

Far out

The goat and the lighthouse--sounds like a work of literary fiction

The goat and the lighthouse–sounds like a work of literary fiction

Byron Bay is a great little town, with a lot going on, and I’m glad that despite my time in sickbed, I was able to experience a lot it had to offer. Special thanks to my gracious relatives!

Peace and Justice

Peace and Justice