Sri Suwanna-Benja, 64, slowly climbs down the pier’s stairs. She is overweight and her legs don’t seem to be strong enough to carry her. Cautiously, Sri gets to the long-tailed boat with her granddaughter’s help. However, once on board, she gets into position, revs the engine and manoeuvres the vessel like she were playing with an old toy.
“I have been driving the long-tailed boat for more than 40 years,” Sri says, while docking at the pier in front of Chandra Kasem Palace, Ayutthaya. Like other long-tailed tour boats, hers can accommodate up to eight persons. She feels like all her passengers are old friends that she must take good care of.
Established in 1350 as the capital of its namesake kingdom, the old city of Ayutthaya lies on an island formed by the confluence of three rivers, Lopburi, Pasak and Chao Phraya. The waterways served as transport routes linking the former capital city with other towns. Here, many places, Chandra Kasem Palace for example, face the rivers and canals. So exploring Ayutthaya by boat is perfect.
“This area once was a floating market. There were outlets situated on bamboo rafts, lining the river. These outlets offered food and utensils,” she points. “Teak timber from the northern provinces floated down the rivers to riverside sawmills. Rice was transported on big rice barges from nearby provinces to the mills.
“When the new market was built on the land, outlets on the rafts gradually moved out of the rivers. All were gone by the 1975,” she recalls. Until now, a number of neglected sawmills and rice mills can be seen along the rivers.
Though the waterways are forgotten by most commuters, they are not quiet. Pulled by roaring tugboats, huge cargo barges always make their way around the island of Ayutthaya. Dining boats, renovated from old rice barges, slowly cruise while diners enjoy meals on board.
I find it easy to get around by boat and see Ayutthaya from the waterways. Sri makes her way to the southeast corner of the island. The high gable of Wat Phananchoeng’s main pavilion can be seen from a distance.
She docks the boat at the pier, and I take a short walk into the pavilion amid the haze of joss sticks. Chinese tourists pack the walkway and quietly move inside a dim high-ceiling pavilion.
Built in 1324, 26 years before the city of Ayutthaya was officially founded, Wat Phananchoeng houses a huge gilded seated Buddha image. This highly revered Buddha statue called Luang Poh To is popular with Buddhist tourists, particularly Chinese.
A kilometre south of Ayutthaya is a Japanese village, across a Portuguese settlement. In the 17th century, some 1,500 Japanese lived in the village that stretched for a kilometre along the eastern banks of the Chao Phraya River, just south of the Dutch settlement and across from the Portuguese.
Japanese traders came to Ayutthaya for sappan wood, lead, tin, forest products and deer hides, which were used by Japanese warriors to make coats, gloves and firearm cases.
Today it is a museum telling stories about the relationship between Ayutthaya and Japan. The Ayutthaya nobles favoured samurai warriors as bodyguards, so, a full set of armour and swords are on display. The Japanese also contributed to the development of Thai sweets such as foy thong, while the Thais influenced the evolution of Japanese rice liquor.
South of the island there are also Dutch and Portuguese settlements. From the foreign settlements, we head back to the Ayutthaya Island and head west.
The top of an ancient Khmer-style stupa surrounded by cloisters that house rows of Buddha images, comes into view. This is Wat Phutthaisawan. King Uthong, the first king of Ayutthaya, established this temple in 1353 to memorialise the campsite where he lived while his new city was being built on the island.
A short ride further, towering pagodas of Wat Chaiwatthanaram are also visible from a distance.
King Prasat Thong (1629-1656) ordered the magnificent Wat Chaiwatthanaram to be constructed along the southern banks of the Chao Phraya River after returning victorious from an invasion of Khmer lands in 1630. All of the pagodas are in good shape, making them one of the most stunning pictures in Ayutthaya, particularly when viewed from the river.
Wat Phutthaisawan’s Khmer-style stupa is surrounded by cloisters, which are lined with a number of Buddha images. It is among the temples that survived demolition during the Burmese invasion and has remained in good shape. Peerawat Jariyasombat
The museum in the Japanese Village displays stories of two important Japanese people in Ayutthaya. Nagamasa Yamada was head of the Japanese in Ayutthaya, who supported the military campaigns of King Songtham. After the death of King Songtham in 1628, Yamada left the capital for Nakhon Si Thammarat and became governor of the province. Maria Guyomar de Pina is a Christian Japanese-Portuguese lady who developed dessert recipes in the Ayutthaya royal court. Some of her dishes were influenced by Portuguese cuisine, particularly the egg yolk-based desserts, which later become the famous Thai sweets foy thong and thong yod. Peerawat Jariyasombat