Buddha at Wat Wra Chet Tha Ram, Ayutthaya, Thailand
A van picked me up at the hotel at 6:30 (yawn … I was just beginning to sleep through the night) and we drove across the city at dawn, picking up at other hotels. About 7:15, about 10 of us were let out onto a street corner and tagged with various colored pieces of tape—mine was two triangles, one blue and one yellow—to be sorted into other vans and sent on to various destination and tours.
It took a while to do this, because at least five vanloads of tourists were milling about on the street. Wranglers with clipboards and stickers variously unloaded new arrivals and bustled “you, you, and you” onto the next van. These were clean white Mercedes with aircon and up to 14 seats. After about a half hour, we were on our way, weaving in and out of Bangkok’s insane traffic and onto an expressway out of the city. The driver was a pedal-down guy, both with the accelerator and brake. We were in a caravan of four white vans—one of which contained our young Thai guide—and this appeared to be the Ayutthaya Grand Prix.
The ride took about 90 minutes, with one pee break at a truck stop. (We refueled with CNG, as did all the trucks stopping there. Nice.) I got a Diet Coke, of course. The sights that followed will be described in more detail elsewhere, but it was very interesting—especially since son Joseph and I had visited Sukothai, the first capital, in 2011. We saw six different temple sites from the earliest to the most recent, all in slightly different architectural styles and flavors. Here’s the famous reclining Buddha at Wat Lukaya Suttha:
Reclining Buddha at Wat Lukaya Suttha, Ayutthaya, Thailand
It turned out this was Buddha Day, a national holiday in Thailand, and Ayutthaya was teeming with monks and worshipers, tents and loudspeakers, vendors and hawkers. There were buses, processions, gongs, chanting, music blaring—the usual Asian chaos, which seems cacophonous and confusing to westerners, but must be pretty normal to Asians themselves. It was all very festive, albeit more crowded than usual.
Tents and crowds mark Buddha Day at Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayutthaya, Thailand
The guide was very good and there was a simple restaurant buffet for the four van loads—about 40 people in all. I ate with two Canadians, an English woman, and a couple other Americans. Also in our van were three young Vietnamese women—graduate students on break from a university in Melbourne—who spoke fluent English with Viet-Aussie accents.
The final stop came about 3:30 at the Thai Royal Summer Palace, where after a long hot day of walking and climbing dusty ruins and getting in and out of the vans, it was like being at Longwood Gardens or Versailles—but with the unfortunate prospect of a 3k walk to see the highlights. Or you could rent a four-person golf cart for about $12/hour. The three Vietnamese students and I chipped 100 bhat each in for a golf cart and saw the whole place in great comfort and style.
Vietnamese students Connie, Lan, and Ngn met at the University of Melbourne.
We headed back to Bangkok in late afternoon traffic, having been re-sorted into different vans by destination hotels. I was back in my room, hot and tired, by 6:30—a 12-hour day of tourism. I would not have seen all that I did had I not paid for the transport and the guide. The sites were about 10-minutes apart through winding streets. Parking was difficult (remember, it’s Buddha Day) and the guide made us keep to a schedule so we could see three sites before lunch and three more in the afternoon. The afternoon temp was about 35C and I drank a full bottle of water at each site.
Back in Bangkok begins a new Buddha Day story. I drank a beer that I’d stashed in the room refrigerator, took a delicious shower, and researched nearby places for dinner. One recommended was the Wine Pub in the Pullman Royal King Hotel, which looked to be a short cab ride from here. I took the precaution of going to the front desk to get them to write directions and phone number in Thai, which the bellhop communicated verbally to the taxi driver.
Almost immediately I knew (from a map I had consulted) that we were going the wrong way. The driver spoke almost no English, but when I asked, “Where you go?” he said, “Pullman Silom.” We seemed to be headed to a different part of the city called Silom, famous for its bars and “nightlife.” “You want boom-boom?” the driver asked, referring to a certain kind of “massage.” “No,” I said, “but where are you going?” He seemed to say that he was going exactly where the bellhop had told him to take me.
After about 40 minutes, we pulled up at the Pullman Silom—which I discovered was one of two Pullman hotels in the city, the other being about six blocks from my hotel in the Pratunam district. Either my front desk or the bellhop had given the driver the wrong address. It was not his fault, but we were both really frustrated.
I said politely, “Take me back to Pratunam.” By now it was 8:30 and I could have gnawed down one of those pig trotters you see in the street markets. Plus I was looking forward to a glass of red at the Wine Pub. The driver argued; he wanted to put me out at the Pullman Silom. His meter, which should not have exceeded 50 bhat for the short (correct) trip, was pushing 100. I refused to budge. “Back to Glow Pratunam,” I insisted. “I pay you meter there.”
After 140 bhat and well over an hour in the cab, we arrived back at Glow (the curious name of my hotel). The driver wanted a piece of the bellhop who had given him the wrong address; he was duly summoned from the seventh-floor lobby. Much excited chatter ensued, with my scrap of paper from the front desk entered repeatedly into evidence. Another person from the seventh floor arrived with better English and I asked him to pay the cab fare. He agreed to take care of it. Everyone calmed down once money changed hands. I was asked if I still wanted to go to the Wine Pub at the Pullman Hotel in Pratunam. Warily, I said yes, and got back in the same cab.
Less than 10 minutes later, I was dropped off at the correct hotel—a five-star joint with a vast entrance and lobby. I ascended the marble stairs to the second-floor Wine Pub, washed my hands, and took a seat at the bar. The place was curiously uncrowded, with a few Valentines Day balloons and about a half-dozen diners who seemed to be finishing up. After all, it was 9:00.
The bartender approached, smiling and nodding in the usual friendly hotel staff manner. He saw my eyes scanning the chalkboard for a nice shiraz or pinot noir, and he said, “Sorry sir, no alcohol today.” What? “It is hotel policy in honor of Buddha Day,” he said. I thought at first he was kidding. But he explained with the calm of a monk that the entire country was dry today for the national holiday. Not only could I not get a glass of wine at the freaking WINE PUB, I could not get a drink anywhere in Thailand.
I retreated to Glow, hungry, thirsty, and defeated. The hotel kitchen was closed, so I went to the McDonalds at the street level and ordered my first Big Mac and fries since the 1970s. To go. I knew that there was one last beer in the refrigerator.
The end. A Big Mac and Fries—same the world over.