The decapitated statues sat in a row, hapless victims of a crime committed long ago.
Sweat and sunscreen ran down my brow and into my eyes. I wiped my forehead, momentarily blinded. The heat was ridiculous and I asked myself why I was here. I could’ve been back at the guesthouse, relaxing in a hammock by the river.
I’d come to Ayutthaya mainly to see the Buddha head in the banyan tree. It was a spectacular sight, with roots growing around the head like tentacles. I would’ve enjoyed it more, but I was frustrated by all the people taking selfies. Turning your back on a Buddha statue is considered rude, but you wouldn’t know that here.
So I’d wandered away from the shaded tree into a quieter part of the temple. Surveying the ruins, it was hard to imagine how this place once looked. Ayutthaya had been Thailand’s capital until it was destroyed by the Burmese in 1767. One million people lived here, making it the world’s largest city. Merchants returned to Europe with tales of gold-covered temples and palaces.
Today it’s a big contrast. Ayutthaya is a combination of an ugly new town and beautiful ancient temples. The vast ruins are found all over the city. Brick pagodas hide behind restaurants, while crumbling statues watch the locals whizzing past on scooters. It maintains a provincial atmosphere, despite being only an hour away from Bangkok’s mega-metropolis.
However, Ayutthaya’s charm is diminished by the stray dogs that have taken over its streets. I lost count of the times I was chased by snarling packs. Nighttime was most dangerous, it was a miracle that I was never bitten.
But the risk was worth the rewards. Wat Phri Sanphet mesmerized me, its ruins hinting at Ayutthaya’s former grandeur. The three white stupas looked like alien spaceships, waiting to launch into space. A huge golden Buddha statue had once lived here, but it was melted down and taken to Burma after the war. There had been 250 kilograms of gold in that statue. Today, the temple’s columns look like they will topple at the slightest touch.
Wat Chaiwatthanaram was even more memorable. Impressive in the afternoon light, its red brickwork contrasted with the vivid blue sky. It had also suffered badly, its grounds a collection of broken statues and smashed shrines. But it slowly regained its lost majesty when the sky started turning pink.
The temple transformed into a powerful shape as the sun disappeared. I’ve seen Angkor Wat’s sunset, but this was a whole new level of awe. I understood why the architects had planned this perfect symmetry.
The Buddha statues became black silhouettes, their cracked bodies forgotten. They were now the temple’s guardians. Someone muttered something about old ghosts. But it was only when the dogs’ howling broke the silence that I started feeling nervous.