Thursday, May 19, 2005

Monkey Business

Ayutthaya and Lopburi, only 100-odd kilometres north of Bangkok, used to be capitals of Siam (what Thailand used to be called in them days) in the middle ages, though now they are just provincial towns; although very odd ones at that.

For over 400 years Ayutthaya reigned supreme in Siam with, at its peak, a population in excess of 1 million, compared to just 80,000 today. After being razed by the Burmese in 1767 the modern town only inherited the wide, majestic street plan (plus a plethora of wats in various states of crumbling disrepair, but more on them later), and is struggling to fill its erstwhile shoes. In fact the new town seems a bit lost amid the wats and canals, like a small family moving into a cavernous stately home. This incongruity aside, Ayutthaya is definitely worth a visit and should be the first place in Thailand any self-respecting ruin-chaser heads for. Scattered around the town are over 30 different wat ruins, about a dozen of which are truly impressive with grandiose stupas and remains of other temple buildings. However by the end of a day cycling around from one wat to the next, I got a little watted out and felt that it was enough.

So I popped up the road to Lopburi. The town also has its fair share of wats, but what I've found more interesting are the sites devoted to king Narai (who ruled towards the end of the 17th century) who opened up the country to foreign influences, especially the great European powers of the time. It's fascinating to see how, though on the other side of the world, there was an interchange of ideas and dialogue that was far more extensive than I had previously thought. But all that is just historical fluff compared to Lopburi's main tourist draw: monkeys. A couple of troops of long-tailed macaques, operating out of a Hindu temple, terrorise the streets and rooftops of Lopburi. In fact most of the roofs in central Lopburi have wire mesh or barbed wire covering them to keep the cheeky monkeys off. I know this because I have the perfect view of the whole spectacle from my top-floor hotel room, which, luckily, also happens to be just beside a major monkey congregation area. I'm just having a great time watching the animals' antics whilst sitting by my window.

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