Ayutthaya: Everything except the bus

Travel cliché: the journey matters as much as the destination. Or, in the case of this trip to the old Thai imperial capital of Ayutthaya, the journey provides the thrill.

SM and I planned this trip in December 2016. She wanted to visit an Asian city that was bike-friendly, with plenty to sightsee. It would serve as prelude for future bike trips to Taiwan and Cambodia.

We had no preconditions. We just wanted to cycle. Unlike most Singaporeans, Thailand doesn’t hold the same allure for me anymore (since I’ve been there twice already, for a Bangkok shopping spree and another time to run a race in Phuket). I’m not a shopper either.

Cycling through historical ruins. At least that sounded cool.

IMG_20170316_103039Wat Sri Sanphet, a huge temple on the site of Ayutthaya’s old grand palace 

Through a mix of deliberate choices and happenstance, this trip turned out to be a primer in taking every sort of transport available. Save for the most convenient: the bus.

Third class cabin, first class experience
SM likes trains. She hates buses with a zeal. So after touching down at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, we took the metro straight to Hua Lamphong Railway station, to catch a train north to Ayutthaya.

An English-speaking attendant caught onto our confused looks. When we told her Ayutthaya, she said a train was leaving now. Without too much thought, we went to the counter bought two tickets and went to the platform to get our train.

Trains in Thailand are run by the State Railways of Thailand (SRT), and unless you specify what class you prefer, it seems you will get 3rd class by default. 3rd class on a SRT train from Bangkok costs 20 baht (S$0.90) means free seating, basic hardback seats, fans and open windows.

Depending on the type of train (commuter or express), the train may or may not stop at every station.

Our train to Ayutthaya was full. I sat with a guy who dozed off at my shoulder. Sunlight seemed perfectly angled on my cheek. At every station, a vendor patrolled the cabin selling drinks or Roti Sai Mai (Halal candy floss). Total duration: 1.5 hours of clacking along the tracks.

IMG_20170315_1449223rd class cabin on an SRT rapid service from Bangkok to Ayutthaya

IMG_20170315_160804The train from Bangkok leaves Ayutthaya train station for the far north

Ayutthaya and its boats
The old city Ayutthaya is technically an island in the bend of the Chao Praya River (which flows south to Bangkok), and the Pa Sak River. Most of the important ruins lie on the island itself. Ayutthaya’s old foreign settlements and the current railway station do not.

So during the trip, we spent a lot of time taking boat-ferries. They’re essentially bumboats, with seating for passengers and an open space by the boarding area for bikes and motorcycles. The jetties are semi-official: walk down an alley and sometimes at the end, you’ll find either weeds by a river or a river crossing with an attendant waiting to collect money.

For some reason, bridges are not very common. There are two from the railway station bank to Ayutthaya, but they were further down the river.

Getting across a river in Ayutthaya on these boats cost 5 baht. There is allegedly a surcharge for bikes, but we never got charged.

IMG_20170315_161751One of Ayutthaya’s many ferry crossings. Get a boat ride for 5 baht!

The king of Ayutthaya is the bicycle
Ayutthaya is probably 16 square kilometres in size, crisscrossed by various roads and canals. The ruins are clustered in the leafy Ayutthaya Historical Park in the centre of the city. But the city also has a retail zone (Naresuan Road), a huge market (Hua Raw), several universities and chunks of open parkland dotted with old temples in the south. The ring road around Ayutthaya island – U Thong Road – is lined with cafes and shops selling Roti Sai Mai.

The best way to see all of this is by bicycle.

There are bike rental shops near the railway station. And almost every hostel rents bikes – at a rate of 50 baht per day. They’re fuss-free, quick and cheap. Bikes make it easier than a car or a motorbike to access off-road attractions. When we went south to see the foreign settlements, bikes were easy to carry onto boats.

Most important of all, the drivers of Ayutthaya don’t horn at bikes or drive them off the road. Not once was I threatened. Bikes have become part of the road landscape there.
The only things that hates bikes are the stray dogs, and after getting chased by a pack, we avoided them for the whole trip.

To this day, I’m still amazed I rode a bike through the busiest road junction in Ayutthaya – with cars, motorcycles, tourists on elephants and trucks going around – without getting honked at.

So if you’re going to Ayutthaya, take a train there and rent a bike to get around. Use the boats to ferry you across the river. And ditch the buses.

… But also try to take some pics of the crazy designs Thai buses have.

IMG_20170316_150847Finding random ruins deep in residential areas? Only by bike. 

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