The past is always more romantic to those who didn’t live it.
This is never truer than when applied to the latest trends that have been sweeping through Thailand following the popularity of the soap opera Bupphaesannivas (“Love Destiny”). Not only has it become fashionable for Thais to don traditional clothing, it has also become fashionable for us to visit the site where this drama takes place: Ayutthaya, the old capital of Thailand, which is an hour and a half drive from Bangkok.
Despite living in Bangkok all my life, I have never explored Ayutthaya. Most of the historical tales I know of the Ayutthaya era are of Queen Suriyothai who disguised herself as a man to go into battle to protect her husband, King Naresuan, and his fight to regain Thai independence, and of the village of Bangrajan, which became the last line of defence against the Burmese when they sacked Ayutthaya for the second time. I went to Ayutthaya hoping to see traces of these stories, even traces of the golden age of King Narai that had so captivated the entire nation in Bupphaesannivas. But what I found were what other tourists before me have found: just ancient crumbling stones.
For our one-day trip, we decided to visit the Ayutthaya floating market (a popular destination for those who are not interested in history), the Grand Palace, the Bang Pa-In Palace and the old Japanese settlement. We started with the Grand Palace because it had all the iconic Ayutthaya aesthetics, mainly the ancient red-stoned ruins that have adorned so many postcards and tourism brochures. The Grand Palace was incredibly old, we found ourselves navigating up and down flights of cracked stone steps that led to nowhere but dead ends, empty clearings and cramped dark rooms that were literally falling to pieces. There was an unmistakable air of old grandeur about the place, but there was no way for us to know whose footsteps we were retracing and to know what events took place here many hundreds of years ago. Information on the actual history behind the photogenic scenery was surprisingly scarce, both from displays within the palace itself and from our own pool of knowledge.
Bang Pa-In Palace was newer and therefore better maintained. There we spent time strolling through gardens, towers and luxurious state rooms that were designed in the Western architectural style, one of which hosted a small display about the palace’s history. However, the exhibitions we found most illuminating were the ones at the old Japanese settlement, where the museum was built right on the site of a thriving sixteenth century Japanese village. Although no houses or buildings have survived, the museum acted as a valuable hub of information. Unlike in the Grand Palace and the Bankapi Palace, the exhibitions in this museum provided the sort of fascinating insight into life in Ayutthaya that we were never taught at school.
We learned, for the first time, about the dynamic between Japanese settlers and the Siamese citizens, and how the attitude towards foreigners in the old kingdom of Siam was as complex as it is in Thailand today. We were exposed to a cast of characters we never knew existed before – men and women, both Thai and foreign, who are just as interesting as the more famous kings and queens of the era. This trip to Ayutthaya made me realise how little we, the average Thai person, know about our history. We know the major highlights, of course, but tend not to explore the specifics or the nuances, and have never been encouraged to question what we’ve been taught. We have never studied or taken the time to understand the hows and the whys and the ways in which our history has affected our modern-day existence.
Many have speculated that the trends of wearing our national costume and returning to the old capital for photo-ops show how we take comfort in nostalgia and long for the past. But as I was standing among the ruins of Ayutthaya’s glory days, I began to re-evaluate that theory. Because how can we truly long for something we know nothing of?
Pim Wangtechawat is a Bangkok-based writer