(Lee Foster Note: A traveler going to Thailand recently asked me to update and republish this earlier article about the cultural richness of Thailand.)
by Lee Foster
All travel could be said to inform us of the outside world so as to illuminate our interior geography.
Some countries clearly have more potential than others to add to our enlightenment.
Thailand is one of the special countries that can enhance a traveler’s worldview in major ways. Why? Because the Thais have contributed enormously to architecture, art, Buddhist religious thought, and the political development of Southeast Asia.
To the western mind, Thailand offers a stimulus to the imagination as profound as Thai cuisine’s subtle expansion of our taste range.
The religious architecture of Thailand’s three historic capitals (Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, and Bangkok) equals the grandeur of Europe’s cathedrals. The significant artistic and creative moments, especially in sculpture, such as the graceful depiction of the Buddha in the Sukhothai period, equals any period of artistic achievement one could point to in Europe or the Americas.
A traveler can experience this cultural legacy of Thailand in Bangkok, the country’s third major capital (1782 A.D. to the present).
In a day or, preferably, an overnight trip north from Bangkok along the Chao Praya River, a traveler can encounter the second historic capital, Ayutthaya (1376-1767 A.D.), famous for its impressive architecture.
The visitor with another two days of exploration time should drive a half-day north to Sukhothai (1238-1376 A.D.), the first Thai capital, most noted for the artistic purity of its Buddha sculptures.
The ruins of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai are haunting places to visit today. Both are considered to be sacred sites by the Thais.
Many of the remaining major architectural and artistic artifacts from both sites can be seen in Bangkok at the National Museum.
Bangkok: Repository of Thai Culture, Final Capital
In Bangkok the main site at which to encounter the genius of Thai culture is the temple grounds or “wat” known as Wat Pra Keo, plus the adjoining Royal Palace and the nearby National Museum.
Wat Pra Keo and the facade of the Royal Palace could occupy several hours of your time for a careful perusal. Together they offer a dense number of architectural, sculptural, and painting motifs. The wat is a triumph of Thai architecture, noted for its graceful upturned roof lines and bright colors.
Within the main temple of the Royal Palace is the Emerald Buddha, one of the sacred icons of the Thais. But it is the extensive murals on the walls, depicting scenes from the Indian/Thai epic, the Ramakien, that are especially stunning. Architecture and Buddha sculptures are strengths of other wats also, but at few sites in Thailand will you find such dazzling paintings.
The adjoining National Palace shows a pageantry all its own, especially if you happen by while a Thai honor guard, in white uniform, goes through a ceremonial drill. The National Palace is important to Thais because of their close relationship with the Thai king, Rama X. Thais have such affection for the king that an adverse comment about royalty would be about as insensitive as a foreigner could get, except possibly for climbing on a Buddha statue. Both offenses could get you thrown out of the country.
The National Museum, one of the major museums of Asia, has numerous interesting collections. Focus your attention especially on the rooms devoted to the earlier capitals, Ayutthaya and Sukhothai.
The Ayutthaya room reminds you that this city was the apex of Thai architectural development. Unfortunately, the Burmese sacked the city in 1767 and destroyed everything that could be burned or vandalized. At the National Museum you can see architectural fragments, sculpture, pottery, and lacquer cabinets for holding books.
The Sukhothai room presents some of the famous Sukhothai Buddha statues that are considered a triumphant moment in Asian artistic creation. Portraying the Buddha is one of the major subjects of Asian art, just as images of Christ and the Virgin are a preoccupation in European art. Sukhothai artists sculpted the Buddha with a sensitivity of ovoid facial features and a gracefulness of body line that has never been surpassed. They depict the Buddha in several traditional positions, such as sitting and “subduing mara” or overcoming temptation. But the Sukhothai artists also present the Buddha in some innovative ways, especially standing and walking with a forward-facing palm, the position called “dispelling fear.”
Another intriguing stop in the old royal area of Bangkok, near Wat Pra Keo, is the temple Wat Po. This temple contains one of the largest reclining Buddhas in Thailand. Be sure to follow protocol and remove your shoes before entering the temples within the wat. Wat Po is also famous for its massage school. Thais take massage seriously both for relaxation and for its therapeutic power, based on the pressure point knowledges also used in acupuncture.
It is possible to see the Bangkok culture sites on your own if you have a guidebook. At each wat you can also hire a local guide to inform you. Transportation in Bangkok from your hotel to the old royal city area can be a challenge because of heavy traffic congestion. If your hotel happens to be near the Chao Praya River, the fastest surface transport may be the express taxi boats that run up and down the river.
For travel beyond Bangkok to Ayuthaya and Sukhothai, participate in a tour or hire a driver and guide. Don’t consider driving yourself, unless you are fluent in Thai and are expert at driving on the left side of the road in heavy traffic that can descend into total gridlock. A knowledgeable guide who speaks good English is critical. Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) can help you engage a competent guide.
Ayutthaya: Thailand’s Second Capital
Driving out of the modern environment of Bangkok, a city stressed by pollution from its legendary automotive congestion, shows a traveler the luminescent green countryside that is the typical Thai environment.
Bangkok may be called, in Thai, the City of Angels, its official name, but it is the Thai countryside that looks more like paradise. The drive to Ayutthaya will at least show you greenery in a zone changing from agricultural to urban use.
The drive beyond Ayutthaya to Sukhothai plunges you into the “land of a million rice fields,” a popular description of Thailand. This country is the rice bowl of Asia. Thailand is a major exporter of rice in a region where rice is the staple food.
Farmers not only harvest bumper rice crops from the water-rich fields. They also net huge numbers of fish from the shallow canals amidst the fields. You pass roadside markets where fish are drying, the time-honored method of fish preservation in tropical heat.
Ayutthaya has several wats or temple grounds that merit a walk-through. When the Portuguese first came in contact with Ayutthaya in the 16th century, they judged that its grandeur exceeded London or Paris. Ayutthaya was one of the largest and most prosperous cities on earth, with over a million residents. This fortified royal site, chosen because the curving Chao Praya River gave it watery protection on three sides, flourished from 1350-1767 A.D., the year when a marauding Burmese army sacked the city and destroyed everything they could. The Thais regrouped and eventually repelled the invaders, but chose to build a new capital, further south on the river, rather than reconstruct Ayutthaya.
Even the rapacious Burmese could not destroy all of the grand architecture and massive numbers of Buddha statues of Ayutthaya. Architecture is the dominant art of this regal city.
Tour Ayutthaya by visiting several temple grounds during the day and at night, when they are illuminated, creating a romantic and haunting aura of bygone splendor now in ruins.
Be sure to see Wat Panam Chong, which has Thailand’s largest ancient Buddha and a Buddha made of solid gold. You will be walking amidst the faithful, who will be offering incense, candles, lotus flower buds, and flakes of gold leaf to the Buddhas at this popular pilgrimage site. Monks in saffron robes walk about, for this wat and many other wats are their schools and living places. Monks bless the faithful by dipping a stick bundle in water and tossing droplets over the head.
View the large, outdoor, reclining Buddha at Wat Yai Chai Mongkol. This so-called “sleeping Buddha” is not actually sleeping but supposedly depicts the Buddha at the moment of attaining enlightenment or “nirvana.” Nearby are large bell-shaped monuments, called “chedi,” and a ceremonial pyramid surrounded by hundreds of Buddhas.
Among the several abandoned temple grounds, be sure to visit Wat Mahathat, or “Relic of the Buddha” temple grounds. This abandoned but stabilized site shows the magnificence of architecture in the Ayutthaya period. Large structures were built of clay-and-rice bricks, then faced with stucco. The temples and chedi at Wat Mahathat show the influence of the Khmer/Cambodia culture, to the east, on Ayutthaya.
Sukhothai: Thailand’s First Capital
The half-day drive from Ayutthaya to Sukhothai takes you into the rich rural world of Thailand, which approximates today the perennial Thailand that flourished in earlier eras.
Rice is grown in the traditional manner by skilled farmers, who flood the fields with the abundant water available from the rivers. The only concession to modernity is the use of small, mechanized cultivators, rather than water buffalo, to plow the fields. You pass mile after mile of shimmering rice fields. Brahma bulls and cows graze along the roadways.
At Sukhothai, allow time to walk through the Sukhothai National Museum, where you will see a rectangular, black, stone stele. On this famous stone, the first King of Thailand, Ramkamheng, describes how he formed the Thai alphabet and how his ideal of enlightened governance made the kingdom prosper.
King Ramkamheng wrote, “Sukhothai is good. There are fish in the water, rice in the fields, and the king does not levy taxes on his subjects. Those who wish to trade are free to trade. The faces of the people shine bright.”
Ramkamheng built his Thai empire by diplomacy rather than conquest. His vision of benevolent governance is still at the heart of the modern Thai’s deep feeling of affection for the king. Despite all the passing troubles of Thailand, and there are many, there is an abiding faith that the beloved king will eventually step in and resolve problems when they become crises. This relationship of the Thai people to their king has no parallel among European monarchs.
Besides its sensitive Buddhas, Sukhothai was famous for its ceramics, many of which are displayed in the museum. (A separate museum to these ceramics, near Sukhothai at the kiln site, shows how these ceramics were fired and then traded on extensive routes through Asia.)
After viewing the main museum at Sukhothai, visit the adjacent temple grounds, the Wat Mahathat of Sukhothai. Tall, standing Buddhas, sitting Buddhas, and chedi dot the grounds. After a few days of perusal and with an expert guide, you will begin to identify the influences of Khmer/Cambodia and Burma/Myanmar on the artifacts and architecture.
Near the Wat Mahathat, be sure to see Wat Sra Sri, with its restored chedi. In front of the chedi is a graceful, black, bronze Buddha in the standing position, with palm of hand facing forward, in the pose known as “dispelling fear.” One can imagine Sukhothai at its prime with hundreds of these statues in the environs.
To see the region properly, you need to spend one night or more in Sukhothai or the nearby town of Phitsanulok. An informed guide will round out your trip with visits to other wats. For example, Wat Mahathat Phitsanulok is one of the revered modern sites of Buddhist worship, far off the tourism circuit. Here you will see Buddhism in all its pageantry, with monks delivering sermons and the faithful offering their incense and prayers, oblivious to your presence.
Thailand’s Sights and Insights
To the western mind, stimulated by our ideals of individual achievement, wrestling always with the riddle of the universe and the question of meaning, posing continuously the question that Job articulated about the unfairness of unequal human suffering, the Buddhism practiced by 95 percent of the Thai people will seem foreign indeed.
The saffron-robed monk, seen everywhere, is a fixture of Thai Buddhism. At age 20 or so a young man from a devout family will spend a short time, from a week to several months, as a monk. The young man will shave his head and eyebrows, a symbolic gesture to make himself unattractive, and will have no contact with women. The young monk will depend on others for food, mainly rice and vegetables, which he must eat before noon, but not thereafter.
Aspects of the Thai/Buddhist sensibility can illuminate our own approach to life. Thais have an ability to remain calm even in heated matters. This “cool heart” skill of the Thai people, as they express it, also enables them to live happily without resolving the contradictory ultimate questions of existence. Thais also genuinely love their daily life and feel that all human activity should have an element of fun or “sanuk” in it. Thai Buddhism is compassionate, compromising, respectful, forgiving, and non-judgmental. The Thai creed is to avoid worry about the future, to feel that life is a pleasure, and to endure day to day difficulties without getting too frazzled.
The Thai temperament has served the people well. Thailand was never conquered, a remarkable fact. The Burmese to the west and the Khmer/Cambodians to the east were always a threat, but never made a sustained occupation of Thailand. Although the French and English extended their spheres of influence east and west of Thailand, no European power controlled the Bangkok or earlier Ayuthaya government. In World War II Thailand managed to allow the Japanese to overrun it without incurring the wrath of the American and British victors at the end of the war. Today Thailand enjoys good relations and direct air flights to Vietnam, despite the fact that U.S. bases in Thailand bombed Vietnam heavily during the Vietnam war.
One of my memorable moments in Thailand occurred in Sukhothai when an elephant carrying several children walked past the restored ruins of Wat Chang Lom. For a moment I was transported back to the 14th century, the time of King Ramkamheng, and could approximate in my mind the start of the Thai kingdom. There was prosperity in the fields and waters, wise governance of the lands, and a steady creation of glorious art and architecture.
Thailand: If You Go
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) presents its country at www.tourismthailand.org.
Several major air carriers serve Bangkok from North America. The long flights are broken up with a stop in Japan, Taiwan, or Hong Kong.
TAT can recommend licensed guide services in Bangkok. A licensed guide with both knowledge of the culture and a command of English will be critical for your understanding of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai.
Bangkok offers hotels in all price ranges. Some major hotels are on the Chao Praya River downstream from the old royal city. Transport from the hotels to this cultural area is easy via express river taxi boat.