In an elaborate and spectacular three-day coronation ceremony that began on 4 May 2019, which cost US$31 million dollars,
King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun was crowned King of Thailand. The official ceremonies, a mix of Brahmin and Buddhist rituals, took place in the capital, Bangkok. During the ceremony the 66-year-old king was handed the 7.3 kg Great Crown of Victory (Phra Maha Phichai Mongkut), which he then placed on his head during the ceremony. King Bodindradebayavarangkun succeeds his father, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej (1927-2016), who was widely loved and revered, almost 69 years after the last coronation also staged on 5 May.
Thailand has numerous attractions for the visitor, and certainly not just connected with royalty, especially if one flees the steamy capital even just for a short break. The Thais capitalise on this, spending nine figure sums annually on grooming the ancient charms of their land, to consolidate its position as the central tourist attraction of Asia.
Bangkok is truly a city of extremes, obsessed with self-preservation, lavishly regilding monuments, while the pollution which corrodes them constantly increases: the air perilous to inhale, even for non-asthmatics, the traffic congestion ever more manic, the klongs, or canals, increasingly choked with water-weed, and the city sinking in places more rapidly than Venice. I love it – this raffish, riverside city through which winds its majestic River Chao Phraya, the River of Kings, flowing down from the mountainous north out to its estuary at the present-day capital of Bangkok. The River of Kings not only irrigates the fertile, food-producing central plains of Thailand, it is a vital strategic and communications artery, as important to the Thais as the Nile is to the Egyptians.
Every great city has its river and beginning with Sukothai in the late 13th century, the successive capitals of Thailand have moved south downstream, along the River Chao Phraya (its full name the Mao Nam Chao Phraya.) In a day you can reverse the process as far as Ayutthaya, the second Thai capital, chugging up-river on a launch from Bangkok, past Nonthaburi, the capital for only 15 years, and now a suburb, which succeeded Ayutthaya. As I was to discover, it is a truly spectacular archaeological site, representing in its ruined splendour over 400 years of Thai kingship.
I joined the popular river cruise at the jetty of one of Bangkok’s premier hotels, the Oriental (established in 1876), racing through its colonial-style columned verandas – Thai punctuality is spot-on. But one can also sail up the River on Chao Phraya Express boats, if speed is your thing, or on converted rice barges, less crowded and more contemplative than the faster options. The cruise takes one up the Chao Phraya, winding out through the city into the Thai countryside, stopping most notably at the Bang Pa-in Palace and then Ayutthaya itself, but also mooring at the National Museum of Royal Barges, and at various other less grand but fascinating destinations such as a floating market, a wooden village on stilts, and naturally enough – for shopping – a craft outlet.
The fishing village that became the latest and present capital in 1782, was once called Ban Kok or Village of the Wild Plums. Just over 200 years from when the first Chakri monarch, King Rama I, founded his new capital, it now supports over eight million people, many of whose lives and livelihoods are connected with the river. The Thais themselves still call Bangkok – Krung Thep, or City of Angels, in contrast to its somewhat more dubious contemporary reputation.
The cruise begins amongst the modern monochrome high-rises that punctuate the downtown skyline, but there are tantalising glimpses between them of tiered temple roofs, with glazed emerald green tiles, like shining fish scales, their golden spires and domes glinting in the sunlight. Everywhere these temples and the ever-present spirit house on poles, are the evidence of the devotion which tempers the materialism of Thai life; and floating along the river, one is constantly reminded of the harmonious balancing act between the spiritual and the worldly that appears to keep most Thais such sane yet highly motivated people.
As the boat drew out of the city, everywhere there were those ubiquitous little spirit houses, guarding even the simplest riverside wooden shack. Certainly the imposing temples we glided by, on which the people have traditionally lavished so much loving attention, represent the continuing importance of Buddhism as the philosophical base of the Thai nation. At the same time, the ancient animist beliefs, for example in the spirits of place, are catered for by those tiny guardian spirit houses.
The cruise offers memorably unexpected, fascinating glimpses of rural Thailand and traditional life. Around a million Bangkok citizens live in or on the river and canals, whizzing along the river in traditional long-tail boats or motorised canoes, or expertly piloting barges of market produce. Double-decker steamers and ferries criss-cross the water, but down the network of canals, older rhythms prevail. Further along the River women pole lotus-filled sampan boats and itinerant hawkers dispense aromatic Thai fast food in the floating market, while garlanded spirit houses protect the old teak homes on stilts. We passed somnolent small temple courtyards, where only tinkling wooden wind-bells disturb the steamy torpor, and then a gaggle of children start splashing vigorously, bathing and brushing their teeth in the fetid brown water.
Further upstream, the river still teems with industrial activity – convoys of barges laden with teak completing their long journey down-river from the forests of the north; while other cargo boats head for the port bulging with sacks of Thailand’s major export – rice. Double-decker steamers carry market produce; barges seem about to sink beneath the weight of cement bags.
Later we passed the King’s stunning riverside Grand Palace and stopped at the royal barge-house, whose 20-foot ceremonial dragon longboats, which were originally war-craft, have exquisitely carved dragons’ heads at their prows. This became the National Museum of Royal Barges in 1972, some of which are still used for the Royal Barge Procession. The tradition of barge processions dates back to the early 13th century, though their more practical use dates back to the Ayutthaya period, (founded around 1350), when most travel was by boat. These highly ornate and exquisitely crafted boats, of which there are around 50 in the barge-house, but eight of which dominate in size and grandeur, are collectively known as the Royal Barges. Each of these eight royal barges bears a sign indicating the name, the year of construction, and the number of crew it required. The most splendid and elaborate of the barges is the Suppanahong, 150 metres long and carved from a single piece of teak with a striking gold figure head. This barge was also used on 4 May, in honour of HM King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s coronation, when oarsmen rowed the Subhannahong royal barge from the Royal Navy’s dockyard on the Thon Buri side of the Chao Phraya River to Ratcha Woradit pier, next to the Grand Palace to greet the new king.
After passing the Temple of the Dawn, Wat Arun, sparkling with embedded porcelain chips, gradually the riverbank becomes dense with more and more palm trees. Increasingly long stretches of tropical forest are punctured by the manicured lawns of splendid country mansions, again often constructed of wood, with up-turned gables pointing heavenward, a symbolic icon repeated throughout Thailand, from bus-stop to palace.
About two hours north of Bangkok is the exquisite Bang Pa-in Palace, formerly used by Thai royalty, built rather like the Taj Mahal, as a monument to love, in memory of a secret 19th-century royal liaison for just one night. King Ekathotsarot was travelling along the Chao Phraya River when there was an accident. He was forced to swim to a little island, and that night he met a beautiful woman named ‘In’. As a result of the encounter, a son was born, whom the King brought up, and who later became King Prasat-thong. But there is also tragedy associated with this river, royal tragedy in fact. Queen Sunanda Kumariratana and Princess Karnabhirn Bejaratana died on their way to the Bang Pa-in Palace in 1880. Their barge capsized on the River. Helplessly, the horrified staff watched them sink, since it was forbidden by law and punishable by death for commoners to touch a member of the royal family.
The original Palace had been constructed in 1632, but fell into disuse, and the vast gardens became overgrown, encroaching on the Palace and then abandoned. King Mongkut (Rama IV) began to restore the site in the mid-19th century. But the present buildings of the Bang Pa-in Royal Palace, also known as the Summer Palace, were constructed between 1872 and 1889 by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). becoming the summer residence of the Chakri monarchs. Apart from the jewel-like original pavilion, the Aisawan Thiphya-Art (Divine Seat of Personal Freedom), which appears to be floating in the middle of a small lake, part of the fascination for contemporary visitors is the surrealist blend of architectural styles, Italian and Victorian references contrasting fortuitously with Chinese and Thai ones. Rama V had clearly been inspired by European palaces. This ‘floating’ pavilion is rumoured to have been a favourite sanctuary in which young royals read poetry in the afternoon.
The Ho Withun Thesana or Sage’s Lookout, a colourfully painted observation tower, is another highlight of the palace grounds. And there is a marble obelisk shrine in a garden dedicated to the queen who had drowned with her daughter in the River Chao Phraya.
Inside the dark interior of the Chinese-style Wehart Chamrunt (Heavenly Light) Palace and throne room, one could just pick out sombre, magnificent lacquer-ware, the glistening black ebony surfaces highlighted by inlaid mother-of-pearl. In addition there are superb ornamental tiles, delicate fretwork ornamented with gold and silver, as well as an intricately carved dragon made of camel bone. One of the prize pieces is King Chulalongkorn’s bed. Remember the 1956 film The King and I ? This was his very bed.
Finally we reached Ayutthaya, today a sleepy riverside town, and a vast archaeological site founded in 1350, it became the second Siamese capital after Sukothai, and destroyed by the Burmese in the 18th century. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, now called the Ayutthaya Historical Park, it contains numerous palaces, temples, monasteries and statues. For over 400 years these acres of ruins were the opulent capital of Thailand. It flourished from the 14th to the 18th centuries, during which time it grew to be one of the world’s largest and most cosmopolitan urban areas and a centre of global diplomacy and commerce.
During its zenith, Ayutthaya held sway over much of Southeast Asia, one of its great civilised cities and a centre for the flowering of religious and secular art. The site originally contained not one but three palaces, the first of which was built in 1350. It was the capital for 35 kings of five dynasties, and now contains literally hundreds of temples, a few of them still places of worship. It is characterised by tall prang (reliquary towers) and gigantic monasteries. By the 1650s, it supported a larger population than London’s, and in terms of sheer dimensions alone, this archaeological site is one of the most impressive in the world. Some of the most magnificent architectural ruins are topped with headless Buddhas, due to its eventual destruction by the Burmese, and crumbling fortresses, which provide eloquent testimony to the former capital’s splendour.
We stopped at three different vantage points, so extensive is the site. I climbed steep temple steps and marvelled at the chedis (stupa), but even so it was hard to project oneself from the ruins into the achievements of this once magnificent city. Ayutthaya’s destruction by the Burmese was as severe a blow to the Thais as the loss of Paris, or London, would have been to the French, or English.
Ayutthaya was laid out according to a systematic city-planning grid, with roads, canals and moats around the principal structures. The city was strategically located on an island surrounded by three rivers connecting the city to the sea. This site was chosen because it was located above the tidal bore of the Gulf of Siam, as it existed at that time, thus preventing attack of the city by seagoing warships of other nations. The location also helped to protect the city from seasonal flooding.
It was also sufficiently upstream to be protected from the Arab and European powers who were expanding their influence in the region, even as Ayutthaya was itself consolidating and extending its own power to fill the vacuum left by the fall of Angkor. The royal court of Ayutthaya exchanged ambassadors far and wide, including with the Mughal court in Delhi and as distant as the French court at Versailles.
Downstream from Ayutthaya there were enclaves of foreign traders and missionaries, each building in their own architectural style. However, in the 18th century, when Ayutthaya was attacked and razed by the Burmese army, its inhabitants were forced to abandon the city.
Archaeological excavations are still under way at Ayutthaya, excavation and conservation of the palace and Wat Phra Si Sanphet is in progress, but the glory and grace of the buildings that have already been partially restored, remind one of how grand the Thai nation once was, one of the great centres of civilisation of Southeast Asia, the catalyst for a flowering of stupendous religious and secular art.
The tiered red roofs of a fabulous restored temple, Wat Suwarndaram, between two massive ruined chedi, were my last glimpse of the ruined city. Ayutthaya is so immense that I tasted just a fraction of the majestic, deeply evocative spiritual and royal site, since it was time to return to the present – then it was back to Bangkok, ‘City of Angels’, where bare-footed monks share the throbbing streets with the wheels of giant Mercedes.
BY JULIET HIGHET