For anybody interested in the story of Buddha, he and the Bodhi tree are entwined together in a story that has echoed down through the centuries, both wrapped around each other, forever joined.
Not far from Bangkok is the ancient old capital of Ayutthaya, and in that old capital is an old Bodhi tree, and in that old Bodhi tree, entwined in it’s roots, sits an image of the Buddha.
Carved from sandstone and looking as serene and happy as any Buddha image you’ve ever seen, it’s one of the enduring images of not only Thailand but of Buddhism itself.
The Bodhi tree plays an important role for all Buddhists, being both a reminder and an inspiration of the Buddha’s enlightenment and of the potential that lies with us all. The story goes that Siddhartha Gautama (that’s The Buddha) had been practicing austerities for six years and finally came to the realization that he was wasting his time and that this could not lead to self-realization, so he threw that idea out and sat under a Bodhi tree to try to resolve his problems and vowed not to rise until he attained enlightenment.
And so here we are some 2,000 years later and an ancient old tree holds an ancient old image in it’s folds, coincidence, probably not, but still a great symbol and powerfully beautiful. Local legend has it that the tree has pushed up the head from a ruined statue lying below the surface.
Ayutthaya itself was founded in 1350 and sits on an island between three rivers, a great trading town in it’s heyday and by the sixteenth century was one of the wealthiest cities in the world. By the middle of the sixteenth century the Burmese had their eye on the prize and began repeated attacks on the city.
The control of Ayutthaya and all its wealth see-sawed back and forth between the Burmese and the Thais until In the mid-eighteenth century, when Ayutthaya again became ensnared in wars with the Burmese. In 1765, a combined 40,000-strong force of Burmese armies invaded the territories of Ayutthaya from the north. After a brutal 14 month siege, the city was over-run and burned in April 1767. All of its art treasures, the libraries containing its literature, and the archives housing its historic records were almost totally destroyed and the Burmese brought the Ayutthaya Kingdom to an abrupt end.
The best way to get to Ayutthaya now and to explore the old city and the many ruined temples is by train and bicycle. The trains leave the main Bangkok station pretty regularly and we found ourselves in an aircon 1st class express first thing in the morning. 300BHT each and lunch served as well.
Once in Ayutthaya a short ferry ride across the river that separates the train station from the city we pick up a pair of old fashioned bikes, complete with baskets and little bells, the traffic is sparse and the roads flat. Thankfully as it’s been some time between bike rides and the creaky old muscles need a bit of time to loosen up.
Frustratingly we get lost at first and end up riding around in circles past many of the places we’d like to visit, eventually finding the right way into the complex and making our way along narrow little paths between each of the sites.
The whole of the site is spread out over a pretty large area and we really just scrape the surface of this fascinating site with our afternoon bike ride. The park has been under renovations since the late 1960’s and awarded a UNESCO world heritage site in 1991, a small fee gets you into the Wats that are the most important.
And so just a few short hours after we arrive it’s time to pedal back towards the river and drop our bikes off and head back to Bangkok. Back to where the city is in a building boom, a boom powered by cheap Burmese labor. The Burmese are back and this time they’re building, not destroying, as our friend in the tree roots might say, What goes around, comes around.
All photos copyright Ross Duncan: firstname.lastname@example.org