Sunday, September 27

Wonders of Ancient Siam

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UNIQUE: The floating market at Ancient City.

HOW I ended up in Ancient Siam during a recent trip to Bangkok could be called fate — but is more an ‘accidentally-on-purpose’ thing.

It all started with an early morning attempt to visit Thailand’s famous tourist destination — the Damnoen Saduak floating market. It was the only tourist target I had my sights set on as it was the subject of hundreds of award-winning photographs, television, magazine ads and of course, that 007 film.

Thailand traffic, however, doesn’t allow for spontaneous trips. At 9.30am, the traffic was escalating fast and according to my cab driver, wasn’t going to let up. What is typically a one-hour 45-minute drive from the city to the Ratchaburi province. some 100km away, might very well take two hours 30 minutes, he explained.

Considering it was already 9.30am, I asked him: “Any closer floating markets I could visit?”

He replied: “How about the one at Ancient City? It would only take 45 minutes from here.”

I didn’t know anything about it, but was sold on the 45-minute drive. Without hesitation, I agreed and off we went.

It was beautiful

Before my arrival at Ancient Siam, I had no knowledge whatsoever of its attraction. This was my first trip to Thailand (Bangkok to be precise) and due to my trip being solely business, I did not google for any must-see destinations before boarding the plane to Bangkok days earlier.

Which isn’t to say my diversion was an unwelcome one. In fact, my heart was racing when we arrived at the entrance of Ancient Siam.

Ancient Siam

Ancient Siam or famously known as Ancient City (Muang Boran in Thai) is a park constructed under the patronage of Khun Lek Viriyaphant.

Dubbed the world’s largest outdoor museum, Ancient Siam is situated in the Samut Prakan province. The city features about 116 structures of Thailand’s famous monuments and architectural attractions. The grounds of Ancient Siam correspond roughly to the shape of the Kingdom, with each monument sited at its correct place geographically.  The founder had originally intended to create a golf course with miniatures of Thailand’s historically significant structures spread throughout the course for educational and tourism purposes.

The park is spread over 200 acres in the shape of Thailand. Yes, the shape of Thailand.

During his research, Khun Lek found most of the structures across the country had been severely damaged over time. Instead of creating new miniatures (at the park), he decided to conserve the historic memory of the original structures. That was when the idea of recreating the historic structures either in full-size or scaled-down versions was mooted.

Construction of the Ancient City began in the latter part of 1963.

Some of the buildings are life-sized replicas of existing or former sites while others are scaled down versions in various provinces such as Prasat Hin Phanom Rung, Wat Mahathat Sukhothai, Phraphuttabat Saraburi, Phrathat Mueang Nakhon, Phrathat Chaiya and many more.

The Ancient City is not just a copy-paste replica of Thailand’s historic sites, but also reflects the touch and feel of ancient Siam kingdom.

Through this city, visitors can absorb the great diversity of architecture, arts and cultures of Thailand’s past to the present.

The replicas were constructed with the assistance of experts from the National Museum to ensure historical accuracy. Outstanding structures include the former Grand Palace of Ayutthaya, Phimai Sanctuary in Nakhon Ratchasima, and Wat Khao Phra Viharn on the Cambodian border.

Other new formations to look out for are the Sumeru Mountain, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Kuan-yin), Performing a Miracle or The Garden of the Gods which reflect the diverse religions, thinking and belief systems of the Thai people.

Until his death on Nov 17, 2000, Khun Lek was continuously creating artwork in the Ancient City as well as The Sanctuary of Truth in Pattaya and The Erawan Museum in Samut Prakan.

Tour begins

After I paid 400 baht for my ticket, I was told I would be lent a bicycle to tour the city. Immediately one thing came to mind: I had not ridden a bicycle in 15 years!

Although it is true what they say – once you’ve learnt to ride a bicycle, you never forget — no one ever mentioned that after 15 years of not riding one – you’re going to handle it like a drunk person trying to walk a straight line.

Knowing my time was limited – I had a 5.15pm flight back to Kuala Lumpur that evening — I rode my bicycle faster to cover as many structures as possible. Before I knew it, I was handling my bicycle like the ‘pro’ I once was.

A Thai acquaintance who guided our visiting entourage in Bangkok, told me it would take at least three to four hours to actually enjoy the whole city.

My first stop was the Stupa of Phra Maha That, Nakhon Si Thammarat. It is a white monastery, a remarkable reminder of the artistic
virtuosity of southern Thai architecture.

The Stupa, where the Buddha relics were housed, was built during the reign of King Sri Thammasokarat in 555 AD when Nakhon Si Thammarat was first established. Although this structure is smaller than the original, the structure was painstakingly rebuilt based on archaeological evidence.

I passed numerous structures before two beautiful palaces caught my attention — the Dusit Maha Prasat Palace (Grand Palace) and the masterpiece of Ancient City, the Sanphet Prasat Palace, Ayutthaya.

The Grand Palace was basically an audience hall where affairs of the state were conducted and royal ceremonies performed during the early Rattanakosin era. Built by King Rama II in 1806, the Dusit Maha Prasat Palace in the Grand Palace is the only remaining example of the traditional Thai palace left in the country.

As for the beautiful Sanphet Prasat Palace, there is only some remnants left of the throne hall, and only the ruins of its building in Ayutthaya have been found.
It was destroyed in the Burmese invasion of 1767. The Sanphet Prasat was the principal palace built in the reign of King Baromatrai Lokanat, the eighth king of Ayutthaya.

And here’s an interesting fact — the Sanphet Prasat at the Ancient City was once used as a reception hall by the King to welcome Queen Elizabeth II and her consort in February 1972. That was the official opening day of Muang Boran, the Ancient City.

Floating market

I hadn’t forgotten my initial quest of the floating market. In my dogged search, I bypassed many structures such as the Dvaravati House, the Audience Hall of Thon Buri, Khun Paen House, the Phra Kaew Pavilion, the Fruit Shape Tower (Prang Mafuang), Chai Nat and the one I was disappointed to have missed — the Footprint of the Lord Buddha, Saraburi.

Regardless, time was not on my side and I had to meet my objective. Apparently, the floating market is as common as our pasar malam and the ideal rural backdrop of the daily life of the people living on the riverbank.

I finally found it in the Ancient City’s Bangkok province. Although only a handful of ‘floating traders’ were peddling their business along the river banks, the floating market in Ancient Siam is a reflection of traditional Thai life along the river.

The rivers and canals, forming an important communication system for the community, are also an example of a perfect social integration amongst the many races, culture and religious beliefs in Thailand.

Cross-country

Finally, checking the floating market off my list, I headed out to see other interesting structures.

Technically, they are all interesting. Due to my time-crunch, however, I decided to do a Motor GP on bicycle. I had an hour to go and many more stops to make. Many many more.

I cycled cross-country from the Bangkok province to the West of Thailand, dashing up north to catch a quick glimpse of a giant structure of Thailand’s junk, a host of other temples, structures and statues.

However, two structures that caught my attention were the Pavilion of the Enlightened and the Bodhisattva Avalokitesavara (Kuan-Yin) Performing a Miracle.

The Pavilion of the Enlightened is an elegantly sweeping multi-tiered structure, representing the Mahayana Buddhists’ story of how 500 monks from different backgrounds, codes of conducts and merit could all become enlightened and reach nirvana.

It is a fantastic story of respect for a wide spectrum of ethical and spiritual values.

The Bodhisattva Avalokitesavara (Kuan-Yin) Performing a Water Miracle depicts the female deity in her many-faced, many-armed incarnation seated cross-legged and serenely on top of several impressively fierce dragons.

The figure of the Buddha, set on top of her head, symbolises her role as a preserver of Buddhism.

From the west, I headed straight to the East. As I reached central Thailand, (somewhere between the Thai Hamlet from Central Plains and the Stupa of Wat Phra That Sam Muen Chaiyaphum) — there it was, looming magnificently above me — the Prasat Phra Wihan (Preah Vihear) of Si Sa Ket.

The Preah Vihear Temple stands majestically atop a 54m high, 66m wide man-made 250m hillslope.

The original Prasat Phra Wihan was built by King Suriyavarman I around 1038 AD.

Although the Prasat Phra Wihan is actually situated on the summit of Phra Wihan hill on the edge of the southern face of the Phanom Dong Dak Range escarpment on the Thai-Cambodian border in Si Sa Ket province, this one is just as magnificent.

It was beginning to drizzle as I made my way to Phra Wihan hill. The over 100 steps I needed to climb to the summit, however, did not deter me one bit. Veni, Vidi, Vici’ as Julius Caesar once said.

On top, I could see the vastness of Thailand’s padi fields from the nearby Samut Prakan town. I could see the whole park and numerous other beautifully crafted structures in areas I could not venture to.

As I spent some 15 minutes admiring the hilltop scenery, one majestic beautiful structure caught my eye beneath. There it was — looking so smug, yet peaceful. It was the replica of the Reclining Buddha, the mother of all historic structures in Thailand.

Wrapped in golden yellow, the royal and religious colour of Thailand, the statue looked calm and content. I hadn’t seen it earlier because it was perfectly hidden behind the giant artificial hill of Phra Wihan.

On-going renovation behind the Reclining Buddha also meant the public were blocked from going near the sculpture, so it was lucky I could take pictures of it from my vantage point.

Finally, content with my little cross-country adventure, I headed back to the South of Thailand to the main entrance and met up with my cab driver.

Heading back to the hotel, the traffic, hot and rainy weather, cross country cycling were all worth it.

Would I visit the Ancient City again? Definitely.