Temple tourism resurges after flood

Visitors return in numbers as crisis helps to raise Ayutthaya's profile

At weekends, Wat Phananchoeng Worawihan in Ayutthaya province is still crowded with Thai and foreign worshippers and tourists all day after last year's big flood. Hundreds of people were spotted paying respect to the presiding Buddha statue, Phra Buddhatrairattananayok, during the half an hour we spent there on a recent trip. The situation was similar at eight other temples in Ayutthaya and two neighbouring provinces we visited. Visiting temples in flood-hit areas is an opportunity for us to learn how many temples coped with the disaster and why a few were spared by the floodwater.

Worshippers hold saffron robes above their heads while presenting the robes to Phra Buddhatrairattananayok, the presiding Buddha image, at Wat Phananchoeng Worawihan. Phra Buddhatrairattananayok, or Sanbaogong (the protector of seafarers), is in Wat Phananchoeng Worawihan’s smaller chapel (viharn ). Its broad-shaped face and facial features are of the second generation of U Thong-style Buddha statues which predate the founding of Ayutthaya. This statue, which measures 19.13m in height with a lap width of 14.1m, depicts the Lord Buddha conquering the Mara. Highly revered by many people in Ayutthaya and nearby provinces, this statue is believed to bring success in work and businesses to worshippers. According to legend, tears rolled down from his eyes as a bad omen prior to the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767. According to the Northern Chronicle, King Sai Nam Phung built this temple where the royal cremation of his suicidal Chinese bride Princess Soi Dok Mak was held. He named the monastery Wat Phra Chao Nang Choeng (Wat Phra Nang Choeng) in memory of the princess who was said to have held her breath until she died after he had failed to receive her when her ship arrived. According to the Krung Kao Royal Chronicle, Wat Phananchoeng was established 26 years before Ayutthaya became a capital city. It has been supported by Thais and Chinese and even has a 19th-century Chinese temple on its grounds. Its Chinese name is ‘Sanbaogong Miao’.

"Ayutthaya is home to more than 300 Buddhist temples. All of them were inundated except for three temples _ Wat Phananchoeng, Wat Phutthaisawan and Wat Nivet Thammaprawat," Somchai Chompoonoi, executive director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand's Central Region, said.

Ayutthaya's 16 districts, or about 90% of the land area, including rice fields and five industrial estates, as well as historical sites and ruins, were inundated for several months, according to the province. Despite their riverside locations, the three temples were not flooded. It was not down to luck but rather their best efforts to prevent floods.

According to abbot Phra Ratcharattanawarakorn, Wat Phananchoeng was safe because it had learned a lesson from the inundation in 2005, which lasted for four months and caused more than 20 million baht's worth of damage.

A 600-metre-long and five-metre-high flood prevention dyke was built by monks, local villagers, border patrol police and volunteers using about 400,000 sandbags, covered with canvas sheets and fostered with concrete piles and soil. Water pumps were operated around the clock to pump excess water out of the temple grounds. The temple, which was built on a cape where the Chao Phraya and Pa Sak rivers meet, remained safe while the floodwater in the surrounding areas was more than 2m high.

A flood-prevention dyke was also constructed along a stretch of the Pa Sak River bank where Wat Phutthaisawan stands, and it worked well. However, the same strategy failed to protect Wat Choeng Tha, Wat Na Phra Meru, Wat Chai Wattanaram, the Portuguese Village, the Dutch Village and many other sites. In total, more than 500 religious places, including 41 churches, 61 mosques and 45 Chinese shrines, were flooded.

''With all the clean-up and promotion campaigns, tourists have returned [to Ayutthaya] and a number of hotels have been fully booked. We are very happy. Before the flooding, people felt Ayutthaya was always there for them to visit at anytime. After, more people have come to temples there even without festivals,'' the director added.

According to him, research found that when mentioning Ayutthaya, more than 90% of people think about worshipping the Buddha at temples. Therefore, TAT came up with the ''Nine Temples Visit'' campaign in Ayutthaya and other Central Region provinces last month for people to seek New Year and Chinese New Year blessings.

In addition, tourism promotion in Ayutthaya is expected to be fostered by the celebrations of Ayutthaya's ties with several other nationalities, such as the Chinese, Japanese, French and British. The ''Sino-Siamese Relationship Festival'' in Ayutthaya, featuring an exhibition, cultural exchange, music and performances, in front of the Ayutthaya Information Centre on Jan 20-22 was considered a success. Also participating were more than 800 Thai tourists who purchased TAT and the Thai Tourism Businesses Association's special nine temples tour package.

''The crisis has turned into opportunities. The images of flooding accidentally helped with public relations through sensational impact,'' Somchai noted.

In 1350, King U Thong established Ayutthaya as his island capital. The city lasted for 417 years and was ruled by five dynasties and 34 kings. It was lost to Burmese invaders twice. The last invasion was in 1767. Today, this province is a Unesco World Heritage site and one of Thailand's most popular cultural tourism sites.

Ayutthaya has six districts. Rice farming is the main occupation and wet rice fields cover 80% of the land area. Besides farming, the other main sources of revenue are industry and tourism. Since ancient times, the people of Ayutthaya have had a water culture because of the flood plains, which are usually inundated for six months of the year. Due to which, in the past, houses were usually built on stilts.

Wat Na Phra Meru, or Wat Phra Meru Rachikaram, is the only monastery in Ayutthaya spared by the Burmese invaders during the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767. Located opposite the ancient palace and alongside the Sra Bua canal, it was established in 1503 during the early Ayutthaya period on the former location of the royal crematorium for a king. Legend says Phra Ong In commissioned this temple during the reign of King Ramathibodi II. This temple holds historical significance for being where Ayutthaya King Maha Chakkrapat and Burmese King Bayinnaung signed a peace pact in 1563. The temple is still in good condition and inhabited by monks. It is one of the few sites in Ayutthaya which do not face east. Inside the beautifully decorated ordination chapel of the early Ayutthaya period is the presiding Buddha image, Phra Buddha Nimit Wichitmarn Molee Sri Sanphet Borom Trailokkanart. Depicting the Lord Buddha in royal attire conquering the Mara, this exquisite 6m-high statue is believed to date back to the reign of King Prasat Thong. Another must-see is a stone Buddha statue, seated with knees apart but feet together, from the Dvaravati period inside a smaller chapel.

Wat Thammikarat, previously known as Wat Mukkharat, is believed to predate the Ayutthaya period. It was built by King Thammikarat, the son of King Sai Nam Phung, where the old town of Sangkhla Buri had been located. It was restored in 1610 by King Song Tham who also built a royal chapel for him to listen to sermons on Buddhist days. This chapel was home to a huge bronze Buddha statue, which was destroyed by fire during the fall of Ayutthaya. Only the head of the statue whose traits belong to the U-Thong period was found on the temple grounds and later relocated to the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum. Local people call this Buddha statue ‘Luang Por Kae’ (Old Buddha) based on his serious-looking face. Some people believe those breaking vows made in front of Luang Por Kae will die. This temple also has a smaller chapel with a 12m reclining Buddha image, commissioned by King Song Tham’s queen after her wish for her son to recover from illnesses had been fulfilled. In front of the chapel are the ruins of a bell-shaped pagoda with a base surrounded by the stucco sculptures of 52 lions. This temple was heavily inundated recently and is in dire need of donations for the mending of its damaged structures.

Situated south of the island beside the Pa Sak River, Wat Phutthaisawan resembles the Indian temples found on the east coast of India. Some of the stupas are much like Sanchi in central India. The corncob-shaped dome has a square shoulder and straight vertical sides. The temple was restored many times because King U Thong resided and set up a temporary community here before moving the capital onto the island. It has a corncob-shaped tower enclosed by cloisters. Behind the surrounding pavilion where the tower stands are the ruins of a building with a reclining Buddha image inside. In front of the temple are statues of King Naresuan the Great, King Ramathibodi I and King Ekathosaros. There is also a residence of Ayutthaya’s senior monk Phra Buddha Khosajarn. Its interior walls house colourful murals depicting angels and priests worshipping the Lord Buddha’s footprint and Phra Buddha Khosajarn’s pilgrimage to Sri Lanka.

Located south of the island and east of the Pa Sak River, Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon was built by King U Thong, Ayutthaya’s first monarch, as the seat of a sect of Buddhist monks ordained in Sri Lanka named Pa Kaew Sect, according to some historical evidence. Its former names are Wat Pa Kaew and Wat Chao Phraya Thai. It was believed to be restored after King Naresuan the Great’s elephant battle victory over Burmese viceroy Phra Maha Uparaja. A must-see is Chedi Chai Mongkhon, a bell-shaped stupa tower, raised on a large square platform and surrounded by several small octagonal-based brick towers. Not far is Viharn Phra Buddha Saiyas, or the chapel of the reclining Buddha, dating to the reign of King Naresuan. However, the Reclining Buddha was remodelled on the ruins of the original.

Viharn Phra Mongkol Bopit was first built during the reign of King Song Tham when he moved the bronze Buddha statue from somewhere east of the palace to south where it is now. A gabled roof was added in 1741. The building was damaged by fire when Ayutthaya fell to the Burmese in 1767. It was restored in 1920 by King Rama VI and has been renovated several times since. Phra Mongkol Bopit, the chairing Buddha statue, had been black when gold-leaf was prohibited. The square jaw is a major trait of Buddha images dating back to the early Ayutthaya period. During the recent flood, this chapel was safe due to its highly elevated location and the municipality’s best efforts to protect it from floodwater following a big lesson learned from the 2005 flooding, according to Prayong Buamee, head of Phra Mongkol Bopit Foundation, which oversees the chapel. However, this place is not counted as a temple.

Wat Thakarong is located by a river on a plot of land where ‘Khanon Nua’, the old capital’s tariff collection office, stood during the Ayutthaya period. It was built before 1533 and became the location where the Burmese invaders installed their cannons. At present, the temple is in a neighbourhood of Muslim communities. Its presiding ancient Buddha image, Phra Buddha Rattana Mongkol, or Luang Por Yim, is highly revered and believed to fulfil wishes. The floating market here is lively with many vendors selling food, desserts, beverages, handicrafts and other goods from their paddle boats. It opens daily from 8am-6pm. A huge number of fish gather in the river in front of the temple, waiting to be fed by visitors. Likay performances are shown on stage all day at weekends. The temple has beautifully decorated toilets, which were named the country’s best toilets in 2006.

If tourists have enough time, they should not miss the opportunity to visit the Support Arts and Crafts International Centre of Thailand (SACICT) in Ayutthaya’s Bang Sai district. Located near Bang Sai Arts and Crafts Centre of Her Majesty the Queen, which supports handicraft making among rural farmers for extra incomes and better living, the centre was established in 2003 with the aim to promote, support and develop folk arts and crafts to be widely recognised in the world market. It develops folk arts in terms of quality standards, design and packaging, organises competitions, sales and training, promotes marketing activities and global market expansion, and supports patents and intellectual property rights of all products. Here, visitors can experience exhibitions on Thai folk arts and crafts from Thailand’s four regions and enjoy shopping for various kinds of beautiful handicrafts ranging from gold jewellery to woven silk and cotton textiles, handmade apparel, furniture and decorative items. Visit www.sacict.net or call 035-367-054—6.

Ayutthaya is wellknown for fresh and dried freshwater fish, preserved fruits and a local dessert called kanom sai mai, or candy floss wrapped with roti.

Wat Phra Non Chaksi’s Thai Buffaloes Conservation Centre in Sing Buri province was established in 2000 by Wat Phra Non Chaksi and Sing Buri Rotary Club. It raises water buffaloes rescued from slaughterhouses and donated by people, and gives some of them to farmers in need. Its aim is to educate the younger generation about the traditional use of water buffaloes in rice farming, and honour the water buffaloes who served the Bang Rachan Heroes in their valiant battle against Burmese invaders. Each day, many tourists come to this centre to observe the water buffaloes in their daily lives, enjoy agility shows free of charge and feed them grass.

MORE INFO

For information about travelling to Ayutthaya and neighbouring provinces, visit www.tiewpakklang.com or call the TAT's call centre on 1672.

HOW TO GET THERE:

Ayutthaya can be reached by car, rail and bus.

By car

ROUTE 1: Take Highway 1 and then Highway 32 to Ayutthaya.

ROUTE 2: Take Highway 304 or 306 to Pathum Thani and then Highway 3111. Turn right at Sena to take Highway 3263.

ROUTE 3: Take Highway 306 to Pathum Thani and turn left at the turn off to Pathum Thani to take Highway 347 to the Royal Folk Arts and Crafts Centre, Bang Sai, and onto Ayutthaya.

ROUTE 4: Take a city road to access the new Highway 9, the Outer Ring Road and leave it at the Bang Pa-In interchange to take Highway 32 to Ayutthaya.

By rail

All north- and northeast-bound trains stop at

Bang Pa-In and Ayutthaya stations.

By bus

Both air-conditioned and regular buses depart from Bangkok's Mo Chit 2 Terminal to Ayutthaya daily.

Sing Buri can be reached by public bus or private car.

By car

ROUTE 1: From Bangkok, take Highway No. hs1 (Phahon Yothin Road) and Highway No. hs32 to Sing Buri via Ayutthaya and Ang Thong.

ROUTE 2: From Bangkok, travel to Ayutthaya via Highway No. hs32, then proceed along Highway No. hs309 to Sing Buri via Ang Thong

By bus

Both air-conditioned and regular buses depart from Bangkok's Mo Chit 2 Terminal to Sing Buri daily. The most convenient way to get around Sing Buri is by songthaew (baht bus), motorbike taxi, tuk-tuk and public bus.

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