Making Merit: 9 Temple Tour of Ayutthaya
Towering chedis, huge Buddhas, spire-like prangs, rubble piles, and scorched walls- the only remaining evidence of the vast empire once housed in Ayutthaya. Thailand has gone through its share of capitals – from ancient Sukhottai, to Thonburi, to modern-day Bangkok; but, the most impressive and vast is Ayutthaya, more commonly known as Siam, trading center and capital for nearly 5 centuries until sacked for a final time by an invading Burmese army in the 18th century. The city, a UNESCO heritage site since 1991, is known not only for its thousands of ancient wats and ruins, but as a religious center for Buddhism in Thailand. So, at the beginning of every year Thais from all over the country flock to the city to pray and gain merit at 9 temples. Cengiz and I had made it more than clear that we loved Ayutthaya; so, when Ms. Mem, a Thai teacher in our English Department scheduled her trip for merit with her family, she extended an invitation for us to join them.
We were up at the break of dawn Saturday morning to meet up with Ms. Mem’s family and get started on the pilgrimage. 9 temples in one day is no small task, so we were scheduled to depart at 8 am and the starting point was about an hour worth of public transportation from our apartments. The tradition of praying at 9 temples in Ayutthaya is an annual event for most Buddhist Thais and is an effort to stock pile merit and luck for the rest of the year. The number of temples, 9, comes from a fun play on words: 9 in Thai, “gao,” is the same word as “gao,” or “progress;” thus the Thais go to 9 temples every January to start the year off right so that it “progresses” well. When we got to Ms. Mem’s father in law’s house, we all piled into a commuter van. The van is standard in Thailand and is the vehicle of choice for mini bus drivers running shuttles around the city. Seating 12 comfortably, the van is not small, but we barely fit. 15 in all were taking the bus that day, plus enough food and drink to provide snacks all afternoon. As soon as we squeezed in, the famous hospitality Thailand is known for began glowing. Cengiz and I were given two seats in the middle of the van and were immediately handed a plate of jerkey and sticky rice and two ice cold beers. The beer was great as the two of us were having an anxiety attack over taking seats while Ms. Mem’s mother in law was standing for the trip and every child was on a lap. Fortunately, the panic abated as it became clear Ms. Mem’s mother and the children would have elected to stand the whole way anyway. A flip down LCD screen began showing a Carabo concert and everyone began dancing and singing at the top of their lungs.
After roughly an hour on the road, eating, singing, and smiling until it hurt, we arrived at the first temple. We started the day at Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon, erected in 1357. Here we prayed for forgiveness and victory over our enemies; though it wasn’t easy. Cengiz and I had a lot to learn about Buddhist worship and were going to struggle through lessons all day; here we learned the basics. When praying to Buddha, one first makes a donation to the temple and accepts a prayer packages of: 1 candle, 3 incense, 1 flower, and several gold stamps. Step one is to ready the offerings while you remove shoes and approach the altar. Here, the candle and incense are lit and you have to juggle the components a bit to find a way to hold them and wai (bow) at the same time without burning yourself. When the offerings are secured you kneel down, touch your forehead and wai to the ground, and then return to an upright kneeling position to ask for blessings. When you have asked for the Buddha’s blessing you once again touch your forehead to the ground and then rise and leave; depositing the incense and candle on the altar to burn in reverence. The gold stamps are then taken out and applied to a Buddha icon. The whole process is tough for a rookie, but it is made all the more difficult by the throng of worshippers jostling for the best place in front of Buddha, or scrumming to get their candle and incense lit. The whole temple dealt with this frenzy of visitors; which took away from the site. I found myself people watching as much as admiring the buildings. However, the site didn’t go completely unnoticed; the main chedi is amazing, towering, glimmering gold in the sun, a true homage to King Naresuan’s victory over the Crown Prince of Burma in a duel on elephant back; surrounding it are 4 huge Buddha icons, wrapped in a gorgeous golden shawl; and surrounding the whole main mound is an endless, preserved row of smaller gold clad Buddhas. The Buddha muster is quite a sight, like endless lines of knight’s armor in a medieval castle, and completely out-of-place in Ayutthaya as most Buddha idols were destroyed during Burmese pillaging.
Our second destination, clear across the island of Ayutthaya, was Wat Phanan Choeng. The wat is actually believed to have been built before the height of Siam and the construction of the city’s other great wats but is revered for it’s huge, glowing Buddha, “Luang Pho To.” Here we prayed for wealth and good business as it is the wat of choice for traders and business men. This was a chance for Cengiz and I to work on our newly learned worship methods and to enjoy the wat’s river view. Here, many Buddhists also release fish for merit; different fish bring different things. Some supposedly bring women, others wealth, some happiness. Watching men looking for the river with massive eels in hand was comical.
As we progressed from temple to temple we began to learn other means of Buddhist prayer. At The Vihara of Phra Mongkhon Bophit another stop for prosperity and easy work, the two oldest women taught me how to pour water as the monk chants, in hopes of sharing my newfound merit with my ancestors. As we all huddled around the vase, all touching my hand as it tilted to pour the water, we were shrouded in incense and chanting from the monk in front of us. After, we separated and bowed, allowing the monk to sprinkle us with water and slap us on the head with a switch. The experience wasn’t painful, but it was startling as I didn’t expect the docile monk to strike anyone. This particular stop was rewarded with some cold ice cream outside once everyone had finished and new calendars with the King’s image. We were quickly off to the next temple. Speed was of the essence.
I can no longer remember if this was the same temple with the famous bathroom, but that was another distinguishing highlight. The famous bathroom, widely covered on the news, is a brand new facility with all the modern amenities. The hut is surrounded by serene gardens and benches, has flushing toilets, and even hand dryers near the sinks; it was beautiful and our comrades seemed more impressed by it than the temple.
Another temple offered an odd mix of animals and lawn ornaments. Peacocks, finches, crows, chickens, and other birds were on display and provided natural song to relax to while you reclined on shaded benches. Around the benches, birds, and Buddhas was the largest, most non-discriminant collection of lawn ornaments I have ever seen: soldiers, gnomes, bugs, carriages, fairies. Here Cengiz and I wrote our names and birthdays on slips of gold that would someday be melted down to form the new golden Buddha. We hope this brought extra merit.
Another temple, Wat Na Phra Mane, was a particular treat as it was the only temple not to be sacked by Burmese invaders in 1767. The inside is the most ornate and lavish of the temples visited, with purple, velvety walls contrasting golden highlights. It was actually very European looking, with tall white columns supporting the high roof and towering, gothic candelabra surrounding the main prayer platform.
The final temple of the day was a modern wat, right behind the splendid Wat Si Sanaphet, which Cengiz has already posted some fantastic pictures of. To be honest, I don’t remember the name of this one and can’t find it on the internet. The thing I remember most is actually completely unrelated to merit: a sign, hanging at the entrance that said “Please put shoes on the lack.” It had been a long day and my knees were sore, my toes ached from supporting my body weight, my fingers were burned all over from sneaky candle flames, and my face was caked with sweat and golden Buddha flakes. It was also perhaps the most important stop of the day, as afterword Ms. Mem’s family treated us to several bowls of Gkuay Dtiow Lauy, or “boat noodle soup.” It was a beef based, dark soup, served in tiny portions that was life altering delicious. Cengiz and I went back the next day for lunch for another helping and I got it several days later in Saphon Mai while motorcycle shopping. I believe in the merit. The soup revealed to me only after the exhausting pilgrimage and ritual offerings, clearly it was a reward for the reverence. Hopefully the rest of the year is as fantastic, but the discovery of the soup will have rationalized the trip on its own.
As if we needed anything else to make the day memorable and fantastic. Ms. Mem’s family is simply fantastic. Her mother in law is like a Thai chili- small and mighty. Her energy was infinite- always dancing, singing, talking, smiling, and giving. Somehow she led a choir of singers in a Carabos rendition while still single handedly serving the whole van drinks and jerkey. Her sisters, older and sedated by age, are inspiringly reverent and generous. Their mission that day was a serious one, yet they still patiently shepherded Cengiz and I through the process. Ms. Mem’s sisters-in-law were fun, clearly daughters of their mother. One of which, perhaps the most jovial is a cancer patient, yet I couldn’t find the malady hanging anywhere on her; you wouldn’t be able to tell unless someone told you. Ms. Mem’s father-in-law was perfect: part terrifying, part friendly, staunch in his ways, private, and cynically accepting of the two foreigners who were the undeserved stars in the eyes of his women. He wore his years proudly and spent most of his time wandering, watching, and sniffing some unidentified brown powder that he kept in his pocket. Though he was quick to offer some, the women were less happy about sharing, stowed his “medicine” and shewed him way: “a powder, medicine for his nose, from Burma” is the only explanation I could extract. And of course, the kids were delightful. They mostly stayed to themselves, sitting behind Cengiz and I, interrogating Ms. Mem’s daughter for any vital information about us. Some form of sugar was always in hand and the were collecting souvenirs throughout the day. As they became more comfortable with Cengiz and I, they became stars of the show. One was a dancing machine who had his modeling pose already figured out, another was a sword wielding assassin, and the third was a quite girl, very interested in the texture of my hair.
The day ended just around 5 and Ms. Mem’s family dropped us off at the train station in Ayutthaya before heading back to Bangkok. We were staying the night, to meet up with Tom and Gina, and would buy return tickets before heading back into the heart of the island. Plenty of pictures were taken before we left: group pictures, pictures with their favorite falang, and of course, each woman with Cengiz and I flanking. Getting everyone in, or set for a group picture was impossible, but the comfort, ease, and energy of the whole process makes the messy evidence even more enjoyable to look back on.
That night was spent eating and drinking around wild classroom stories and weekend tales. It was great to see Tom and Gina, who have since become fitness freaks, and hear about all the traveling they have done over the last couple of months; though, I could see the glint in Cengiz’s eye, they were walking a fine line when they described Angkor Wat. Anymore and they may have become victims of jealousy induced man slaughter. The highlight of the night was a trip out to Chaiwatthanaram, my favorite destination in the ancient city, for some spectacular picture taking. The full moon was the perfect accessory for the glowing wat and cast an eery opaque quality on the drifting fog.
The next day we parted early: Cengiz and I explored Ayutthaya for a second time and Tom and Gina made the trip home. It was an enjoyable, aimless day. We saw the massive sleeping Buddha and met a cock bearing duo at some nameless wat we stumbled upon; but, most of the day was just walking through Ayutthaya’s unnoticed residential areas, talking with topless shop owners, observing Cangiz’s rendition of Hunan rain dances, and pondering pointless hypotheticals. We left around 3, to find more Thai hospitality on the train, where a group of promoters showered us with deep fried fish skins and beers. My contact was silent, which was just about perfect, just enjoying the beer, view, and breeze that we were experiencing on the gangway between the train cars. Meanwhile Cengiz got to know several of his friends in the open aired compartment across from the control cabin, where he too cooled down in the rushing wind.
It was a fantastic weekend. A taste of Thai hospitality, religion, and culture. And, it may have been just what we needed to survive the next 5 months in the “land of smiles.”