There’s times when curiosity gets the better of you, when you just have to have a look at something that you are certain contains little nutritional value. Welcome to Khao san road, Bangkok. Made so famous in Australia not just because of its bohemian original backpacker haunts and, at the time, new world sense of discovery but on the back of a bogan anthem, Khe Sanh from the band Cold Chisel. We should have known really, an inauthentic cry out to a romantic place so ironically spelled incorrectly; or is that just being authentically bogan like naming your daughter Sindee instead of Cindy just to be more individ-jewel. Fittingly the song isn’t really about Khao San road at all, it’s about Vietnam and features a returning soldier who ends up ‘returning’ to Hong Kong to seek solace in casual sex and drugs. So either Cold Chisel or the hoards of bogans that followed aren’t ace geography students; but it’s all same-same Asia at the end of the day right?
In truth it seems to me that Khao San road was once a nook of discovery to cheap-travelling bohemians carving a niche out of Bangkok to create a more palatable story for their middle class drug habits. What illustrious and culturally rich history. In recent times Khao San road became more of the option for cheap-travelling middle class bogans to create a more palatable story of their bohemian drug habits; either way it’s both trashy and indelibly stamped into Aussie consciousness. Taking the bait we tick the box to make up our own mind and have a beer on Khao San road to mixed disappointment and relief.
Winding through a few streets past food vendors from the ferry stop we turn a corner into the unusually wide street, market stalls all but obliterate any presence from the permanent stores shoved behind. A higher than usual rate of Singha and Bintang singlets flow around the famous street that booms horrific early 2000’s dance beats from bars that Cold Chisel fans would be proud of. Despite a bit of bogan revelry, Khao San road is relatively tame and genteel, not even difficult to find a nice bar and have a beer to reflect on the lingering cultural markers a street can engender. It’s low season now and this very palatable street might ramp up it’s shameful cringeworthy side come January but for now it feels like a few decades are turning full circle and the bogans who took it from the bohemians are possibly handing it back to the Thai’s. I wonder where they moved on to.
This delve into anti-culture, as fun as it is, cannot continue without serious sterilisation. That cleansing sterilisation comes in the form of Ayuthaya, a place a little north of Bangkok. On the train to Ayuthaya, my mind wanders to the ideal of great civilisations, human histories and formative peoples. Initially I think of the Greeks, Egyptians and Persians; so great with names that persist even if their cultures seem to have been changed unrecognisably. From roughly years 0-500 came the Teotihuacans and mayans in modern day Mexico, Romans and Teutonic tribes in Europe, the Han in Asia and Parthians in Persia, again not much of which is recognisable today. Years 1000-1500 saw Latin America overrun by the Aztecs and Incas, the Byzantines rose in Europe while the Yuan and Ming dynasties became prominent in Asia.As a very scant snapshot these are the names, the famous conquerors to rule the world, that I know of and I hazard a guess I’m not alone in holding these names in prominent thought. That is until I got to Ayuthaya. From 1351-1767 Ayuthaya ruled as a kingdom from its island home in the confluence of three rivers; over 400 years until it was eventually sacked by the Burmese. We all know of Machu Picchu; it lasted less than a century. The train rattles along the Thai countryside as I feel a little embarrassed, how do I, we in Australia know so little about this great civilisation? Unlike many of the names that sprang to my mind originally, Ayuthaya’s Tai people and their foes the Burmese not only exist in name today but in similar geographical bounds retaining an alarmingly clean lineage of culture.
After travelling in Latin America on this adventure it seems to me that the Teotihuacans, Mayans, Inca’s and Aztecs have little discernible links to modern culture beyond genetic material and museum exhibits. On our typically awkward bikes we pedal through town, Ayuthaya is immediately a historical and archaeological goldmine, the modern day city sits respectfully on the edges of ruins without being afraid to live with them. I guess they’re not digs from a time gone by, they’re the relics of ancestors that aren’t so distant at all. After having a poke at world renown ruins and historical sites in Latin America I’m blown away at how Ayuthaya stacks up in terms of size, grandeur and inspiration of a culture past. In Australia we know about so many great civilisations but so little about those closest to us; and yes, I’m calling Ayuthaya a great civilisation, it can be nothing else.We’re getting to know our Chedi’s from our Prangs, our Stupas from our Wots and our Wiharas from our Mondops so navigating these grand areas is slowly becoming more than a poke at old stuff. As much as we’re learning we don’t need an education to be impressed by a gold foiled buddha sitting over 12m tall damaged severely in the Burmese conquest but since repaired as reparations from modern Burma (now Myanmar). Putting old wars aside, Burma’s reparations of a famous Wat leads as an example to so many other countries in leaving old grievances where they should be, in the past. A Wat in Thailand isn’t only a temple though, it’s more of a complex like a small city in itself, the most impressive in Ayuthaya being Wat Chaiwatthanaram. Set on the river outside of the island city Wat Chaiwatthanaram makes up just a small section of this great capital but boasts possibly the most intact scope of architecture we see all day.
Centuries have donated an undulating ground full of warped swells and depressions but hasn’t taken away any of the time and place feeling that being inside these old walls imparts; we’re in ancient Ayuthaya and the Burmese are attacking. It feels a little cliche but it’s easy to have a beating heart at the thought of women and children wishing their lives to the river to reach the capital island while brave soldiers commit their lives to grant a few precious moments longer to their loved ones making a break to dangerous safety. From the riverbank a raised platform is adorned by Buddha statues leading to the imposing walls crowned by eight very intact spires with staggering detail still present. Above it all a central dome that roars to the sky with none of the fragile appearance that a structure of this age should have. We walk the ramparts past the lined Buddha statues and under the gables still standing strong sharing the grounds with robed monks that signal to us again how connected this structure is to Thailand as it stands today, not separate as a relic.The same train rattles back to Bangkok as we carry with us thoughts of one of the worlds great civilisations so forgotten. Before we travelled, the world seemed smaller, achievable; the more we see the more there is yet to see. In one days visit to Ayuthaya our human history explodes far beyond the limited borders in which we previously felt so comfortable. Thailand; a hugely popular travel destination boasts a great ancient civilisation that hasn’t passed away like so many that we idolise yet we’re still stuck on a mis-named song about an Aussie in Vietnam who goes to Hong Kong for drugs and sex. Maybe we all need to get off Khao San road and have a look at how big our world can get.