Judged by Bangkok's most evocative day excursion, Thai tourism is still in big trouble. But why shouldn't the rest of us take advantage of the tranquility afforded by economic turmoil elsewhere?
Ayutthaya, one of the world's most splendid capitals three centuries back, gets lost in the modern Thai glitter. Aside from two museums and a famed crafts center, this UNESCO World Heritage Site offers too many temples in every which way. Less diligent tour groups never make it beyond the emblematic columns of the Wat Phra Si Sanphet to the many parks strewn with headless statuary and palace foundations. But Wat Mahatat, with a stone head emerging from gnarled bodhi (or fig tree) roots, is as good as historical rummaging gets. And the reclining Buddha, speckled with fresh squares of gold leaf, seems hundreds of miles from the nearest mall or massage parlor.
Transport options from Bangkok include a 47-mile (76 km) ride on monotonous highways; a float by on a tourist boat with buffets and chatter out of Stuttgart or Indiana; or a two-hour train chug that quickly stops being quaint. Commuters toting guitars and mangoes are charming, but the carriage is grimy and the trackside views uninspiring. Yet Ayutthaya provides an eye-cleansing surplus of green after days in Bangkok's concrete maze (at admission prices that, while annoyingly higher for foreigners, are still minimal by world standards). Its sculptures and chedi ooze grandeur, not rot. And the Chao Sam Phraya leads the most impressive array of museums found in the country worth much more than a day. Get a crack at meditation upon the ages: Ayutthaya is a mini-Angkor with one-tenth the crowds.
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