Uncovering Thailand's Ancient Secrets By Rail
Wanderlust Travel Magazine|September/October 2021
We take the railway on a magical history tour of Thailand’s ancient capitals of Ayutthaya, Sukhothai and Chiang Mai in search of a mystical past hidden from the crowds
Alex Robinson
On the edge of the forest, beyond the pagodas and giant buddhas of the ancient ruins of Sukhothai, lost in gnarled roots and tangled vines, was a midden of ancient rubble. It was almost indistinguishable from the fallen leaves – a small mound like a tiny long barrow.

Just for curiosity I rooted around with my feet, clearing a patch of vegetation and stones. Half-submerged in soil, I saw what looked like a piece of broken plant pot. I pulled it out. It was a small disc, with tiny, molded feet. Worms and nematodes, moss and liverworts had created a pattern of intricate tracery across its surface. Rain wash from the soil was so deeply soaked-in that it had left organic, stippled stains.

“Let me see that,” said Khun Thakham, looking surprised. I handed it to the guide, who carefully examined the object in her hands.

“Do you know what this is?”

I shook my head.

“It’s an ancient firing stand. It was made for a porcelain celadon vase to sit on as it hardened – some-700 years ago. This rubble must be the ruins of a kiln.”

She looked towards me, turning the disc in her hand like it was a precious object.

“It seems your search for Thailand’s secrets is paying off. The vase this forgotten stand was made for would have been a real treasure – hardened by temperatures hotter than a volcano; jade green; covered in peony-flower patterns, its porcelain as smooth and polished as a jewel... It perhaps would have been sent to China, to Angkor or even the court of the Siamese king himself.”

I looked at the little disc – a relic of a glorious past in a city of ruined buildings, buried for centuries. When this stand was made, I thought, Asia ruled the world. And Thailand was at its cutting edge – in an age when Europe was making crude, hand-shaped pots.

I was in Sukhothai – ancient capital city of Thailand until AD1365. And as Khun Thakham said, I was here to unearth secrets. Even after two decades of travelling through the country, on countless visits, Thailand was still largely inscrutable to me. “Thailand,” a friend once told me, “is a mirror,” reflecting visitors’ expectations: of spas and plunge pools-with-a-view, sizzling woks and silks, full-moon parties and banana pancakes on the beach… And of more tawdry dreams. But it reveals little of its own inner self, of the magic and mystery, the religion and royal history, which are fundamental to its real identity.

Distracted by the mirror of their own expectations and the disarming Thai smile, foreigners – or farangs as they are called locally – see exactly what the Thai wish them to see. Few visitors barely seem to notice the magical symbols that every other Thai person wears around their neck; they barely give a second thought to the strange rituals that take place hourly in temples, the mix of religion and reverence afforded to the king, whose portrait hangs everywhere. And the Thai are happy to keep it that way, deftly avoiding questions about the royal family, Buddhism and that most secret side of all – Thai magic.

But I wanted to find out more. On this visit, I reflected on the Skytrain in from the airport, I would delve deeper. I would take the railway through Thailand’s history, this more social, intimate form of travel being all the better to uncover Thailand’s identity and secrets. My seven-day route would wind me north through Thailand’s ancient capitals: Ayutthaya, Sukhothai and Chiang Mai. And it begins where all Thai journeys begin: in Bangkok.

PILLAR OF THE COMMUNITY

So my first visit, the next morning was to the City Pillar; a true Bangkok secret. Few tourists even know of its existence. It is a passing reference in guidebooks; a sight absent from ‘must see’ lists. Yet it is the spiritual locus of the city. And it lies in the heart of Bangkok’s oldest, most distinguished district – Rattanakosin. Once part of a river archipelago, this is the area that gave Thailand’s capital its name (Bang Ko means ‘the village on an island in a stream’), or so I thought. Later that day, I would discover that even Bangkok’s name is a secret.

The Pillar is secreted away inside a prosaic shrine beside the busy Ratchadamnoen Nai dual carriageway, a block from the river. When I stepped inside, the air was heavy with incense and the atmosphere as strange and occult as a ouija board. In the centre of the lowly-lit room was a giant golden staff. Locals knelt reverently before it – chanting quietly. I felt a tingle in my belly, a sense of danger – as if I’d chanced upon some mysterious masonic ritual after opening a door I shouldn’t in an ancient mansion house. A woman looked around at me – bewildered to see a farang here. In one of the world’s most tourist-visited cities.

Later as I was leaving, she followed me and beckoned me over. She asked why was I visiting the City Pillar? Why had I knelt before it like local people do? She was impressed that I had taken the trouble. I told her of my quest to discover secret Thailand. She looked pleased.

“You know why this was built?” she asked. I said I didn’t. “In the 18th Century,” she said, “Thailand – or Siam as it then was – was destroyed by the Burmese. Their army tore down the royal city of Ayutthaya – in those days Ayutthaya was the wonder of South-East Asia. The Thai king Thaksin fled here for his life. Back then it was just a swamp next to a river, with a small village called Thonburi – right over there.” She pointed towards the river, “on the far bank.”

“The king brought his most ambitious general with him, who took power when Thaksin died and declared himself a God. He even took the name Rama and shrouded himself in old magic. His dynasty, which rules to this day, is called the Chakri – it’s a name for a kind of energy. And beginning right here at the City Pillar, from the spiritual ashes of Ayutthaya, Rama built a new capital for his dynasty, determined that it would be the most splendid in Asia.”

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