Celebrating Ayutthaya: The Siamese Kingdom a UNESCO Heritage Site

by Arlene Rafiq
Ayutthaya Temple

In a country’s development, old customs and traditions are almost always forgotten as time passes and new influences replace the old. Fortunately, not with Thailand as it has maintained the preservation of their cultural heritage. The Thai people are certainly proud of their birthright as is evident in customs, food, architecture, arts and crafts.

Thailand has so much to offer to anyone from magnificent architecture, awesome landscape to areas of relaxation and recreation and one of the most popular places and frequently visited is the city of Ayutthaya.

Baby Elephant in Ayutthaya

Known in the ancient times as the Siamese Kingdom, Ayutthaya was described by visitors in the past centuries as a flourishing city. It was considered as one of the richest cities in the East as they traded with the West. However, luck was not always on its side. In the 16th century, it was attacked by the Burmese and eventually invaded. Ayutthaya fought back and the Burmese retreated. In the middle of the 17th century Ayutthaya became very prosperous but it eventually lost control of some of its provinces as local governors exercised their own power which resulted in a rebellion. In the middle of the 18th century, Ayutthaya was again at war with the Burmese who left the Kingdom in total ruin. Everything that is important to the Thai people was destroyed. It is hard to see the former glory of Ayutthaya but the charisma remains.

a Lady Cooking

With this brief history, when one hears of Ayutthaya it brings a feeling of special memory of the past. Modern development has brought with it housing subdivisions, golf courses and industrial parks. It was good that someone realised and thought that while progress is good, that history should not be forgotten. The renovation of the ruins began and the government saw the need to continue the work even when the ruins were declared a historical park in 1976 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991. Since receiving this award, Ayutthaya has celebrated its marvelous past through an annual festival showcasing its customs and traditions. The festival definitely reminds the young of their roots.

Ayutthaya Floating Market

It is now that time of the year when I get excited knowing I will again witness the celebration, my third since I came to make Thailand my home. The Ayutthaya World Heritage Fair is an annual event I dare not miss. The whole of Ayutthaya is brightly lit with multi-coloured lights on the main thoroughfares … it’s like being in Las Vegas but with a different touch.

As Thailand was still in a mourning period for His Majesty the Late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, last year’s event featured activities in remembrance of the late King. Highlights include a special exhibition featuring royal works relating to the Ayutthaya Kingdom, grand light, sound and water fountain presentations using Hologram technology, a demonstration of the sufficiency theories projects of King Rama IX, displays of Ayutthaya’s local way of life, cultural events, booths selling local products and food galore.

The best part of the morning is to explore the areas where the activities would occur. The mahouts preparing the elephants for the show. Participants getting ready to get their faces and costumes done for the performances. It was fun watching the vendors cooking their specialties wearing traditional clothing of the era. In the mid day, people started to gather, it was time to see the local artisans at work and local musicians providing traditional music. Surely, the organisers took a long time to put up an event as gargantuan and spectacular as this.

I strolled inside the huge market and it was like a walk in the past as I exchange my money for replicas of gold and silver to use to buy food and other things on sale. Everybody was in a festive mood, men and women dancing in the street, children playing and young folks walking leisurely or snacking.

In one area, a swamp was transformed into a floating market, reminiscing the Thai custom of trading goods along the river. I sampled some of the food sold on the boats which include stir-fried noodles, boiled sweet potatoes and corn. In another area, several old style wooden tables were installed just like in the ancient times, seated on wooden platforms, where female servants presented traditional foods.

Several platforms were used in strategic places for staging a variety of programmes. On one stage, Thai musicians competed while on the another bands played traditional country music. Solo performers showing their talents inspired their listeners to realise the importance of Thai culture and arts.

There were many activities during the week-long celebration. One Tambon, One Product (OTOP) projects showcased local fare from a number of districts within Ayutthaya and the surrounding provinces. The whole of Ayutthaya, not just the historical park, celebrate this event through various programmes such as cooking/beauty contests and singing competitions.

Albino Elephant in Ayutthaya

The highlight of the festivities and definitely my favourite was the light and sound presentation. This is by far the most awaited part of the entire programme as it presents the history of the Kingdom in magnificent pageantry. Hundreds of performers were students from Rajabhat University. After almost three hours of walk through Ayutthaya’s history, a grand firework display followed and all the performers took a bow to an audience of over 3,000 people in the open air auditorium.

To understand the show, foreigners could rent headsets with English, Chinese or Japanese translations. It was definitely an educational experience that provided more of positive learning tool than reading books or listening to teachers explain the history of Ayutthaya. I hope that they’ll resume the festivity this year after the long mourning period. I would certainly go back for another magical walk in the past. With such a beautiful culture and civilisation that seems unchanged, this impressive heritage has become the bedrock of Thai society and has shaped the Thai way of life as it exists today.

If anyone wishes to be a witness to this grand celebration next year, call the Tourism Authority of Thailand and mention Expat Life in Thailand and ask for their next schedule of celebration.

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