Charlotte and the King of Siam

Since arriving in Nong Khae, everybody I’ve met has offered for me to join them on a family day trip.

Eating dinner on one of my first evenings at my apartment, the woman serving my food insisted that at the weekend she would take me to Ayutthaya. I’m reluctant to call the places where I eat at the apartment complex restaurants, simply because you sit at a table that’s situated behind the chef’s house, which has had the back knocked down.

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Somsri visits her mother on weekends, so I was to travel with Poin and her family to Ayutthaya alone. Nervously, I got into their campervan questioning how the day would pan out, having no knowledge of where we were going or how much English any of my hosts spoke. A few awkward attempts at regurgiting Lonely Planet’s Essential Thai phrases, I discovered that Poin actually used to be an English teacher, but as with most Thai’s who know the language, was too nervous to initiate conversation.

Our first stop of the day was the Ayutthaya floating market. Situated amongst beautiful flower gardens, the market as the name suggests, is on the river. We wandered through the stalls selling everything from exquisite trinkets, gifts and clothes, although it was rather expensive in Thai terms with the city being a thriving tourist hub.

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We stopped for lunch at one of the piers. Diners sit on mats at low tables, whilst vendors fight for your attention as if they have something other than a variation of Pad Thai to offer you.

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Passing on the noodles, I grabbed what I thought sausages from one of the boats, but actually turned out to be grilled bananas in sweet, hot coconut milk.

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And thus temple tour began. I had been instructed that the dress code was white, the colour of Buddhism. Blissfully unaware of the innumerable colour coded days and events in Thai culture before leaving the UK, I had to make do with what my frankly restrictive 30kg baggage allowance granted.

An orange scarf was handed to me as we walked through the blissfully tranquil grounds and filled the outside corridors that enclosed the temple. Surrounded by gold statues of Buddah, we sat on the mats laid for us as we waited to enter the temple. Poin instructed me to write the names of those I wish to pray for good fortune in life, as well as my own, on the orange scarf. Not realising I was only supposed to list three of four people, I got a little carried away and wrote the names of every person that I could think of.

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Candles and leaves on a plate were then handed to me, and it was then I learnt why none else wanted to wish good fortune to more than four people. Poin instructed me to add a certain amount of baht to my plate per person on my scarf, but upon seeing that I’d written more than 30 names she overlooked it. The intertwining of religion and money in Christianity has always perplexed me, and seeing it practised in Buddhism is equally so. I appreciate the need for funds and voluntary donations in order to maintain places of worship, but the implementation of ‘pay to pray’ systems is massively disconcerting.

As we prepared our offerings on the mats, small groups of people were led up into the temple. After a few hours it was our turn, and leaving our shoes and scarves by the mats we hastily made our way up the scorching slabs of the steps to the temple. Our group was the last to enter and the doors were closed behind us as everybody squeezed together to find space to kneel on the chamber floor.The lights were turned off, and in complete darkness and 40+ degree heat with no air conditioning or fans, we prayed. An entire lifetime (half an hour) passed in this seance like experience, with a eerie voice speaking and chanting in Thai. Thinking I was about to pass out from the heat, Ta grabbed my arm and I realised the voice was speaking about me.

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Pion excitedly told me afterwards as we resumed our positions on our mats why my name was bought up in the chamber. It was revealed that in my past life I was one the daughters of the first King of Thailand (formally Siam), and thus a princess, naturally.

Once everybody had returned from the temple, the ends of all the orange scarves were tied together and pulled taut. After another half an hour of prayer, the scarves were untied from one another and each placed around one the enchanting golden Buddahs.

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Before getting back in the van to go to another temple, Poin insisted on me getting a picture with ‘my father’.

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By this point I was more than ready to go back to my air conditioned apartment, being both exhausted from the heat and astonished at everything I had just experienced. Poin and Ta were just getting started though, and we drove to Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon. This temple is, according to Lonely Planet, most famous for its epic 18m long statue of the reclining Buddah. I somehow, in my incense enhanced daze, managed to miss it entirely.

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After dinner, we made our final temple stop. At dusk, all the people from the first temple had congregated around a statue of a past king. Here we lit candles, burned incense and prayed. Buddhists pray by holding a flower and the burning candles and incense before placing them before the statue. In the darkening sunset, the candles offered an ethereal warmth to the ceremonial traditions.

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