Living and working in regional Thailand can appear daunting however I was surprised how quickly Ayutthaya became home, and my daily life straightforward.
Located about 100 kms north of Bangkok on the Central Plain, Ayutthaya is an island surrounded by rivers including the Chao Phraya that runs down through Bangkok.
Large quantities of cargo are carried by barge down the river.
Ayutthaya is quite small
It’s not a large island and the population isn’t huge. Most people commute daily to work in the nearby industrial estate at Rojana. There are only two bridges (and one ferry) therefore the roads are busy from early morning until the evening as thousands of workers travel by bus or scooter to and from the huge factories.
Two nights a week I taught English to management in two of the large factories in Rojana. At one factory alone they have a fleet of 80 buses to bring the workers to and from their shifts. There are dozens of factories and hundreds of buses.
At 8 pm when the afternoon shift finishes, it’s mayhem on the road as buses and scooters race over the main bridge back on to the island. But by nine o’clock, the city is quiet.
Living as a local
With very few foreigners living nearby, I was a novelty to my neighbours and whilst initially they were very shy, they are naturally inquisitive and they soon followed my (boring) life closely.
They were interested in what I ate and drank. People assume all foreigners are big alcohol drinkers but I noticed they do pretty well themselves. They scrutinised where I went, what I wore, who I associated with and how much I respected Thai culture. I was aware of this and I was sensitive to their curiosity.
I became used to people staring frankly at me but if I smiled, it was quickly returned. It did cause some interesting moments. For example a woman was watching me intently while she was carrying her bags home from the market and walked straight into a street sign and fell heavily onto the footpath. I helped her pick up her groceries. She was more embarrassed than injured.
Although there were several 7 eleven stores nearby, I used to take a bus trip regularly off the island to the Tesco Lotus supermarket and stock up on “foreign food”. The neighbours were particularly interested in what I bought and often I’d stop and they’d look through my grocery bags which seemed to fascinate them.
Not far from my home was a police post and on hot days I’d occasionally stop and give the policeman on duty a bottle of cold water. The policemen don’t speak English but they appreciated the water and the gesture. Some of them look pretty miserable sweltering in their uniforms and helmets in a small structure without air conditioning or a fan. I figured it didn’t hurt to be on the good side of the law.
A normally peaceful place
Violence was rare where I lived in Ayutthaya. in fact I only witnessed one incident which turned out to be fatal.
At first light one morning, I wandered out to my balcony to check the weather. Below me in the car park there was a man lying face down in a pool of blood. There was a ring of bystanders around the victim and a policeman on guard. It looked a bit gruesome. I went back inside to get ready for school.
Before leaving, I again had a quick look. I’m no expert but from the amount of blood and the lack of any activity, I presumed the guy was dead.
By now there were more watchers. The Roti man pushed his cart along and rang his bell. A few spectators peeled off to buy a delicious breakfast then re-joined the growing crowd.
I was running late so I headed down to the corner motorbike taxi base for a ride across town. The taxi guys were animated. From what I could understand, one of their group had spent the previous evening drinking Thai whiskey (avoid it) then broke into his neighbour’s house.
The woman who lived there slept with a knife. She woke up then stabbed him. He staggered outside, got half way across the carpark and expired.
Thailand’s large road toll
Road accidents in Ayutthaya were common, especially involving scooters. I was having dinner near the back of an open front restaurant one night when a loud bang made me look up.
A scooter flew across the road, hit the kerb and skidded into the restaurant on its side, demolishing a couple of tables in the process. Fortunately, no one was seated at them.
For a few seconds, no one moved and the only sound was the ticking of the hot engine and a strong smell of petrol. The two girls who were riding picked themselves off the floor, muttered to each other, righted the scooter and limped away down the street with it.
The restaurant staff put the tables back in place, replaced the settings and it was business as usual. In the meantime, I was still trying to mentally deal with the accident. Apparently, it was no big deal. Mai pen lai.
Eating is a national pastime
There were several restaurants within a few hundred metres of my home, all offering different styles of excellent food with no dish costing over 30 baht. Most were open fronted and therefore not air conditioned. And I usually chose one of those as they were popular with the neighbours as well.
Dinner was fun, surrounded by neighbours and friendly staff. Because the menus were in Thai , it was a little hit and miss as to what I would be served. But any of the dishes were fine with me and, yes they were spicy.
If I wanted a beer, one of the waiters would go and get one from the nearby 7 eleven and if the desert roti or ice cream guy pulled up outside, diners would wander out, grab a dessert and bring it back inside.
One of my favourite eating destinations was near the Ayutthaya hospital about three kilometres away. There is a strong Muslim community here with excellent restaurants selling delights such as Massaman goat curry and a really sweet roti called Roti Sai Mai. A dentist’s dream.
Getting around Ayutthaya
On weekends, I liked to explore the Island, often by songthaew which is a pick-up with two bench seats on the tray and an awning over a frame. There’s no timetable and they follow the major roads.
When you see a songthaew approaching, you flag it down and climb on board and then ring a buzzer in the back to get off. It’s about 10 baht per trip. They can be really busy at times and you can expect lots of school kids and locals with bags from their market shopping.
I found everyone really friendly and helpful but they seemed surprised to have a foreigner travelling by songthaew.
Tuk Tuks are also available but I found them uncomfortable, noisy and expensive as you have to hire the whole vehicle. A few of the drivers are aggressive in setting a fare but most are fine. The other options are motorbike taxis (I pay them more to go slower) and boats which are a great viewing platform from the river.
Being a flat island, walking is easy too but it can be hot and humid especially in the middle of the day. Naturally you see much more when you’re on foot.
There are literally temples and ancient ruins everywhere. Hundreds of them. From the days when Ayutthaya was the Capital of Siam, there are the remains of foreign settlements including Dutch, French Portuguese and Japanese. The distinctive bright yellow St Joseph’s church is still active and a reminder of the French population who lived there.
Whether you’re visiting or planning to live there, Ayutthaya is a fascinating place and one I would absolutely recommend.