Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Las Vegas of the Balkans: Skopje

Skopje is probably the strangest city I have ever visited. Let's begin by saying that the capital of Macedonia is mostly new, because the city was almost completely destroyed in an earthquake in 1963 and also because most of its monuments were built in the last 6 years.
As a matter of fact, in 2010 many new statues, monuments and museum buildings were built thanks to a big project called "Skopje 2014". Most of them share a pompous neoclassical style that seems to mock Macedonia's neighbour, Greece. There are so many statues of famous Macedonians that local people laugh and say that every Macedonian by now has a statue somewhere in Skopje.

Statues in Skopje

The project was intended as a way to revitalize the city centre and make it more monumental, but it failed to gain consensus from the local population. Some of the new monuments (like the triumphal arch, a bad-taste imitation of the Roman ones) got hit by paint balls in protest against the corrupted government. The monuments and museum buildings intend to build an identity for a country that has almost never been independent in its history and whose name and symbols are not recognized by Greece.
Skopje's art bridge and the archaeological museum by night
The most famous and controversial monument is a 22-metre statue of a warrior on a horse sitting on top of a marble column and surrounded by fountain jets that are lit up at night. Most visitors recognize him to be Alexander the Great, a historical figure claimed by Greece as its own and that Macedonia uses freely (even the airport is called after him). This politics, sustained by the political party in power, is known as "antiquization" and it claims that ancient Macedonians were not in fact Greeks. According to  this theory, modern-day Macedonians, even though Slavic in language and culture, descend from the ancient Macedonians who once had an empire that reached India.

The huge statue of the Warrior in Skopje
As a result, the modern part of Skopje is kitsch, a sort of Las Vegas reconstruction of ancient Greece gone wrong. There are so many statues that it becomes hard to pay attention to any of them. In spite of this, or maybe because of this, Skopje is a unique and interesting city to visit. Contributing to this amusement-park atmosphere are the Chinese-built red double-deckers that you can see everywhere, an exact copy of the London ones.
In Italy macedonia is another name for fruit salad, a mix of very different elements, as Macedonia is, a meeting point of different cultures and religions. While walking on the southern bank of the Vardar river and passing by these huge new monuments, I was in an unmistakably Balkan city, even though the façades of Socialist buildings have been cleverly covered to give them a new look. 
This is  the area of the city where you can find trendy cafés and shops, but also Mother Teresa's memorial house, built in the place where she was baptised. Born in Skopje in 1910 of Catholic Albanian parents, Mother Teresa of Calcutta embeds the cultural mix of this city. The memorial house is free to visit and a new church in a curious neo Byzantine style is being built here.
Memorial house of Mother Teresa
To add to this mix, everywhere in the city you can see Roma families, with children playing in the streets. As a matter of fact, Skopje hosts one of the largest Roma settlements in the Balkans. I realized how much more of a mix it must have been in the past with Macedonian, Albanian and Roma people living side by side with Turkish, Greek, Armenian and Jewish people, of whom little is left in present-day Skopje aside from plaques and small museums.

Statue of Mother Teresa

On the northern bank of the river lies Çarshia, the old bazaar, which is known by locals as the Albanian neighbourhood (here Albanian is almost synonym with Ottoman). 20% of the population of Skopje (and 25% of all Macedonia) is of Albanian heritage and all official plaques are in both Macedonian and Albanian. I wandered for a couple of hours through reconstructed caravanserai, old mosques and Turkish baths, some of them reconverted as art galleries or museums. The Çifte Hamam, for example, now holds the national gallery, with plenty of contemporary paintings and installations from Macedonian artists.
Çifte Hamam
The Kurşumli Han is one of the few remaining caravanserai (the roadside inns of Ottaman times) in Skopje and it now hosts the modest Museum of Macedonia. A world apart from the opulent new museums, this area is more traditional, even though little is left of old Skopje and all the shops sell modern goods. While you walk though its paved streets, you can always spot the minaret of a mosque.
Old Baazar, Skopje
The two worlds - the Slavic and the Albanian - run virtually parallel one to the other and sadly there is not much interchange between the two. To divide these two parts of the city there is the 15th-century Stone Bridge, one of the few things left from the time of the Ottoman empire.

View of Skopje and the Stone Bridge

Monday, 15 August 2016

The coast of Montenegro (Kotor aside)

Even though I was planning to stay in Montenegro only  a few days, I was determined to see something aside from Kotor. When I was on the bus that took me from Dubrovnik to Kotor, we passed by several small towns in the fijord-like Bay of Kotor. These villages all look somewhat lower-key compared to Kotor, but also enchanting.
From Kotor I hopped on a local bus that in about 15 minutes (and for only 1€) drove me to a small town called Perast. The main thing to do here is to take a boat tour to the islet just in front of the town: Gospa od Škrpjela (which means literally "Our Lady of  the Rocks"). It is an artificial island (the only one of its kind in the Adriatic), and the legend says that it was created by seamen after finding an icon of the Virgin on a rock in the sea. Every time the seamen came back from a successful voyage they threw a rock in this place, thus the island gradually emerged from the sea.     
The island of Our Lady of the Rocks
The boat (5€ for a return ticket), leaves you on the island for enough time to visit the church built in 1452 and the small museum on the island. More than its historical or artistic value, what makes this place special is the atmosphere and the view of the surrounding mountains. The Bay of Kotor looks more like a peaceful lake than a stretch of sea: there are woods everywhere, and practically no beach.

The church of Our Lady of the Rocks

There is another small island in front of Perast, Sveti Dorde, which hosts a 12th century Benedectine monastery,  but the boat  tour does not stop there. Back in Perast, I walked its cobbled streets and felt the history unfolding all around me. The town is wonderfully preserved, and it has many old churches and palaces, all cramped in a narrow stretch of land before the mountains rise up. As a matter of fact, in the past Perast was a prosperous town under the Venetian flag of the Serenissima. 

A church in Perast

Another place that is popular along the coast of Montenegro and that is very easy to reach from Kotor is Budva. In spite of being one of the most famous tourist destinations in Montenegro, it was a bit disappointing. The beach is just a regular  sandy beach, crowded, with plenty of ice-cream shops and the usual children toys for sale. The old town is pleasant, but it could have been any small town with some Venetian influence along the Adriatic sea.

A church in Budva

I walked through its streets, trying to find something interesting among the trendy cafés and souvenir shops. I am fascinated by Orthodox icons, these simple, yet artistically fascinating works of art. There are several in Budva, if you look in the corners of the smaller streets.

An Orthodox icon in Budva

Religious image in Budva

From Budva, it was fairly easy and quick to find the bus stop to go to Sveti Stefan. This islet, connected to the mainland by an artificial narrow isthmus, appears in most of the tourist brochures of Montenegro together with Kotor. In the 1960s and up until the 1980s it was a playground for the rich and famous, with stars such as Elizabeth Taylors or Sophia Loren enjoying its glitz and village atmosphere.

The island of Sveti Stefan
Unfortunately, Sveti Stefan is now a luxury hotel, so it is not permitted to go to the island, unless you have a reservation for its expensive restaurant, so I took a walk. There is another resort nearby, the Hotel Kraljičina Plaža, but it is permitted to walk along the well-maintained beach. There are caves to explore, created by the karst rock formations, but the best thing to do is just walk along the sandy beach and along the pine-covered paths.

A beach near Sveti Stefan

Unfortunately, I didn't see the interior of Montenegro, with its famous mountains where bears can still be found, but what I have seen of this small but welcoming country left me with a desire to visit again and explore more.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

One more tile in the complex Balkan mosaic: Belgrade

Nobody will tell you that Belgrade is a must-see in the Balkans: Serbia is hardly in the Balkans route for backpackers, and Belgrade is too far away from the popular coast of Croatia, the charming Ottoman-influenced town of Mostar in Bosnia, or even the national parks of inland Croatia.

Yet for me Belgrade was one more tile - an important one - in the Balkan mosaic, a further step to get to know this region, with its complexities and idiosyncrasies. Belgrade seems to be somehow nostalgic of its socialist past, when it was the capital of a big country. I've seen a hotel called Yugoslavia, for instance, and I was surprised that they never changed its name. The buildings and statues are often austere, as if wanting to convey a sense of strength and power.

Republic Square, Belgrade

I also perceived that Serbia displays a special connection with Russia and with other Eastern European countries, a lot more than other countries in the area. The Cyrillic alphabet, for a start, and then the common Orthodox religion helped convey that feeling. And then of course the Moskva Hotel, with its art nouveau façade, currently one of the most recognizable buildings in Belgrade. It was built in 1908 with a huge investment from Imperialist Russia, and it was nationalized during the Yugoslav era. There aren't that many showy buildings in Belgrade, and this is why the Moskva hotel sticks out.

The Moskva hotel

As for enjoying life and going out, Belgrade has a reputation for excellent nightlife throughout the Balkans. Traditional kafanas and trendy clubs sit side by side. Skadarlija - and in particular the long cobbled-street called Skardarska - is considered the bohemian neighbourhood of Belgrade, a sort of Balkan-style Montmartre. Once a poor gypsy neighbourhood, at the  end of  the 19th century it became a meeting place for writers and artists. Nowadays, Skardarska is a very popular place to have dinner. Restaurants with checkered tablecloths abound and musicians play traditional Balkan tunes, while groups of Serbians and tourists alike have noisy dinners with grilled meat (pljeskavica, a beef patty, or ćevapčićiground meat sticks) and lots of beer.

Dining in Skadarska

In spite of its vitality, Belgrade bears the scars of a tragic recent history. In 1999, following reports of persecutions and mass killings of Albanians in Kosovo, NATO bombed Serbia without the approval of the UN Security Council. I remember this because Italy was one of the European countries that offered the military bases for the aircrafts. At the time it was portrayed by media as a " just war" and Serbia as an evil country, an image that seemed to be indissolubly linked with the country since the war with Bosnia a few years before. Nowadays few reminders of this dark period are left in the city, which comes out as peaceful, vibrant and in constant change, even though I must confess that it is gritty in some parts.

A street in central Belgrade
Belgrade is not the kind of city that is overwhelming in terms of sightseeing, and unfortunately I found some of the museums closed.  The National Museum has been closed for renovation for years, and the Museum of the History of Serbia does not have a permanent exhibition on Serbia! I did not have a chance to visit Tito's Mausoleum either, so I tried to understand Serbia and Belgrade on my own. The one place that you should visit in Belgrade, and which is always open, is Kalemegdan, a huge public park which includes a fortress, as well as statues, historical buildings, an open-air café and beautiful views from the fortified walls.
The café in Kalemegdan park
Inside the Kalemegdan fortress, I really liked the Ružica Church, a small and enchanting Orthodox church covered by vines on the outside, and with a creepy crypt and a curious chandelier made of bullets on the inside. The atmosphere of a countryside Balkan church is hard to find anywhere else in Belgrade, so it was well worth a visit.

Celebrating a baptism at Ruzica church in Belgrade

The Church of Saint Sava is maybe one of the few truly touristic places in Belgrade. It is one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world (some sources say it is the largest), and like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, it is still under construction. At the end of the 19th century, the city of Belgrade came with the idea of building a church in the place where in 1595 the Ottoman Grand Vizier burned the remains of Saint Sava in retaliation of a Serbian uprising against Ottoman rule.
The Church of Saint Sava
Unfortunately, the works were interrupted every time there was a war in the area, and even though the church looks finished from outside, inside it is still empty and without a proper floor. There are beautiful fountains in front of the church, and the whole area is really peaceful and beautiful.


Sunday, 3 July 2016

Loi Krathong Festival in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai during Loi Krathong festival is something unique. I got to experience it almost as a coincidence. It was only after booking my flight to Thailand that I realized that I would be there for this festival, which was mentioned everywhere as one of the most important and beautiful in Thailand. Because it follows the lunar calendar, the dates for this festival change every year, but it usually falls in the month of November.

Child monks in Chiang Mai during Loi Krathong

I was really exited, as I have always been fascinated and interested in Asian religions and their colourful celebrations. At first, I was thinking to spend it among the ruins of Sukhothai, but then I followed some other backpackers heading to Chiang Mai, the enchanting northern city everyone seemed to love.
Deciding at the last moment to be in Chiang Mai for this festival was however a very bad idea in terms of accommodation. Almost all hostels were full, and the only one that had rooms available was the worst I've been in. To give you an idea, I even had to buy my own toilet paper, for a filthy bathroom with that horrendous shower room so common in hostels in northern Thailand.
The festival itself, however, redeemed the bad accommodation experience. The most famous event taking place in Chiang Mai during the festival is the launching of rice-paper lanterns in the sky. This is connected to the Lanna festival of Yi Peng, the full moon of northern Thais, so in Chiang Mai, and all over northern Thailand, there are two festivals going on at the same time. 

Lighting a lantern
You can either follow the launching of the paper lanterns from the town centre, or head to the grounds of Mae Jo University (with a tuk-tuk or your own vehicle), where the biggest launching of paper lanterns take place. There was unclear and contradictory information on the web and from local people regarding this event, but from what we understood 100$ tickets must be purchased to enter the actual event! We stayed just outside of the grounds, but it was a very long wait, sitting on tall grass infested by mosquitoes and bugs, with nothing but a few beers we bought there. There was no entertainment, and no clue about how long we had to wait before the launch.  We only knew that people arrive many hours before the launch to have a decent place to sit and a good view. I hope the authorities will think of something better for the following years, as to go there is becoming more and more popular.

Inconveniences aside, the idea is to light all the lanterns at the same time, for an emotional and visually unforgettable experience. There are thousands of lanterns lit up by tourists from many different countries, especially Asian. The atmosphere is jolly and relaxed, and the reward for waiting so many hours is beautiful pictures and memories of a star-lit sky, only the stars looked a lot bigger.

Lighting another lantern

Back in Chiang Mai, the atmosphere during the festival is equally charming. To be honest, I don't know how the temples look like in Chiang Mai when the festival is not on, because I did my classical temple hopping when the festival was in full swing. During  the night the temples are lit with thousand of candles and colourful lanterns hanging everywhere. Thai people stop to light a candle, leave an offering for Buddha and say a prayer.

Praying during Chiang Mai Loy Krathong festival
I was touched by the spirituality and the atmosphere of contemplation that some simple candles and decorations can bring to a religious building at night.   

Another prayer at a temple

It is really worth going around town at night and stopping at different temples to see what's going on. Occasionally, a couple of friendly monks would be there too, available for a chat. Every temple is a bit different, with beautiful decorations or some music being played, making it impossible to get "templed-out".
A temple lit up for Loy Krathong / Yi Peng
My favourite place was this temple with hundreds of lanterns and a wooden path to walk on.

The same temple
Not unlike Diwali, locals during Loy Krathong light a basket with an offering and make it float on the river. During the festival you'll see many stalls preparing the baskets with flowers and when it's dark they will make them float.

A krathong floating on the river

Loy Krathong is a colourful, enchanting and interesting festival. In spite of the number of tourists attending it, it hasn't become overtly touristic. Yes, room prices increase and lots of Westerners are out and about with their big cameras, but the atmosphere is still authentic. There are traditional parades, fireworks, beauty contests, and hundreds of stalls selling food and flower decorations. 

A parade in Chiang Mai

The city is full of life especially at night: there is delicious local food, everything from meat skewers to sushi, in hundreds of different stalls,  but in the meantime the shops are still open for business and the streets are busy and colourful, with different smells coming from every directions.

A street of Chiang Mai by night

Lanterns and monks in Chiang Mai
In other words, if you are in Thailand around November, make sure to be in Chiang Mai for these celebrations. Of course, book your accommodation at least a few days in advance!

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Surviving Bangkok

After writing a post called "Surviving Marrakech", I though it would be fun to write "Surviving Bangkok". As a matter of fact, for many travellers the capital of Thailand is the first encounter with Asia, and for this reason it can be a bit intimidating. I must confess that when I first arrived in Bangkok from Europe I didn't know exactly what to expect and I had only a vague idea of how to navigate it.

The Grand Palace in Bangkok
Bangkok is huge, chaotic and full of energy. It has grown without rules, with no center and no urban planning, because Western colonizers, with their obsession for tidy spacious boulevards and squares, never conquered Thailand. As a result, Bangkok has many souls: from the opulent temples of  the historical island of Rattanakosin, to the lively and chaotic Chinatown with its Chinese street signs, or the ultra modern areas of Silom and Siam, with huge shopping malls and luxurious hotels, Bangkok has something for everyone.

Chinatown, Bangkok
One of the fist things I noticed about Bangkok is that it has a traffic problem. Luckily, the public transport helped me, in particular the BTS Skytrain, an elevated metropolitan train that is easy to use and also rather cheap (fares start at 15 baht, 0,38€). Unfortunately, this does not reach all parts of the city. On the day that I wanted to visit the Grand Palace and the temples nearby, I was advised by the staff at my hostel to take a boat. This revealed to be a rather adventurous and very cheap trip on a low motorized boat with a lady that walked barefoot on the wooden rim of the boat to collect tickets.
Another great way of getting around the city is by taxi, even though as I mentioned you can get stuck in trafic. I usually try to avoid taxis, but in Bangkok they run on the meter and they are pretty cheap (typically less than 100 baht, 2,5€). The only place where I've seen that they refuse to use the metre is around the Grand Palace, because it is the most touristic place in the city and taxi drivers know they can make more money by agreeing a price. If a taxi does not want to take you on the metre, then flag another one or walk a little further. 
A taxi near Chatuchak weekend market
In Bangkok it is tiring to walk from place to place because of the hot humid weather, and it can take forever to reach your destination on foot. It is nevertheless interesting to try it once, if it's not too hot. I decided to do part of my journey back from the Grand Palace on foot, and I was rewarded with some interesting sights of Bangkok daily life, like these people playing checkers on the sidewalk.  

Playing checkers on the street

Bangkok is a safe city, if compared to any European city like London or Paris. Moreover, locals don't bother tourists that much, and the only scams I've seen are really harmless. The most common cannot even be called scam and I recognized it immediately, but I was with two other girls and they insisted on taking the suspiciously cheap tuk tuk. These drivers, for the equivalent of 1 or 2 euros, take you around to see several temples, but in exchange they want you to stop at a tailor's shop to have a look at the clothes, while they receive fuel vouchers. Don't feel obliged to buy anything!

Tuk tuk driver

If Bangkok offers interesting sightseeing during the day, it is even more exciting because of its famous nightlife. Even though I'm not into luxury holidays, I went to a rooftop bar one night, on top of a skyscraper! There are several in Bangkok, but the one I went to is called Vertigo and Moon Bar and it is on top of the Banyan Tree hotel. The view of the city from the 61rst floor is pretty amazing, as you can imagine. I went with some people from my hostel, and even though we had to wait quite some  time for some seats, it was worth it. The prices aren't for everyone, I must admit.

View from the Moon Bar

Where to eat in Bangkok? It might seem incredible if you've never been to Thailand, but the most incredible meals I had were by the road. There is no lack of restaurants in Bangkok, but the ultimate experience here is to eat a pad thai, or another simple but delicious dish, in one of the many improvised stalls that pop up in the evening almost everywhere in the city. Around my hostel, in Ratchadewi, there were many. They cook the noodles, or whatever your ordered, right on the spot with fresh ingredients, and for around 40 baht (1€). With cheap and delicious meals like that one after the other, you can afford to have a drink at a rooftop bar, right?

Grilling meat in Bangkok

Another reason to write a post called "Surviving Bangkok" is to learn how to cross the street! Streets in Bangkok often have several lanes, they are very trafficked and can intimidate you. You will often see some overpasses for pedestrians. In many parts of the city, it is the only way to cross the street so do take them. If you have to cross the street but you are unsure how and when, just follow the locals!

The main tourist sights in Bangkok can be visited in two or three days. The most expensive is the Grand Palace at 500 baht (12,70€), but it is unlike any other temple complex I visited in Thailand. Never in my life have I seen so much gold! Be prepared for hordes of Chinese tourists, and make sure to arrive early, because it closes at 3.30 pm.

Chinese tourists visiting the Grand Palace

Learning how to bargain in Chatuchak Weekend market or around Khao San Road is something I never learned to do properly, even though theoretically I know the rules, like start at 50% below the asked price and work up from that. Don't do like me the first time I was in Morocco: I was so unsure of my bargaining skills that I ended up not buying anything (and there were plenty of beautiful things to buy for cheap prices).

For the rest, just enjoy the energy of this city. If you're on a longer trip you'll end up going back to Bangkok more than once, and each time you'll be more at ease there.

How was your experience in Bangkok? Did you, unlike me, learn to bargain?

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Hiking in Costa Brava

Barcelona is visited by millions of tourists every year, yet most of them never think to venture outside of the city. What a mistake! There are dozens of interesting places in Catalonia, from enchanting medieval towns to marvellous beaches. A stretch of the coast that is really worth exploring goes from Blanes, to the north-east of Barcelona, to the French border. It is called Costa Brava, which means "rugged coast". 
The rugged coast of Costa Brava
Pretty much all of Costa Brava is lined by Caminos de Ronda, coastal footpaths used in the past by the Guardia Civil to control the coast and stop smuggling, and now offering excellent hiking possibilities. They are dotted with calas, small charming coves, surrounded by pine groves and wild flowers. There is no shortage of secluded beaches, fishermen's retreats and water grottos, making the hike very interesting and varied.

A cove near Palamos
One day last summer, I took a bus from Barcelona to Palamós (17€, 2 hours), and I began to explore the coast to the north of this point. I found the small town of Palamós a bit underwhelming, apart from the church of Santa Maria, with its nice façade. The real beauty starts of course when you start following the footpath along the coast. The water is very clear, the landscape keeps changing because of the many small bays and cliffs encountered. Some of the beaches are crowded, for example the famous La Fosca, not far from Palamós, but others, especially the hardest to reach, are not.

The beauty of Costa Brava

One of the most charming coves I have encountered is called Cala S'Aguer, and it's dotted with colourful fishermen's houses and boats. In another country this cove would have been taken by souvenir shops and restaurants. Here, instead, I could still see bits and pieces of quiet life: an old man painting, a woman cleaning the fish for the dinner, and so on.

Cala S'Alguer
Another image of this cove

Around Cap Roig I lost my path, and it took me a while to get back to it. Here, I discovered, there is a famous music festival with international artists, and a botanic garden. There is no lack of culture in this area of Spain: one of the towns of Costa Brava, Cadaqués, was chosen by Dali, Picasso and other artists as a summer home.

Near Cap Roig

It took me about 3-3,5 hours to reach my final destination, Calella de Palafrugell, including a stop for luch in one of the few small restaurants along the path. Unfortunately I did not stay long in Calella, because the clouds that had started to gather towards the end of my hike finally decided to give in to a good downpour.

Peace and quiet in Costa Brava
Next summer I hope to pick up from where I left and explore a little bit more of this beautiful area.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Ayutthaya: the ancient capial of Siam

One of the most charming places I visited during my three-week backpacking trip to Thailand was Ayutthaya. Sometimes neglected by travellers caught between northern Thailand with its world-famous street food and  the glorious beaches of the south, Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Siam, is ideally situated a couple of hours by train from Bangkok and it did not feel crowded or overtly touristy at all. UNESCO-listed, atmospheric and quiet, it is the perfect retreat from chaotic and polluted Bangkok.

 A corner of Wat Mahatat in Ayutthaya
Let me tell you that to get there by myself from Bangkok was the easiest thing in the world: no hassles at all at the train station, and the third class carriage is not as bad as it sounds: it's even funny, and super cheap (20 baht, around €0,50). People passed by every two minutes selling snacks, while older Thai men checked my ticket to make sure I was on the right train. There were many backpackers on the train, all waiting in trepidation to visit these world-famous ruins. Once in Ayutthaya, I walked straight, then hopped on to a boat for a few baht to cross the river and in no time I was in front of  the ruins.

A Buddha statue in Ayutthaya
Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 and it was the capital of a kingdom that stretched all over Thailand. The town takes its name from Ayodhya, the mythical birthplace of the Hindu god Rama and the setting for the Hindu epic Ramayana, which Thai people call Ramakien. The city prospered until it was sacked and burned to the ground by the Burmese in 1767. It was at this point that the capital of Siam was moved further south, in Bangkok.  
A stupa in Wat Phra Si Sanphet
The ruins in Ayutthaya are inside a historical park surrounded by a moat, but there are separate entrance fees (50 baht, €1,30) for each main temple. You'll soon begin to orient yourself in terms of which ruins are on the island and which are off the island. There are a few interesting ruins off the island, that is to say outside the park, for which it is advisable to hire your own transportation (a bike, a motorcycle or a tuk-tuk ride are all fine). You could even hire an elephant, but concerns about the well-being might stop you.
Elephant ride in Ayutthaya
The first temple I visited was Wat Mahatat. Most of the buildings in Ayutthaya only show the orange brick with which they were built, but the countless Buddha statues with offerings of flowers or food on the side, the contrast with the green grass and the general atmosphere of quiet and harmony of Wat Mahatat are unique. I noticed that most Buddha statues in Ayutthaya were decapitated, probably a consequence of the aforementioned sack, yet around this temple there were several intact ones, and they are in beautiful surroundings.
One of the Buddha statues in Wat Mahatat
This is also where you can find a tree with roots growing all around a Buddha head that rolled down the rest of the body long ago. There is something mystical about this image: a face deep in meditation, with a peaceful expression, but swallowed - or perhaps only caressed - by the roots of a tree. 
The famous Buddha statue with roots all around it
I decided to sleep one night in Ayutthaya, so I took my time to visit it without rushing or looking too much at the watch. It was an excellent decision. On the morning of the second day I went to Wat Chaiwatthanaram. Even though I regret not going there for sunset with the evening boat tour, I had the temple almost completely to myself. Since it is located outside of the island, most day-tours skip it. It's huge and spacious, with a considerable visual  impact, but it's not as old as you might think. It was built in the 17th century in the Khmer style, in vogue at the time.
Wat Chaiwatthanaram
Another temple worth visiting is Wat Si Sanphet, with its famous three stupas (also called chedis), the typical bell-shaped structure of Buddhist temples. Its the most important temple in Ayutthaya, because it used to be the royal residence. Monks, with their bright orange tunics, are a fairly common sight in Thailand, but they always make for great pictures. 
Wat Ratchaburana was my fourth temple among those with an entrance fee. I found this the least charming among the four, perhaps because part of it was being restored, or perhaps because by now I was a bit templed-out.
Some of the statues that decorate Wat Ratchaburana
A couple of things I didn't like about Ayutthaya are the stray dogs that wonder around the place and the inexplicable absence of places to eat around the ruins.
Buddha heads in Ratchaburana
Ayutthaya was one of the highlights of my trip to Thailand, and yet I almost missed it. My initial plan was to go to Sukhothai, further north, and then maybe go for a couple of days to Siem Reap and visit the amazing ruins of Angkor Wat. In the end, I skipped Sukhothai in favour of the Loy Krathong festival in Chiang Mai and I ended up cancelling Cambodia due to a lack of time and organizaiton. Ayutthaya offered me what I wanted - amazing ruins and lots of history- at less hassle. If you're in Thailand and you've always dreamt of playing Indian Jones among the ruins, this is the place to go.

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