“You got soup? On a train?!”

This was my question to Her as she returned to our train car, bowl of curry noodle soup in hand, after searching the Bangkok station for lunch.

“It’s better than your rat on a stick!” Her replied, referring to the skewered, grilled meats I had purchased during my own lap of the station.

Of course, this interesting meal choice ended disastrously as a train worker passed through our car to replace the toilet paper in the train’s bathroom.  His bag of toilet paper rolls resembled a trash bag, and when Her, using hand motions, asked if she could toss in the leftover soup, she managed to spill the entire contents of the bowl onto her vinyl-clad seat.  With a look of disgust and a groan of exasperation, the train worker left us with a roll of toilet paper and disappeared into the next train car.

Our destination, Ayutthaya, Thailand, was only about an hour from Bangkok by local train, but it felt light years away from the noise, traffic and overall craziness that define Thailand’s capital city.  As the ancient capital of Siam, Ayutthaya was one of the world’s largest cities at the start of the 18th century, home to a population of nearly a million people. Butt you wouldn’t know that today from strolling (or cycling) the quiet, temple-filled town of just over 60,000 residents.

Smelling of curry, our train arrived in Ayutthaya early in the afternoon. We were promptly greeted by what seemed like several thousand tuk-tuk drivers all clamoring to find a fare among the train’s passengers.  We negotiated our fare and hopped into the back of a pink tuk-tuk.  Unlike Bangkok where tuk-tuks are generally tourist-trap ripoffs, Ayutthaya’s tuk-tuks are the legitimate taxi operation in town, and the drivers are mostly honest (it does help to have an idea of what a ride should cost, however).  The model of tuk-tuks here are also quite different than in other parts of Thailand: Unlike their two-seater counterparts, Ayutthaya’s colorful mini taxis resemble covered, three-wheel pickup trucks with bench seats and hoods reminiscent of Darth Vader’s helmet.  They can seat up to six people and feature a luggage rack on top.  They also have an open back, so hold on tightly or you may find yourself rolling alongside the following traffic!

Ayutthaya is small enough that a full day of sight-seeing can cover most of the major spots, but with three full days to spend, we decided to take it easy and try to see just a few wats (temples) each day to prevent ourselves from hitting our “maximum wat-age,” the state of mental overload where all the temples start to blend together.  The extra time also gave us the opportunity to explore the city by bicycle, a rewarding and slow-paced way to get around.

Most of the temples in Ayutthaya have an entrance fee of 50 baht, but that price simply covers entry.  None of the temples we visited provided pamphlets (in English or even Thai), but Wat Mahathat does rent audio guides.  (We opted against the audio guide as it was late in the day already, but after wandering around for an hour without direction we regretted our decision.)  Be sure to walk across the street and see the less-visited Wat Ratchaburana.  My circuit of Wat Ratchaburana ranks as one of the better Indiana Jones-esque experiences of my life.  We visited late in the afternoon and most of the tourists were gone.  After wandering around the main temple tower, I found a staircase leading up into the temple and followed it with the hope of finding a good view of the sunset. Once inside, however, I found a staircase leading down into the spooky and poorly-lit heart of the temple. I climbed down the narrow and treacherous staircase to find two unrestored rooms in the temple.  Apparently these rooms were where the temple treasures were kept until they were looted in the 1950s.  The bottom room fathers an added bonus: If you climb onto the small concrete step and put your head into the claustrophobia-inducing chamber, you will be greeted with views of original wall murals from the Ayutthaya kingdom era.  Not for the feint of heart, but well worth the effort.

Because we weren’t able to book the overnight train to Chiang Mai as we had originally planned, we spent an extra night at Promtong Mansion, our excellent Ayutthaya hotel. But the delay was not a problem for us.  The room, though not as nice as our palace in Bangkok, was large and comfortable, and the staff members extremely helpful and enthusiastic.  A third night also entitled us to a free evening river cruise.  This was a chance to relax and ride a long-tail boat along the canal surrounding the city.  This was nice, although rushed at times, and culminated in watching a beautiful sunset at Wat Chaiwattanaram.  Although it isn’t something I would have paid extra to do, it was very enjoyable for the price of free.

The one Ayutthaya site I would recommend avoiding is the “floating market.”  The place is a tourist trap full of tacky T-shirts and overpriced food.  The market is more of a pier surrounded by a brown pond.  There are better places to shop for souvenirs, and the noodle shops and food stalls that line the roads are much better places to eat.  The best part of visiting the floating market for me was the opportunity ride the ferry across the river to the train station with our bicycles for 10 baht (about 35 cents).

Many people visit Ayutthaya as a day trip from Bangkok, but spending a couple of days here is certainly worth the effort if you have the time.