“Ok guys, go over and stand in front of the ruin.”
“Perfect, hold it, hold iiiiit,” I drew out the final word as my friends shuffled into position before the remains of the ancient Kingdom of Ayutthaya.
“Now be happy conquerors.”
The three Burmese before me broke into beaming grins and waved behind them.
The whole day of zipping from temple to ruin under the sweltering sun was filled with jokes like this.
“Damn, we did a good job.”
“I’m upset that our ancestors did this, but this devastation is really thorough so they deserve credit for that don’t they?”
“Holy crap, we did that?”
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry,” my fellow student chanted before a ruined temple—half dismantled and adorned by a line of beheaded Buddha statues—dipping her head in small bows.
A slight smile was dancing across her lips as she struggled to set aside the pride for her once powerful country to make room for remorse over their terrible deeds.
“Do you think the Thais are still angry with us?” she said as she straightened, cutting off a chuckling as she furtively looked around.
“A little long to hold a grudge,” I replied.
We were at Wat Maha That, a royal temple started by Phra Borom Rajathirat I in 1374 and completed during the reign of King Ramesuan around 1390.
Just under 400 years after the temple’s completion the Burmese marched on Ayutthaya and tore the temple to the ground.
This war, from 1766-1767, would be the fourth between the two kingdoms since 1548.
Floodwaters coupled with the strong forts and resistance from the Thai forces had held the Burmese forces at bay for 14 months.
When they finally breached the walls of the city they struck terror in the hearts of the residents. Everyone in sight—men, women and children—was slaughtered and everything was torched.
Not even the revered Buddha images escaped unharmed. They were hacked for their gold coatings and beheaded, then left as symbols warning against defiance.
The last king of Ayutthaya was found dead days later and identified by his brother. Some say the king starved to dead after escaping the massacre.
Hundreds of royals and nobles were relocated to Burma.
“Romantically named after the capital of the Rama of legend, the city of Ayutthaya, far greater than any in Burma, with a population said to rival contemporary London and Paris, was reduced to ashes by the seemingly unstoppable Burmese military machine.”
– Thant Myint-U in The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma
Today thousands of tourists are drawn to the temple to see a Buddha head that’s made peace with its dislocated situation.
Gently grasped and sheltered by a bodhi tree’s roots the head smiles serenely, as though it’s experiencing a beautiful dream.
Maybe it’s dreaming of a time when humans have learned to live with each other and accept their current borders with grace.
The bloodshed of our ancestors should be enough proof that fighting over imaginary lines is fruitless.