Picture a flourishing city so developed that the nations of the world would strive to engage in trade with, a city that was the centre of art and culture, a city that served as the seat for political and diplomatic activities of the country it was in, a city that was once the largest in the world. Now, picture the same city shattered and burned to ashes, to such an extent that its existence is hardly known to the population of the world today, such is the fate of Thai Ayutthaya today. The conventional Thailand traveler would go to Bangkok, Phuket or Krabi at the most; whilst being unaware of a hidden UNESCO World Heritage Site, just 70 km to the north of Bangkok.
Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 and remained the second capital of the Siamese kingdom, until it was attacked and razed by the Burmese army in 1767. Its strategic location on an island, surrounded by three rivers and above the tidal bore of Gulf of Siam, prevented it not only from the attacks of invading European and Arabian warships but also from seasonal flooding, which ensured its peaceful existence till the Burmese raids.
Being equidistant from India and China, Ayutthaya also served as a major trading hub along the trade routes from China to the Malaccan Straits. And like any other modern city today, Ayutthaya was a well-planned city with all the urban facilities and had one of the most advanced water management systems of the world.
Ayutthaya can be explored within a day and is a treat for art lovers as the city comes alive with the ruins of several Wats (temples), Prangs (reliquary towers) and monasteries which are testaments to Ayutthaya’s past grandeur and splendour. Interestingly, these architectural gems are so abundant that one can easily spot them even on the sides of the roads, while commuting from one Wat to another. The city is absolutely beautiful and so quiet that you can truly experience inner peace here, a striking similarity with the Buddhist city of Lumbini, another UNESCO World Heritage Site (click here for a detailed travel guide).
Purchase the Combo Pass that grants you entry into most sites at Ayutthaya, it would cost you more, but it is worth the extra amount, especially since you do not have to stand in the queues at each site. If you are a student, do remember to carry your Student ID with you.
Bangkok to Ayutthaya –
There are five ways to reach Ayutthaya from Bangkok and back – train, minivan, bus, boat and private taxi.
Trains, by far are the cheapest and most scenic mode of transportation, and can be boarded at Hua Lamphong Station. A third class ticket can be purchased for as low as 15 TBH. However, do bear in mind that trains are also the slowest mode and may take up to three hours, which is double the time taken by minivans. Refer this site for fare details.
Tip: When buying train tickets, it is advised to directly go to the ticketing booth. There are several locals around the entrance, dressed in uniform who would pretend to sell you tickets or tell you that the trains are cancelled.
Minivans are the best way to go as they are convenient, air-conditioned and affordable. You can find them at Mo Chit Bus station and a single ticket would set you back by 150 TBH. Travel time by these is a little over one hour and we ourselves chose this mode of commute. The last minivan from Ayutthaya leaves at 5 PM and if you miss it, then you must take a minivan over to Electronics Market, a market around an hour away from Ayutthaya.
Tip: After reaching the Mo Chit station, you will need to head to the Mo Chit Bus Station to board the minivan. The Van Terminal is just behind the Ticketing Booths. As always, enquire only at the counter about the vans and pay money only at the counter.
If you find minivans a tad bit expensive, you can choose public bus services at Northern Bus Terminal. The buses are frequent, however what you’ll save on money, you’ll have to compromise on time and comfort. Buses take somewhere between two to three hours.
Based on your budget and time constraints, you can also choose to go by private taxi, which is the fastest and the most expensive option with fares going up to 4000 TBH for an 8-hour package. Boat transfers are available from Bangkok to Ayutthaya and back through private tours.
GETTING AROUND AYUTTHAYA –
Most of the archaeological ruins are close to each other but not all of them, so everything cannot be covered on foot. You can opt to rent a bicycle or a scooter for the day, which would cost around 50 – 100 TBH. Tuk-tuk is another great option if you prefer being driven, instead of riding under the hot Thai sun. We however, had rented a bike. If you arrive by bus or minivan, then you can find a spot to rent bicycles or motorbikes right behind the place where you are dropped off. Ask them for a free map as well.
PLACES TO SEE –
Ayutthaya is a living legend of Thailand’s architectural genius and religious beliefs. Most of the ruins here are located in the Ayutthaya Historical Park, except a few that are scattered hither thither in the eastern, western and southern parts of the outer island. We were here for a day and if you arrive early, you can easily cover all the attractions in a day. On the other hand, if you have plenty of time at hand, you can laze back, stay overnight and explore the city for a couple of days. We have listed down the major attractions in Ayutthaya and are absolutely not to be missed.
Wat Sena Sanaram Ratchaworawihan
Known originally as Wat Sue and locally as Sena Senaram, Wat Sena Senaram Ratchaworawihan is as old as the kingdom of Ayutthaya is. It featues the traditional Ubosot Hall and Indra Vihara Hall, both of which are richly decorated with murals that adorn their every pillar, beam and wall, a classic case of Thai adornment, one may say.
The complex consists of several white small temples with golden Phrangs which are absolutely surreal to look at and with no soul in sight here, the temple environment is quite peaceful and relaxing.
Ayutthaya Museum Chan Kasem Palace
Having had our first experience of the Buddhist idols and temples, we headed over to the Ayutthaya Museum. The grandiose of the museum could be attributed to the fact that it was once the royal residence of the rulers of Ayutthaya starting from its builder, King Naresuan the Great in 1577, to successive kings. A huge fire in the 18th century during King Boromakot’s reign had destroyed most of the palace and what we see today is a reconstruction done by King Rama IV.
The museum provides a window into a timeline of how Ayutthaya was before it was plundered by the Burmese army and what is now. The palace is home to several excavations, utensils, jewellery items and other relics unearthed that have survived the raids.
Chao Sam Phraya National Museum
What the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum lacks in grandiose, it makes up for in size; it is the largest museum in Ayutthaya and second largest in Thailand. A two-storey museum that houses artefacts excavated from Wat Ratchaburana and other temples of Ayutthaya. The ground floor exhibits statues of Buddha in different postures, porcelain ware and bullet money belonging to ancient Ayutthaya period. The first floor primarily consists of gold articles found in the underground crypts of the Prang tower of Wat Ratchaburana and Wat Mahatat.
The museum shop is a great place to shop for Ayutthaya memorabilia; we ourselves bought some really beautiful and elaborate postcards from the museum shop here.
Wat Maha That
Wat Maha That was originally built to house the Buddhist relics in 13th century and thus, is called the “Temple of Great Relic”. Located in the centre of the island, this is the principal temple and is also the largest, being home to the Supreme Patriarch or the leader of the Thai Buddhist Monks. Thus, several royal ceremonies of Ayutthaya kingdom being held here.
The main Prang, located right in the centre of the temple complex, collapsed twice – once in 17th century after which it was rebuilt and the second time in the early 20th century, after which only the base platform remains and is colossal enough to give you an idea of how huge the central prang must have been. On the corners of the platform are four smaller Chedis, being surrounded by Viharas or halls, which in turn are surrounded by galleries comprising lines of Buddha statues with missing heads.
When the Burmese invaded and destroyed most of Ayutthaya in 1767, Wat Mahathat was set on fire, the wooden roofs sheltering the Buddha images were burnt and all the gold ornaments, relics and wares were looted.
And as if to break down the spirit of the people of Ayutthaya and their army, the Burmese vandalised the Buddha statues by lopping off the heads. This brutal demolition led to one of the Buddha heads being stuck in the roots of a banyan tree. While there are several stories of how this might have happened, it still is not clear which one is true and of the many, the most prominent one is that when the Burmese army was looting the temple complex and fleeing to escape the fire they had themselves set, the Buddha head from the hand of one of the attackers fell to the ground and he didn’t bother to pick it up. With time, the head got entwined between the roots of the tree. This story has a mystical aspect to it too, that none can steal the idol of God and that it stays at a place where the Lord himself prefers to. Also, the fact that the banyan tree is of great religious significance in the Buddhist culture lends support to the divine nature of the event.
The ‘Buddha-head-in-tree’ has become more a face of Thai tourism and is supposedly, one of the most photographed attractions of Thailand. Do not be surprised if you learn that a tourist has come all the way to Ayutthaya only to see this idol. It is advised to be respectful of the Buddha head here and you must only get your pictures clicked kneeling down and below the level of the the head.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet
The holiest of the temples, the Wat Phra Si Sanphet was constructed in 14th century and was part of the royal palace complex. Thus, no monks resided here as it served as the private chapel of the royal family, who also performed numerous royal ceremonies including the swearing of allegiance. With its three dome-shaped Chedis that are also a landmark of Ayutthaya, the temple is believed to have preserved the ashes of the three Siamaese kings – King Trailok, King Borom Ratchathirat III, and King Rama Thibodi II.
The Viharn or the main hall of the temple was constructed in 1499 and a huge Buddha idol covered in 200 kgs of gold, ‘Phra Si Sanphet’ was seated inside. When the Burmese army attacked in 1767, the gold was looted and the remains of the idol have now been moved to Wat Pho in Bangkok.
Wat Ratchaburana or the ‘Temple of Royal Restoration’ was built in the 15th century by King Borommarachathirat II, on the cremation site of his two brothers, who died fighting in a duel for the royal succession to their father Intha Racha.
As soon as you enter the gate of the temple, you will notice the huge central Prang standing tall in all its glory. This Prang is said to be the finest in Ayutthaya, with carvings of Garuda and other mystical creatures on its Khmer-styled edifice. The temple has truly stood the test of time as all the precious Buddha images, gold artefacts, relics and tablets, kept in the crypt of the tower, remained undiscovered until 1957. After the secret of the treasure was known publicly, a part of it was stolen by thieves and the remaining has been restored in the Chao Sam Phraya Museum.
Viharn Phra Mongkol Bophit
Featuring one of the largest images of Buddha, Phra Mongkol Bophit was built in 1610 and damaged after its roof collapsed when the Burmese attacked Ayutthaya. For two years the temple remained roofless, until the it was restored in 1951. The 12.5 m high and 9.5 m wide bronze Buddha image is also called the ‘Phra Mongkol Bophit’ and is in the Bhumisparsha mudra, calling the Earth to witness. We could only catch a glimpse of the magnificent statue as the temple was under renovation when we visited.
Also known as the ‘Temple of the Earth’, Wat Lokayasutharam is a middle-period Ayutthayan temple, with most of it having been destroyed by the Burmese army. Though, what remains of it, is only a major attraction of a magnificent idol of the Reclining Buddha or Phra Bhuddhasaiyart, which is 37 meters long and 8 meters high. The head of the Buddha rests on the lotus flower and the legs overlap squarely showing equalised toes. Devotees offer flowers and burn incense sticks, which can be availed from the shops and kiosks on the opposite side of the road.
Located to the west of the Chao Phraya river and south-west of the city, Wat Chaiwatthanaram was built outside the island-city by King Prasat Thong in 1630 in the loving memory of his mother, where she resided. The temple was his first and the name translates to ‘Temple of long reign and glorious era’.
The temple features a 35 metre high central prang surrounded by four smaller prangs or Chedis. The entire structure is laid on a rectangular foundation of bricks. Half-way up the Prang, one can find steep stairs leading towards the crypt.
These Chedis are further surrounded by eight chapels – four in the corners and four in the centre, which are connected by rectangular passages, that used to have a roof on the top and were opened from the inside, with openings for entry on the sides. Along the enclosing wall of the passages were 120 statues of Buddha lacquered in black and gold, though what remains today is just the boundary composed of plundered bricks.
The four chapels on the corners had two statues of sitting Buddha and the ones in the middle had one large image, all lacquered in black and gold and all of which were looted.
Towards the east of the main structure, i.e. on the side of the Chao Phraya river was the Ubosot Hall, with two stupa chedis on its north and south and in which the ashes of the King’s mother were enshrined.
Ancient Ayutthaya has done well to blend in with modern Thailand, it is in Ayutthaya that we could spot ruins of the 16th Century standing right next to a modern convenience store and being totally inconspicuous. It is this blending that has ensured that the city has survived and will continue to do so. Add this gem to your Thailand itinerary to explore a side of Thailand that is quite in contrast to the beaches and party centres.