With its shapely chedis and picturesque pagodas, the ancient city of Ayutthaya has always been a big draw for tourists seeking a taste of the Orient. But Ayutthaya offers more than scenic views and a rich history. To the Thai people, the city is the spiritual heart of their nation and home to the kingdom’s greatest treasures. The sumptuous styles of art and architecture, which were nurtured in Ayutthaya, can be seen in the temples, murals and buildings all over Thailand while the city’s cultural influence and traditions of diplomacy live on to this day. So by spending time in Ayutthaya, visitors can make a real connection with the past and enjoy a better understanding of Thainess.
Capital of the Ayutthaya Empire, the city was founded in 1350, and was the second major capital of Siam (after Sukhothai). During its most glorious period, from the 14th to the 18th centuries, it was considered one of the largest and most beautiful cities in the world with glinting gilded temples and bustling waterways. The city was a centre of diplomacy and commerce and attracted traders from both Asia and Europe seeking luxury goods and Thai rice, which is valued worldwide for its fragrant quality even today.
Ayutthaya flourished thanks to its strategic position on an island surrounded by three rivers that connected it to the Gulf of Thailand. This made it accessible to peoples; such as, the Portuguese, who first travelled to the city in the 1500s as members of the first official embassy from state-builder Afonso de Albuquerque, to King Ramathibodi II. Within five years, the two nations had a trade treaty in place. Later, other nations; such, as the Dutch were given permission to trade with Ayutthaya and Siamese ambassadors were sent as far afield as France, Japan, China and the Mughal city of Delhi.
To this day, Ayutthaya remains one of the first places beyond Bangkok visited by tourists seeking a taste of Thai culture. As it’s just a short distance from Bangkok, it’s the perfect venue for a day of sightseeing and people often spend a few hours looking around the many temples and monuments before enjoying some of the famous local food and heading back to Bangkok.
But Ayutthaya isn’t just important to Thailand and her people; it is regarded as a vital piece of world culture, too. This is why, in 1991, it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
So, if you want to see some of this heritage for yourself, here are some of the most famous sights:
Wat Yai Chai Mongkon
One of the most popular and best preserved of Ayutthaya’s temples is Wat Yai Chai Mongkon in the southeast of the historical city. You can climb the steep steps to the base of the temple’s 62-metre chedi for outstanding views over the city. There are rows of famous Buddha images in the Sukhothai style at the foot of the chedi, which was built around 1357 by King U-Thong. Wat Yai Chai Mongkon is an important site in Thai Buddhism as this was the monastery of monks who had travelled to Ceylon to study, and the head of this sect was made the Supreme Patriarch. Don’t forget to explore the temple grounds, as there’s a lovely reclining Buddha image here.
This is one of the best known temples in the Ayutthaya Historical Park and was one of the Royal temples where Ayutthaya’s kings carried out ceremonies. Large and imposing, the temple is in the Khmer style and the central prang is 35-metres high and represents the mythical Mount Meru. If you look carefully in the corner galleries, there are still traces of the original carved ceiling pieces.
King Naresuan the Great Memorial
King Naresuan the Great (1555 –1605) was one of Thailand’s best loved monarchs, as he helped to free Ayutthaya from the Burmese, who held it as a vassal state. The huge reverence in which he is held can be seen from the monument dedicated to him at Ayutthaya. A statue shows him astride a horse riding on a decorated base showing achievements from his life, including an impressive image of the king wrestling a crocodile. The monument is next to Chedi Phukhao Thong, an impressive 50-metre structure you can climb to enjoy the views. It was built by the Burmese to mark their victory in 1569. If you are wondering why the monument, indeed much of Ayutthaya is decorated with so many model roosters, it’s because they represent a legend in which Naresuan, when held captive in Burma, bet his freedom with a Burmese Prince on a cockfight. Thai visitors leave the model roosters as offerings at temples all over Ayutthaya.
Wat Phra Sri Sanphet
Perhaps the biggest and grandest of Ayutthaya’s temples, and certainly the most important in antiquity is Wat Phra Sri Sanphet, which used to be within the grounds of the Royal Palace and so was only used by members of the Royal Family. It suffered a great deal of damage after the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767, but its beauty was so legendary that it served as the model for the glorious Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok.
Wat Maha That
Of course, many tourists come to Ayutthaya with one aim, to get a photo of what has become the city’s most famous Buddha image, thanks to its appearance on a million travel blogs and posters. This is the elegantly caved Buddha head, which has become a living part of the landscape, thanks to the roots and branches of a Bhodi tree that have embraced it. But it’s well worth taking a longer look around Wat Maha That, as it is one of the city’s most important temples and the oldest, being started around 1374. Look carefully and you’ll find the remains of centuries-old murals.
But all the temples have something worth stopping by for. One of the best restored of Ayutthaya’s temples is Wat Thammikarat, which has lovely sculptures of ancient lions and naga’s as well as a reconstruction of the huge Buddha head that was found there. And if you appreciate oversized statues, you also need to visit Wat Phanan Choeng, which predates even the founding of the city itself. The temple houses a huge seated Buddha, said to date from 1334, though it has been restored several times. It is nearly 20 metres tall and known as Luangpho Tho. It is seen as important to sailors and was visited by the famous Chinese Admiral, Zheng He in 1407 on one of his voyages of exploration.
There are so many temples and ruins of ancient sculptures all over Ayutthaya that it would take several days to see them all. But you can avoid being templed-out by taking breaks and enjoying some of the other treats on offer. There are always friendly vendors around selling hearty bowls of noodles, cool drinks or refreshing fruit, while riverside restaurants offer tempting spots to have lunch. But however you choose to see this ancient city, you’ll come away with a better understanding of what makes the Thai people so proud of their heritage.
• By Train: The cheapest way of getting to Ayutthaya is by train from Bangkok’s Hualamphong Railway Station. There are regular trains and the trip takes about two hours.
• By Minibus: Mini buses leave for Ayutthaya from Bangkok’s Victory Monument area every half hour or so. The operators are based around the Century Plaza cinema complex.
• By Car: Take Highway No.1 (Phahon Yothin) and go via Pratu Nam Phra In. This takes you to Highway No.32, then, turn left on to Highway No.309 to Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya.
Going on foot is not really practical unless you really only want to see the central temples. But many places rent out bicycles and as the landscape is relatively flat, it’s not hard to cycle around. Remember to put on sunscreen and a hat there. Another option is to rent a tuk-tuk or minivan for a few hours, as some of the temples are further afield and a bit far to reach by bike.