The Ancient City of Ayutthaya
One place that any tourist in Thailand must visit is the ancient City of Ayutthaya.
The main attraction of Ayutthaya is the ancient ruins of the now destroyed city—the archaeological wonders, the magnificent statues of the Buddha, and the grand monuments. Ayutthaya is the magnificent destination that it is as it was the former capital of Thailand—before Bangkok gained that distinction.
These ruins are impressive. They make for many great photo opportunities for photography enthusiasts. There is lots of history on view for history enthusiasts, and there are lots to see and do for tourists. It is a worthy tourist spot, with elephant rides and other attractions.
Getting there is an easy day or overnight trip. Ayutthaya lies 80 kilometres north of Bangkok. The most picturesque route is to take the Chao Phraya River north on a local or tourist boat. The latter will include scrumptious meals and tour guides. For a terrestrial option take the bus or train north. The bus from the Mochit Station, or the train from the Hualamphong Train Station. For those who wish a little more luxury, simply invite your favourite Bangkok taxi driver to convey you for the day to Ayutthaya and back. He will be happy to oblige (3,000 baht, $100).
To fully appreciate the city you need to know its layout. Ayutthaya is an island, about 10 by 5 kilometres, located in the great central Thailand rice-growing region. It is the junction point of three rivers (the Chao Phraya River, the Lopburi River, and the PaSak River.). This fortuitous location brought to the city the immense wealth of Thailand and made it a major trade destination and a centre of political power for most of its history.
In centuries past Ayutthaya was a link in the long trade chain between Europe, India, the Malay kingdoms, Vietnam, and China. At its height, Ayutthaya enjoyed a population estimated at one million—equal in size to any city in the preindustrial world.
At this time its streets were busy and vibrant with traders from France, Italy, China, India, and every point of the compass. Goods of all types passed through. For local trade rice, agriculture, and domestic goods—but the more exotic goods demanded the greatest prices—silk, gold and jewelled ornaments, spices, documents, art and culture. These were bartered, hawked, and sold for the elite on three continents.
This wealth, in people and resources, made possible the creation of the lasting monuments and relics of the past that you now see.
It is on this central island that you will find most of the tourist sites and activities.
What to visit? Make a beeline to the National Museum—the Ayutthaya Historical Study Centre. This is a pleasant visit that will give you the lowdown on the history of Ayutthaya. You might also meet Thai university student interns who you can hire as guides. If you enjoy museums there are several other more specialised museums to visit.
Most other tourist sites on the island are the brick and stone ruins of Buddhist temples. The most impressive of these is Wat Phra Mahathat. This is a large temple with leaning Buddhist towers (prangs, stupas) pointing skyward, also rows of headless Buddhas. This is the location of the famous Buddha head in a tree.
There is also Phra Chedi Suriyothai. This is a white and gold-coloured chedi. Next, the beautiful Wat Phra Si Sanphet has three chedis on its grounds. A fantastic photo opportunity.
There are too many temples to list, many are situated next to each other. They are all worth a visit, each shows its own, unique origins and variations. Each is still a functioning temple. There are often monks in attendance and locals visiting.
When you do visit, show respect. This requires little effort. Don’t climb where you should not (signs), remove your hat in a temple—obvious. Also, some have admission fees, others a small donation (20 baht).
Getting around the island, you can, of course, join a tour group, either in Bangkok or locally. As soon as you arrive you will be invited by local tour guides. It is also an easy choice to hire a taxi for 2,000 baht ($60) or a tuk-tuk for 1,000 baht ($30) for a day’s excursion. Your driver will know the local spots and a little background. If you do this, it is always a good idea to take a photo of him and his vehicle (these people are almost always men).
A more relaxed option is to rent a bike. This will give you a better perspective on the island, lead you to meet other visitors, and be more fun—though of course much hotter on a hot day!
Which ever option, take with you water, a hat, and suncream.
Off the island there are also many sights to visit. The largest is the Chedi at Wat Phu Khao Thong. This is an immense white chedi, three centuries old. Occasionally, visitors are allowed to ascend for excellent views of the surrounds.
There is also a modern, large statue of an ancient Thai King. This is the Monument of King Naresuan the Great, who battled the Burmese centuries ago.
Outside the island, to the east, there is something of a modern Thai town, with floating markets, night markets, and the usual attractions of a smaller provincial capital. If you have the time a day or two here will be pleasant.
Where to stay?
Accommodation in Ayuttaha is oriented towards the budget traveller. There are many low-cost hostels, hotels, and backpacker places in and off the island. Most are located on the eastern side of the island, near the river.
This eastern stretch has many small, tourist-oriented restaurants, bars, and cafes. This locale has a pleasant and relaxed vibe, a place where you can stay, sit, put your feet up and forget noisy Bangkok. Many younger semi-expats live here for a few months or a year or two, quietly managing a bar or restaurant in conjunction with a Thai family. You can meet many interesting folks here from anywhere in the world, each with a story or two to tell!
The eastern side of the island also holds most of the ‘modern’ attributes of life, shopping malls and so forth.
Why is Ayutthaya no longer the capital of Thailand? War! Three centuries ago it was destroyed by a jealous rival, the Kingdom of Burma. The Burmese army and king invaded, and, after a long and painful siege, captured and destroyed the city. After decades of conflict, the political and economic centre of Thailand moved south to where it is now.
Ayutthaya is not to be missed. It is a pleasant destination in its own right and a glimpse into both rural life in Thailand and into the long history of the Kingdom.