THE ANCIENT CAPITAL OF THAILAND
AYUTTHAYA : ANCIENT CAPITAL OF SIAM
Just 70 km north of Bangkok on the fertile floodplains of the Chao Phraya River, there is to be found a vast and impressive collection of crumbling ruins, temples, statues and Buddha icons, the faded remnants of a once glorious civilisation. This is Ayutthaya, which for more than 400 years was the capital city of the Thai people, a city once prosperous and powerful, then destroyed and abandoned and forgotten, and today resurrected as a World Heritage Site.
This page is devoted to the city of Ayutthaya, one of the most significant historic sites of south-east Asia. It is not a comprehensive guide to all that can be seen or how to see it - rather it is an 'appetite whetter' - a selective look at just eight of the numerous temple complexes here, to serve as an encouragement to all visitors to Bangkok to take a day trip out to this great site.
Included is a link to this article's companion piece about the summer palace of Thai kings - Bang Pa-In, a very different yet complimentary experience to the ruined city, which can also be seen on a day visit to Ayutthaya.
Temple pagoda rising above the trees at the ancient city ruins of Ayutthaya
All photos on this page were taken by the author in Ayutthaya and Bang Pa-In in the years 2009 and 2016.
N.B: Because the Thai language has a different alphabetical structure to English, there is no way of directly translating Thai characters. All that can be done is to write in English the nearest approximation of Thai pronunciation. For this reason, names of temple complexes may be spelled in many different ways, and some alternative spellings have also been given in the text here.
Ayutthaya temple ruins
THE RISE OF AYUTTHAYA
The history of Thailand (originally Siam) up until 800 years ago is rather sketchy, but the whole region was home to a complex mixture of civilisations under Indian, Malay and Khmer influence, all competing for territory and power. A cohesive nation had never existed, and nor indeed did recognisably Thai culture until the 13th century. People from southern China - the ancestors of the modern Thais - had been migrating south and settling in the region for many generations, and a number of self-governing city states formed by these people had gradually developed. In 1238 the most powerful of the states had come to prominence as the Kingdom of Sukhothai in what is now central Thailand. Sukhothai today is generally regarded as the first identifiably Thai capital. But its domination was very short-lived.
Because within 150 years, a rival state to the south had begun to gain ascendancy in the region. This new power was centred on a city founded in 1351 by U Thong, a rich Chinese merchant who had married into royalty. As the new state quickly grew in importance, so Sukhothai declined and eventually was subdued, as were other states in the region. Strategically placed to control trade routes on an island at the confluence of three rivers, the capital of this new state was to become the dominant city of the Thai region for the next 417 years. This was Ayutthaya. And its ruler, U Thong, now adopted for himself the kingly title of Ramathibodi I.
Under Ramathibodi I and his successors Ayutthaya would flourish. Buddhism was established as the state religion, and law courts and governmental structures were set up. Thriving trade links were developed overland to China and India, and via the rivers and the coast to the rest of the world. Commercially profitable exports included rice, fish and timber. The Portuguese, the Spanish, French and British empires all established missions in Ayutthaya, and the city became one of the most prosperous and extravagant in Asia, and indeed by the year 1700, the population is estimated to have reached about one million inhabitants - one of the largest cities in the world, albeit a city under constant threat. At its height the city state incorporated vassal states as far afield as Burma, Cambodia and the Malay peninsula - a period when Ayutthaya came close to establishing an empite in south east Asia. Of course many other developing Thai states, as well as Khmer and increasingly powerful Burmese forces, would regularly challenge Ayutthaya's authority. In response, Ayutthaya would periodically attack and conquer its rivals and gain territory, but because of its rapid development from a small city state, it never really had quite sufficient manpower to quell all opposition, or to ensure its own everlasting existence.
THE DOWNFALL AND RUIN OF AYUTTHAYA
It was an invasion by the neighbouring nation of Burma which was to prove Ayutthuya's downfall in 1767, when the city was finally captured after a 15 year long siege. Gold was plundered, thousands of citizens were taken captive, and the city was almost totally destroyed - arguably the most traumatic event in the whole history of Siam.
The Burmese did not enjoy their conquest for long - they were driven out of Siam even before the 18th century came to an end, and sovereignty was once more restored to the Thais.
However the damage to Ayutthaya had been done, and the city could not recover. It was abandoned. A new modern city of Ayutthaya would later be built a few kilometres to the east, and today this will be the point of arrival for many visiting tourists. But the modern Ayutthaya was never going to be capital of the nation. Instead, the Thais decided to build a new capital some distance south at Thonburi on the west bank of the Chao Thraya River - and this was a capital city which would later spread and expand on the eastern bank of the river in a location which became the modern-day conurbation of Bangkok.
Ruined temple of Wat Mahathat
The island city at the confluence of three rivers - Pa Sak to the northeast, Lopburi to the north and the great Chao Phraya (the river which also flows through Bangkok) to the west and the south.
Following its desertion more than 200 years ago, Ayutthaya fell into utter ruination. Looters plundered whatever treasures and artifacts they could find, and the natural world gradually reclaimed the city for itself as the crumbling remains became smothered in vegetation. The temple buildings, many of which were once covered in glittering gold, are now faded and grey. This sad decline happened throughout the 19th century and through most of the 20th century. It was only in 1959 that the government eventually stepped in and passed laws - not wholly effective at first - to protect the site.
But interest was now being stimulated in preserving Thailand's cultural heritage, and undoubtedly the extraordinary growth of tourism in the country in later years also helped to further incentivise this process. Everyone wanted to see the former capital revived and made accessible for all to visit. After many decades of neglect, the complex was cleared of overgrown vegetation, and in 1969 the Fine Arts Department began restoring some of the temples.
In 1976 the ancient city was named as a Historical Park, and in 1991 the central area incorporating the original Royal Palace and many - but by no means all - temples located on the island created by the three rivers - received international recognition with the designation of 289 hectares as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are plans to extend this designation to the entire complex.
And today, the site is a major tourist attraction - a sprawlingly vast array of ruined palaces, temples and statues, easily accessible from Bangkok and with all the facilities necessary in the surrounding area to make a day visit comfortable, intriguing and enlightening.
THE TEMPLES AND ICONS OF AYUTTHAYA
A large number of temples are open to the public, and due to the long history of Ayutthaya during which time many cultural influences came to bear on the city, each temple complex has its own individual appeal, often featuring different styles of architecture.
In this page, I will illustrate a small but representative selection of the temple complexes of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. These five temples include Wat Ratchaburana, one of the most impressive of all the pagodas at Ayutthaya, and Wat Maha That, an important temple of the inner city adjacent to the site of the original Royal Palace. I will also look at Wat Phra Sri Sanphet - the most important temple of all in the old city, and the adjacent, much restored temple hall of Phra Mongkhon Bophit. I also look at Wat Lokayasutharam, home to an enormous gold plated reclining Buddha. I will also look at three temples from outside of the Heritage Site - including the active temple of Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon to the east, and the panoramic vista of Wat Chai Watthanaram - perhaps the most photogenic of all Ayutthaya's ruins - which lies to the west.
First though, I will look at Wat Na Phramane - a temple which has the distinction of being the only temple to have survived intact when the city was destroyed in 1767.
Pagodas in South East Asia are categorised according to their origins and styles. In Ayutthaya, pagodas of Khmer (Cambodian) influence are domed, and are called 'prangs'. Pagodas of Thai or Sukhothai style are pointed, and are called 'chedi'
An array of chedi and prangs at Wat Maha That
The Golden Buddha of Wat Na Phramane : the principal statue of the temple
The Ubosot or ordination hall of Wat Na Phramane
The ancient, green sandstone Buddha which also graces the temple of Wat Na Phramane
WAT NA PHRAMANE
(aka Wat Na Phra Meru or Wat Na Phra Men)
In English : 'The Monastery in Front of the Funeral Pyre'
Wat Na Phramane is located to north of the Historical Park and is not part of the World heritage Site, lying as it does just beyond a moat which surrounded the old Palace complex on the central island of Ayutthaya. The temple was originally built in 1503 AD, and notably served as a meeting place for peace negotiations between warring parties, during one of Ayutthaya's many conflicts with Burma in 1563. But it was that other war in the 18th century which was the preminent event in Wat Na Phramane's history, shaping its destiny to the present day. In the 1760s when the Burmese began their final, decisive incursion into Ayutthayan territory, the temple was taken over by the invading army and indeed cannon was fired by the Burmese at the Grand Palace from here, causing some damage. One cannon was fired by the visiting King of Burma himself, but with a rather unfortunate consequence - according to historical reports, his cannon exploded, and the king himself was mortally wounded! His death did not save Ayutthaya, which was doomed to ruination as the war continued. The temple of Wat Na Phramane however was left largely unscathed - the only one in the city to do so, and today this temple therefore exists as the best preserved building in the whole city.
The temple is notable for two very contrasting Buddha statues. The Ubosot or main ordination hall houses a seated 6 metre gold plated crowned Buddha of the early Ayutthaya period, and this is the principal statue of the temple, and is considered to be the most beautiful crowned Buddha statue left intact after the end of the war in 1767. But perhaps of greater cultural interest is a very much older green sandstone Buddha crafted in Sri Lanka nearly 1500 years ago, carried to Thailand, and now housed in a building adjacent to the hall.
Because of its state of preservation, Wat Na Phramane is unique in the city. It also gives us a glimpse into the past. It's only a small temple, and cannot compare in scale to the expansive temple complexes to come later in this article. But one can only wonder when looking at Wat Na Phramane, just how splendid these other temples may have been - temples much more typical of the ravages of the Burmese. Temples such as Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon.
Rows of Buddhas encompass the main temple of Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon. Some of these have been remodelled to replace ones which had previously been destroyed
WAT YAI CHAI MONGKHON
(aka Wat Yai Chaiya Mongkhon or Wat Chaimongkhon)
In English : 'The Great Monastery of Auspicious Victory'
Also beyond the island boundaries of the original Royal palace and the UNESCO World Heritage Site is Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon. This temple is to the east of the Pasak River, one of the three rivers which created the island at the centre of Ayutthaya.
It was originally built in the 14th century at a much earlier period of Ayutthayan history than Wat Na Phramane, and the stimulus to construct it was in honour of two princes of Ayutthaya, Chao Kaeo and Chao Thai, who had died of cholera in 1357. The temple subsequently played a role in many important events in Ayutthayan history, including a successful conspiracy hatched here to overthrow a usurper king in 1548, and then an unsuccessful plot to overthrow his successor in 1561!
The main feature of the temple is the tall, bell-shaped pagoda, named Phra Chedi Chaiya Mongkhon in 1592. Subsequently it was this chedi which gave its name to the entire temple complex which had previously been known by at least three other names. Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon offers a more intimate experience of Ayutthaya architectural ruins, than is possible at many of the sites in the centre of the Park, because you can actually climb some way up the chedi - usually colourfully draped in orange sheets as can be seen in the photo on this page. (Many Buddha statues at Ayutthaya are also draped in orange robes). From a vantage point on the chedi, the visitor can look down on rows of Buddha statues which surround the temple, as well as a very large reclining Buddha.
Today, Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon is one of the more vibrant temples at Ayutthaya, partially restored, and often the setting today for Thai festivals and celebrations.
After looking at two temples outside of the central island city, it's now time to cross the water and look at one of the most striking pagodas in the city - Wat Ratchaburana.
Phra Chedi Chaiya Mongkhon
The reclining Buddha at Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon, originally constructed many centuries ago though remodelled in 1965, after its ruination by fortune hunters
In English : 'The Monastery of the Royal Repairs'
Moving on to the central island and the UNESCO World Heritage Site, one prominent tower or 'prang' can be seen from far and wide - indeed it is one of Thailand's largest free-standing prangs, and it stands as a monument to a brutally dramatic yet poignant incident in Ayutthaya's history.
In 1424 the then king of Ayutthaya, King Intharachathirat, died. He had three sons all of whom commanded armies and territory in the region. A dispute broke out between the two elder princes as to who was the rightful successor to the throne. Rather than risk all out war, they chose to settle the matter in personal mortal combat, fought out with swords on the backs of their elephant mounts. It proved an unwise choice for both of them because it seems that each simultaneously slashed at the other brother's throat. Both died.
So remarkably it was the youngest of the three siblings who ascended the throne as King Sam Phraya (aka Borommaracha II). One of Sam Phraya's first acts after coronation was to build on the site of their cremation a new temple including this enormous monument in the Khmer 'prang' style (a tall domed pagoda), and two smaller chedi (spired pagodas) to house the ashes of his two dead brothers. The temple was named Wat Ratchaburana, and the prang at the centre of the complex remains today as perhaps the most impressive and attractive of Ayutthaya's many pagodas.
In the years since then its construction however, this temple has not fared well. One night in December 1766 during the war against Burma, a great fire broke out in the city and spread rapidly. Accounts (the 'Royal Chronicles') say that more than 10,000 houses and temple buildings were destroyed in the city, and among them, were many at Wat Ratchaburana. Most of the temple, including the brothers' chedi, were laid waste, but the great prang did survive more or less intact.
In 1957 Wat Ratchaburana - long neglected and abandoned, once more hit the headlines. Several gold artifacts from the glory days of Ayutthaya had been found near this site, and as a result it was planned to carry out an archaeological dig at Wat Ratchaburana. However, before that could happen, looters found their way into the big prang and succeeded in breaking into a long forgotten crypt in which they discovered and plundered numerous relics interred here centuries ago. The robbers were quickly caught, and some of the relics were recovered but an unknown amount had already been sold on. Subsequent excavations in the prang crypt found a hoard of many more gold artifacts, bronze Buddha images, precious stones and other treasures.
Two pagodas - The great Khmer (Cambodian) style domed 'prang' of Wat Rachaburana makes a nice contrast to the spire like 'chedi' which is more typical of Thai or Sukhotai architecture
Today, apart from the great prang, there is not too much of interest to see at Wat Ratchaburana, but just 300 metres south is one of the most important and extensive of all the city ruins. This is Wat Maha That, and Wat Maha That is the subject of the next section.
Three Wat Maha That prangs - this ruined temple is characterised by dozens of these pagodas
An array of chedi and prangs at Wat Maha That, and dominating the back of the picture is a mound which formed the base of a giant prang which partially fell (not for the first time) in 1904 and then sadly sufferd further collapse in 2011
WAT MAHA THAT
(aka Wat Maharat)
In English : 'The Monastery of the Great Relic'
Located close to the site of the Royal Palace, and residence of the pre-eminent religious leader of the Kingdom, Wat Maha That was undoubtedly one of the most sacred sites of the central city from the late 14th century, and would remain so throughout Ayutthaya's long period of dominance - the site of major royal ceremonies and celebrations and in its hey-day, home to many of Ayutthaya's most precious relics. And its great importance to the city was reflected in the fact that during the golden era of Ayutthaya's empire building, this temple regularly underwent extensive construction and restoration of its monuments, so that it would remain at the centre of Ayutthayan political and religious life.
But like almost all the other temples in the city, Wat Maha That was destroyed during the war with Burma. A victim of the great fire which swept through the city in 1776, Wat Maha That was left in ruins. Little happened after that, except gradual decline of the ruins, including the final collapse of the largest temple prang in the early 20th century, but in 1956 there was renewed interest in the site with the discovery (mentioned in the section about Wat Ratcha Burana) of a secret chamber here, containing jewelry, a gold casket of Buddha relics, and other treasures.
Today Wat Maha That is certainly one of the most visited sites due to its vast array of chedi and prang ruins, viharns (assembly halls) and Buddha statues. Remarkably, however, for all these architectural wonders, and for all the treasure found here, the best known and most celebrated of all the sights at Wat Maha That is not some ornate treasure or fine architectural craftmanship. It is the broken head of a Buddha statue, which when the site was cleared was found entwined in the surface roots of an old fig tree (pictured and described below). As Buddha is said to have found enlightenment whilst sitting under just such a fig tree, the discovery took on a special kind of symbolism - it seemed almost as though the head of the spiritual founder of Thai faith was being shielded and embraced by a sacred tree.
A stone Buddha seated in the ruins of one of the viharns or assembly halls at Wat Maha That
As the residence of Ayutthaya's spiritual leader, Wat Maha That was a place of special significance in the ancient capital of the Thais. But the next temple which lies a little further to the west within the Historic Park was the most important temple complex of all, for reasons which will be explained below. That temple is Wat Phra Sri Sanphet.
The head of Buddha, seemingly embraced and protected by the roots of a sacred fig tree at Wat Mahathat, has been accorded a symbolically important religious status
WAT PHRA SRI SANPHET
(aka Wat Phrasisanpeth)
In English : 'The Monastery of the Holy, Splendid and Omniscient'
The original royal palace at Ayutthaya had been constructed by U Thong, the founder of the city state, in 1350 in a locality called Bueng Phra Ram at the heart of the central island. But almost one hundred years later a new palace was ordered to be built a short distance to the northwest by Borom Trailokanat, the eighth king of Ayutthaya, and in 1448 in the grounds of the new palace was constructed Wat Phra Sri Sanphet to serve as the personal chapel of the Ayutthayan kings. As such, this was to become the most important of all the temples at Ayutthaya, exclusively for the King's use, and a centre of great development over the years.
Notably in 1492 two large chedi were built by the then king Ramathibodi II to house the ashes of two former kings, his father and his elder brother. Then in 1500 a giant standing Buddha statue was commissioned. Made of bronze but coated in 348kg of gold, it was said to be the largest and most beautiful Buddha statue in the world at that time. A third great chedi was built c1530 to commemorate Ramathibodi II, after his death. Many more smaller chedi, as ell as viharns and stupas were created over the years and others were renovated when necessary, including a major restoration of the site in the early 17th century.
In 1776 of course, it all came to an end. The temple was plundered by the Burmese and burned to the ground. Many statues had the gold taken from them to be melted down. But what of the giant Buddha statue and also the three chedi mentioned above? The bronze core of the Buddha was left at the site and later taken to the new capital of Bangkok and can now be found at the well known Wat Pho temple in the city. Of the three great chedi, only one was still standing intact at the beginning of the 20th century, but the two others have since been restored and these three chedi are today the distinctive feature of this once glorious temple. The next site to be discussed will be Phra Mongkhon Bophit, but first we must briefly talk about the Grand (Royal) Palace.
The Grand Palace
We have already mentioned 'The Grand Palace' or 'Royal Palace', home to the kings of Ayutthaya, several times in this article including in this section about Wat Phra Sri Sanphet. However, there are no pictures of this focal point of the entire city. The reason sadly is that the palace was totally destroyed in the war against Burma and nothing above the foundations - apart from the temples of the complex - now remains. That is a crying shame - a reconstruction of the Sanphet Prasat Palace, the principal Palace and Throne Hall, at the Muang Boran open air museum, is a poignant reminder of the splendour that was lost.
Two of the great chedi of Wat Phra Sri Sanphet
One of the chedi in the background with the ruins of a temple hall in the foreground
VIHARN PHRA MONGKHON BOPHIT
(aka : Wihan Phra Mongkhonbophit)
In English : 'The Hall of The Buddha of the Holy and Supremely Auspicious Reverence'
Phra Mongkhon Bophit is an 'assembley hall' (viharn) in complete contrast to the last two great temples (wats) described - Wat Maha That and Wat Phra Sri Sanphet. Where they were grandiose but crumbling temple ruins, this one is a relatively small complex, but the assembly hall which is its focal point has been fully restored to its former splendour. Phra Mongkhon Bophit is just 100 metres south of Wat Phra Sri Sanphet (indeed the photo below was taken from the temple in the Grand Palace grounds) and at first glance it may look to have remained in similar unblemished condition to the very first temple on this page, Wat Na Phramane. But over the centuries, the fate of the two was very different.
The whole raison d'etre for this assembley hall was originally to house a great 12.5 metre high bronze statue of Buddha, and indeed the hall takes its name from the statue 'Phra Mongkhon Bophit'. According to the Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya, this statue was sculpted in the year 1538 (some authorities put the date as 20 years earlier than this) in the reign of King Chairacha and it was housed in an Ayutthayan temple called Wat Chi Chiang Sai. And that presumably is where it would have remained, had violent events - natural in this case - not taken a hand. In the early 17th century lightning struck Wat Chi Chiang Sai and that temple was burned to the ground. A new home had to be found for the Buddha statue, and a mondop - a pillared, square pavillion usually with a chedi-like spire - was created to house it. And again, perhaps that's how it would have remained, but the old adage 'lightning never strikes twice' was to prove as false as it ever has when just one hundred years later in the early 18th century, lightning destroyed the spire of the mondop, and yet another new home was required for the Buddha icon. That is when a viharn assembly hall was built to house the statue, and the enormous pedestal on which it sat. Of course the final tragedy for Phra Mongkhon Bophit, was the Burmese attack in 1776. The roof of the viharn was burned and partially collapsed on to the statue, breaking its head and right arm. And the site - like almost all others at Ayutthaya - fell into total ruination.
In 1920, the first restoration of the iconic Buddha statue Phra Mongkhon Bophit took place, with further restoration in 1931. Then in 1956, the viharn which housed it was also fully restored to remove all trace of the ravages of the Burmese war, and is today essentially a modern replica, though some say it lacks some of the craftsmanship of the original. Viharn Phra Mongkhon Bophit is now a fully operational temple building once more, and in 1992 the statue was re-coated in gold leaf.
One sad footnote to the story of the Burmese war in 1767 - the last ruler of Ayutthaya, King Ekathat, fled by boat from the Grand Palace on the night of the invasion of the city and was smuggled by his attendants to a small nearby village. But there he was captured, left without food for ten days, and soon after this, he died. He was then buried in front of Viharn Phra Mongkhon Bophit.
The Phra Mongkhon Bophit Viharn as seen from the grounds of Wat Phra Sri Sanphet
The gold-leaved Phra Mongkhon Bophit Budha statue - so large, there is little room for anything else in the viharn
(aka Wat Lokaya Suthara or Wat Loka Sutha)
In English : 'The Monastery of the Celestial World (Temple of the Earth')
One of the most visited sites at Ayutthaya is Wat Lokayasutharam, an extensive temple complex which lies to the west of the Royal Palace. It is thought to have been built during the early and middle Ayutthayan periods, though sadly less is known about the history of this temple than about some of the others described here. Equally sadly, much of this temple has been lost, and only the bases of most of the buildings remain. Only one large tower or prang still survives.
But Wat Lokayasutharam today is not known for its temple buildings, but rather for the huge reclining Buddha which graces the site. About 42 metres long and 8 metres high, the Buddha lies facing west with the head resting on a lotus flower in a position signifying enlightenment. The statue is made of brick and plaster, overlaid with gold, and once upon a time it was protected by a large viharn hall. That collapsed long ago, and is now represented only by the foundations. Ever since that happened, the Buddha has rested in the open air, but after years of neglect, it was restored in the 1950s, and today it is often draped in brilliant orange robes. (The two photos here were taken on different dates. The main photo was taken in 2009, while the one with the pale yellow sash was taken in 2016).
There is an altar next to the Buddha statue - a feature of many such icons in Thailand, where the devout can make offerings if they wish. And because this giant Buddha statue is one of the most popular features of the entire park with visitors, food and tourist stalls may be found in the vicinity.
Though little is known about the temple, presumably destroyed in 1767, and no large buildings remain intact apart from the one prang, the rest of the site is still worth exploring, to discover the layout of the ubosot, chedi and viharns which once graced this large temple complex.
The face of the Buddha
The giant reclining Buddha of Wat Lokayasutharam
WAT CHAI WATTHANARAM
(aka Wat Chaiwatthanaram)
In English : 'The Monastery of the Temple for the Advancement of Victory'
For the last temple in this selection of Ayutthayan sites, we once more go outside of the island city which forms the UNESCO World Heritage Site to a location just west of the Chao Phraya River (the great river which flows south through the present day city of Bangkok). Wat Chai Watthanaram may be outside of the island centre of the ancient city, but today its surviving eight chedi and 35 metre central prang offers perhaps the most photogenic panoramic vista of all those to be seen at Ayutthaya.
Of the temples described here, Wat Chai Watthanaram is the most recent construction, built in the 17th century - possibly between 1630 and 1649 - and the visual evidence for this is apparent in the architecture, and in particular the shape of the chedi which have a rather squarer profile than many earlier examples shown in other photographs on this page. Also the domed pagoda or prang at the centre of the complex is notable, because it is believed that this Cambodian style of domed tower went out of fashion after Wat Ratchaburana (see earlier) was built in the 15th century - it was only with the construction of Wat Chai Watthanaram in the Late Ayutthayan period that the style returned to favour.
Wat Chai Watthanaram
Wat Chai Watthanaram was to become one of the most monumental of all the temple sites at Ayutthaya, and it seems likely that during the final war against Burma, this was to be something of a stronghold in Ayutthaya's defence with a great wall built all around the perimeter, the foundations of which can still be seen.
But whatever its defences, it could not save the city - or itself - from destruction and after the war, Wat Chai Watthanaram was reclaimed by the forest. Modern day interest in excavating the site began in the 1950s but it was only comparatively recently, in the 1980s, that the Thai Department of Fine Arts began the restoration of the site. In 1992 it was opened to the public.
The central prang of Wat Chai Watthanaram
We are almost at the end of this article about the capital city of old Siam, but before we summarise a visit to the ancient city, there is another nearby site which I will mention. Whilst I would hope that the photographs and descriptions above give some impression of the scale and glittering flamboyance of Ayutthaya in its hey-day, the devastation of the Burmese war, and the subsequent reclaiming of the site by the natural world, does mean that Ayutthaya is but a faded remnant of its former glory. But if there is doubt about its past spleandour, then there is a place just 15km south along the Chao Phraya River which may give a better indication of what Ayutthaya might have been like in its prime. This is Bang Pa-In - the Summer Palace of the Kings of Ayutthaya, the subject of another article on this website.
Bang Pa-In - The Summer Palace
One of the largest of the distinctively angled chedi at the temple
This essay is primarily a sampler of the sites one can see at Ayutthaya, their architectural and cultural significance, and the traumatic and historic events which each of these temple complexes experienced between the time of their inception and the present day. However, brief mention will now be made of the accessibility of the site from Bangkok - the most likely point of departure for most tourists who wish to explore the ancient capital. Ayutthaya can easily be visited in a day trip from Bangkok, though of course the site can only be 'sampled' in a single day - a small but representative fraction of the temples can be seen.
To get there, one can hire a car, or even take a taxi - not as expensive as it may sound, and for a little extra the taxi driver may even be prepared to act as your guide for the day! But much cheaper (absurdly cheap if you go 3rd class) alternatives include the train service from Hua Lamphong Station in Bangkok which takes around two hours. On arrival, a short ferry ride takes you across the river to the central island.
There are also buses and minibuses leaving regularly from various bus stations around Bangkok, which take you to the modern city of Ayutthaya, east of the ancient city. From there tuk-tuks (three-wheeler taxis) will transfer you to the old capital.
THINGS TO DO
Ayutthaya is much too large a site to walk around, but tuk-tuks and their drivers can be hired for the day for an escorted tour, or if you wish, there are bicycles for hire at the Heritage Site - either way it is essential to have some mode of transport to get the most out of such a large site. To visit some of the more prestigious restored ruins, there is a small fee, but working temples such as Wat Na Phramane or Phra Mongkhon Bophit are free to enter. Of course the reason for visiting is to see the ruins, but on a day visit, you may conceivably want a break - For lunch there are many riverside restaurants to choose from on the outskirts of the ancient city, whilst street food stalls abound on the central island. On the author's visit this was particularly so near to Viharn Phra Mongkhon Bophit, where you can also see distinctively Thai desserts such as 'roti sai mai', being prepared before your eyes. There's also a re-creation of a Thai floating market with souvenir stalls, dance and music shows and of course restaurants, and from the floating market boats depart for the short ride into the Historical Park. Dotted around the site there are other attractions to enjoy if you have time - notably various museums including the Chao Sam Phraya Museum which houses relics excavated from the ancient city.
Ayutthaya was the capital of Siam for twice the length of time that Bangkok has been capital of Thailand. And during its time of glory it was the centre of an empire with boundaries which spread far beyond the borders of modern day Thailand. But as with many city states and particularly those that grow to power as rapidly as this one did, Ayutthaya was never strong enough to enforce its control over all its territories. During its centuries of power, the city state won many battles over its enemies, but because its power base was so centralised, it only had to lose once for its fate to be sealed. That happened in 1767, and Ayutthaya was utterly destroyed, almost forgotten, never to recover.
Except today - when in some small way, it has recovered. Not of course as a great, living city, but as a renouned historic site. Where for two centuries there were just crumbling neglected ruins, now there is a site where the ruins have been cleared of vegetation, and the Thai people have flooded back to wonder at the ancient city and reclaim their past. And that is what I would suggest that all visitors to Bangkok with a day to spare should do - travel to Ayutthaya and wonder at the sheer scale of the Ayutthaya complex of temples.
And to finally emphasise exactly how big the site is, consider this - I have described just eight of the temple complexes, although admittedly they are eight of the most impressive. But the History of Ayutthaya website I have linked to below lists approximately 200 separate temple complexes from those reduced to their foundations or a single, crumbling building, to extensive, restored ruins and active temples. At least as many other temples are listed as having once existed, but without any discernable trace remaining today. To cover them all on this page, would clearly require the page to be as long as a book!
Wat Chai Watthanaram - possibly the most spectacular of all vistas one can take in at the historic site of Ayutthaya
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References and Links
Historic City of Ayutthaya - UNESCO Unesco citation.
Ayutthaya - Wikitravel Useful guide to travelling to Ayutthaya and accomodation in the modern city.
Ayutthaya Kingdom - Wikipedia The best Wikipedia guide to the history of the ancient capital.
I’d Love to Hear Your Comments Thanks, Alun