Located 80 kilometers north of Bangkok, Ayutthaya is a popular day trip location given its status of being the old capital of the Siam Kingdom. The history of Ayutthaya and Angkor are intertwined in the 14th century as the two capital cities represented the once two greatest Southeast Asian Empires at that time: Khmer and Siam.
The full name of Ayutthaya is “Phra Nakhon Sri Ayutthaya, meaning “the greatest city” and “invincible”. The Kingdom lasted 417 years and it’s the greatest and the strongest time of the country. The Ayutthaya Kingdom was formed in the 14th century based in the Valley of Chao Phraya River. The kingdom’s hegemony began as the country conquered northern kingdoms and city-states like Sukhothai, Phitsanulok, and so on. The kingdom was fallen as they were defeated by the Burmese army in 1767, and most of the architecture, temples, and important sites were destroyed and burned.
Today the Ayutthaya Historical Park is a ghostly city of striking ruins and entangled wats, temples, and reliquary towers.
The rise and fall of Ayutthaya
Conflicts arose between the Ayutthaya and Khmer in the 15th century and the collapse of the Khmer Empire was deeply connected with the great Thai migration. At that time, the Thai Kingdom, or Siam, was under pressure from the north when the Mongols conquered China (later almost half of Eurasia), and the migration toward the south intensified. As the Ayutthaya continued to grow, they began to attack and annex imperial territories. First, the Khmer fell under Ayutthayan suzerainty. Then, the Khmer rebelled against the Siamese authority, abandoned Angkor, and migrated south to another city Longvek. Today, the name of the city “Siem Reap” means “Siamese Defeated”, which is quite ironic as Thai ultimately controlled Siem Reap and Angkor until the 19th century, before the French took over, and discovered the magnificent capital in the past.
The Ayutthaya Kingdom hence became the new great power. The city was a major trading hub in the region and one of the most populated cities in the world at that time. However, the kingdom came under repeated attacks by the Burmese in the mid-16th century. The Burmese-Siamese War finally ended in 1767 with the Burmese invaded Ayutthaya and ransacked the city. Ayutthaya was burnt down and the Buddha statues were beheaded. Again in the 19th century, the Burmese were defeated by the British Empire army and became part of British India. Birth… Rise… and finally, collapse. See how history (interestingly) keeps looping itself?
How to get to Ayutthaya?
A “hassle-free” way to visit and explore Ayutthaya is by joining a local tour. The site is about 2 hours away by coach and many tours offer a scenic river ride back to the city along the Chao Phraya River. For a self-plan journey, take a train from the Hua Lamphong Train Station, which departs thirty times a day to Bangkok and it takes also about two hours. The train stops at Bang-Pa-In which is where the Bang Pa-In Palace and Wat Niwet Thamprawat are located. (Most local tours usually cover these two locations as well). However, this option is much cheaper as the train offers seats in different classes and the train ticket costs from 15 to 345 Baht.
If you want to take a minibus, hop on the minibus at Mo Chit 2 Bus Terminal and the minibus departs whenever it’s full. It costs 60 Baht and it’s a great option for light travelers. For family travelers, consider hiring a driver and travel to the historical park with comfort. Anyway, it is suggested to head to the historic park early in the morning and then return to the city in the evening.
Biking in Ayutthaya
It is fun to hop on a bike and explore the park at your own pace. The rental fee for a bike is about 50 Baht, and a scooter is about 25 Baht for a day. Choose the bikes with light and helmet. Travelers need to have an international driving license. It is easy to navigate in the city because the roads have dedicated bike lanes. Stay hydrated and prepare sunblock for your trip.
Ayutthaya or Sukhothai?
There were many questions about the differences between visiting Sukhothai and Ayutthaya. Which one to go? And which one is better? While it really depends on different travelers’ plans and preferences. Both are ancient capitals of the Siam Kingdom with great historic value, and I would say both of them are worth visiting as they have their own unique stories and landmarks.
If you are in Bangkok, Ayutthaya is much closer and it’s obviously easier to get to. It would be a better choice for a day trip for a limited time. Ayutthaya was the biggest capital city of the Siam Kingdom which has a major historic significance. The ruins could still offer a glimpse of the grandeur that the city once possessed. Having said that, travelers should expect a larger crowd and busier traffic in the Ayutthaya Historical Park.
In contrast, Sukhothai is located in northern Thailand, a 4-hour drive from either Ayutthaya or Chiang Mai. Sukhothai is an older site (for being the first capital of the Siam Kingdom) that is closer to the scale of Angkor. If you want to put this in comparison, the heritage site of Sukhothai is better preserved with sites scattered in a few places around the city – it takes at least 2 to 3 days for Sukhothai to complete the sites in the area. The upside of taking this time is that visitors could enjoy the serenity and spirituality of the heritage.
All sites in the historical park were built under the rule of 35 kings from 7 dynasties.
Bang Pa-In Palace
We visited the Bang Pa-In Palace first. The palace was built in 1632 during the time of King Prasat Thong. It was abandoned in the 18th century and it was renovated later in the 19th century. Most of the features that we see today were done between the years 1872 and 1889. It is a well-preserved summer palace of King Rama IV. Today, the palace still functions as a summer residence, state occasions, and an event venue for important guests. The palace is about 20 kilometers away from Ayutthaya and it’s the largest palace on the outskirts of Bangkok in terms of its scale. It has about 30 “checkpoints” in its 15 hectares of the area from the out palace to the inner palace, featuring architecture that combines the styles of Chinese, European and Thai.
Phra Thinang Wehart Chamrun is a temple built by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce for the King, featuring valuable decor and antiques.
There are a number of temples in the park and Wat Yai Chaimongkhon was built in 1357 by King U-Thong. It was named Wat Pa Kaew and the head monk was named the Somdej Phra Vanarat during the rule of Ayutthaya. The monk was deeply respected by the people and acted as an advisor to the Royal family. King Naresuan the Great successfully defended the kingdom against the Burmese in 1592, and the site was renamed Phra Chedi Chaimongkhon, meaning “victory”. Featuring a Sri Lankan-style pagoda, the temple was built with over 28,000 tons of bricks with a giant reclining buddha in the Northeastern area. Many of the Buddhist statues were destroyed after the invasion of the Burmese. Visitors can take a walk to the top of the pagoda and have a view of the park from above.
Afterward, we moved on to Wat Maha That and Wat Chaiwatthanaram. These are the classic temple ruins of Ayutthaya (After the sites were ransacked and almost completely destroyed). They were the religious and cultural center of Ayutthaya and it was believed to be built in 1374 during the rule of King Boroma Rachathirat I; there were other theories claiming that the temples were actually built ten years later by King Ramesuan, after their defeat of Chiangmai. Here, the temple design referenced the Khmer architectural style with a hint of the structure of Hindu temples. The foundation size and the remaining towers manifested significance during its time.
The temple was destroyed during the invasion of Burmese and the main pagoda collapsed in the early 20th century, restored by the Thailand government, and named a UNESCO Heritage. One of the most recognized attractions would be Buddha’s head entwined in a Bodhi tree root.
Wat Ratcha Burana was built in 1424 by King Boroma Rachathirat II and it was dedicated to Chao Ai Phraya, and Chao Yee Phraya, the two older brothers who were killed during the fight of Kingship. It was the site they were incinerated with their father King. The pagoda is open to tourists and the staircase in the middle featured Chinese-style Buddhist frescoes. Most of the items discovered in the temples are now on display in Chao Sam Phraya National Museum.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet was the original site of the palace and the palace moved to the north in 1448. It was then transformed into a temple with three gold-coated pagodas, storing the ashes of King Roroma Trilokanat, King Boroma Rachatirat III, and King Ramathibodi II. The temple featured a giant Buddhist statue Phra Si Sanphet. The statue sits at a height of 16 meters on an 8-meter tall foundation, coated with 343 kilograms of gold. It was named the largest and the best Buddist statue at that time. It gained importance and became the venue of important national ceremonies. After the Burmese invasion, the valuable items were robbed and many statues were to be restored and transferred to Wat Pho‘s Phra Chedi Sri Sanphetdayan in Bangkok.
Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit features the largest bronze Buddhist statue which was built between 1448 and 1602. Another important site is Wat Lokaya Sutha. The Temple is where the largest reclining Buddha of Ayutthaya is located, which is 8m high and 42m long. The time of the building of this temple is unknown. Now the temple is a ruin with only the Buddha remaining with the foundation of the temple and a few walls.
Chao Sam Phraya National Museum
The museum is divided into three sections. The largest exhibition hall is the display of the most archeological items from the historic park, including a bronze Buddhist head from the time of King U-Thong. There are two special exhibition rooms on the second floor, with a collection of jewelry, statues, woodwork, and copperware from Wat Maha That and Wat Rathcha Burana. The last exhibition room showcases handicrafts and tools that were found between the 6th and 19th centuries in Ayutthaya.
If you wish to say in the city, check out the Ayutthaya Night market, or a number of cafes or restaurants like the Busaba Cafe, Malakor Kitchen and Cafe, Hall and ham Chicken Rice, and De Riva Ayothaya by the river. After the trip, we traveled down to the city of Bangkok on a cruise down the Chao Phraya River, where visitors could see the boathouses, the roof of the Grand Palace, Wat Arun, and more!
Later we went to the Soi 38 for dinner – amazing street food. A normal guy could eat 4 dishes of chicken rice, easily. I guess it’s the beauty of the night market and street food. Just let loose, and then let go, and enjoy.