A sense of familiarity pervaded me upon nearing the ancient city of Ayutthaya on a day trip from Bangkok, in the erstwhile Kingdom of Siam. As we crossed the majestic river of Chao Phraya and silhouettes of towering ruins of Ayutthaya historical park loomed large over me, I couldn’t but exclaim in excitement. This was exactly the same set of thoughts and emotions that I went through a few years ago while stepping into the revered town of Ayodhya in India, a place that had inspired Ayutthaya’s naming.
My first tryst with Ayutthaya temples and ruins
Ayutthaya offers an intriguing and fascinating slice of Siamese history through its widespread temples and ruins. And one can see why it is listed as a UNESCO Heritage Site. Upon keen observation, you may realize that not many tourists from South Asian countries like India, frequent Ayutthaya. Maybe, because ruins are to be found everywhere in this ancient land of ours — India, much older than the Ayutthaya ruins, each divulging one part of its history. However, the trip to Ayodhya and readings on the same, made me appreciate Ayutthaya. And I am sure it will intrigue the history enthusiast in you.
Ayutthaya to Ayodhya – A nostalgic trip down the memory lane
During the last decade when Lucknow in India, was our home for a short period, we frequented Ayodhya – the Hindu pilgrimage town on the banks of the revered Sarayu, a river that flows through the central verdant plains of Uttar Pradesh in India.
Ayodhya, one of the ancient cities in India is associated with Lord Rama- the protagonist of the Hindu epic of Ramayana and one of the avatars (incarnation) of Lord Vishnu. My visit to the revered Ayodhya was akin to the divinity experienced in the meandering lanes and ghats of Benares, the oldest inhabited city in the world. I have always had a feeling of belonging to these two places although, I had stayed for just a fleeting few days both in Ayodhya and Benares. This same feeling engulfed me on my day trip to Ayutthaya from Bangkok, and also upon entering the famed Ayutthaya Historical Park.
Are the ancient temples and ruins of Ayutthaya worth a visit?
This is the oft posed question in many forums around Thailand. People often wonder if a trip to Ayutthaya is time-worthy.
Let me dish out a disclaimer here — not every tourist or traveller is bound to fall in love with these ancient cities- be it Ayutthaya, Ayodhya, or Benares. Some may be disappointed, some eclectic owing to its ancient stories while others may find these ancient places just a treat for their shutterbugs. However, I am in love with all the three ancient towns owing to their rich heritage and a feeling of belongingness.
I would suggest you go through this photo-essay and then plan your trip to Ayutthaya temples and ruins accordingly. For convenience, I have divided the long article into two parts. This is the first part covering the history and the famous Wat Maha That. I hope, this series intrigues you to plan a visit to Ayutthaya temples and ruins, and help in viewing Thailand from a different perspective, then what is widely branded about this beautiful country. A perspective that views the country beyond its emerald waters, touristy beaches, and eclectic nightlife!
Read my article around the Chantaboon Waterfront Community of Thailand
Ayutthaya history – A glimpse of Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya
Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya (Ayutthaya), is the former capital of the Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya province in Thailand. Located in the valley of the Chao Phraya River and filled with crumbling, yet photogenic ruins, Thailand’s ancient capital of Ayutthaya has long been a frequented place. Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya has seen the reign of 33 rulers lasting 417 years and reading the history of this ancient city always reminds me of the Chola dynasty of south-India.
You may want to read about the Chola dynasty of India that ruled the roost for many centuries.
According to the records, King Ramathibodi I founded this town in 1350 CE on an island formed by the confluence of the Chao Phraya, Lop Buri, and Pa Sak rivers. Taking inspiration from the revered Ayodhya on the banks of Sarayu in India, the town was named as Ayutthaya.
However, it is also widely believed that Khmers occupied this province and established a stronghold here, naming it Ayodhya after the ancient and one of the holiest Hindu cities of India- Ayodhya, the old capital of Awadh. Ironically, the word “Ayodhya” in Sanskrit means “not to be warred against”. And, many structures across Ayutthaya have strong Khmer influences.
Just an hour away from the Capital city of Bangkok, this UNESCO-listed heritage site, founded in 1350, was the second Siamese capital after Sukhothai. Ayutthaya sits at the confluence of three rivers: Chao Phraya (which flows to Bangkok and onto the sea), Lopburi and Pa Sak. Bustling with commerce brought through the waterways, it was one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities that welcomed foreigners and diplomats from far-flung nations.
However, the invasion of Ayutthaya by the Burmese in 1767 and the subsequent destruction of this once prosperous city by burning it, made its inhabitants flee down the river and establish a new capital in Bangkok.
Ayutthaya Historical Park tour
In the year 1982, ancient temples and ruins of Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya were marked and conservation work of antiques, architectural structures, and archaeological sites was taken up by the Thai officials under the umbrella of Ayutthaya Historical Park Project. The temples and ruins under this project spread both on Ayutthaya island and beyond to around 2556.6 sq km.
The efforts of the project got a new lease of life when UNESCO declared the part of Ayutthaya Historical Park that falls on the Ayutthaya island and in the heart of the city as a ‘UNESCO World Heritage site’ 1991. This site constitutes around 289 ha or 2.89 sq km precisely and covers the ancient Royal Palace and its immediate surroundings constituting important ancient temples, sites, and monuments.
The temples and ruins that fall inside the UNESCO recognized Ayutthaya Historical Park heritage site include — Wat Ratchaburana, Wat Mahathat, Wat Phra Sri Sanphet, Wat Phra Ram, and Wiharn Phra Mongkhon Bopit apart from the ancient Royal Palace. The others are still ancient ruins but do not come under the UNESCO heritage site tag!
A day trip to Ayutthaya Historical Park from Bangkok
On our day trip to Ayutthaya from Bangkok, we got to visit three important places in Ayutthaya Historical Park. Some, we had to miss owing to restoration work and a few due to the unpredictable weather conditions. It had stopped raining when we alighted from the bus in Ayutthaya historical park and thus the trees looked much greener and the bricks bright red after a nice water-wash by nature. Perfect day for capturing the Ayutthaya Temples and ruins through my camera lens…though the sun was busy playing peek-a-boo!
If you are interested in bygones and antiques, then you may also want to read about the Kru Kung Museum in Thailand
Ayutthaya Historical Park: A must-see list of temples and ruins
The temples and ruins spread across the city of Ayutthaya give a glimpse into the rich history and culture of the erstwhile Ayutthaya kingdom. These structures could be grouped into three based on their architectural styles and historical evidence — structures built in the early Ayutthaya period, the ones built during the middle period, and the rest built in the late Ayutthaya period.
It would definitely take at least two complete days to visit and explore each of the temples and ruins spread over. I have mentioned 6 temples that could be visited on a day trip, to get an experience of the varied architectural styles spanning across different historical periods of Ayutthaya kingdom.
Four of the six temples and ruins, in this list, fall inside the UNESCO world heritage site of Ayutthaya Historical Park. Also, included in the infographic is an approximate year of the Ayutthaya temple’s construction.
The very first temple ruins that we visited were of Wat Maha That inside the Ayutthaya historical park and this has been discussed at length in this article.
Ayutthaya Wat MahaThat — Temple of the Great Relic
The foundation stone of Wat MahaThat in Ayutthaya was laid by Sri Indraditya, the first King of the Sukhothai empire in the 13th century. It was a small temple at first but was later enlarged and renovated several times by succeeding Kings. Wat Mahathat was also the residence of the Supreme Patriarch or leader of the Thai Buddhist monks. The temple is believed to have been built during the 14th century A.D (the early Ayutthaya period).
As structures were added over the course of time spanning many centuries, the temple grounds are now enriched with several architectural styles that include Lanna, Sukhothai, Singhalese, and Mon Hariphunchai.
Set at the epicenter of inner Ayutthaya city, the principal prang (which has now collapsed) used to house a miniature casket containing the Buddha’s relics. This casket was buried 17 metres deep in the ground under its base. The casket is now on display at the Chao Sam Phraya Museum. The guide informed us, that in 2005 an excavation into the crypt had revealed gold rings, jewels, and relics, most of which are on display at the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum.
Exploring the history of Ayutthaya and Wat Mahathat amidst its ruins
Most of the Buddha statues barring a couple of them were headless! Our guide gave an explanation for the headless Buddha statues(must be true!) that -the Kings who ordered the building of the temples and statues are said to have followed a tradition of embedding precious stones and metals like gold, into the statues. So, when the city of Ayutthaya was destroyed and plundered, looters descended upon the statues, beheading the Buddha’s sculptures and idols to get to the precious stones. It is believed that these destroyers also sold the Buddha heads to private collectors and museums in Europe.
I found it heart-breaking to walk around countless statues that were headless. And, could not get myself to capture more than one picture of the array of idols that still looked eerily calm in that posture!
This made me realize that religion is not always a cause of destruction. Unlike the Mughals who plundered and destroyed the Hindu temples in India including that of Ayodhya, here in Ayutthaya, the Buddhist temples were destroyed by Buddhists themselves- the Burmese.
A quest for power through greed, lust, and the uncivilized ways of the world are that seek destruction. Once these traits come to the fore, religion gets sidelined and ‘violence’ becomes the means to achieve the end. Time to ponder over our actions to achieve peace!
You may want to read about the Karen tribe, refugees from Burma, who have made Chiang Mai in Thailand their home.
Ayutthaya’s famous: Buddha’s head in tree roots
Wat Mahathat is one of Ayutthaya’s most popular sites. Loads of tourists flock to this temple ruins to click selfies with the Buddha head tree that has become synonymous with Ayutthaya.
The board near the Buddha head tree reads…
‘The head was once part of a sandstone Buddha image which fell off the main body onto the ground. It was gradually trapped into the roots of a constantly growing Bodhi tree. The stone head has rather flat and wide facial structure with thick eyebrows and big eye-lids, straight wide lip and discernible lip edge reflecting the art of middle Ayutthaya period presumably around themed of the 1600s.’
However, it is widely believed that the looters of these Buddha statues embedded with precious stones, may have placed the head inside a pit at the base of the trunk with the intention of returning to claim it. In the coming years, the head was completely covered over by the roots, creating a living cast while leaving the details visible — right down to the small knobs in the headdress.
Interesting facts about Ayutthaya temples and ruins
- Wat Chai Wattaranam in Ayutthaya is believed to be a representation of Angkor Wat that in turn is highly influenced by Hinduism!
- Two Brahmin Shrines San Phra Kan and Thewa Sathan are among the ruins on the island of Ayutthaya.
- Wat Ayodhya is a temple still in use by the Buddhist monks. The monastery is located outside Ayutthaya’s city island in Hantra sub-district.
Dos and Don’ts when in Ayutthaya Historical Park
- Ayutthaya temples and ruins are considered sacred and revered.
- Dress appropriately before entering the temples in Ayutthaya. Shorts, sleeveless, or spaghetti-strapped tops are not allowed.
- Do not pick or try to move bricks/stones from their original location when exploring the Ayutthaya ruins.
- It would be wise to carry an umbrella to protect yourself from the harsh sun while exploring the temples and ruins. Most of them are in the open flanked by well-manicured lawns and parks.
- Check the notice boards like the one below at every temple for additional Dos and Don’ts.
- And, finally, do not forget to click the mandatory selfie!!!
A mention of the umbrellas reminds me of my visit to the Bo Sang Umbrella village in Thailand. Do read about its interesting history and the making of Umbrellas.
Planning an Ayutthaya day trip from Bangkok
- Distance from Bangkok to Ayutthaya is approximately 76 kilometers. Ayutthaya is north of Bangkok and there are many modes of transportation for travelling from Bangkok to Ayutthaya.
- You may hire a taxi (for the day) or book one of the many tours available from tour operators in Bangkok. Alternatively, you could also take a train from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong and get down at Bang Pa-In, at the eastern entrance of the inner city. From there, you can hire tuk-tuks to take you around the ruins.
- Ayutthaya can also be reached by boats from Bangkok. We opted for a river cruise package, wherein they transported us by bus from Bangkok to Ayutthaya after a short tour of the Bang Pa-In Royal Palace. After exploring a handful of temples and ruins in Ayutthaya, we were dropped at a jetty from where our return-cruise towards Bangkok started. I would highly recommend this option for an Ayutthaya day trip from Bangkok.
A map of the must-visit temples and ruins in Ayutthaya Historical Park
I have marked the six temples and ruins of Ayutthaya that I feel are worth visiting on an Ayutthaya day trip from Bangkok. You may skip Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon and Wat Chai Watthanaram if running short of time, as it falls on the other side of the group of famed temples and ruins.
Parting words on Ayutthaya
Just at the exit, before heading to Wat Phra Si Sanphet (will be covered in the next blog-post), I stumbled upon a very vibrant telephone booth in contrast with the ancient ruins. It is overwhelming to observe that these ancient temples and ruins of Ayutthaya are revered and well maintained. Though crumbling there are still in sync with modern influences all around, and definitely Instagram-worthy!
Hope you enjoyed reading about our Ayutthaya day trip from Bangkok as well as insights on the Ayutthaya Historical Park temples and ruins. Let us know if you found the information in this post useful and inspiring to planning your own trip to the UNESCO heritage site of Ayutthaya!
You may also read my other write-ups on the ‘land of smiles’ — Thailand, here
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