The once mighty kingdom of Ayutthaya (1350-1767) may have long since gone, but it left an indelible mark on modern-day Thailand. During its heyday, Ayutthaya was a sophisticated city with glittering palaces and magnificent temples. A regional powerhouse that attracted traders from around the world, Ayutthaya was dubbed the ‘Venice of the East’ by European merchants because of the cosmopolitan population and network of canals and rivers. Although most of the canals are no longer in existence, the rivers still form an impressive backdrop to the city. The kingdom eventually fell when Burmese invaders sacked Ayutthaya, but the atmospheric ruins that can be seen today are a powerful testament to the prestige this former capital once had. Only 50 miles north of Bangkok, Ayutthaya makes for a comfortable day trip from the Thai capital, but it’s worth spending more time here if you are interested in history or want to experience more of what the city has to offer.
What to see and do in Ayutthaya
Explore the Ayutthaya Historical Park by bicycle or hire one of the city’s colourful tuk-tuks to take you on a tour of the main sites. In the central district of the Ayutthaya Historical Park, one of the main highlights is Wat Phra Sri Sanphet with its three towering chedis. A short distance away brings you to Wat Phra Ram, Wat Ratchaburana and Wat Mahathat with the latter being the location for the site of the famous Buddha head in tree roots.
Historians estimate that by the time of the 17th century there were over 400 temples in Ayutthaya. Most were destroyed when Ayutthaya fell to the Burmese in 1767 with the invading armies blamed for cutting off the heads and arms of many of the Buddha images. But these acts of destruction also left behind one of Thailand’s most iconic images that is reproduced on artwork and postcards. Located by the walls of Wat Mahathat in the central area of Ayutthaya Historical Park, a stone Buddha head is entwined in tree roots. Nobody knows for sure how the stone Buddha head found its way here, but one theory suggests it had been left behind by raiders after Ayutthaya was looted and the roots of the tree slowly grew around it.
To the south-east of the main park area, make time for the impressive Wat Yai Chaimongkhon which features dozens of stone Buddhas set around the main chedi in addition to a magnificent reclining Buddha image. And in the north-west of the park zone you will find another massive reclining Buddha at Wat Lokkayasutha which measures in at almost 40 metres long and 8 metres high.
Sitting on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, the distinctive Khmer-style buildings of Wat Chaiwatthanaram are a wonderful location to enjoy the sunset. Sadly, the floods of 2011 caused severe damage at this particular location and at the time of writing (February 2018) more renovation work is being carried out on the structures and surrounding area. If you take a sunset boat cruise, this will include a visit to Wat Chaiwatthanaram. The enjoyable river cruise also stops at a number of other locations including Wat Phanan Choeng which is home to a dazzling golden Buddha image that dates back to the 14th century.
Located to the south of Ayutthaya, the elegant Bang Pa In Palace with its European influenced architecture and immaculately landscaped gardens provides a distinct contrast to the ancient ruins further north. Although there has been a royal residence at Bang Pa In dating back to the Ayutthaya period in the 17th century, most of the buildings seen today were constructed in the late 1800s during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). This summer palace does feature on the itinerary of many Ayutthaya tours from Bangkok, but the spacious grounds never seem too crowded. If you do visit, please keep in mind that this is a royal palace with dress regulations in place and knees and shoulders should be covered. If you visit Bang Pa In Palace independently, make the short walk to the riverside area where the tour buses are parked up. The tour groups are on a tight schedule which means that they miss out on a unique experience that can be enjoyed by those with more time on their hands. Join the Thai tourists taking the old-fashioned cable car that transports you across the river. The cable car is operated by monks from Wat Niwet Thammaprawat, one of the more unusual temples in Thailand. From the outside, the gothic-style building looks like a church complete with stain-glass windows, but is actually a Buddhist temple.
Back in Ayutthaya and away from the ruins, children and adults alike may enjoy a visit to the quirky Million Toy Museum, which is filled with a unique collection of toys ranging from vintage to modern.
In mid-March, Ayutthaya hosts the annual Martial Arts Festival and Wai Khru Ceremony. The event pays homage to a hometown sporting hero, Nai Khanom Tom, whose pugilistic prowess became the stuff of legends in the 1760s as he fought his way to freedom following his capture as a prisoner of war.
Food and drink in Ayutthaya
With so much foreign influence to be found in the history of Ayutthaya, the region enjoys a diverse food scene. One of the most famous local dishes is roti sai mai, which owes its roots to Muslim settlers. The delicious strands of sai mai with their rainbow of colours resembles candy floss and is wickedly addictive when wrapped in a roti, a Thai-style pancake. A stretch of U Thong Road near the Ayutthaya Hospital is actually nicknamed ‘Roti Road’ for the sheer number of vendors selling the sweet treat.
Khao mok gai, a Thai version of chicken biryani, is another popular dish that is believed to have been brought to Ayutthaya by Indian traders with the recipe adapted by Siamese chefs.
Boat noodles date back to the heyday of Ayutthaya when vendors plied the canals selling their noodles. Known as ‘kuay tiao ruea’ you’ll find the noodles at various venues across the city. And look out too for the giant freshwater prawns which are always popular with Thai tourists visiting Ayutthaya.
Where to stay in Ayutthaya
Ayutthaya is well-established on the backpacker trail which means plenty of guest-houses and budget hotels to choose from. There isn’t as much choice in the mid-range and luxury bracket with Sala Ayutthaya and Kantary Hotel being two of the best.
Travel to Ayutthaya
Frequent trains run between Bangkok Hualamphong and Ayutthaya or you can take a minibus from Bangkok’s Mo Chit Bus Terminal. Most tour companies in Bangkok will also be able to arrange a one-day tour to Ayutthaya with the option of a stop at Bang Pa In Palace. For a more luxurious way to travel, you can join a cruise on a converted teak barge to or from Ayutthaya along the Chao Phraya River.