If you’re not familiar with Thai history, there’s nothing about today’s Ayutthaya that could give you a clue about its importance as the most important and populated urban center in Asia only 250 years ago.
Somehow this impressive city got under the radar of school history books, to the point where it’s very much an unknown place to most people.
The main reason behind this history faux pas is the fact that in the 18th Century, the Burmese invaded and razed the city to the ground, forcing the Thai (or Siamese) to move their capital a few kilometers to the south, to the (then) sleepy harbor village of Bangkok.
And so Ayyuthaya’s greatness was almost completely wiped out from existence.
In 21st-century Ayutthaya, however, all that remains as a witness of its long-gone glory is a handful of temple ruins, headless Buddha statues and other stone and brick buildings dating back to a time when Ayutthaya was the trading center of the world. The former streets of the Old-Town, along with their wooden buildings have disappeared and were replaced by large grassy parks that surround the temple ruins and provide tourists with leafy places to rest and walk. The new invaders in Ayutthaya brandish digital cameras instead of swords.
This is a small list of the main things to see in Ayutthaya, Thailand‘s old capital.
Wat Phra Mahathat
Wat Phra Mahathat is mainly famous for its Buddha head trapped in the roots of a fig tree.
The tropical tree surrounds the stone head of a decapitated Buddha statue, victim of a Burmese sword or hammer in the 18th Century.
Contrary to what Google Images could suggest, however, Wat Mahatat is much more than just a head in a tree. The ruins in this temple are some of the most atmospheric in the country. The special aura of this place brings a special mood and the magnificent brick buildings surrounded by tropical trees provide hundreds of photo opportunities.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet and Great Palace
This used to be Ayutthaya’s largest temple. The large complex served as the political, economical and spiritual headquarters of the whole kingdom. Its main feature is a group of three chedis, part of the ancient main temple, which have become a symbol for the city.
This huge temple was also home to a giant, ton heavy gold statue depicting Buddha. Needless to say, the Burmese invaders took it as war booty and destroyed the statue to melt the gold.
If we don’t count Wat Mahatat’s Buddha, this is probably the most photogenic temple in Ayutthaya.
The layout of this beautiful temple represents the Buddhist view of the universe, with the Prang Parthan (the structure in the center) representing the Meru Mountain, or center of the world and the four towers that represent the for continents.
Wat Phanan Choeng
I promise this will be the last temple on the list!
Wat Phanan Choeng is located on the east bank of the river, outside of the island that is Ayutthaya’s old town. Unlike most temples in the city, Phanan Choeng is not in ruins.
Its main feature is its golden 19-meter tall Buddha statue.
Around the bus station
This is one of the modern areas in town. Around is where we find most hotels and guest houses, as well as restaurants, bars and nightlife. Since most of the center of the city is considered sacred ground, most mundane activities are restricted to this area north-east of the Historical Park.
This is also where the Ayutthaya Day Market is located. It doesn’t really have anything special about it when you compare it to other Thai markets, but it does not have a huge amount of tourists.
Among other delicacies, I was surprised to find the sold frogs and roasted rats.
But it’s not all exotic in this market, you can also find more common food like onions or peppers.
Hua Raw Night Market
Ayutthaya’s night market is located north of the Old Town. Similar to other night markets in Thailand, its specialty is food, although it also has a clothing and crafts section.
The best thing about is definitely the views over the river, apart of course from the cheap and delicious eats.
Out of the Old Town
Ayutthaya Floating Market
This is more of a warning than it is a recommendation. Ayutthaya’s floating market is a theme park made for Thai people. It’s tacky, old and somewhat depressing, although it does have its charm.
Apart from its fair share of glass fiber snowman (it’s 35ºC and humid out there!), London-style phone boots and Disney characters, the Market also has an Elephant refuge, a tiger display and, obviously, a floating market.
Useful information about Ayutthaya
Best time to visit Ayutthaya
Ayutthaya is hot and humid all year. However, you’ll find November and January to be cooler than the rest of the year in central Thailand.
Ayutthaya World Heritage Site Festival
It takes place in December and it’s a great time to visit the city. During the festival, Ayutthaya is full of light, color, cultural shows and street food.
Getting to Ayutthaya
Ayutthaya is located some 85km north of Bangkok and there are several ways to get there.
Trains in Thailand are usually slower than road transport but the landscapes are well worth the extra time. From bangkok there are several options everyday departing from Hualamphong Station, depending on the class, fares can range anywhere from TBH 30 to TBH 250.
You can find the trains schedule on the Thai Railways website: railway.co.th.
Ayutthaya Train Station is located some 4km east from the Old Town, in order to reach the station, the easiest way is to take the TBH 4 local ferry.
It’s the easiest way to get to Ayutthaya, with buses every 20 minutes from Moh Chit Bus Terminal in Bangkok. The journey takes around one hour and a half and costs 50-100 Baht.
Ayutthaya is also connected by bus to other Thai cities, schedules are not easy to find online though and they tend to change, so it’s best to ask for the timetables at the local bus stations.
There are minivan services connecting the main tourist spots in Bangkok to Ayutthaya.
If you are in the mood for a river cruise, you can take one from Bangkok to Ayutthaya.
These are unscheduled services and need to be booked beforehand in a local travel agency, but if money (or time) is not an issue, then it’s probably the most scenic way to travel to Ayutthaya.
Where to stay in Ayutthaya
Most hotels are around the bus station area.
I personally stayed at the Somjai Place Ayutthaya, Ayuthaya. Which is really well located for the main sights at really cheap prices (around TBH 500 for a double room with private bathroom and a/c). They also offer bicycle and motorcycle rental.
Here you can find a full list of hotels in Ayuthaya.