Ayutthaya is Thailand‘s unsung archaeological miracle: a vision of Buddhist temples, monasteries and ancient statues of monumental dimensions. Dating back to 1350, the city has experienced a turbulent history, rich in episodes of glory and strife. Now a Unesco World Heritage site, it demands your attention; here is our list of the top 10 things to do and see in.
By Thai standards, Bangkok is a modern city. The Thai monarchy were forced to relocate there after their royal capital of Ayutthaya – named after the mythical city of the hero-god Rama – was attacked and burnt to the ground by the Burmese army in 1767. Prior to that, the crumbling ruins you see today had been glorious – glittering with stupas, Buddhist libraries and gold-covered palaces and surrounded by gondola-filled waterways. Allow plenty of time to drift about this magical place.
It looks like a miniature Angkor Wat – notice the Khmer-style stupa (or prang) covered with statues of the legendary god-bord Garuda, towering over a courtyard of chedis and a ruined temple hall. Once it was one of Thailand’s most impressive temples. A handful of precious relics, recaptured from drunken looters who raided the temple in 1957, brought in enough money to pay for the construction of Ayutthaya’s museum. The remainder are still on display in the collection.
There’s not much to do in Ayutthaya after dark other than wandering abou the night market. Purpose-built with tourist transactions in mind, it is a whirlpool of stalls crammed with souvenirs – tiny by comparison with the sprawling night markets in Chiang Mai and Bangkok, which are better hunting grounds for bargain buys. Most people come for the street food – wok-cooked pad thais and curries, soups made with mouth-tingling morning glory and river fish and sushi – served at tables next to the river.
Ayutthaya’s most Instagrammable shot may just be the view of this 14th-Century temple, reflected in the water of Bueng Phra Ram lake, and silhouetted against a pink sky immediately after sunset. It is one of Ayutthaya’s oldest, most venerated temples, with colonnades of chedis and long galleries once used by Thai royals and courtiers. Unearthed at the temple in the 20th Century, a huge carved-sandstone Buddha footprint, covered in elaborate spirals with an intricate wheel-mandala, is preserved in the National Museum in Bangkok.
This enormous chedi towers over the landscape like a giant white bell, topped with a gold ball worth more than £100,000. It was built on top of an older structure by Ayutthaya’s most celebrated king, Naresuan, who reigned between 1590 and 1605. His statue, mounted on a horse, can be found in the grounds. The temple lies a little more than a kilometre from the main ruins and there are wonderful views of Ayutthaya, the river and lakes from the upper platform, reached via a steep set of stairs.
Not all Ayutthaya’s temples are in sorry states of disrepair. Wat Yai Chaimongkol (the Temple of Auspicious Victory) is a working monastery, complete with a 20th Century viharn (prayer hall) and reclining Buddha remodelled from older structures. The towering central chedi echoes the summit of Mount Meru, a sacred, mythical peak. The temple itself dates from the early 14th Century and is named in honour of the defeat of the Burmese Crown Prince in single combat by the Ayutthaya king Naresuan in 1592.
It may be a long way from the sea, but Ayutthaya has its islands. Ko Loi sits in the middle of the Pa Sak river, linked to Ayutthaya town by a narrow footbridge off U Thong road, between the Bangkok Bank and the immigration office. There’s not much of historical interest to waylay you here, but there are no vehicles and, if you venture beyond the tourist crowds, you’ll find Ko Loi an agreeable place to cycle round, observing people fishing and going about their daily lives.
The first Europeans in Thailand were the Portuguese, who came to Ayutthaya in the 15th Century. Some 3000 of them lived in this now-ruined village, which borders the Chao Phraya a hundred or so metres north of the 2053 highway bridge. The only remains today are graveyards and a derelict church. But their community lives on in Kudi Jeen, in Bangkok. Many aristocratic Thais have Portuguse surnames, after the forebears who changed Thailand for ever, bringing chillies and papaya to the country.
Set up by the local tourist authorities for visitors keen to buy keepsakes for the folks back home, Ayutthaya’s floating market is a smaller, more concentated version of the real thing. For a £5 entrance fee, you are invited to board a boat for a tour of the diminutive lake, with stops to shop for souvenirs that aren’t always bargains. Visits are worth it if you want to top up your photograph bank of Thai vendors in straw hats selling their wares from canoes and long-tail boats.
Thailand embraces the water that surrounds it, and ferries and boats are hugely extremely popular modes of transport throughout the land. For our money one of the best experiences is a cruise – usually a day return – from Ayutthaya to Bangkok on the Chao Phraya River. As you chug along, you’ll relax and unwind to the engines’ thrum, the swish of the water, as magnificent sites rise on the riverbank. Tours can cost as little as £42, with air-conditioning and an expert English-speaking licensed guide to explain the attractions you pass.
Alex Robinson contributed additional reporting to this article.
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