The ancient Thai capital of Ayutthaya, about eighty kilometers north of Bangkok, is a worthwhile day trip if you’re staying in Bangkok.
To really appreciate Ayutthaya, it helps to know a little about its history. Following Sukhothai, it was the capital of Thailand for 417 years, from 1350 to 1767. With a population of about 1 million it was the largest city in the world in 1700. It became an important trading center and won the admiration of Western visitors, who compared it favorably to the European capitals. In 1767 it reached a sudden demise when the Burmese destroyed the city.
Ayutthaya has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1991, but only remnants of its former grandeur remain. It sustained further damage from the floods that recently inundated Thailand.
The ruins at Ayutthaya do not quite equal Cambodia’s Angkor Wat in their scale and impressiveness, largely due to the extent of the Burmese sacking. They are, nevertheless, quite interesting and impressive. As at Angkor Wat, the buildings that remain are temples and palaces, as these were the only buildings constructed of stone.
The most striking, memorable elements of the temples are the Buddhas that remain. The various temples at Ayutthaya reveal an astonishing smorgasbord of Buddhas: There’s a huge golden Buddha, reclining Buddhas clad in saffron robes, mesmerizing rows of Buddhas, rings of Buddhas surrounding temples, bronze-cast Buddhas and even a Buddha carved into the trunk of a Banyan tree. (There are also several headless Buddhas that provide tangible evidence of the ferocity of the Burmese sacking.)
There are so many Buddhas at Ayutthaya it may help you better appreciate the site by doing a bit of research on this spiritual master revered by the majority of people in this part of the world.
Unfortunately, the Ayutthaya area was particularly affected by the recent floods. The entire historic area was underwater for over a month, and damage at the temple complex is estimated to be in the area of $20 million.
Now that the waters have receded, UNESCO experts are assessing the damage. Historic murals are particularly at risk from salt stains and fungi.
Most of the temples have been reopened to the public. Wat Chai Watthanaram, one of the most visited temples, was especially damaged by the floods and remains closed. It is this temple that appears on the cover of the official Ayutthaya pamphlet. Several pagodas surround a central chedi (a Thai-style stupa) at this temple that one can climb for a magnificent view of the area. There is no timetable for its reopening.
Wat Phra Sri Sanphet is the largest temple at Ayutthaya. The location of the former royal palace, Wat Phra Sri Sanphet features an impressive row of Buddha chedis. Other notable temples include Wat Yai Chai Mongkol, with its large reclining Buddha, and Wat Mahathat, with the famous Buddha head in a tree.
You can get to Ayutthaya from Bangkok via train, bus, boat or minivan. The latter is the quickest and charges 65 baht (about $2). Most of the tours that leave from the major hotels along the Chao Praya River involve river cruises to Ayutthaya that are substantially more expensive.
I set out for Ayutthaya in a minivan from Victory Monument Square in Bangkok. After the hour ride, I hired a tuk tuk to take me around to my selected temples for a flat $20 for the day. You can also rent a bicycle or motorbike. Most of the temples are close enough to each other that they can be accessed by bicycle, but it helps to have a good map.
I was able to get a third-class train ticket back to Bangkok for about $3. I had to stand for about the first 15 minutes, but had a comfortable ride the rest of the way. Trains in Thailand are a cheap means of travel and a good way to meet locals. But if you’re worn out after exploring the ruins on a hot day, you may simply welcome a nice snooze.