Before Bangkok, There Was Ayutthaya: A Guide To Thailand’s Ancient Capital

Exploring History: The Ancient Capital of Ayutthaya

Reading about history can be as boring as staying at a hostel that does not have a kickass Pub Crawl. However, when you have the chance to get a glimpse into the distant past of an ancient civilization with your own eyes, then that is a different story. Ayutthaya may today only be a pale shadow of its former glory, but it nonetheless provides such a glimpse into their majesty and sovereignty.

The historic city still is home to numerous ruins, temples, stupas, and ancient monuments. Thanks to its enormous cultural value, the Ayutthaya Historical Park was officially recognized by the UNESCO in 1991 as a World Heritage Site.

It is impossible to condense everything that makes Ayutthaya such a fascinating place in one blog post. So, let’s get on with it right away!

A Short History of Ayutthaya

 

When the first capital of Sukhothai gradually lost the grip on its Kingdom, it was Ayutthaya who took the opportunity and seized power over Siam in c.1350. The new rulers built their capital on an island with three rivers surrounding it: the Chao Praya, Lopburi, and Pa Sak river. Due to the strong tides of the rivers the city had a natural protection from attacks and invasions. The rulers would construct canals, called khlongs, to divide the capital into different zones. It also made trade between them more effortlessly.

Trade was at the heart of Ayutthaya. Throughout the years, it would maintain relations with other nations such as England, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, China, and India. By the time of the 16th-century foreign ambassadors and merchants considered it to be “one of the finest cities they had ever seen“. Ayutthaya continued to flourish for many years, but at the height of their power, they had to face their downfall.

The Burmese-Siamese wars first started in the mid-16th century, but it was the second one in 1767 that would seal the fate of the Ayutthaya Empire. The forces of Burma invaded the Kingdom with over 40,000 men and razed it to the ground. The only remnants that survived are the ones we see today.

One general who managed to escape the invasion was Phraya Taksin. He fled down south along the Chao Praya river, made himself King over a new Kingdom, and established the third and current capital: Bangkok.

The Cultural Legacy of Ayutthaya

What made the Kingdom such a cultural phenomenon were all the foreign influences. Some of them we can still see today in the remaining temples, palaces, and monuments.

In terms of architectural development, historians divide the Ayutthayan era into three periods. The first one was influenced by Khmer architecture similar to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, for example.

It was succeeded at the end of the 15th century by the Sri Lankan style. This is evident by the surviving stupas in places like Wat Sri Sanphet, Wat Khun Saen, or Wat Maheyong.

The last sub-period began in the early 17th century, in 1629 to be exact. Under the rule of King Prasat Thong, the structures were once again Khmer-influenced.

However, during its glory years of trade, certain neighborhoods of Ayutthaya were also deeply influenced by the foreign merchants and ambassadors who inhabited them. We can only imagine what a diverse and fascinating city Ayutthaya must have been.

Historical Sites in Ayutthaya

According to Dutch merchants Ayutthaya had at its peak more than 400 monasteries. Unfortunately, the Burmese were quite thorough when they were burning down the capital. Nonetheless, some of the remnants managed to retain fragments of their past splendor. Now, let’s focus on a few of those highlights.

Bang Pa-in Palace (The Royal Palace)

You can’t rule a vast empire without a majestic palace. The Royal Palace of Ayutthaya was the summer residence of Siamese royalty, but it too fell victim to the Burmese attack. Then in the mid-19th century, King Mongkut (Rama IV) began and oversaw the restoration of the palace. His successor, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) continued the expansion with a vast and beautiful garden and the construction of the adjoining buildings. It was only thanks to their efforts that we are able to see the palace in all its glory, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

The design of the area is an impressive blend of European and Thai architecture. The statues on top of the bridge balustrades, for example, could come straight out of the Renaissance era. On the other hand, the Floating Pavilion (Aisawan Thiphya) in the middle of a pond has striking similarities to the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

For an expansive view over the royal grounds, we recommend climbing up the stairs of the observatory tower.

 

How To Get There: Whereas many of the sites are located within the confines of the Ayutthaya Historical Park, Bang Pa-in Palace is around 20 km (12.4 miles) away from it. Trains from both Bangkok and Ayutthaya can bring you to the Bang Pa-in train station for a few Baht. From there, it’s only a 25-minute walk or a 5-minute tuk-tuk ride to the palace.

  • Opening times: 8 am – 4 pm
  • Entrance fee: 100 Baht

Wat Mahathat (Temple of Great Relics)

This is one of the oldest sites in Ayutthaya as it existed even before the city was the capital. Then in the early days of the Empire, Wat Mahathat became the spiritual heart of every religious as well as non-religious matters. The “Great Relics” refer to the Buddha’s relics that used to be part of the central prang, which also lies in ruins. Fortunately, the artifacts survived and are now on display in the neighboring Chao Sam Phraya Museum.

The most popular spot, however, is the head of a Buddha statue that finds itself in the tight grip of giant tree roots. Take a snap for your cultural photo collection on Instagram.

  • Location: North-eastern part of the Historical Park
  • Opening times: 8 am – 5 pm
  • Entrance fee: 50 Baht

Wat Sri Sanphet (Temple of the Holy, Splendid Omniscient)

During the reign of King Trailoknat, it was these temple grounds that replaced Wat Mahathat as the spiritual center. The three awe-inspiring Sri Lankan-style stupas belong to the most iconic structures in Ayutthaya. They managed to withstand the invasion of the Burmese army.

To this day they are the keepers of the royal relics of three Ayutthayan kings.

  • Location: North of the Historical Park
  • Opening times: 8 am – 5 pm
  • Entrance fee: 50 Baht

Wat Chaiwattanaram

If you have seen and/or are familiar with Wat Arun in Bangkok, then this temple might be a familiar sight. It, too, is a representation of the holy Mount Meru, where, according to mythology, the Hindu Gods reside. The 35-meter tall spire in the center of the temple grounds is also the “center of the universe” if you believe in cosmology. It is surrounded by eight smaller stupas, each containing a picture of the Buddha’s teachings.

The Fine Arts Department only recently – in the late 80s, early 90s – rebuilt and restored the entire area after its destruction in the mid-18th century.

  • Location: On the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, outside the island
  • Opening times: 8 am – 5 pm
  • Entrance fee: 50 Baht

Wat Phanunchoeng

Yet another historical site that precedes the era of Ayutthaya. As we mentioned above, many of the neighborhoods were influenced by the people who inhabited them. In this case, Chinese merchants occupied the area and a delicately ornate Chinese shrine pays tribute to the old days as well as an ancient Queen. The superstitious romantics in search for their soulmate should visit the shrine as it is believed that the Queen will grant them a wish.

The centerpiece of the temple complex is still the actual temple, which houses one of the most incredible golden Buddha statues in Thailand. It is 19 meters high, 14 meters wide and named “Phra Puttha Thrai Ratana Nayok” by King Mongkut after its restoration in 1854. Revered by everyone, especially by seafarers, a visit to Wat Phanunchoeng would not be complete without paying it a visit.

  • Location: One south-eastern bank of the Pasak River, outside the island
  • Opening times: 8 am – 5 pm
  • Entrance fee: 20 Baht

From One Capital to Another – How To Get To Ayutthaya

Our preferred mode of travel is via train. From the Hualamphong train station in Bangkok, there are trains leaving for Ayutthaya on a regular basis. The duration of the trip should be between 1 ½ – 2 hours. The prices range from a 15 Baht third-class ticket for a normal train and 350 Baht second class ticket for an express train.

If you prefer an even cheaper trip, then head to the northern bus terminal and take a bus for 50 Baht. They leave every 20 minutes and take around two hours to reach the ancient capital.

Once you are within the city walls, we recommend renting a bicycle to explore the historic sites at your own leisurely pace. This is a particularly good idea if you decide to stay for a few days. Naresuan Soi 1 and Soi 2 is where you find cheap backpacker accommodations, but they have a bit of a party vibe. For a local atmosphere, there are more expensive options close to Wat Mahathat, for example.

All This and So Much More

It pains me to cut this post short without mentioning the reclining Buddhas in Wat Yai Chaimongkol and Wat Phuttai Sawan; the delicious giant river prawns; the floating market; the boat trip around the island… Okay, strictly speaking, I just did that, but every corner of Ayutthaya simply brims with history and things to do.

Check out the History of Ayutthaya website, where you can find every single piece of information relating to the historic capital.

Now, my lovely readers, if you are still with us, then sound off in the comments! Have you visited this unique city? What were your favorite sights? If you haven’t been to Ayutthaya, then hopefully we were able to convince you with this post.

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