In 400 years, Ayutthaya went from a prosperous trade and political capital to a completely defaced city – plundered, burned and abandoned to ruin. The city was under a constant power struggle with neighbouring Burma; nevertheless it remained a flourishing centre for regional trade and a burgeoning metropolis where art and culture merged.
With economic prosperity, Ayutthaya’s Kings poured the kingdom’s wealth into the construction of temples and religious monuments as well as the arts.
Exhibiting sophisticated techniques and styles, Ayutthaya’s architectural heritage is an amalgam of Lopburi, Sukhothai, Dvaravati, U-Thong, ancient Khmer and Persian styles. Today, Ayutthaya’s temple and palace ruins serve as a powerful reminder of Siam’s glorious past as well as haunting memories of one of the darkest periods in Thai history.
Ayutthaya was chosen as the capital city for strategic reasons: It is surrounded on all sides by rivers and a man-made canal, which acted as natural barriers against Burmese invaders. The inner city’s northwestern corner is the site of the Royal Palace and Royal Chapel (Wat Phra Si Sanphet) – the political and spiritual heart of the kingdom.
To the east of the Royal Palace, the Ayutthaya Historical Park houses four spectacular temples of the Early Ayutthaya Period (1350 – 1529). Here, rising amongst the trees and clusters of ruins, are the magnificent sandstone prangs in the classic Lopburi-Khmer style.
Some of the most elaborate temples and ruins are also to be found across the river, along the outer perimeter of the inner city. Wat Na Phramen, to the north, is the only temple in Ayutthaya that survived post-war looting and arson attacks, while the east boasts a cluster of well-preserved temple ruins and, further south, remnants of various foreign settlements, including Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and English compounds.
The rise of Ayutthaya followed a period of power consolidation and economic hegemony across the central plain. Legend has it that the original site of Ayutthaya was actually across the river to the east, in the area spanning Wat Ayodhya and Wat Phanan Choeng collectively called Ayodhya. It was already a thriving political and economic centre, with magnificent temples and palaces as well as warm trade relationships with Lopburi and Supannabhumi (Suphanburi).
When an epidemic broke out and threatened to wipe out the entire civilisation, King U-Thong – the first Ayutthaya King – relocated the capital across the river to where it is today. Ayutthaya’s wealth attracted traders and emissaries from across the continent as well as Europe. At its height of prosperity, Ayutthaya maintained close diplomatic and trade ties with Louis XIV’s court in France, Portugal, Holland, Persia, China and Japan, until it was felled in the last battle of the Siamese-Burmese Wars, which lasted 224 years (from 1539 to 1767). This final battle sealed the fate of the kingdom forever, as it was ransacked and burned completely to the ground.
Highlights and Features
- Buddha's Head at Wat Mahathat: One of the popular icons of Ayutthaya, located alongside a wall of 'Viharn Lek' (small chapel). The site of the lone Buddha's head entrapped by the roots of an overgrown banyan tree has become a famous - and not to miss - tourist attraction.
- Wat Mahathat: Set at the epicenter of inner Ayutthaya city, the principal prang (now collapsed) used to house a miniature casket containing the Buddha’s relics, buried 17 metres deep into the ground under its base. The casket is now on display at the Chao Sam Phraya Museum.
- Wat Yai Chaimongkol: One of the best-preserved ancient royal monasteries, situated in the old Ayutthaya City (Ayodhya), the temple is famous for its large reclining Buddha and a 62-metre inverted bell-shaped chedi (pagoda) built to commemorate a victory against the Burmese.
- Bang Pa-In Summer Palace: Constructed during the reign of Somdet Phra Chao Prasat Thong (1629-1656), this palace complex (20km south of Ayutthaya) is set on a lovely landscaped lake garden that was once an island itself. Abandoned after Ayutthaya fell, it was rebuilt by King Rama V (r. 1868-1910) who commissioned additional buildings in an eclectic style that blends European neoclassical and Victorian architectures with Early Ayutthaya and Chinese palace styles.
- Wat Phra Si Sanphet: Serving as the Royal Monastery from 1350 to 1448, the temple occupies expansive grounds inside the walls of the now-defunct Royal Palace. The three iconic chedis – housing the royal relics of three Ayutthaya Kings – are among a few structures left standing in the temple grounds, which is itself a must-see ruin site.
- Wiharn Phra Mongkol Bophit: South of Wat Phra Si Sanphet, this stand-alone chapel was built to shelter a large bronze Buddha image, Phra Mongkol Bophit. It was ransacked and burned by the Burmese, then restored to its original glory in 1956.
- Wat Na Phramen: The only temple left intact at the time Ayutthaya fell, as it was used as military headquarters by the Burmese army. Inside, it houses a beautiful Buddha image, fully decorated in regal attire, which is the signature style of the Late Ayutthaya Period. The main chapel boasts an ornate hand-carved wooden gable and balustered windows which is a unique architectural feature of the time.
- Wat Chai Wattanaram: Set across the river, facing the inner city, this royal temple boasts one of the most elaborate interpretations of the Mount Meru concept. The principal prang, modeled after the Ancient Khmer prangs, symbolises the centre of the universe, while the surrounding chedis depict the four continents and the outer universe. Each corner chedi houses two huge Buddha images set inside a wooden frame and features ornate relief patterns.
- Wat Phuttai Sawan: Built during the reign of King U-Thong (1351–1369), the temple’s principal prang is clearly visible across the river from the inner city area. Highlights include rare wall murals painted in the Late Ayutthaya Period, a replica of the Buddha’s footprint and ruins of the old chapel which houses a reclining Buddha inside.
- Wat Phanunchoeng: Existing well before King U-Thong founded the Ayutthaya Kingdom, the temple houses one of the most revered Buddha images dating back to 1324 and an ornate Chinese shrine dedicated to an Ayodhya Queen.
- Chao Sam Phraya National Museum: Most of the excavated antique bronze Buddha images, gold ornaments and wooden door panels are housed inside this museum.
Good to Know and What Not to Miss
- Palaces and temples (and their ruins) are considered sacred places. Always dress appropriately before entering, which means no shorts, sleeveless or spaghetti-strapped tops.
- Riding a bicycle around the historical park is one of the best ways to explore the ruin sites.
- Do not pick at or try to remove bricks/stones from their original location.
Admission: Each temple and ruin site collects a small entrance fee. Rates vary from one temple/ruin site to the next.
How to Get There:
- Ayutthaya is about 76 kilometres north of Bangkok, which is about an hour’s drive. You can hire a taxi (for the day) or book one of the many tours available from tour operators in Bangkok.
- For a little adventure, take a train from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong, which will drop you at Bang Pa-In at the eastern entrance of the inner city. You will need to hire a local tuk-tuk to get to the various ruin sites.
- Ayutthaya can also be reached by boat from Bangkok. Many tour operators can help you arrange your river journey.