Ayutthaya is the enigmatic erstwhile capital city of Thailand. Ayutthaya stands on an island created by the three rivers – Chao Phraya, Lopburi & Pa Sak River. The rivers are almost like a natural moat around the fortified city that was a capital for 400+ years between 14-18th CE. Located strategically between China, India & Malay – it was a key trading city. A trading city is always a cosmopolitan city and that is evident from the Dutch and French maps of Ayutthaya. City, however, saw a sudden downfall after it was burnt down during a Burmese invasion in 18th CE.
Ayutthaya – Thailand’s Ancient Capital
I visited Ayutthaya twice with a gap of 16 years. Nothing much had changed in the city – its ruins stand with grace even in their fallen form. The charm of the city kept me asking for more. Wish, I will go back one day to explore it in detail. To know it intimately, till then, this is what I gathered in my 2 visits.
Ayutthaya & Hinduism
Ayutthaya refers to the Indian city of Ayodhya – the city of Lord Ram – the seventh incarnation of Vishnu and a descendent of Sun dynasty.
Ayutthaya is also associated with Ramakien or the Thai version of Hindu epic Ramayana – literally the story of Lord Rama.
However, there are not many signs of Rama here now, what you see is mostly Buddhist remains. The city is full of Buddha statues and pagodas dedicated to him. But then Buddha is considered to be the 9th avatar of Vishnu, so it all seems to fit in the etymology of Ayutthaya.
The Kind of Ayutthaya was initially supposed to be the incarnation of Vishnu and later when Buddhism took precedence, he was considered to be a Bodhisattva. Social and cultural history of this region is very interesting. I found it a curious mix of influences of the kingdoms surrounding the region.
Even today, when Thailand primarily practices Theravada Buddhism, the royal rituals are still performed by a Brahmin. On my Ratchaprasong Walk, I discovered so many Hindu deities being worshiped in Thailand.
Ayutthaya Tourism Centre
The lovely building in white with motifs from the past welcomes us. We walk through the various exhibitions that showcase the glorious past of the city through numerous exhibits. It works well on raising your curiosity levels for this UNESCO World Heritage site. It talks about the architecture of Ayutthaya that follows the principles of cosmology. It talks about the daily life of the people living here and everything around them.
It is a reasonably well-presented exhibition and if you have time, spend at least a couple of hours reading and learning about the city here, before you embark on the first-hand exploration. For example, Boats are an integral part of this river island.
What to see in Ayutthaya
You can literally get lost in the ruins of Ayutthaya, so if you have limited time, here is what you should see.
Wat Maha That
Wat Maha That means the monastery of the great relic. It is located more or less at the centre of Ayutthaya. It was a royal monastery that housed the revered Buddha relics. Archaeological records date this monastery back to late 14th CE, another set of records point to a renovation in 17th CE but today it is just beautiful ruins. Historians also believe that some of the Buddha images found here pre-date Ayutthaya based on their style. Many big and small pagodas have been added at different points in time.
Its architecture follows the Khmer school of temple architecture. There is a central tower called prang, surrounded by four towers in four directions. Each of these towers is then surrounded by a courtyard and a gallery. Like Hindu temples, most Khmer temples also consider east and north to be auspicious and west to be not so auspicious and south as neutral. They also mean to take the devotees inwards and follow strict principles of architecture. The central tower represents the Meru parvat or Meru mountain. All temples were built in laterite and bricks and decorated with fine stucco work. Wall murals representing Buddhist stories were found inside the Prang.
Wat Maha That is not only important because of the Buddha relic but also because it was a royal monastery located next to the royal grand palace. It was the venue for all royal ceremonies and celebrations. Various medieval travellers have written gloriously about Wat Maha That. It was home to a famous green stone Buddha idol of 8th CE which was later transferred from here.
Today, Wat Maha That is famous for the Buddha head on the roots of a Tree. Read more here.
Wat Phra Sri Sanphet
Wat Phra Sri Sanphet monastery is located within the royal grand palace grounds. This was initially a residential palace in 14th CE and later became a monastery when royal quarters shifted from here. This is the temple on which temple of Emerald Buddha in Bangkok is modeled.
Wat Phra Sri Sanphet used to house a 16 meters high standing image of Buddha in bronze. The image was well known for its beauty. Again various traveler accounts speak of the power and beauty of this image. They also tell us about the amount of gold used in these monasteries. It is said that after Burmese invasion in 18th CE, the monastery was burnt and all the gold melted and taken away.
Wat Phra Sri Sanphet was purely a royal monastery and no one except the royal family were allowed in the premises except in exceptional cases.
Chedis or the memorials of the various kings are a part of Wat Phra Sri Sanphet complex. Read more here.
Wihan Phramongkhon Bophit
Wihan Phramongkhon Bophit is a living temple with a giant Buddha image in Bronze. The image was originally a part of the palace but was later moved to its current place. This lively temple, in white and red, is like a breath of life amidst all ruins. Ironically, this is located very close to the ancient cremation grounds.
Like most other things this image of Buddha also suffered damage. It’s broken head and right arm was restored in 1920. In 1956 Burmese Prime Minister offered the grant to restore the temple to its original glory but experts say the original could never be achieved. Read more here.
Wat Lokaya Sutha
Wat Lokaya Sutha is best known for the 42 meters reclining Buddha image. Lying almost in an open ground, it seems that Buddha is occupying all the space – literally 7 metaphorically. The image is made of bricks and covered with stucco work.
Wat Lokaya Sutha is a massive temple ruin. Alas ! Only the foundations can be seen here and there.
It is lovely to see devotees come and pray to the Buddha. Another reclining Buddha can be seen at Wat Pho in Bangkok.
Ayutthaya at Night
My general travel sense is that most ruined cities develop a night aura. As if the stories of the past live a bit their life at night. In the quiet of the night you, if you have the heart you would hear those stories.
I remember, we stayed at a hotel right next to the river and the some of the monuments reflected in its quiet waters. The reflection sent me inwards – both to the roots of these buildings when they would have been conceived and built and to the roots of civilizations as they take shape.
Travel Tips for Ayutthaya
Ayutthaya is well connected to the Thai capital of Bangkok – by road, by train, and by boat. Going by road is the fastest and easiest way to go. However, I would highly recommend going by boat. I still remember my journey on Chao Phraya river. I was sitting on the deck all the time looking at the Thai landscape with a skyline defined by ornate spirals of the colourful buildings.
The best way to go around Ayutthaya is by Tuk Tuks – the Thai version of our Desi Autos.
Cycling around the heritage city is also popular with tourists.
Ayutthaya is an enchanting site, put it on your travel wish list if you have not been there already.
Recommend you read following travel blog on places visit to Thailand.