The city of Ayutthaya, at one time, was among the most populated cities in the world. It was also one of the most luxurious and cosmopolitan, with traders and diplomats from around Europe and Asia setting up base there. But one day, that all came to a disastrous end at the hands of the powerful Burmese. While the era of the Ayutthaya Kingdom may be long gone, the ruins of this once-splendid city remain one of Thailand’s most endearing travel destinations.
Ayutthaya: A Brief History
Named after Rama’s hometown of Ayodhya, India, the city of Ayutthaya was officially founded in 1350, though the area had at one time been settled by other civilizations like the Khmer. The area’s unique geography caught the eye of its founder, King Uthong. Surrounded by three rivers on four sides, the island setting of Ayutthaya made it ideal for both defense and as an important trading port.
When Ayutthaya first emerged, the city of Sukhothai to the north was the prominent kingdom of Siam. But Ayutthaya conquered Sukhothai along with neighboring outposts like Kamphaeng Phet and Phitsanulok. Thus, the Ayutthaya Kingdom became one of the most dominant forces in the region for hundreds of years.
The kingdom was not without its enemies though. And throughout Ayutthaya’s history, no enemy was greater than Burma. The Ayutthaya Kingdom repelled no less than 20 Burmese invasions (!) before finally succumbing to a devastating attack in the year 1767.
The Burmese, then based out of their own island capital of Inwa, inflicted as much damage as they could. Despite being Buddhists themselves, they looted Ayutthaya’s hundreds of temples and removed all the gold from the city’s Buddha statues.
And the Burmese also destroyed many of the Kingdom’s historical records, meaning there’s a lot about Ayutthaya’s history that we’ll never know. A lot of accounts, at least, were kept by various foreign traders and diplomats. Ayutthaya, at one time, was considered the most prominent trading hub in all of Asia.
After the siege of 1767, the city was considered damaged beyond repair. Instead of trying to restore what was lost, many of the remaining bricks were taken to the subsequent capitals of Thonburi and Bangkok.
With all that considered, many of Ayutthaya’s ruins still evoke awe and wonder to this day. Some imagination, of course, is required to picture the city’s former grandeur.
A Self-Guided Ayutthaya Ruins Tour
The following self-guided tour can be carried out in a single day, either on foot or by bicycle. But you’ll have to start early enough in the morning if you want to see everything. If you happen to arrive in Ayutthaya sometime in the afternoon, you could try seeing one or two of the temples closest to your hotel, allowing you to conduct this tour at a more laidback pace the next day.
This day tour itinerary takes you to the most prominent and historically significant temples of Ayutthaya, along with some neat ruins that get little attention from foreign tourists. There’s still a lot more to see and do in Ayutthaya, though, including a number of other ruins at the opposite ends of the island, or sometimes outside of it. Also not covered in this itinerary are any of the local museums.
If you consider yourself a major ruins junky, then you may want to give yourself an extra full day or two. Also, be sure to spend some time in the nearby city of Lopburi, especially if you’re into Khmer architecture.
The Temple Combo Ticket
Most of the major temples cost 50 baht (for foreigners) to enter. Some minor temples are free, while other temples run by separate management have their own ticket system and prices. You have the option to buy a 220 baht combo ticket, which includes the following 6 temples: Wat Mahathat, Wat Ratchaburana, Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Wat Chai Watthanaram and Wat Maheyong. But is it worth it?
As is common with combo tickets in Thailand, they’re not scams but by no means great deals, either. There is often a little deception involved to get people to buy them: in this case it’s the inclusion of Wat Maheyong, an obscure, hard-to-reach temple way to the east of the island. Few people ever visit because it’s so far out of the way, but lots of people who buy a combo ticket don’t realize this at the time of purchase.
So, while visiting all 6 temples would save you 80 baht, realistically, most people only make it to 5 and save 30 baht. It’s still technically a bargain, though, and you can use the extra cash to buy a treat at the night market. The following itinerary includes the other 5 of the 6 temples included in the combo ticket.
Wat Mahathat is likely the most visited temple in all of Ayutthaya. Not only is it conveniently located at the edge of the park, but it contains one of Ayutthaya’s most mysterious, and definitely most photographed, oddities: the Buddha head trapped in thick tree vines.
Wat Mahathat was also one of the most important temples in the kingdom in its time. Originally established in 1374, the temple was not only used for certain royal ceremonies, but it was also considered the center of Buddhism in the kingdom.
Around the temple complex, you’ll find Khmer temple prangs as well as Ayutthaya-style chedis. The temple was originally built to mimic the typical Khmer representation of Mt. Meru, in which one central tower is surrounded by 4 smaller ones. But the symbolism is not clearly evident anymore, considering all that damage that’s taken place.
As for the Buddha head in the vines? Nobody knows for sure how that happened, but rumor has it that thieves hid it in the spot, intending to come back for it later. But they never did, and the head ultimately got absorbed by nature. Be sure to come early before the tour groups arrive – otherwise you might have to wait in line to snap a clear shot.
Wat Ratchaburana is just north of Wat Mahathat and is equally as impressive, though it was established decades later. According to legend, two princes fought with each other on the back of elephants to determine who’d become king. Apparently, these kinds of skirmishes were common, as the Ayutthaya Kingdom had no set succession rules. But in the case of these princes, both died in battle, leaving their other brother to take the throne in 1424. Wat Ratchaburana was subsequently built on the site of the ill-fated battle.
One of the remarkable aspects of Wat Ratchaburana is that the central prang can actually be entered. It may be damp and dark with some steep staircases, but it’s absolutely worth checking out. The frescoes inside are some of the oldest in all of Thailand.
Like Wat Mahathat, the layout of Wat Ratchaburana is essentially a copy of Khmer temples, with one central tower surrounded by four other ones. Reemerging from the crypt, take a closer look at the central prang from the outside, and you’ll see statues of kinnaras (half-human, half-bird) and other guardian warriors.
When finished, walk to the northern edge of the island and turn left until you get to Wat Thammakirat.
Wat Thammikarat is not nearly as visited by foreign tourists as other big temples on the island, but it’s certainly historically significant. In fact, it may be even older than the city of Ayutthaya itself, established back when the area was nothing more than a Khmer settlement. It’s possible that the lion statues surrounding the chedi are Khmer in origin, with other elements being added later.
One of the first things you’ll notice at the temple is the abundance of rooster figures. Supposedly, this temple was the site of a cockfight between the roosters of a Burmese and Ayutthayan prince. The local prince was victorious and locals still bring rooster statues to this day as offerings.
Wat Thammakirat is actually a living temple, with a wooden structure coexisting with the old stone ruins. And inside the modern temple you can find a massive reclining Buddha statue. Wat Thammikarat is separately managed from the other major temples on the island, but entrance will only cost you 20 baht.
If you’re interested in breaking up the monotony of the stone ruins and seeing another living temple, there’s another significant one just across the river from Wat Thammikarat.
Wat Na Phra Men
The ubosot, or ordination hall, of Wat Phra Men was built back in the early 16th century. Amazingly, it’s one of the few structures in all of Ayutthaya that wasn’t touched during the Burmese invasion of 1767, meaning that it’s a very rare glimpse into how some of the temples must’ve looked. Later restoration, including the construction of a brand new vihan, was carried out under King Rama III in the 1800’s.
The primary golden Buddha image in the ubosot is also one of the only Ayutthaya Buddha images that wasn’t looted by the Burmese. The bronze image in the vihan, meanwhile, is actually around 1,500 years old. It was moved to Ayutthaya more recently in the 1800’s, however. Also in the small vihan, be sure to take a look at some of the old murals on the walls, which depict the Jataka tales, or past lives of the Buddha.
Entrance to Wat Na Phra Men is free. Next, head back over the bridge to the island, heading west over to the northwest corner.
In the northwestern part of the island, there’s a large grassy area where you can find the ruins of three different temples. The first two aren’t very remarkable, but the third, Wat Lokaya Sutha, is notable for its massive reclining Buddha image. If you’re already feeling “templed out,” by this point, then just head south to Wat Si Sanphet, as these three temples are interesting but by no means essential.
Also, be aware of dogs in this northwestern area. The city has even placed warning signs telling visitors to watch out for them.
Entering the area, you’ll first come across Wat Wora Pho, a small ruined temple containing a white Buddha statue. It’s unclear when this temple was built, but it’s estimated to be from the late 1500’s. You’ll also see a pyramid-shaped chedi nearby.
Heading south, you’ll come across Wat Wora Chetaram. This temple was built in the late 1500’s, and you’ll recognize it by the large bell-shaped stupa. There’s also the remains of the old ubosot with a large Buddha statue still sitting inside.
Next you’ll come across Wat Lokaya Suttha, known for its giant reclining Buddha. We don’t know for sure when the temple was built, but it’s likely from the Early Ayutthaya Period. The temple was clearly quite large, but it’s been almost entirely destroyed. Remnants of the large Buddha did remain, but even that was mostly reconstructed in the year 1954. Still, it’s sheer size is pretty awe-inspiring.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet
Out of all the temples of Ayutthaya, Wat Phra Si Sanphet was the most politically significant. It was, in fact, the site of the Grand Palace where the kings themselves resided. It was also a major inspiration for the modern-day Grand Palace in Bangkok.
The temple was built in the mid-15th century. It’s still a spectacular sight to behold thanks to the three huge bell-shaped chedis in the center of the complex, originally built to enshrine the ashes of former kings.
A massive golden Buddha statue once resided here, but the Burmese completely melted it down into gold after sacking the temple. The Buddha image itself was named Phra Si Sanphet, which then became the namesake of the temple.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet gets a lot of visitors, but the complex is large enough that it’s easy to find somewhere quiet and secluded. Despite its historical significance, everything but the chedis are completely in ruin, so there aren’t a whole lot of notable features compared with Wat Mahathat or Ratchaburana.
Wat Phra Ram
Next, head back east toward the center of the Historical Park area. Near the western edge of the park is Wat Phra Ram, which you’ll recognize by its tall Khmer-style prang. We don’t know exactly how old this temple is, but some records indicate it being as old as the 14th century. Notably, the name itself is a reference to Rama of the Indian epic poem the Ramayana. This shows how that story has been highly influential in Thailand for hundreds of years now.
If you haven’t already, now would be a good chance to explore a little more of the central park area. The town has done a great job with this area. (If only they could’ve put the same care and effort into certain other parts of the island!)
Wat Chai Watthanaram
By now it’s likely close to evening, and you may be wondering where to go to see the sunset. One of the most popular sunset viewing spots in Ayutthaya is a temple called Wat Chai Watthanaram, but it’s way over by the southwest corner of the island, on the other side of the river. You’ll need to hail down a tuk-tuk if you’ve been getting around on foot, but if you’ve been cycling, a bike ride over shouldn’t be too hard.
The temple was built in the 1630’s with obvious Khmer influence. It goes to show how the Thais were (and still are) influenced by the Khmer long after the fall of Angkor. Chai Watthanaram was considered a Royal temple and was used for special ceremonies by the king and his family. The temple was originally built to enshrine the ashes of King Prasat Thong’s mother.
The temple complex is in great condition compared with many of the other ruins around Ayutthaya. Though the Burmese attacked it, a lot of the structures are still standing. Furthermore, additional restoration efforts took place as recently as the 1990’s.
You can enjoy the sunset until they ask you to leave a little after 18:00. Your tuk-tuk should still be waiting for you in the parking lot (hopefully) and you can finally rest your legs for dinner somewhere near your hotel.
Most people will be coming from Bangkok, and transportation couldn’t be easier. Simply head to Hua Lamphong railway station and buy a ticket for the next train. The ride only takes around 90 minutes and is extremely cheap – only around 20 baht or so! Since the ride is so short, there’s no reason not to buy the cheapest third-class ticket.
The railway station is to the east of the island. Arriving at the station, you’ll need to pay a small fee (5 baht) for a ferry to take you across the river. Tuk-tuks to take you across the bridge are also an option if you are a group with lots of luggage.
Ayutthaya is also connected by bus from most major cities. If you happen to be staying near Mo Chit Bus Station in Bangkok, a bus might be an easier option for you than train.
Staying somewhere on the island is the best idea. Typically when I travel, I try to find the cheapest place I can get that has the bare minimum of a private room with my own private bathroom. I ended up finding a good deal at San Snook Place.
The room was spacious, clean and quiet. It was a little bit far of a walk from the ruins (15 – 20 minutes or so) but otherwise just what I needed. Just be sure to ask for a receipt if you pay the bill in advance. When it was time to check out, the owner was convinced I hadn’t paid, and only remembered after I described to her the exact details of the transaction.
If you stay off the island, staying right by the train station would not be a bad idea.
The temple ruins outlined above make up the the good part of Ayutthaya, but the city is not without its faults. To put it bluntly, Ayutthaya is not a nice town. The nicely landscaped and clean central park area is only a small part of the island. Outside of the park, the rest of the island is filthy, with garbage all over the place. (I’m judging by Thai standards here. For reference, I consider Chiang Mai as the nicest city in Thailand, at least as far as overall atmosphere and pleasantness.)
Traffic is quite bad in Ayutthaya considering the size of the town, and the city also has a large population of mean dogs. Don’t be surprised to be just walking down the street in the middle of the day, only to have a pair or a group of dogs run up to you and bark or growl for no reason.
As mentioned above, there are even some warning signs near some temples, so it’s clear that the city is aware of the issue. Instead of taking any action or responsibility for the potential health hazard, I guess it’s just the same “We’re Buddhists, we’re compassionate to animals.” excuse. Meanwhile, one of the city’s most promoted activities is elephant riding!
Also, for a city surrounded by rivers, they’ve really done nothing to take advantage of it. Hardly any riverside cafes or even pedestrian walkways are to be found anywhere on the island. Instead, there’s just a circular road running adjacent to the rivers. The riverside is actually where you’ll experience the worst traffic.
Don’t get me wrong. I still think Ayutthaya is worth visiting for its ruins, but it was just not a nice town to walk around in. I was actually planning to explore the ruins and museums for another full day, but decided to leave early. Sukhothai, in comparison, is a much more pleasant place overall with equally impressive ruins.