Guests who visit the temples at Ayutthaya in Thailand can walk observe preserved Buddha statues. // © 2015 Shane Nelson
Feature image (above): Wat Mahathat in Ayutthaya // © 2015 Shane Nelson
An inland island protected by three rivers, the ancient city of Ayutthaya is the former capital of Siam, and although the once-thriving metropolis — also known as Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya — was sacked and burned by the Burmese in the 18th century, it remains one of Thailand’s most important cultural attractions today.
Located about 50 miles north of Bangkok, Ayutthaya has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site for 25 years and offers visitors an abundance of ancient temples — many of which are in excellent condition, thanks to a range of renovations over the years. In fact, there are so many impressive temples, or wat, that deciding which ones to explore might seem a bit overwhelming. During a recent trip to the ancient capital, I visited several of Ayutthaya’s standout attractions within the more than 700-acre historical preserve, and my three favorites are described below.
Certainly the most intact temple compound I visited in Ayutthaya, Wat Chaiwatthanaram contained not only a towering Khmer-style prang that stands nearly 115 feet tall, but also a number of shorter, but no less impressive, stupas. The complex also housed several mostly intact stone Buddhas, posed happily throughout the ruins.
Built as a Buddhist monastery in 1630, Wat Chaiwatthanaram offers people a chance to walk throughout much of the temple area and even climb up some of its stairs to peer in to occasionally bat-occupied chambers. Travelers can also pose near some of the Buddha statues and at the base of several towering prang. My favorite photos were of the entire complex, however, showcasing what an intact temple compound appeared like hundreds of years ago.
Wat Chaiwatthanaram actually served as a military camp for the Burmese army during their 18th century siege, thanks, in part, to the temple’s location just outside the main city on the western edge of the Chao Phraya river. Thailand Fine Arts department completed a renovation of the temple in the late 1980s.
Travelers considering a visit to Thailand may have already seen photos of Wat Mahathat’s major draw: a carved, stone head of a Buddha entangled in the roots of a banyan tree. Although a number of theories exist about how the happy-looking head ended up lodged in the mass of roots, one popular hypothesis is that during renovation work on the temple years ago, a worker sat the head down on a recess in the banyan roots and forgot it was there, leaving the old tree to simply grow around it.
Early construction of Wat Mahathat began around 1374, wrapping up toward the end of the 14th century, but a number of improvements and refurbishments were completed at the site before Ayutthaya was sacked in 1767 by the Burmese, who burned the city after pillaging its treasures. The complex saw an extensive excavation and some renovation, however, in 1956 by Thailand Fine Arts Department. Today, Wat Mahathat offers a number of great photo opportunities, including a handful of large, intact stone Buddha statues, occasionally clad in bright yellow sashes, posed right in front of the temple’s large, red-brick prang, or towers, built in the style of Khmer architecture.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet
Three towering chedis, also called stupas and perhaps best defined as domed shrines, dominate Wat Phra Si Sanphet and once held the remains of three Siamese rulers: King Boromatrailokanat, King Ramathibodhi and King Boromarachathirat III. First constructed in 1350, the temple was also home to a massive Buddha, which stood more than 50 feet tall and was covered in gold. Sadly, that statue was destroyed when the Burmese destroyed Ayutthaya, but visitors are in luck: Another massive, bronze Buddha, better known Phra Mongkhon Bophit, has since been erected and sits just a five-minute walk west of Wat Phra Si Sanphet’s stunning stupas.
Housed now within its own contemporary temple, Phra Mongkhon Bophit, is more than 40 feet tall and 30 feet wide at its base. Travelers looking to capture images of the enormous bronze statue, one of the largest in Thailand, will want to bring a camera that performs well in low light.