Ayutthaya Historical Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. // © 2011 kimtetsu
Imagine a city so rich in golden temples that their glistening could be seen from miles away. A city that, in 1685, had a population of 1 million — nearly double that of London at the same time. King Louis XIV of France’s diplomats were welcomed here by King Narai (1656-1688) and Siamese envoys visited the French court.
That fabled city is now Ayutthaya Historical Park, a day-trip from Bangkok. The ruins of this original capital of Thailand — one of the most important Asian cities from the mid-14th to the late 18th century — is a perfect place to visit to better understand Thai culture. Today, the site has been given UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Most of the gold is long gone, but its illustrious history lives on.
A Long and Colorful History
Ayutthaya took its name from the Indian city Ayodhya (Sanskrit for “invincible”), the birthplace of Rama. Founded in 1351 by King U Thong, the city became powerful after the declines of the Khmer empire at Angkor and the first Thai kingdom. By the mid-15th century, Ayutthaya controlled much of modern-day Thailand and was built almost entirely on canals, few of which survive today. Its great wealth came from foreign traders, mainly in the 17th century, with around 40 different nationalities — including Chinese, Dutch, English and French — living there. The Thais traded rice, salt and vegetables for rifles and cannons. The Thai kings cleverly maintained their independence from other countries while taking what they liked from international influences. The kings were absolute rulers with god-like status who drew authority from both Hindu and Buddhist tradition.
The nearby Burmese had waged war on the city for centuries but had always been repelled — until 1767 when the 400-year reign of Ayutthaya ended abruptly. The Burmese ravaged Ayutthaya, melted the gold from the statues, destroyed the art and libraries and took thousands of prisoners back with them to Burma. The reign didn’t last long. King Taksin drove the Burmese out of the country in the late 18th century, and he used building materials from Ayutthaya to build the new capital city, Bangkok.
On a recent visit, my group drove from Bangkok to Ayutthaya, but train service and specialized tours are also available. Our first stop was Phra Mongkhon Bophit temple, which contains one of the largest Buddhas in Thailand. Erected in the 15th century, the main Buddha was outdoors until a hall was built for it in 1956. During the restoration, hundreds of Buddha statuettes were found within its hollow image. This massive, golden statue, highly revered by the Thais, fills the hall so completely that I found it impossible to take my eyes off of it.
After viewing this impressive Buddha, we took a short walk to Wat Phra Si Sanphret, built in 1448 by King Boromatrailokanat. This was once the greatest of Ayutthaya’s temples and is still one of the best preserved and most visited areas.
The temple is located in a compound that was originally used as a royal palace and was home to many kings. This design inspired the Emerald Buddha Chapel in Bangkok and has three large iconic restored chedi (structures) containing the ashes of three kings of Ayutthaya. This is the main tourist spot in the complex, although there are many others for people who have the time to wander or spend more than a few hours in the area. Ayutthaya is still a viable religious center today, with Thais leaving offerings to the gods at the bases of the ruins. There is a visitors’ center where clients can learn more about the history of the area. The temple is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. There is also an audio tour in English available for around $5.
On the way out of the temple area, visitors can visit an extensive market of local handicrafts, including puppets, hats and wood carvings, as well as unusual food made on site. It’s a nice way to combine Ayutthaya’s past with its vibrant present.