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One of the highlights of visiting Thailand is seeing impressive old temples that show signs of a long and rich history. If this appeals to you, Ayutthaya Historical Park should be at the top of your list of sites to see. Ayutthaya was the capital of Siam between 1351 and 1767.
The city was a major metropolitan center, full of palaces and illustrious temples until the Burmese army burned the majority of the city down during an invasion. Now, most of the city stands in ruins, but many of the temple prangs (or steeples) have been restored. Visiting Ayutthaya means wandering through lines of headless Buddha statues, gazing up at leaning prangs, and stepping over ancient foundations.
You can’t help but imagine what the city looked like in its prime, and it’s a breathtaking mental picture. If you are in Thailand, do yourself a favor and visit Ayutthaya Historical Park. You can easily visit as a day trip from Bangkok, but history and temple fans may want to stretch out their trip by staying overnight.
History of Ayutthaya
The city of Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 by King U Thong, who arrived in the city’s island location fleeing a smallpox outbreak. He named Ayutthaya the capital of Siam and established a royal palace there. The city grew quickly, with an ever-growing number of palaces, monasteries, and royal temples. The armies from Ayutthaya conquered Sukhothai the previous capital in the area during their expansion years.
Ayutthaya also became an important trade center. It was strategically situated between the Chao Phraya, Lopburi, and Pa Sak Rivers, and it was also located conveniently between India, China, and the East Indies. Merchants from throughout Asia and elsewhere came and went in the city. Only Siam natives were permitted to live within the walls, so foreign establishments sprung up on the other side of the rivers.
The city itself grew to have about 1 million residents by 1700, making it one of the largest cities in the world. All of this came crashing down when the Burmese army invaded in 1767 and burned the majority of the city. Most of the temples were made of stone, but the wooden royal palaces were destroyed. Sadly, the remaining stone buildings were left largely abandoned, worsened by centuries of disrepair and looting.
Finally, in the 1960s the Fine Arts Department began the large project of restoring the ruins. A large part of the island was named the Ayutthaya Historical Park in 1976, and the area was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991. These titles have brought more thorough restoration efforts and lots of attention. Ayutthaya Historical Park is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in Thailand.
Temples in Ayutthaya Historical Park
The dominant feature of Ayutthaya Historical Park is its collection of monasteries and temples. Restored prangs, or reliquary towers, dominate views of Ayutthaya’s horizon. In their prime, these temples would have been ornately decorated with intricate carvings, murals, gold leaf, and colorful statues, and the reliquaries would have been full of costly holy items. Today, you can see traces of the city’s previous grandeur as you walk among the ruins.
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- Wat Phra Si Sanphet: This majestic temple was once the royal temple and adjoins the royal palace grounds. Three impressive chedis (or stupas) still stand.
- Wat Mongkhon Bophit: This more modern temple houses a 17-meter gilded Buddha image.
- Wat Phra-Mahathat: The most popular site at this temple is a Buddha statue head that has grown into the roots of a tree. It is considered holy by many locals. The temple’s prangs and statues are also worth seeing.
- Wat Rathaburana: This temple’s central prang has been thoroughly restored, making it the most impressive on the island. You can see original statues and decorative carvings and even visit an intact crypt.
- Wat Thammikarat: The dominant feature of this temple is a large brick viharn, which no longer has its roof. There are also some picturesque lion statues and a reclining statue. Wat Thammikarat is an active monastery, so be respectful of monks while on its grounds.
- Phra Chedi Suriyothai: This temple has a beautifully renovated white-and-gold chedi that was built as a royal memorial.
Markets and Museum of Ayutthaya
The temples are the highlight of Ayutthaya Historical Park, but there are some other sites that can complete your visit.
Chantharakasem National Museum
If you’d like to get a glimpse into how Siamese royalty lived, you can visit the Chantharakasem National Museum. It was once the residence of King Naresuan the Great, a 16th-century king. If you’d like to learn more about the history of Ayutthaya, the best place to do so is the Ayutthaya Historical Study Center.
The museum contains displays on Siamese art, culture, village life, and foreign relations. Sadly, many of Ayutthaya’s treasures were stolen or destroyed. Most of those that remain are housed at Chao Sam Phraya National Museum. If you need a break from all the history, there are a couple of fun attractions just outside of the park.
The Chao Phrom Market along the Pasak River offers food and affordable clothing. It’s more for locals than for tourists, so you won’t find many trinkets, but you can try real authentic dishes.
If you want something more tourist-oriented, try the Ayothaya Floating Market, a combination of a theater and marketplace all put together on boats.
Transportation from Bangkok to Ayutthaya
Most people travel to Ayutthaya from Bangkok, and the trip will only take you one to two hours (depending on your mode of transportation). The most popular way to travel is by train, which leaves from the Hualamphong Train Station and arrives across the river from the Historical Park.
Bus and Mini-Van
You can also take a bus, rent a minibus, or drive yourself in a rented car. If you’re dropped off across the river, you can take a short ferry ride to the island. Once you get to the island, you can get around on a rented bicycle, a tuk-tuk, or motorcycle.
A Boat Trip
If you have a bit more time and money, you may consider chartering a boat to take you to Ayutthaya and then around the island. Boat trips will take a while (usually a full day), but they can be a leisurely way to enjoy Thailand’s natural beauty and glimpse life in the countryside.
I hope you enjoy your visit to Ayutthaya Historical Park. It was one of the highlights of my visit to Thailand. If you have an interest in cultural heritage and history you'll have a great time there.
© 2019 Sam Shepards