Ayutthaya has a wide variety of places to eat and drink to suit all budgets and tastes, but because the island is spread out, it can seem to the newcomer that there is only one location. Those who venture further afield will not be disappointed. Take insect repellent to ensure there are no unnecessary distractions.
Starting with local specialties, Ayutthaya is famous for two foods. The first is roti sai mai, or threads of twirled palm sugar that are wrapped in a round unleavened bread and room temperature. This locally beloved treat is a reflection of Ayutthaya's large Muslim community. Not the dentist's best friend, the sweetness of the sugar is offset by the roti itself, and the threads resemble cotton candy but have a consistency strangely similar to human hair. Unlike hair, roti sai mai melts in your mouth and comes in a host of flavours from banana to strawberry to coconut to pandan leaf. To try it, head for "Roti Road" -- the stretch of U-Thong Road at the south of the island, around Ayutthaya hospital, where dozens of vendors offer bags of the colourful sweet by day and night.
The second must-try Ayutthaya specialty is kwit-tieo reua or boat noodles. Popular throughout Thailand, boat noodles are said to have originated in Ayutthaya centuries ago. Back then, they would have been sold exclusively from wooden sampans that rowed through the city's rivers and canals. Today, they're still sold from the same little rowboats, only the boats are propped up in street side shops and act as counter space for chefs. Even so, the recipes haven't changed much -- expect a dark brown broth tempered with pigs blood and filled with your choice of rice noodles along with (usually) pork liver, crackling deep-fried pork skin, pork balls, roasted pork and greens. Boat noodles can be found throughout the city (just look for those propped up rowboats), but several locals told us that the best are at Jaymoui restaurant on U-Thong Soi 12 to the south of the island, and we concur -- it's probably the best we've tried anywhere. It's a nondescript shop with no English sign about halfway down this small side street, on the left if heading south (again, just look for the propped up sampan). Jaymoui is open daily 08:00 to 21:00. They make only the soup, but many boat noodle shops also serve a mean pad Thai.
Sticking with local food, don't miss the night market that comes to life every evening around 17:00 at the western end of Bang Lan Road (it stretches east from Chikun Road, a three-minute walk from Wat Mahathat). Here you'll find a colourful mix of stalls, some with streetside tables for enjoying food on-site. We sampled some great khao mok kai (Muslim-Thai style biryani rice with chicken), nam prik pla tuu (chilli paste made with mackeral fish and grilled veggies) and goodies like corn-on-the-cob and chocolate cake. A handful of clothing and knick-knack vendors can also be found here. There's also a second, smaller night market that sets up nightly just east of Hua Ro market at the northeast corner of the island. The food selection is far less extensive here, but you can enjoy a meal next to the river for a quarter of what it will cost at one of the "proper" riverside restaurants.
Right across from the backpacker strip, a handful of street food stalls set up every night on Naresuan Road. They're accustomed to foreign travellers and many offer English menus, making this an easy place to sample classic Thai street dishes like khao ka muu (roasted pork shoulder with rice) or krapao kai (sauteed chicken with chillies, garlic and Thai basil) for around 30 baht a plate.
In the same vicinity, Chao Phrom market sets up daily from early morning until early afternoon, and is a great place for breakfast -- enjoy Thai sweets made from sticky rice and coconut, khanom krok (a sweet fried corn and coconut dumpling) or good old fried bananas. Chao Phrom is also a fine place to sample tropical fruit.
A final market tip: if you're really into food, don't miss Hua Ro day market, a roofed fresh and prepared foods market that sprawls towards the river from a cluster of shophouses at the northeast corner of the island. Here you'll find local fruits and vegetables, mounds of curry paste, fresh meats and fish and no shortage of curries for takeaway and Thai sweets. While here, be sure to walk a short way down the footpath to the left immediately after coming out of the market, to enjoy fabulous homemade sala bao (Chinese rice buns with fillings like pork, egg, sweet bean and taro) and homemade pork dumplings at Pen Bakery. It's something of a local institution and the dumplings get sold faster than they can be made.
For a great Thai meal in a more comfortable, maybe even romantic setting, a host of somewhat expensive restaurants (80 to 350 baht for most dishes) off the east and south sides of U-Thong Road with riverside verandas offer whole grilled or fried fishes, Isaan-style spicy salads and a range of Thai staples along with whiskey and beer. These get started around 16:00 and stay open past 23:00. Some of the best are Sai Thong River for it's tasty but inexpensive menu, Ban U-Thong (sign only in Thai) for its more intimate riverside setting, Ban Mai Rim Nam for its extensive seafood menu, and both the Old Place and Bann Kun Pra, which are the most accessible to foreign travellers.
If you like it really spicy, a number of open-air Isaan restaurants line the bank of a small lagoon on Pa Thon Road, offering fiery northeastern Thai dishes like som tam (papaya salad) and moo yang (grilled pork neck) to go with sticky rice and grilled chicken. Service is in keeping with laidback Isaan culture and being popular with students, evenings can get pretty raucous. For a slightly more refined setting but similar food, Ban Som Tum at the corner of U-Thong and Rochana Road is a good bet.
If you're in the mood for Western, or Thai watered down to Western tastes, several choices near the ruins or on the backpacker strip will fit the bill. Tony's Place, Chiang Restaurant, Jazz Bar and Street Lamp are always filled with hungry and thirsty travellers, and the latter three often host live music in the evenings. As for food, Chiang Restauant serves big and good, but expensive English breakfasts, and you can find burgers, steak, chips, pizza and basic Thai at all of the above. One or more of these are also where most backpackers end up at night, sharing travel stories over big bottles of Chang beer.
Other "tourist-oriented" restaurants offering a mix of Thai and Western dishes are found on Chikun Road directly opposite the ruins. We weren't too impressed by the overpriced Thai food at Ruenn Rojjana, but it may be worth it simply for the views of floodlit Wat Mahathat across the road. Around the corner on Naresuan Road, we made a few stops at Better Cafe for its strong, quality Thai coffee.
If you're after a good steak in a more "local" but still very accessible setting, Classic Corner on Pa-Maphrao Road, across the street and a tad west of Baan Lotus, is worth a mention for its tasty steaks served with fries, salads and excellent Thai coffee, open only from 08:00 to 21:00.
If seeking authentic Chinese-Thai vegetarian, a hole-in-the-wall shop on the east side of Khlong Makharm Riang Road just south of Naresuan Road serves tasty and cheap ahaan jay (vegan food) from morning until late afternoon -- look for a small sign that says "Vegetarian Food" in English. Otherwise, Tony's Place is probably the best bet for strict herbivores.
Bars and Nightlife
Due to strict policing in Ayutthaya, most bars close by midnight so there's little opportunity for a late night out. So... start early!
Though most travellers don't stray from the aforementioned Jazz Bar, Tony's Place, Chiang and Street Lamp on the backpacker strip, Ayutthaya offers a handful of interesting options for letting loose. Por gun ti bar (up the road and left around the corner along Pa-Maphrao Road, just past Baan Lotus guesthouse) has a predominantly Thai clientele seated among fairy lights or around the bar. An extensive range of cocktails at 100 baht a pop and mixed music makes this is a good place to start the night with a bang.
If Thai-style is to your liking, wobble across the road to Pak Soi bar (sign in Thai). Tastefully decorated with colourful hanging lanterns and aged wooden tables, this can be a place to experience Thai hospitality at its best (depending on who is in there). Regular priced drinks and tasty food to soak up the booze compliment the occasional acoustic acts and Thai pop music.
A little further afield is another Thai bar, By Yai Lek, run by twin brothers Mr Yai (big) and Mr Lek (small). Streetside tables, a fairy-lit courtyard, well priced drinks, good music and big smiles make this an excellent choice for a relaxing evening.
Back on the main Naresuan Road drag, Spin Club at the corner of Khlong Makharm Riang Road attracts a mix of locals and travellers to its quasi nightclub set-up with a big bar, lots of tables for chilling and pumping tunes, though no DJ when we were there. Just west of that is Langlao Bar, a neighbourhood pub-style joint where you can watch football matches on a big flatscreen from the comfort of footpath tables. At the corner of Khlong Makharm Riang Road and Pa Thon Road, Amuse Bar offers a similar, though larger set-up with pumping Thai and Western mainstream hits and a lively, open-air nightclub atmosphere.
And finally, if you really want a crazy night out, there's a sizeable nightclub strip way out to the east of the city, off Route 309 near the northern bus terminal. Among the large-scale, Bangkok-style clubs are several Japanese karaoke clubs and 'massage' parlours -- something seedy is obviously at work here, but that element could be easily avoided if just wanting a fun night out at a serious club.
As Thai cities go, Ayutthaya is an eclectic one. During its glory days as the capital of the Siamese Empire from the mid 14th to late 18th centuries, the city was home to a diverse range of people from throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Although the royal palaces, and all that goes with them, were moved down river to Bangkok in 1767, this mixed cultural legacy lives on in the food of... Read our full review of Ayutthaya's eclectic food scene.