In a nutshell
Explore haunting ruins where kings once presided. Light incense before weathered stone Buddhas. Take a bicycle, motorbike, tuk tuk or boat to the outlying temples, and finish up with a fantastic meal in a local market.
Set at the conjunction of the Lopburi, Prasak and Chao Phraya rivers, the storied city of Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 by King U-Thong and served as the capital of what was the predecessor to the Siamese empire and modern Thailand.
Over the next 417 years it was ruled by 33 kings and repelled 23 Burmese invasions, before the Burmese finally succeeded in razing it to the ground in 1767. At its height, Ayutthaya was surrounded by a 12-kilometre-long wall which was five metres thick and six metres high and boasted 99 gates, brick and clay roads and canals to transport water into the city.
By all reports Ayutthaya was stunning and rivalled most European capitals of the time. The city was a major centre not only of Thai civilisation but also Asian, Middle Eastern and even European arts, culture and trade. A number of foreign communities thrived in the city, chief among them the Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Indian, Persian, Portuguese, Dutch and French. As other parts of the world suffered bloody wars based on religious differences, freedom of religion was a hallmark of Ayutthaya.
Hints of this grandiose past can still be seen in the many ruins scattered throughout the province, but the Burmese obliterated almost of all of the treasures and records -- even melting Buddha images down for their gold and robbing the heads off those made from stone. Though the Burmese were repelled by a Siamese army made up of Thais and foreigners later that same year, Ayutthaya never returned to its former glory. The Siamese capital was moved down the Chao Phraya, first to Thonburi and finally to Bangkok where it remains today.
New life was eventually breathed back into Ayutthaya, however, and it is now a medium-size provincial capital city of some 60,000 people. Unlike other historical parks in Thailand -- such as Sukhothai or Phanom Rung, which are both in relatively remote surrounds -- the ruins of Ayutthaya are mixed into the modern city. Schools, hospitals and fairly busy roads are interspersed among the ruins.
In more recent history, Ayutthaya province was one of the hardest hit by the Thailand floods of late 2011, which inundated most of the city with one to three metres of water for over three months in some places. The city, its people and the historical park were still recuperating during our last visit at the end of 2012. Many of the grasses and trees that once punctuated the ruins with colourful flowers were killed off by the water, and major sites like Wat Phra Sri Sanphet now have a desolate feel when compared to their former beauty.
Although many choose to visit Ayutthaya as a daytrip from Bangkok, we recommend a solid two- to three-day visit. Some effort is required to reach many of the best ruins on the outskirts of town, and Ayutthaya's excellent food scene and local charm takes some time to tap. Thankfully, the city offers some excellent budget guesthouses. Although it can also be reached from Bangkok, Bang Pa-In Palace is just 25 kilometres south of Ayutthaya and is also well worth a half-day.
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Like Sukhothai, Ayutthaya was a Siamese capital in days long gone, but unlike better preserved Sukhothai, the modern and the ancient have been allowed to meld in Ayutthaya, resulting in an intertangled morass of modern concrete egg-cartons overlooking historic ruins. Walking around Ayutthaya seems like a good idea -- it's not. The central ruins are best explored by bicycle, while motorbikes, tuk tuks or boats are best for reaching the not-to-be-missed outlying ruins.
Start early -- really early -- to avoid the worst of the midday heat (Ayutthaya can be positively scorching) and you'll also see the temples in a better light. Come lunchtime, take a dive into a museum or a cafe and wait out the heat before striking out again. In the late afternoon the light really turns it on for pictures, and the temperatures slowly drop to something more bearable.
In the evening, some of the central monuments are floodlit so it is worth making another trip out to see them dressed up in these colourful albeit artificial hues. After that, explore Ayutthaya's eclectic food scene at one of the night markets, or kick back for a well deserved beer along the river.
Text and/or map last updated on 19th September, 2014.