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.
Ayutthaya covers a fairly large area, but most of what will interest travellers is on "the island", a wide oval of flat ground surrounded by rivers on all sides.
U-Thong Road runs beside the rivers and circles all the way round the island. The best known historical sites, including Wat Phra Sri Sanphet, Wat Ratchaburana and Wat Mahathat, are clustered near to one another on the northwestern side of the island between Chikun Road and Khlong Tho Road.
A smattering of smaller ruins are found all the way to the island's northwestern corner, while the southwestern area is home to Ayutthaya Hospital at the corner of Si Sanphet and U-Thong roads. Just across U-Thong from the hospital is what's known as "Roti Road", an area where a sweet Ayutthaya speciality -- roti sai mai -- is sold in abundance.
Continue east on U-Thong from here and you'll pass a host of riverside Thai restaurants before turning a gradual corner and heading north towards what could be dubbed a town centre in the area where U-Thong is met by the west-to-east running Rochana, Pa Thon and Naresuan roads, all of which host several places to stay.
Rochana Road continues east by two different bridges over the Chao Phraya to "east Ayutthaya". Here you'll find a more typical small Thai city feel, and the train station and a few worthwhile sights are located out this way. Rochana Road continues east before turning into the eight-lane Route 309 and cutting southeast. Route 309 then crosses paths with the main north-to-south highway out of town, Route 32 (aka Asia Highway), which goes all the way to east Bangkok and beyond.
Back on the island, if you head west on Naresuan Road from U-Thong Road you'll pass the lively Chao Phrom day market before reaching the small backpacker strip on Naresuan Soi 1 (off the north side of Naresuan Road) and the nearby bus and minibus departure points. Continue west and Naresuan takes you straight to the historical park.
Leave the island via one of several bridges to the north and west and you'll enter a quiet and charming stretch of countryside and paddy -- it would be worth a trip for the scenery alone but several impressive sights are also located just northwest, west and south of the island.
The main provincial police station is located near the immigration office at the northeastern corner of the island, right on U-Thong Road. There is also a tourist police station next to a helpful tourism information centre near the most popular ruins on Si Sanphet Road, right across from Chao Sam Phraya National Museum. If you want a decent map, make the tourist centre your first stop as the ones offered by guesthouses are pitiful in comparison.
Banks and ATMs are readily available throughout town and a few can also be found around the major sights. Internet cafes are also easy to find, including several on Naresuan Road and U-Thong Road as it skirts the eastern side of the island.
A quick safety tip -- Ayutthaya has lots of stray dogs and there have been reports of them occasionally being aggressive, particularly on side streets at night. It's more of a problem during low season when the streets are empty, but you might consider taking a tuk tuk rather than walking after dark if you're alone for this reason.