Many travellers complain that the ruins of Ayutthaya, while historically important, are not all that remarkable to look at. Those expecting a neatly packaged, easily accessible and awe-inspiring historical park will likely be disappointed. Yet the city does boast a string of often overlooked but outstanding outlying ruins that require some effort to reach. If you settle only for the most central sites, you’re missing out on the very best of Ayutthaya.
Tucked down a nondescript lane a short bicycle ride north of the epicentre of Ayutthaya’s tourist action at Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Wat Lokkayasutharam is home to the largest reclining Buddha in the old city. All 42 metres of the image have laid largely neglected, its outer coat of white plaster faded and chipped after centuries under the sun. It retains a distinctive serenity, however, punctuated by the secluded atmosphere that surrounds it.
The trip is worth it just to see the reclining Buddha, but two smaller neighbouring sites, Wat Wora Pho and Wat Wora Chet Tha Ram, are also worth a peek. Though weathered and not fully intact, the Buddha image in the latter still has a cheerful smile on its face, visible through doorways in the hall’s crumbling brick walls. We appreciated the quiet, forgotten feel of these lesser sites, especially after joining hundreds of photo-hungry tourists at badly damaged Wat Mahathat.
As we rode into the countryside north of Ayutthaya, the towering and slightly lopsided Phu Khao Thong Chedi seemed to float over a sea of paddy on the horizon. It’s thought to have been built by a Burmese king who had taken control of the area five centuries ago and apparently wanted to let Ayutthaya know that he didn’t intend to leave. In more recent years, an imposing statue of the famous Ayutthaya-era king Naresuan was constructed opposite the chedi, as if to counter the Burmese king’s dramatic “statement” and lay Thai claim over the land for good.
Impressive as it is, Phu Khao Thong Chedi has a neglected air amid its windswept walls. After reaching the highest platform via a series of steep stairways, we were rewarded with a cool breeze and splendid views over the countryside. The only other visitors were a meditating monk and snoozing dog, both perched in the shade of the chedi.
Sitting nonchalantly along the Chao Phraya River to the southwest of town, Wat Chaiwatthanaram is one of the largest temple complexes in Ayutthaya. Though usually more crowded than the other outlying sites, it doesn’t attract the bus loads that flock to the more central ruins. We even managed to snap a photo unobscured by a single tourist.
The Khmer-style spire at Wat Chaiwatthanaram’s centre was supposedly built when King Prasat Thong returned victorious from a 1630 battle with the Khmers, an apparent tribute to these formidable adversaries who were gradually driven out of what’s now Thailand over the course of many centuries. Excavations are now taking place to uncover priceless relics believed to have been buried deep inside the complex many moons ago.
To the east of the city, Wat Yai Chai Mongkhun is another of Ayutthaya’s most attractive sites that many miss out on. Mainly visited by Thai pilgrims, the temple’s centrepiece is an enormous brick chedi supposedly built by King Naresuan to commemorate a pivotal (and probably imaginary) battle during which he’s said to have singlehandedly defeated the enemy army by spearing his sworn rival, a certain Burmese crown prince. Still a working temple today, Wat Yai Chai Mongkhun is home to dozens of real life monks to go with ancient Buddha images in pristine condition.
A few kilometres to the west brings you to what we feel is the single most spectacular site in Ayutthaya: Wat Putthaisawan. Half of the grounds house a typical, albeit particularly large modern Thai Buddhist temple where monks bless the faithful with holy water. A short stroll away, the original complex with its central white Khmer-style chedi sits undisturbed beside the river, just as it has for over 650 years.
Built by Ayutthaya’s founder, King U-Thong, to mark the original camp used by the king and his family during the construction of their palace, the temple is among the area’s oldest sites. As the palace U-Thong had built was being destroyed by the Burmese, Wat Putthaisawan survived largely unscathed thanks to its out-of-the-way position among what was then a series of foreign communities to the south of the Chao Phraya River. Sheltered by a centuries-old wooden roof, more than 100 seated Buddhas gaze over the courtyard that surrounds the central spire.
We were captivated by an ancient Buddha footprint image carved from stone and placed in a hallway leading to the inner sanctum of Wat Putthaisawan’s spire. As late day sun shone inside, we got the feeling that if we uttered some magical words or pushed a certain point on the footprint just so, the whole wall might roll back and reveal a hidden lair of treasures worthy of an Indiana Jones flick.
We covered all of these sites (and more) in a single day by motorbike. They could also be visited by bicycle if you’ve got some serious stamina. Otherwise, some of them can be reached by hired boat, or you could arrange a whirlwind tour in one of Ayutthaya’s signature frog-like tuk tuks. While you’re at it, leave some time to explore the city’s eclectic food scene.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 28th January, 2016.