Founded in 1350 by King Uthong, the Siamese capital at Ayutthaya was one of Asia’s grandest cities until Burmese forces overran it in 1767. What remains of the ancient temples and palaces is now essential viewing for history-inclined travellers — or anyone who might enjoy a stroll through impressive ruins. Today Ayutthaya is one of Thailand’s top-ranking heritage destinations.
Officially known as Phra Nakhon Sri Ayutthaya (Great Sacred City of Ayutthaya), the founders borrowed the name of an ancient Indian city that was home to King Rama in the Ramayana epic. After taking control of the Chao Phraya River basin, the Ayutthaya kingdom’s realm spread over much of mainland Southeast Asia. Its trade networks stretched from Persia to Japan, eventually reaching as far as London.
By all reports, Ayutthaya was magnificent. Set on a riverine island between the Chao Phraya, Lopburi and Prasak rivers, the inner city was fortified by a 12-kilometre-long and five-metre-thick brick wall. Nearly a hundred gates opened to roads and canals reaching into some of the most fertile land in the region. Gilded chedis and Khmer-style spires topped temples and palaces amid a glittering skyline. According to Cambridge University’s A History of Thailand, a French Jesuit remarked in 1687 that “a single Idol” in Wat Phra Si Sanphet was “richer than all the Tabernacles of the Churches of Europe”.
Home to perhaps a million residents in the late 17th century, the city was remarkably cosmopolitan for the time. Settlements of Chinese, Persian, Arabian, Indian, Japanese, Mon, Cham, Lao, Khmer, Viet, Malay, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British ringed the city. Much of what’s now considered “Thai cuisine” was forged from these varying influences. With Chinese shrines, Persian mosques, European churches and Brahman sanctuaries joining the hundreds of Thai Theravada Buddhist temples, freedom of religion was a hallmark of Ayutthaya for most of its existence.
Through the 16th century Ayutthaya jostled for regional dominance with the Pegu kingdom based at Ava (now southern Burma) and the Khmer of Lawaek-Udong (present-day southeastern Cambodia). A Burmese force seized Ayutthaya in 1569, taking the Thai prince Naresuan hostage. He later escaped, defeated the Burmese in battle — single-handedly according to legend — and re-established Ayutthaya as an independent kingdom that went on to enjoy relative peace and immense prosperity well into the 18th century.
The relationship between Ava and Ayutthaya is often portrayed as one of perpetual war, but in fact it came as a big surprise when the Burmese marched on Siam again in the 1760s (coined by foreigners, “Siam” was a common name for the kingdom now known as Thailand). After two years of siege, the city fell on April 7, 1767. Thousands of slaves were captured, temples destroyed and valuables plundered. It’s thought that much of the gold used to create Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda came from Ayutthaya.
Though Siamese independence was restored fairly quickly, Ayutthaya never returned to its former glory. The Thai capital was moved 80 kilometres down the Chao Phraya, first to Thonburi and then to Bangkok in 1782. Located within the capital of modern Ayutthaya province, the old city ruins were restored in the late 20th century, receiving UNESCO World Heritage status in 1991.
Today Ayutthaya is a compelling mix of modern Thai life unfolding among ancient monuments that draw a steady stream of travellers. Descendants of the old Muslim and Chinese communities remain, many dwelling along the back lanes in century-old wood houses. Sleek cafes and upscale resorts have joined long-running guesthouses and homestays. Minor ruins lie scattered between busy roads and schools, while a loosely defined Historical Park covers an expansive leafy area that’s a pleasure to explore on foot or by bicycle.
Ayutthaya has considerably more ruins than Sukhothai or Phanom Rung, for example, but they’re in a more damaged state. Still, bits of detail can be seen here and there and impressive Buddha images are found in several places. We’ve included some historical details in the attraction listings, but those looking for more depth should check out the excellent Ayutthaya Historical Research site.
Capital of the same-named province and home to some 60,000 people, the modern city of Ayutthaya covers a large area. Most travellers hardly stray from “the island”, or Ko Mueang, which stretches between the Prasak River in the east, the Chao Phraya River to the south and west, and the Mueang Canal to the north. The Lopburi River also flows into town from the north. Uthong Road encircles the roughly oval-shaped island, which comes in at roughly five kilometres long from east to west and three kilometres wide from north to south.
Featuring key sites like Wat Mahathat and Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the loosely defined Ayutthaya Historical Park begins roughly at the centre of the island, to the west of north-to-south running Chikhun Road. Much of the island’s western half is covered in related green spaces and minor ruins; there’s plenty of space to wander and reflect amid the broad tamarind trees and ponds.
Naresuan Road begins within the Historical Park and runs east to the bustling Chao Phrom Market area near the Prasak River, at the far east end of the island. Minibuses to Bangkok and elsewhere pick up in this area, mostly on Naresuan Road and Naresuan Soi 2. You’ll also find many banks, ATMs, convenience stores and internet cafes around here.
Walk southeast from the market for five minutes, crossing Uthong Road, to reach a pier for the ferries that run across the to a side lane leading to the train station, located on the eastern bank of the Prasak. On both sides of the river, the narrow lanes accessing the ferry piers are filled with bicycle and motorbike rental shops, more internet cafes and a few cheap guesthouses.
Shooting north off Naresuan Road near Chao Phrom Market, a side street marked as Naresuan Soi 1 and Pamaprao Soi 5, depending on which side you approach from, hosts Ayutthaya’s main backpacker strip, also known as Soi Farang. Here you’ll find several of the most popular guesthouses along with numerous travel offices and a few bars that could have been plucked straight out of Khao San Road.
Many more guesthouses can also be found between Soi Farang and the Historical Park on and around Naresuan Road. Accommodation is also available on the quieter roads running parallel to Naresuan, like Chakraprad, Bang Lan, Rochana and Pathon. There’s also a strip of riverside homestays and resorts in the southwestern corner of the island off Uthong Road, near Ayutthaya Hospital and Rajabhat University — an area that also boasts some great food.
Head east on Rochana Road and you’ll reach the main bridge running across the Prasak River to the newer and less charming part of town, anchored by a huge traffic circle set up around Sam Pluem Chedi. You’ll pass through here if heading to worthwhile outlying temples to the east, like Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon, Wat Maheyong and Wat Phanan Choeng.
Over on the west side of the island, a bridge cuts west from Uthong Road and crosses the Chao Phraya River to access Ayutthaya’s southern and western reaches. Take the first left after this bridge to hit key southern sites, like Wat Chaiwatthanaram and Wat Phutthaisawan.
A few bridges also cut north off Uthong Road from the north part of the island, crossing the Mueang Canal to access northern sites like Wat Na Phra Men and the Royal Elephant Kraal. There’s also a cluster of commercial activity in the northeastern corner of the island around Hua Ro Market.
Ayutthaya has an excellent tourist information centre at the TAT office (open daily 08:30-16:30), which doubles as an art gallery. It’s on the west side of Si Sanphet Road, across from the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum and a 10-minute walk south of Wat Phra Si Sanphet.
A tourist police office is located next to the TAT, while the city’s main police station is found further east on Pathon Road, a short walk east of the traffic circle at the junction with Chikun Road. The provincial immigration office is on Uthong Road, near Hua Ro Market on the northeast side of the island.
Ayutthaya is often hit as a day trip from Bangkok, but we feel it’s worth a couple of nights. Impressive outlying temples require some effort to reach; the food scene takes patience to crack; and you don’t want to miss a view of the ruins lit up after dark. It often gets extremely hot — don’t try to pack in too much on a single day. Those with enough time might consider heading 20 to 40 kilometres south to Bang Pa-In Palace and the Bang Sai Arts and Crafts Centre, or 30 kilometres north to the Aranyik Sword Village.
Ayutthaya holds an elaborate World Heritage Fair every year in mid December. Thanks to the many waterways and deep history, it’s also a prime venue for the Loi Krathong Festival held annually in November (exact dates depend on the moon cycle).
By David Luekens.
Last updated on 8th October, 2016.