Ayutthaya: Exploring the Remains of a Fallen Kingdom
Just 50 miles (80km) north of Bangkok is Ayutthaya, a city of 150,000 people whose main attractions are the remains of the Ayutthaya Kingdom. Ruling from 1351 to 1767, the Ayutthaya was a powerful empire and very involved in wars. In just over 400 years of existence, they fought in over 70 wars. The civilization was ruled by a king, whose word was literally the law. Buddhism was the main religion, and this is still obvious today, as the remains of many temples are scattered all over the city. That’s not an exaggeration, either. The city center is actually an island, created by three rivers converging. The island protected the people from outsiders. Today, strolling through the island on foot or, more popularly, by bicycle, you’ll run into ruins all around. Many are simply in parks, not being protected or anything. Others, the larger and more impressive ruins, have entrance fees.
Bicycles are by far the best way to get around. We found bicycle rentals for 40 Bahts ($1.20) for an entire day. They were no road bikes like we used on Bike & Build, but they got the job done. From there, it’s was a short five-minute ride to get to the ruins.
Biking through these large parks dotted with ruins was quite a ride. As the sidewalk curves, we see an old Buddha statue just in front of a tree. In the distance, across the river, we see three-foot high brick-like material making up what used to a be a pagoda. These types of sites were all over the center of the city.
One may wonder why today they’re just ruins. In short, they were constantly at war with the Burmese. For hundreds of years, the rivalry continued with wars. Finally, in 1767, the Burmese got the best of Ayutthaya who absolutely destroyed the city, burning almost everything which led to the end of the Ayutthaya Kingdom.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet
There are dozens or temples that can be visited in Ayutthaya, and most of the main sites have entrance fees of 50 Bahts ($1.50). We decided to go for the main temple, Wat Phra Si Sanphet, which used to be the Grand Palace of the king of Ayutthaya, before being converted to the royal chapel and Buddhist center of the kingdom. This was truly a monarchy, as the king’s word was law. Only selected people were allowed inside the grounds.
The only part of the temple still left intact are the three chedis, semi-hemispherical structures which contain Buddhist relics. These three chedis also house the ashes of three different kings and members of the royal family. When the Burmese invaded, they destroyed all of the surrounding temple buildings, the palace, and they even melted gold from the larger Buddha images that they weren’t able to take with them. But they left the chedis standing, which are incredible to see today with their discolored exterior yet impressive design. All around are destroyed buildings, some with nothing but a foot of stone left standing whereas others still have pillars remaining that supported the structure of the building.
An interesting connection between this and what we’ve already seen is that many of the stones and remaining materials were taken to Bangkok to be used to construct Wat Pho, which I wrote about here.
Wat Phra Mahthat
After biking around the city more, we stopped at the Wat Phra Mahthat, another site of the ruins of a temple. The highlight here is the Buddha head that is intertwined in the tree roots of a Bodhi tree.
The interesting part of this temple is the number of headless Buddha statues across the site. Ranging in size from 3 feet tall to 8 feet tall, almost all of the seated Buddha statues’ heads were cut off and the bodies were discolored from being burned. One can only imagine the site of the Burmese destroying everything in the entire city, taking down the Ayutthaya Kingdom. The hatred of the bitter rivalry built up over hundreds of years before the Burmese got the best of Ayutthaya.
Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year is an important holiday in Thailand and widely celebrated. A large amount of people in Thailand have Chinese heritage, so the tradition continues of bringing in the New Year on the Chinese calendar. This year’s holiday fell on January 31st, with festivities lasting several days. We were in Ayuttaya and fortunately stayed just a block away from the main festival.
We walked to the festival on two consecutive nights around 7pm. The closed-down street was lined with food stands selling noodles, meat on a stick, sticky rice, French fries, grilled squid, and much more. It’s a dream come true for anyone who loves to try new foods. The festival also had a few stages which featured live music, a Miss China competition, and a Chinese play with traditional costumes. It was a great way to spend a few evenings in the smaller city of Ayutthaya.
Good on the Budget
After coming from Bangkok and the touristy islands of Koh Tao and Koh Phi Phi, we were pleasantly surprised by the inexpensiveness of everything in Ayutthaya. We each paid 125 Bahts ($3.80) per night for a good place to stay. We found good meals for 35 Bahts ($1.05). A bicycle rental fee for a day was 50 Bahts ($1.50), and temple admission was also 50 Bahts ($1.50). This put us way under our budget of $10 a night for a hostel and $7 a day for food, which was a nice break after being right around the budgeted amount the prior two weeks.
To sum it up, Ayutthaya is a great side trip from Bangkok. The smaller city is a nice break from the massive size of Bangkok, and the sites are interesting and will keep you busy for a few days. Plus, it’s a perfect chance to learn more about the history of the region and of the fall of the Ayutthaya Kingdom.