As I park my bicycle next to a 7/11 and a collection of souvenir shops, I realize Ayutthaya is not going to be the step back in time I hoped it would be. It feels more like a history theme park.
Before I came to Ayutthaya – the old capital of Thailand – I had seen images of an ancient Buddha head, entangled in the roots of a giant fig tree. In fact most of the postcards and photos I had seen from Ayutthaya featured that Buddha head, orange-robed monks or crumbling pagodas at sunset. Even though Ayutthaya is a modern city, I had expected to end up in a dreamy, mysterious place where trees grow around Buddha heads.
In Your Bucket Because..
- You like history, archeology and ruined pagodas.
- You’ve been to Bangkok and you’ve been to the beach, and now you want to learn something about Thailand’s history.
- Good for: anyone interested in the history of Thailand and Southeast Asia, anyone who wants to get out of Bangkok for a day.
When I cycle around the well-maintained parks and the busy roads, I realize that Ayutthaya is not going to be as romantic as all those postcards seem to promise. However, when I get over the initial disappointment, I actually start to enjoy sightseeing. Ayutthaya is a fascinating and practical lesson in the history of Thailand, and an excellent outdoor museum.
The History of Ayutthaya
Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 and became the second capital of the Siamese Kingdom after Sukhothai. Between the 14th and the 18th centuries it was one of the wealthiest cities in Asia, an important center for trade and one of the biggest urban areas in the world. Much of its infrastructure was highly developed; the city was built on a grid and had an advanced water management system. Ayutthaya had diplomatic connections to the French Court and to the imperial courts in China and Japan, and employed foreigners in its government.
Ayutthaya flourished until 1767, when the Burmese army attacked the city, burned it down and forced the residents to leave. Today the historic city of Ayutthaya is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ruins are spread out and even the main sites are too far from each other for a walking tour, so hiring a bicycle was an obvious choice. I got a bike from my guesthouse, but there are bicycle rental places in the city center and near the railway station.
My Favorite Sites in Ayutthaya:
- Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the Grand Palace and Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit: I started my independent sightseeing tour at this site, once one of the biggest palace complexes in Asia. Much of the complex was burned down in the Burmese attack in 1767, but what remains gives you an idea of its impressive original size.
- Of course I had to stop at Wat Mahathat, the home of that Buddha head. There are many stories about how the head of a Buddha ended up in the tree. When the Burmese invaded Ayutthaya, the wat was set on fire and many of its images fell to the ground. After the invasion the wat was deserted for a long time, and nature took over. It is also possible that someone tried to steal the Buddha head, but was not able to carry the heavy item and had to leave it on the ground.
- Wat Ratchaburana, right next to Wat Mahathat, has an underground vault with some colorful murals. The steps are steep and narrow, and the vault itself is tiny; perhaps not a good idea for a claustrophobic visitor.
- Wat Chaiwattharanam was my favorite. I cycled there at sunset – a popular time to visit this wat on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. The architecture has a strong Khmer influence and there are similarities to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The setting sun brought out a little of that ancient atmosphere I was hoping to find. Although a big part of the area was under reconstruction due to damage from flooding, it was a beautiful spot to end a day in Ayutthaya.
- If you want to learn more about the history of Ayutthaya, visit the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum and the Ayutthaya Historical Study Center.
Floods in 2011 and 2012 damaged many sites. When I visited, renovation work was still going on and parts of some sites were closed. This does not really affect the enjoyment factor, as there is so much to see in Ayutthaya anyway.
Practicalities for Exploring Ayutthaya by Bicycle:
- Ayutthaya is doable as a daytrip from Bangkok, but staying overnight makes your sightseeing a lot less exhausting.
- If you are on a daytrip, start early. In theory the train from Bangkok should take 90 minutes, but that does not mean that it cannot take three hours. Trains from Hualampong train station in Bangkok leave throughout the day.
- Choose the temples or museums you definitely want to see, and don’t try to see everything in one day. Ask your bicycle rental place for a map. Free maps are available that list the top ten sights and suggest a cycling route.
- Bicycles are available for hire near the train station. A small ferry leaves across the road from the station and takes you over the river to the city center. You can take your bikes on the ferry.
- Many temples are free to enter, but some charge a small fee. Most ticket booths sell a handy little booklet (titled simply “Ayutthaya”) that has information about the main sites in English.