Sometime in the 1700s, Ayutthaya may have been the biggest city in the world.
In fact, before Thailand became “Thailand” in 1939, it was “Siam” — the European name for the Kingdom of Ayutthaya that thrived from 1351 to 1767. The remnants of that ancient empire are still scattered in the form of brick ruins and headless Buddha statues throughout the old capital city of Ayutthaya.
Before Ayutthaya’s fall to Burmese invaders in 1767, European ambassadors compared the city of one million to Paris and Venice. Today, Ayutthaya is home to only around 55,000 residents but remains a top place to visit in Thailand.
The Ayutthaya Historical Park became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991. Outside of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, very few places will inspire your inner archaeologist as much as Ayutthaya. It’s the type of place where King Naresuan the Great once challenged his counterpart to a one-on-one elephant duel — and won.
When you're ready to escape the tourism boom in Bangkok, head north for some serious Thai history.
Getting to Ayutthaya
Ayutthaya is located just a couple hours north of Bangkok. Fortunately, getting there is quick and straightforward. Although Ayutthaya can be made in a day trip (independently or via organized tour) from Bangkok, opt to spend at least one night so that you aren’t too rushed between sights.
- Ayutthaya by Train: Paul Theroux was right — traveling by rail really is the only way to travel, particularly in Thailand. It beats even the nicest buses. Not only can you stretch and mill around without attracting stares, you’ll miss some of Bangkok’s nightmarish traffic. Scenes of suburban life normally obscured from tourists flash by outside the windows. Trains to Ayutthaya leave frequently from Hualamphong Station in Bangkok; the trip takes around two hours.
- Ayutthaya by Bus: If taking the train isn’t an option, buses to Ayutthaya leave Bangkok’s Moh Chit station (the northern bus terminal) approximately every 20 minutes. The ride costs under US $2 and takes around two hours, depending on traffic.
Visit the Ayutthaya Historical Study Centre
A quick visit to the Ayutthaya Historical Study Centre should be first on your agenda as it provides some historical context.
Although the center is small and doesn’t provide an abundance of information in English, it does provide a historical overview with intricate to-scale models and old photographs. Overall, the exhibit does a pretty decent job of depicting what daily life in Ayutthaya might have been like.
A little historical insight helps prevent the many ruins in Ayutthaya from blurring together as you rove around all day. The hour (or less) of time and small entrance fee are worth the investment.
Find the study center on Rojana Road next to the university.
Grab a Bicycle and Begin Exploring
Thailand is a great place for driving a scooter, assuming you’ve got the nerves to join the fray on two wheels. But Ayutthaya is better by bicycle, even for non-enthusiasts. Cycling between ruins is easy and enjoyable; roads are in fairly good condition. Renting a bicycle will allow you to spend more time inside the major stops and less time moving between.
Ayutthaya is a defensible city-island strategically located at the confluence of three rivers. Getting lost is pretty much impossible, even for us experts at getting lost. Being surrounded by a moat of water on all sides keeps you from carelessly ending up in Chiang Mai if temporarily turned around.
The archaeological park sits roughly in the center of the island. A convenient ring road circles the city along the water.
Tip: Many of the rental bicycles look as though they’ve seen some combat. A few may even predate the Vietnam War! Check that tires don’t wobble and brakes work before getting too far from the rental shop.
If you prefer for someone else to do the pedaling, cyclos (three-wheeled rickshaws with the driver in the back) will accommodate two people. You’ll need to negotiate with the driver for an allotted amount of time before beginning your tour.
See the Famous Buddha Head
One of the most iconic images of Thailand comes from Ayutthaya: a stone Buddha head set in a living tree. The famous tree is located inside Wat Mahathat.
Although the sizable temple was destroyed by the Burmese, a Buddha head miraculously survived. During the 100 years the temple was left abandoned, the head was lifted as a tree grew around it. The tree lovingly conformed to the head rather than crushing it to dust.
Construction of Wat Mahathat began in 1374 and was finished sometime between 1388 and 1395. Entrance is 50 baht. Although very photogenic for tourists, the tree with the Buddha’s head is considered very sacred. Show proper respect when visiting by not turning your back to Buddha for selfies with the tree.
Note: There's a reason why most of the Buddha statues in Ayutthaya are decapitated: collectors — both private and institutional.
Although some prominent universities and museums around the world did the right thing by returning Thailand's looted cultural relics, many did not. There's actually a good chance that Buddha head you see in your favorite museum is still waiting to get back to Ayutthaya where it belongs.
Visit the Largest Temple in Ayutthaya
Wat Phra Si Sanphet is the largest temple in Ayutthaya and definitely one of the most famous. It once held a 52-foot-tall Buddha cast in 1500 that was entirely covered with hundreds of kilograms of gold. You can guess where the looting Burmese invaders went first in 1767.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet was once used for royal ceremonies and contained the ashes of royal family members. Entrance is 50 baht.
Visit the Royal Palace
What’s left of the Royal Palace stands at the site of Wat Phra Si Sanphet, so you can see both while there. A scaled-down model of the palace inside the Historical Study Centre provides a glimpse of its former grandeur.
The Royal Palace was constructed by King Ramathibodi I — the king who founded Ayutthaya in 1350. Eight forts once surrounded the palace, and 22 gates permitted entrance for people and elephants. Today, very few buildings remain intact, but you can really feel the history beneath your feet.
See Portuguese Skeletons
Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia to have not been colonized by European forces at some point.
Historians generally credit Thailand’s amazing ability to craft strategic treaties and trade agreements. Those timely agreements pitted opposing forces (mainly the British and French) against one another.
When Malacca (now in Malaysia) was flourishing with help from the Chinese, it became a threat in the region. Ayutthaya played nice with the Portuguese who then subsequently captured Malacca. Problem solved. The modern firearms brought by Portuguese traders also came in very handy while fighting the Burmese.
Portuguese traders and missionaries first came to Ayutthaya in 1511. Some of them are respectfully on display inside the restored Dominican Church at the site of the Portuguese village.
See a Buddha Statue Older Than Ayutthaya
Although temple burnout can come swiftly and unexpectedly after exploring too many wats in Thailand, there is one particular Buddha image you should definitely prioritize.
The short ferry ride off of the island to Wat Phanan Choeng is enough to put off most tourists, but the temple actually predates Ayutthaya by 26 years. No one is sure who built the temple; various kings helped restore it. The Buddha statue inside — known as Phra Chao Phanan-Choeng — dates back to 1325 and is famous throughout Thailand.
The golden Buddha image is one of the oldest and largest around. The statue is a massive 62 feet tall and over 46 feet wide, making it difficult if not impossible to photograph in its entirety. Written chronicles claim the statue cried tears while the Burmese were burning the city.
Thai and Thai-Chinese people visit Wat Phanan Choeng for lucky predictions.
See a Unique Temple
Wat Naphrameru, located off the island about 500 meters north of the Royal Palace, was where the Burmese king decided to set up cannons pointed directly at the palace. Good plan; bad execution. Much to the relief of the Ayutthaya royal family, one of the cannons exploded while being fired and mortally wounded the Burmese king.
Because Wat Naphrameru served as a forward operating base for the Burmese army, it wasn’t as destroyed as other temples.
Inside the temple is a rare seated Buddha image (19 feet tall), depicting Buddha as a prince in worldly regal attire before attaining enlightenment. These types of images are rare in Thailand.
Eat Boat Noodles
Ayutthaya was once a thriving capital city, so culinary influences from around the world passed through. Chinese, Indian, Persian, Japanese and European traders came — and ate — in droves. For this reason, the food in Ayutthaya is more diverse than other Thai cities that are larger in size.
The aptly named “boat noodles” (kuay tiow ruea) are indeed cooked on boats — the authentic ones, anyway — and are arguably Ayutthaya’s signature dish. Just look for long, slender sampans with steaming cooking pots on board. Expanding your noodle repertoire beyond only pad thai feels good.
Boat noodles are typically rice noodles in a pork broth. Additional ingredients may vary from shop to shop, but portions are usually cheap and small. Don’t feel guilty for ordering more than one bowl; patrons usually do.
Visit the Night Market
Although prices are very fair if you do a little negotiating, the two nightly markets in Ayutthaya aren’t really just about shopping. As with the rest of Asia, the markets serve as a social hub and cheap eating spot. Cultural lessons, people watching, and authentic food abound in the markets.
Even if you eat somewhere else, save room for a sweet treat or drink in the market. The night markets in Ayutthaya begin getting busy around sundown and typically stay open until 9:30 p.m.
Skip the Floating Market
If you didn’t get your fix in Bangkok, Ayutthaya has its own floating market. Although clearly a tourist trap, the market can serve as a last-resort diversion for travelers who are burned out on visiting temples. Food, noodle boats, souvenir shops, and daily cultural performances are found inside.
Note: Unlike the original in Bangkok, this floating market was built with tourists in mind. Don’t expect an authentic experience. Rather than the standard Thai/Tourist dual pricing scheme, entrance fees are charged on a whim, reportedly based on appearance.