Whilst some ancient cities are long gone, Ayutthaya is a city so proud of its terracotta monuments and temples that preservation work has been extensively undertaken all around the city. Unlike other ancient cities where you can now only see the magnificent architecture of great civilisations from afar, Ayutthaya is still allowing visitors to physically climb many of their great masterpieces.
The History of Ayutthaya: An Ancient City Just Outside Bangkok
Located just 85km north of Bangkok, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 and became the second Siam city after Sukhothai and by the 16th century, Ayutthaya was one of the wealthiest cities in the East due to its prime location and trading routes along the Chao Phraya River. As with most cities of this era, conquest and power meant everything and therefore the constant desire to grow their own civilisation led to wars with neighbouring communities and countries.
However, it was in the 18th century, during a war with Burma, when Ayutthaya capitulated and their city was burnt to the ground. Devastatingly, the majority of the city’s art treasures and the libraries containing important literature and historical records were all-but destroyed. The Burmese had officially brought the Ayutthaya capital to its knees; turning it into a mass of rubble and ruins.
Unfortunately, after all of this destruction, the Burmese held the city within its control for just a matter of months and whilst many temples and monuments have now been restored, partly because the park has now been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it never regained its wealth and true status as the capital.
Top Things to See in Ayutthaya
With more than 95 Buddhist temples, monasteries and ancient statues spread around Ayutthaya, knowing what to see in the city, especially if you are on a day trip from Bangkok, may feel slightly overwhelming. As with any historical site, there are going to be structures that are must-sees whilst other once-grand monuments are now no more than a small underwhelming mound of remains. Therefore, for those planning to only spend a day or two in Ayutthaya, we have compiled a list of what we consider, the most beautiful or historical significance sites that everyone should explore.
Four of the Best Temples in Ayutthaya
#1 Wat Phra Sri Sanphet
Built on the site of the old Royal Palace, this was the holiest of all temples in Ayutthaya until it was destroyed in 1767. Ironically, even though this temple was classed as the holiest of all temples, no monks lived here; the Royal family alone had exclusive access to worship at this site.
This particular temple, now instantly recognisable by its three magnificent stupas (Chedi), was once home to a 16m-high standing Buddha which was covered in 250kg of gold.
#2 Wat Phra Mahathat
Even if you have never heard of this particular temple, I guarantee you have seen a photo of it. Why? Because this is the home of the famous Buddha head lying entwined into the roots of a tree. How it got there, no one really knows but one story states that the Buddha’s head was abandoned there by the Burmese during their destructive months in the city.
Constructed in 1374 by King Boromma Rachathirat I, this temple, known as ‘the temple of the Great Relic’ was one of the most important temples in all of Ayutthaya. Within the grounds of the temple, you will spot an extremely large tower-like spire (common during the Khmer Empire), a large viharn which would have once housed relics and scriptures, and a number of chedis, many of which have now been destroyed.
Located in the centre of historic Ayutthaya, Wat Phra Mahathat was once the residence of the Supreme Patriarch (the leader of the Thai Buddhist monks).
#3 Wat Ratchaburana
After visiting Wat Phra Mahathat, head north and you will soon spot the impressive Prang (or spire) on Wat Ratchaburana.
King Borommaracha II built the temple during the 15th century on the cremation site of his two brothers who struggled for power after their father died.
The frescos depicting the life of the Buddha and detailed carvings of lotus and mythical creatures on this temple can still be seen today, although visitors should be mindful of the narrow, open staircase you will need to use in order to get close up to them.
#4 Wat Chai Wattanaram
Perhaps one impressive thing worth noting about this particular temple is the fact that up until about 40 years ago it was completely covered in thick forest; now, however, it is one of the most visited by tourists.
Located on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, this temple sits just outside the main historical park of Ayutthaya and is probably best reached by bicycle or scooter.
Dating back to 1630, it is believed that this monastery took around 20 years to build and is heavily influenced by the design of Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia. Inside this temple, you get a glimpse of the sheer depth of the destruction caused by the Burmese all those years ago. With every corner turned, yet more rows of Buddha statues appear, minus their heads.
Should you find yourself in this area close to sunset the perfect symmetry of this temple is further accentuated making it look even more spectacular.
Of course, if like us you find yourself spending more than just a few hours in the city, it is well worth hiring a bicycle. This way you can travel around most of Ayutthaya’s historical sites in just over a day whilst also heading out to see some of the new city where many of the hotels, hostels, and restaurants are located.
If however, you would prefer to stay in the heart of historic Ayutthaya, Luang Chumni Village Guesthouse is both ideally located and in keeping with the local area.
Staying the Night in Ayutthaya
Whilst many visit Ayutthaya on a day trip from Bangkok, with so much to see, you can easily spend a night or two in the city. If you do decide to stay on and opt for a hotel in the historical park as we did, I highly recommend a night exploring the Bang Lan Night Market. Not only is it full of trinkets and goodies that would make perfect gifts, but the food here is also cheaper than anywhere else in the city.
What Every Tourist Should Avoid Doing in Ayutthaya
The historical park of Ayutthaya has remained firmly set back time, meaning that very little has changed. This does also mean that some of their practices are also a bit backward and in today’s age would be classed as unethical.
Elephants have played an important part in Thai history, with Kings using them as auspicious war animals during years of heavy fighting. In addition to being used in battles, elephants have also been put to work logging the dense jungles, hauling massive loads instead of machinery.
Today, while many of these elephants have been rescued and given a new start there are still some out there subjecting these regal mammals to a life of cruelty.
One such place that still exists is within the historical park at Ayutthaya.
If you decide to avoid just one place during your visit to this ancient city please make sure it is the Elephant Palace and the Royal Kraal.
I understand that people want authentic experiences whilst in Thailand but do you really want to aid the cruelty of such an animal. Let’s be realistic for a minute. No animal of such stature and size is going to allow a human being to simply sit on its back. These poor creatures have instead be subjected to years of torture, deprived of food and beaten into submission.
I get it. You want a memorable experience, and what better way to remember Thailand than with an elephant ride around a UNESCO World Heritage Site but I urge you to do your own research in order to see the exacting punishments these animals grow through.
Let’s put it into perspective. How would you feel if you were asked to carry around a grown adult on your back for half an hour? What’s that? You wouldn’t do it. Why? Is the person too heavy? Do they hurt your back? Are you frightened of causing lasting damage? Ironically, it’s the same for an elephant. Regardless of their size, elephants spines are not designed to carry heavy loads and can, therefore, led to permanent spinal injuries.
So why do people still do it? Because it is available to them and we tend to leave our brains behind when we go on holiday, thinking more about what we can do rather than why we shouldn’t do something.
The Elephant Kraal of the Elephant Palace however, really should cause people to reflect. If not because the animals themselves look so sad, because of the blatant disregard for them.
During our trip my heart broke at the sight of a baby elephant being chained up at the entrance to this circus, being whipped by its Mahout into submission every time a tourist wanted a picture with it, trunk draped around their waist.
Then you look further and see the living conditions – just a small wooden box, hardly big enough to move around in and a small area to wander around inside a pen. This means that even when they have not got heavy tourists reclining on their backs in the extreme heat, they cannot truly relax either.
For me, however, the final straw was the brash attitude of so many people who thought it was perfectly fine to treatment anything in this way. My question to all of those mindless human beings – could you endure this treatment day-in-day-out?
Of course, for some people, no matter how much information and research they do, their ignorance means that they will still choose to undertake some activities. However, if more people out there vocalise their opinions, perhaps we can impact which animal activities remain and which ones, like the Elephant Palace of Ayutthaya, should be removed.
For me, if you are looking for a way to see the historical sites of Ayutthaya, my advice would be to hire a bicycle. That way you can reach the sites further out and spend time where you wish without being dictated to by tour guides, tuk-tuk drivers or Elephant Mahouts.
Have you visited Ayutthaya? Which other temples would you recommend to people? Perhaps you too have thoughts on the Elephant Palace and Elephant riding that you would like to share with us.
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