Travel Report: Ayutthaya Historical Park, Thailand.
Ayutthaya Historical Park.
I was so damn excited on the train from Bangkok to Ayutthaya! Following my ten day stay in the Thai capital, it was finally time for me to head north to discover some rural delights.
Back in Beijing, where I’d planned my trip around Thailand, it was the prospect of Ayutthaya Historical Park that really set the pulse racing. After all, this is where I’d get to roam the sprawling ruins of a grand Siamese empire. A staggering treasure trove of ruinous palaces, glittering temples, colossal Buddhas, emerald green rivers and lush, knotted trees.
During that two and a half hour train journey, I was the subject of much attention. Schoolgirls giggled and pointed, while an old woman shot me an uncompromising glare. Moreover, in between several rows of seats, a young Thai boy stared at me, open mouthed. I guess for the locals I was just as fascinating as any ruined Siamese kingdom.
I arrived in Ayutthaya, a modest city of just fifty thousand residents, late in the afternoon. In fact, light was already fading by the time I rolled into Baan Lotus Guesthouse. Perched on the edge of town, within walking distance from the park, the guesthouse enjoys an ideal location. It’s nothing fancy, just a dozen or so simple rooms in a sweeping traditional Thai building.
Ayutthaya Historical Park, Thailand.
Fully recharged after an early night, I rose the next morning at the crack of dawn. Before heading off, I took a moment to chill in the guesthouse’s peaceful garden. Birds flitted between the tamarind trees as I sat at the wooden table sipping from my water bottle. Hey, ho, let’s go.
It took me about half an hour to reach Ayutthaya Historical Park on foot from the guesthouse. Scattered around 750 acres of land, the park houses the remains of the once stunning empire of Ayutthaya. Founded in 1350 by King Uthong, it became the second Siamese capital after Sukothai.
Ayutthaya subsequently flourished over the centuries, becoming one of the world’s wealthiest trade cities. At the peak of its powers historians say around one million people lived here. It was home to royal palaces, sumptuous temples, landscaped parks and giant Buddhas.
However, it all came to a tragic end in 1767 when the Burmese invaded. Burning virtually the entire kingdom to the ground, they murdered thousands and forced others into slavery.
Unfortunately, what remains today is just a slither of Ayutthaya’s former majesty. Nevertheless, the restored temples and relics on display are well worth seeing and a highlight of any visit to Thailand.
In order to explore, the first thing I had to do was rent a bicycle. Because the park is just too vast to negotiate on foot, especially when you factor in the draining heat and humidity. Happily, there are numerous bike stations. I got mine from a small store called Mr. Mooh.
My day exploring Ayutthaya Historical Park began at Wat Phra Ram, a monastery constructed in the early 1370s. King Ramesun ordered its creation in tribute to his father Uthong, who had passed away. What’s more, some historians believe Ramesun actually had his dad cremated onsite.
Wat Phra Ram’s ruins are an enchanting mix of stone cloisters, decomposing archways and weathered statues. As one of the park’s more understated compounds, I was lucky enough to have the place to myself. As a result, I felt inspired to take my time and explore every last chamber.
The ruins include several headless Buddhas. One of which had been dressed in monk-orange and turned into a shrine. According to various articles, when the Burmese invaded they got into the habit of decapitating Buddha statues. They then sold the heads to private collectors from Europe and America.
Ayutthaya Historical Park, Thailand.
The monastery’s focal point is this central prang, accessed by a set of steep, stone steps. Climbing it, I found the crypt empty, though I was able to traverse the surrounding walls up to an excellent view point.
In all the excitement of setting off that morning, I’d forgotten my sunglasses. Hence grabbing this clumsy selfie in the blinding sun didn’t turn out as flattering as I might have hoped.
Back on my bike, I headed towards the towering forms of three magnificent, bell-shaped stupas. They stand in the heart of Wat Phra Si Sanphet, once the holiest temple of Ayutthaya’s old Royal Palace.
Unveiled in 1448, the royal family used Wat Phra Si Sanphet as a private chapel and family celebration venue. Furthermore, a number of kings were laid to rest within the temple. That’s where the three stupas come in: one holds the remains of King Trailok. The other two, the ashes of Rachathirat III and Ramathibodi II.
Back in its prime the temple featured a giant 53-foot Buddha statue that weighed over 330 pounds. Sadly the Burmese toppled it, smashed it to pieces and melted it for gold.
As I explored that day, trying to imagine the giant Buddha still in place, I couldn’t help but notice the presence of no less than a dozen Buddhist monks. Some of them were taking photographs in front of the stupas, one or two exploring alone in deep thought.
Much to my delight, one of the monks agreed to a photograph. His group had travelled from Chiang Mai, he explained, where they served at a small rural temple. Coming to Ayutthaya, he said, fixing me with his serious eyes, “is life dream… I certainly never forget”.
A short while later I found myself on the other end of a photograph request. A holidaying family from Myanmar, of all places, approached me out of the blue. “Will you photo my daughter?” the father asked, as the blushing girl set down her Burberry bag and came skipping over.
Mistakenly thinking I’d done my duty, I turned to leave with a wave. But these guys had only just gotten started. Thus I found myself pictured with everyone individually. First came mum, then dad, followed hot on the heels by grandma, grandpa and perhaps an uncle of some sort. Finally, with wide smiles and playful waves, I was free to go.
My next stop came as a huge surprise. In contrast to the crumbly ruins that had come before it, Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit looked so shiny and fresh you could’ve convinced me it had opened just last week. But in actual fact this beautiful viharn (sermon hall) dates back to the early 1600s.
Ayutthaya Historical Park, Thailand.
The hall’s name is a reference to the large golden Buddha that lies within. Incredibly, the Buddha was one of just a few statues to outlive the Burmese invasion of 1767.
For the Thai people its survival was cause for great celebration. So much so that the government had the golden Buddha fully restored, along with the original hall, which reopened in 1957. The Prime Minister of Burma even paid a visit with a large donation.
Some extended cycling through light woodland eventually brought me to a large, green lake. Despite the heat I just had to stop for a photograph. Luckily I managed to catch a passing Korean tourist who did the honours.
It was here that I spied the cutest little temple perched on the other side of the water. Naturally I found myself cycling over for a look, but the building was locked up. Adding to my disappointment, I couldn’t find any information about it whatsoever. Even now I sometimes wonder about its backstory and historical place within the park.
Also on the lake, I discovered a handful of small stilted houses. Initially, I wondered if they might be food stations for birds and squirrels.
But actually they were full of tiny Buddha figurines. This one was quite the mess inside, the statues surrounded by grass and crispy leaves, in addition to offerings of dried fruit and rusty old coins.
My next ruined temple proved to be a biggie. Constructed in 1374, Wat Mahathat is one of the park’s best preserved ruins and the site of one of Thailand’s most photographed images.
Within the temple grounds, at the base of an impressive banyan tree, sits a large stone Buddha head embedded into the roots. When I saw it up close, my first thought was Wow! How the heck did it get there?
In short, nobody really knows. One theory is that after it was beheaded, its aggressor simply discarded it, after which it was swallowed up by mother nature. Whatever happened, it remains a truly wonderful sight. If you ever come to see it, be aware of the local custom that says you should bow down before the head when you approach. Towering over it from close range is considered an insult!
Ayutthaya Historical Park, Thailand.
From the rooted Buddha head the remaining temples came thick and fast. Each one with its own unique features. At Wat Thammikarat, for example, a temple that predates the city itself, I was struck by a fearsome army of protective rooster guardians. Apparently, there are over a thousand peppered around the compound.
Elsewhere, at Wat Worapho, there was a cluster of restored Buddhas to enjoy. All five set beautifully under the shade of some fulsome Bodhi trees.
I think my Ayutthaya experience wouldn’t have been complete without a big old reclining Buddha. And so I got my wish at the tricky to pronounce Wat Lokayasutharam. You can find this forty two metre structure west of the main courtyard. It faces west, which makes for some amazing reflected colours during sunset.
It was late afternoon by the time I realised I was more or less done. Consulting my map of the park, I noticed one last temple set some distance away from the main ruins. If I wanted to get there, I figured it’d be at least another half an hour by bike.
In for a penny, in for a pound, I decided to go for it! The journey was hard work on the rickety bike, which obviously wasn’t used to handling long distances. But after a while I finally caught sight of Wat Phu Khao Tong, a fifty metre chedi springing out of the surrounding rice fields.
Ayutthaya Historical Park, Thailand.
Dating back to 1387, a series of kings contributed to the creation of this amazing, seventy four step tower. Including, fascinatingly, the Burmese King Burengnon after he seized power of Ayutthaya in 1569.
I was certainly out of breath by the time I’d hauled myself up to the top. Happily, fine views across the countryside rewarded me for my considerable efforts.
On the way back to Mr. Mooh’s, the bike crunched through a pothole in the road and whoosh, I was stranded in the middle of nowhere with a flat tire. Cursing my luck, I then spent half an hour trying to flag down a lift back to the historical park. At long last, a local man pulled up and agreed to drop me right outside the bike shop. An amusing end to one of my favourite experiences in Thailand.
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Ayutthaya Historical Park looks like an interesting place to explore. It’s too bad that the kingdom was burned to the ground. The ruins and remains look impressive, so I can only imagine what this place was like in its full glory.
Absolutely, it must have been magnificent in its pomp. I cannot overstate how atmospheric the entire compound is.
That is a whole lot of saffron robe on the reclining Buddha. Love the shot of the boy on the train. Children are so transparent and honest, not to mention curious. Thanks for sharing your visit. Allan
Thanks for reading Allan, I always wonder if these longer articles can hold the reader’s attention. The boy on the train is one of my favourite shots from that Thailand trip.
Sounds like a terrific piece of exploration. There’s always surprises in Thailand, whether it’s unearthing history or stumbling upon glorious temples which are undersold in the guide books. And of course the changing terrain as you travel south to north. We loved our time with the Karen tribes in the mountains in the north, probably our favourite time in Thailand.
Glad you enjoyed this one Phil. Totally agree on all fronts. Not sure if you ate referring to Sangkhlaburi with the Karen, but I have an article from there coming up in the next week.
Enjoyed your tour through the Ayutthaya Historical Park and the location of your guest house looked so nice. I’m also fascinated by the exposed roots of Banyan trees wherever I see them. Thanks for sharing. Marion
Thanks Marion, there’s something bewitching about them right? Appreciate your feedback!
What a full day. To explore Wat Phra Ram practically by yourself must have felt a little unusual. Great story about posing for individual pictures with the whole family. You were a sight of your own. The guardian roosters had to have been unexpected. Did you ever find out why roosters? It’s great to know and reassuring that someone will come to your rescue in a time of need. Great end to a day and a story.
Cheers Meno! The rooster remain as just one of many mysterious details throughout Ayutthaya’s ruinous temples. Tracking down clear and reliable info is really tough, and believe me, I spend a lot of time researching. Weirdly, I did find out that the rooster is a symbol of greed in Buddhism. But that doesn’t seem to fit any coherent narrative in this context. Or does it?
Ha ha! I’m glad I’m not the only one who sometimes gets roped into photos with strangers. I think it must be our rugged good looks. 😄😉
Ha ha, I’m happy enough to go with that theory. Thanks for commenting John!
What a sight to behold! Ayutthaya bears a strong resemblance to the Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but I guess it isn’t a surprise given that they’re neighboring countries. Biking around sounds smart, as I can imagine walking throughout the park would get too tiring (especially in the heat; at least biking offers some wind as respite!). Pleasure getting to visit more of Thailand vicariously through your posts, Leighton. 🙂
I think walking would have been a ‘really’ tough ask. Glad you liked this one, I think this leg of my Thai travels, including the next three upcoming installments, was my favourite region of the country.
If I have to go to Thailand, it will probably be to Ayutthaya, a fascinating place indeed, in spite of its sacking and fragile ruins. I was smiling at the photo scene with the family, I remember having this kind of situation in Japan, feeling like a photo with ET.
That photo with the family took a long time! Grandma was pretty slow coming and going, you know. Thanks for reading!
Absolutely stunning pictures and fascinating post! Ive read and reread this post as I try to grasp the scope of this incredible place.
And the award for this post’s most dedicated reader goes to… – Yeah, it’s a bit dizzying to be honest, and was quite the project to write up. I had to leave several temples and dozens of photos out.
I can only imagone what a project that was to write it up!
Thanks for stopping by arv!
Quite an exploration! How sad that invading cultures must destroy cultures that come before it. Still happening in some remote places in this world. Loved the face in the roots.
Yes, it’s a depressing cycle that never seems to truly end. Glad you enjoyed this piece nevertheless. Appreciate your weekly catch up.
Another very interesting and enjoyable post! I had to laugh at the girl from Myanmar and her family wanting to take pictures with you. Did you ever find out why the Buddhas were “dressed” in monk’s attire?
Hey Kellye, thanks for checking out this post on Thailand. It reminds me that I haven’t actually finished blogging up all those Thai adventures, I should really get round to that one of these years. The clothes I think symbolise the core values of Buddhism. I guess even if there aren’t actual monks around all the time, the statues, dressed in the ceremonial robes, can keep a safe eye over these ancient ruins.