Ancient ruins with headless Buddhas and crumbling, but beautiful temples offer a glimpse into the glorious past of what used to be once one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities – Ayutthaya.
Only 70km from Bangkok, Ayutthaya is, probably, the easiest and most worthwhile escape from the Big Mango. I traveled there anxious to see the country’s historical old capital and, as well, to feel the vibe of rural Thailand.
Just arriving at the site, I began to visualize the majesty and splendor of ancient Ayutthaya at its prime time. The remarkable collection of sites testifies about what was once a truly glorious city now faded and decayed.
Between 1350 and 1767 Ayutthaya was the capital of Siam. Home to over a million people, the island city was one of Asia’s major trading ports, leaving merchants from around the world truly impressed by its scenery and ambiance. But in 1767 an invading Burmese army collapsed the empire. The city was fired, most of its treasures were stolen and thousands of its citizens were enslaved. Even if independence was restored within a year, the capital was moved to what is today Bangkok and Ayutthaya was abandoned for decades. Today is a Unesco World Heritage site and partially has been restored.
I cycled randomly around the sprawling complex and I stopped whenever something got my attention. Surprisingly, part of the historical park is situated in the modern town. There are ordinary Thais who live in the surroundings and gives to Ayuthaya a more authentic feeling.
The remains crumbling towers, pagodas and stupas seemed to me all gently collapsing. There are some of the most incredible, huge buddhas standing who seem to watch over the tiny, ant- like visitor, who is overshadowed by their size.
Pra Chao Phananchoeng doesn’t look much from the outside but is splendid within. Obviously, the giant buddha is the eye-catching part, but for me, it was the ceremony itself which impressed me. Soon after everyone kneel in front of the statue and started to pray, we all got these orange silk sheets as an offering. Later on, these were tossed up top the statue, only to be thrown back over everyone’s head, then hoisted back up the giant Buddha to wear as his new wardrobe full of wishes.
This almost hypnotising experience was very insightful and made me feel connected with total strangers.
Wat Lokayasutharam, known locally as the “sleeping Buddha” has very little of the original temple remaining except the foundation and the floor. But the sheer size of the carving is unexpected and beyond impressive. The greys and light yellow colors I found them in a perfect match with the blue sky and it gave a rustic feel to it.
I took some time to rest and relax here, as the wind and the birds sound matched harmoniously with this Buddha.
Wat Phra Sri Sanphet is spread over a wide area and even behind the surrounding walls the view with massive old trees and water flowing through is just beautiful. Even in its ruined state, the symmetry of the extravagant chedis (stupas) that houses the ashes of Ayutthayan kings, remains remarkable.
Wat Yai Chai Mongkol features seemingly endless rows of serene buddhas, swathed in saffron robes, each one unique and photogenic.
Wat Chaiwatthanaram sums up all the history of the ancient Siamese capital, both the successful and the tragic one, in a single location. The temple was designed in a Khmer style, which was popular at that time: grand, wide range and impressively maintained. Later on, the invading Burmese decapitated all the Buddhas statues and only a few have been restored since then.
Wat Mahathat is the one which features the iconic stone buddha head that has a tree grow all around it, encompassing it with its roots. This has an important spiritual significance for Thais, as is a banyan tree. After attaining enlightenment, Lord Buddha is believed to have sat under a Banyan tree for seven days, absorbed in his new-found realization.
Watching this smiling Buddha face, I got a completely calm feeling enveloping my mind.
All these beautiful and evocative ruins offered me an image about how this magnificent place once looked like in its original size and splendor, before being burnt and destroyed. This place is deeply steeped in Thai history.
Tips for visiting the site: coming by train from Bangkok, I hired a motorcycle from a shop which was just across the road upon exiting Ayutthaya Train Station. It cost me 200 bath (you can get it even cheaper in low season) and it came with a map of all temples and historical places in Ayutthaya. The bike had full petrol tank and I only needed to return back with a full tank, as well to the shop.
A hat and a big bottle of water should be prepared before starting the tour. Note that the historical park is not in the city centre. Is best to start at morning to avoid the crowds; your pictures would have as well a better light. And if it happens you are there at evening time, note that shining lights over the temples are turned on around 19:30 and last until 21. They make the ambiance even more dramatic.