Ayuttaya – Heart of Siam

The entire world knows Bangkok as Thailand capital. It is more enticing to explore the second capital of ancient Siam – Ayuttaya. Often treated as a place for a day trip from Bangkok, Ayuttaya is a town you must experience on foot. This post is all about what made me explore this historical city for two days instead of a day trip.

Index

Reaching Ayuttaya

AYUTTAYA RAILWAY STATION
  • The nearest airport to Ayuttaya is Bangkok – 80km.
  • Nearest railway station – Ayutthaya’s train station is close to the main town. Plenty of trains leave from Bangkok to here. The most common route that tourists take is Ayuttaya- Phitsanulok to get to Sukothai. Choose the express train with an AC coach to save time and energy.
  • Public buses –We didn’t spot any public buses, but there are public vans. Use 12goAasia to book these Or you can check for local travel agencies who run regular public taxi services as Khao San Tara travels in Bangkok.
  • Boats and Ferries – Chao Praya river flows between Bangkok & Ayuttaya. But the cruises and Ferries to Ayuttaya on this river is a scam I read everywhere. Beware of it before you choose ferries.

Where to stay?

Ayuttaya is a small town. So choosing the right neighbourhood isn’t a headache. The only place you may want to avoid is closer to Chao Phrom market and the railway station. Choose hotels closer to any of the ruins. In general, Ayuttaya accommodations are cheaper than the rest of the cities in Thailand. For example, you can get decent accommodation with an attached toilet for 800 baht/ night in downtown itself. Guesthouses located near Wat Mahatat (Buddha’s head in a tree) and Wat Ratchaburana are always in demand and are the best for the ones in Ayuttaya for 2 days.

When we took a boat ride to Wat Chaiwatthanaram, we saw plenty of other guesthouses and hostels by the riverside. However, I feel it is better not to choose riverside guesthouses, as the water stinks. The river was ill-maintained, filled with algae, and other unwanted plants had grown everywhere. 

CHAO PRAYA RIVER – IT COULD BE MAINTAINED BETTER

The most famous (Probably the most expensive hotel in Ayuttaya) Sala Ayutthaya near Wat Phutthai Sawan cost around 6000 baht/night.

We stayed at Binlar guest house. There was nothing fancy or exceptional about the hotel, but it was worth the money. It is located on the main road, hardly 150m away from Wat Mahatat and Wat Ratchaburana. The vast empty main roads by the hotel were serene for our early morning walks.

VIEW FROM WAT RATCHABURANA WORSHIPPING AREA

Why visit Ayuttaya?

THE MOST FAMOUS OF ALL – BUDDHA NESTLED IN THE ROOTS – WAT MAHATAT

This UNESCO World Heritage site is home to hundreds of ancient brick temples. You may be seeing the Wats in Bangkok and Phuket, but jogging in the early morning beside 200+-year-old ruins is surreal. Bangkok represents Thailand, while Ayuttaya tells stories of Siam. The small town food is always tastier. Somehow this town has managed not to get infested with mass tourism, even with all the amenities any small town in a developing nation should have. Suppose you want to see something unique to Ayuttaya, something that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world – you got Buddha head embedded in a banyan tree at Wat Mahatat.

How many days to spend here?

THINKING OF CAMBODIA SEEING THIS? IT IS WAT CHAIWATTHANARAM OF AYUTTAYA

First and foremost – Don’t make a day trip! You end up seeing Buddha head of Wat Mahatat and Wat Ratchaburana. No doubt, they are stunning. The joy of Ayuttaya lies in walking and exploring. You don’t usually get to take early morning walks around a century old chedis and Wats with birds chirping when the first set of sun rays touches your skin.

After that, it gets too hot to walk around; it is better to sit back sipping tender coconut in your guest house verandah under the tree. So you will have to spend at least one night and two days in Ayuttaya like we did to cover the basics. The UNESCO Heritage site is a treasure of mysteries for archaeologists. As laymen, we may savour the Siam a bit at least in two days.

Ayuttaya-Sukothai- Lopburi: What is the difference?

The most common question from part-time travellers on the Thailand travel platform – Is Ayuttaya worth the visit? Which is better – Ayuttaya or Sukothai? How is Lopburi different from Sukothai? Here is the answer –

Sukothai was the first capital of Siam after freeing themselves from the Khmer of Cambodia. After the collapse of Sukothai, Ayuttaya became the capital. During the Ayuttaya era, Lopburi was the second most important city with lots of influence from the Indian subcontinent. So the size of the Historical park goes in descending order like this – Sukothai, Ayuttaya and Lopburi. The weather remains the same in all three towns throughout the year. However, Sukothai feels a bit cooler because of the village’s woods.

Sukothai

  1. Sukothai archaeological ruins hide in the woods and remote villages.
  2. Besides the ruins, Sukothai massage and Sukothai food are the best I had in all of Thailand!
  3. The usual next destination from here is Chiang Mai in the North or Ayuttaya towards Central Thailand.

Ayuttaya

  1. Most parts of Ayuttaya ruins are in the town and just 5km away from the city. Few temples are located on the river banks also.
  2. The modern city is developed around Ayuttaya leaving no space around. This makes the sleepy town of Ayuttaya excellent for morning jogging.
  3. The usual next destination is Bangkok towards the South, Maeklong or Kanchanaburi in the west, Sukothai towards the west.

Lopburi

  1. Lopburi’s ruins are similar to that of Ayuttaya, with more influence from Indian architecture. More than the ruins, it is famous for the monkeys! Many travellers refer to it as the” Monkey town of Thailand.”
  2. There are a few hiking trails here to get the village view from the top. Villagers are proud of the monkey’s presence all over the town because they believe it is a sign of good luck.
  3. The usual next destination from here is Sukothai or Chiang Mai in the North.

Guide to exploring the ruins 

WALKING IN WAT MAHATAT – THERE ARE TOO MANY STRUCTURES TO NAME EACH!

The boundaries of the World Heritage Historical Park covers 90+ sites. 65+ temples are brick temple ruins, and the other temples are either brick mounds or with the slightest traces of brick foundation. Due to urbanisation, many monasteries and temples have vanished. So you never know – the guest house you are staying in may be built on top of a century-old building.

You don’t need a guide unless you want to know more about each ruin’s religious importance and history. Most often, at each Wat, there is a signboard explaining who built it and when. It is super easy to go by yourself in all of Thailand.

In this small town, tuk-tuk drivers, boat rowers and cafe owners understand English decently. So you can wander with locals’ help and no official tour organiser.

Whenever you want to click a photo in front of a Buddha statue, the person who clicks and the one who poses – both have to sit! Thais find it disrespectful if you take photos in any other way.

Dress appropriately – Covering shoulders and knees. Many ruins are still active, and monks come to worship at the ruins.

THE BEST WAY TO EXPLORE THE HISTORICAL PARK IS EITHER BY WALKING OR CYCLING. You can opt for boat rides, especially in the evening, to visit a few sites.

10 AM to 4 PM is when the crowd is more. Tourists making a day trip arrive at 10 AM.

Start walking early in the morning and be back in your room or relax in a cafe from 12 to 3. The heat is pricky and sure to give you a headache. I have a migraine headache problem. The heat was so bad by 12 that my head was about to explode. We almost lost half a day until I felt better. No tablet could help me until the boat rower gave me some random white pill while going to Wat Chaiwatthanaram.

SLEEPING DOGS AND SLEEPING SECURITY GUARD IN A SLEEPY TOWN OF AYUTTHAYA AT WAT RATCHABURANA

ENTRANCE TICKETS – The ancient complex had 22 gates. Now the historical park is fenced and gets opened near the main buildings. Most sites are free of cost, and while some of them charge you less than 50 Baht. You can either buy individual tickets or a combo ticket to enter all the temples that need a paid entry ticket.

Don’t go for the combo ticket unless you are sure of visiting all those sites on the same day ( which is very likely impossible because of the sun and heat)

Though this is a historic city with many holy sites, there are many bars & clubs playing loud music around in the evening. Lunch and dinner are not a problem even for vegans and Vegetarians. However, the town wakes up a bit late in the morning! Especially for early morning people like my Mom, it was hard to find a cart selling hot coffee at 7. Most restaurants open by 11 AM! Read our post “Vegetarians guide to authentic Thai food.” to know more about our favourite cafes in Ayuttaya.

It is safe to walk in the isolated historical sites at any time during the day.

If you are in Ayuttaya for more than three days, you have all the luxury of time to explore. Anything less than that, research a bit on what you want to see. It gets boring to visit similar wats and Chedis. Just following the map to some Wat may lead you to a brick mound. You need not know everything, but at least make sure if the ruin is in a decent condition or just a pile of bricks and mud.

IS IT GOING TO FALL? WHAT I MISSED IN WAT MAHATAT, I SAW ON THE NEXT DAY WHILE JOGGING

List of Ayuttaya Sites

My idea of an Ayuutaya temple was just one structure. It turned out that it isn’t so. Wat Mahatat itself had so many chedis, so many temples and hundreds of Buddha statues and elephant structures that you can keep walking for a whole day at Wat Mahatat. What we planned and ended up doing is a lot different. The sun won over us, and we had to head back after I got a splitting migraine headache. We often sat where there was shade. It was to take it slow and easy instead of rushing to visit everything we had planned.

The list of temples we visited

  1. Wat Phra Mahathat The most famous Budhha embedded in the tree
  2. Wat Ratchaburana – A ruin that reminds you of Angkor wat temple
  3. Wat Chaiwatthanaram – Riverside temple with towering pinpointed chedis surrounding the main temple.
  4. Wat Phromniwas Worawihan – a modern typical Thai temple by the riverside.
  5. Wat Phutthaisawan  The combination of Pagoda and tower temple by the riverside. 
  6. Wat suwannavas Three brick chedis by the roadside

Other temples we had planned to visit

  1. Wat Phra Si Sanphet – Ground of Chedis 
  2. Wat Yai Chaimongkol – Active temple with multiple Buddha statues
  3. Wat Phu Khao Thong – Unique of all, wider at base resembling Wat Arun
  4.  Wat Lokayasutharam – Giant sleeping Buddha
  5. Wat Thammikarat – Monastery with lion statues at the bottom. 

Best three sites in Ayuttaya

Wat Ratchaburana

This temple is a fine example of Cambodian style in Ayuttaya. The 14th-century structure is still under restoration (and will be for a few more years). You enter through a hallway with ornated entrance and then a podium surrounded by tall brick walls. Here you get a glimpse of the Wat behind the hall. Once you exit the hall and take the side walkways, you see a magnificent temple tower sitting on a high podium surrounded by Chedis.

The best part is we visitors are permitted to climb about halfway up the prang(podium) and onto the praying area. The chambers below the prangs are supposed to be containing a heap of treasure! Every step we took, we were wondering if we could get a tiny piece of treasure somehow! Well, we could not get the treasure, but the view from the prayer hall was all worth the climb. Bird’s eye view of The Chedis, ordination hall with modern Ayuttaya town in the background was equally worth the treasure.

Wat Mahatat

The photograph of a Buddha head nestled in a tree’s roots is one of the most recognisable images from Thailand. This is the main reason I wanted to go to Ayuttaya like many other tourists. I was too curious to know how and why is Buddha’s head sits in the Banyan tree’s entangled roots. The archaeology and restoration department says – 

In the 1760S, the Burmese attacked Wat Mahatat and sent the entire complex on fire. They vandalised as much as possible, leaving this Buddha’s head on the ground. Over time, the tree overgrew, encircling the head. In the 1950s, when the government began excavating, along with pots full of gold and precious items, they found Buddha’s head nestled in the roots. They decided to leave it the same way.

There is even another story; our boat rower at Ayuttaya narrated a different story. A thief broke the head after the Burmese vandalised the statue to take it with him. He hid it under the soil and never came back to take it.

Whatever is the reason, this is unique to Thailand. It is one of the most astonishing things I have ever seen in my life. 

Though Buddha’s head embedded in the roots is the most famous spot in Wat Mahatat, there are many more structures. The ordination hall, viharas, series of Buddha’s statues sitting in meditation postures- are a massive collection of Cambodian style structures. The shaded trees here are advantageous to tourists who love to walk and take a break under the tree sitting. The heat was intense, and this place was so blissful that we did not want to move for almost an hour sitting under a tree beside a brick ruin.

Heads Up – The entry ticket was 50 baht to Wat Mahata complex in 2019. Most tourists who come to Ayuttaya visit this site. Expect a crowd, and there will be a line waiting to get clicked in front of Buddha’s head embedded in the roots.

Wat Chaiwatthanaram

The riverside temple complex where ancient royals worship in private is another excellent example of Cambodian architecture. With the main temple in the centre, multiple chedis surround it. Unfortunately, unlike Ratchaburana, we weren’t allowed to climb the podium as it was under restoration.

Most tourists add Wat Chaiwatthanaram to their day’s plan because of the Chao Praya river’s locality. You will never forget the first sight of this Wat from far while on the boat. However, if you want to capture the temple’s reflection in the water, remember one thing – The Wat is located on the west side of the Chao Praya river. The sunsets behind the temple. So going there in the evening is a bad idea if you aim for the reflection. Otherwise, the evening is a great time to spend some quiet time on the riverside.

The other temples – Not so Impressive

Wat Phromniwas Worawihan

If you are not into religious and spiritual experience, you may skip by looking for ancient structures and history. This is like any other temple in Thailand but holy for Buddhist monks.

Wat Phutthaisawan

A small temple near Wat Chaiwatthanaram is different from other temples with ancient structures and new ones.

Wat suwannavas

This temple is not your “instagrammable” spot. While we walked in the early morning, it felt bizarre to find these ancient brick structures popping in the modern town.

Things to do other than the seeing Wats.

Go for early morning jogging or cycling 

I think it is the 10th time I am mentioning; I will do it one last time – Go jogging or cycling early in the morning. The clean streets are free of vehicles, chirping birds on those bulky trees that hide 600+-year-old bricks – You can’t start your day better than this in Thailand. When you walk around famous Wats like Mahatat in the morning, you will notice something you had missed the previous day!

Explore the European side of Ayuttaya 

From the first word of this post, I have been gabbing about Siam, Burmese and Cambodians. So, it was shocking to me to see an ancient Catholic church by Chao Praya while going to Chaiwatthanaram! In its glory days, Ayutthaya drew colonisers from all over the world. So, many foreign quarters belonged Dutch, Portuguese and French! When I saw a sushi place opposite Ratchaburana, I wondered why will a cafe sell only Sushi in this tiny Thai town. When asked the owner why a Sushi place in a historical city, he said that there are many in the city with Japanese ethnicity in Ayuttaya. ! So Japanese cuisines are pretty famous among locals here. Visiting these foreign quarters and the French church built in the 1660s shows Ayuttaya’s diversity.

Take a boat ride

 All the historic ruins are reachable by road. Taking the boat ride in Chao Praya shows you another side of the town. The houses built on stilts by the river, locals fishing, abandoned old boats – Vey different from those brick temples you have been seeing. You spot many modern temples, which are an essential part of local life here. There are dozens of hostels with hammocks hanging. Backpackers with a book vibing with the town’s sleepy vibe were there throughout the river banks. It isn’t common in Middle East countries to see women rowing the boats. Women and their daughters handled most boats here. In their blue-white uniforms, the pretty-faced hard-working girls come back from school directly to the dock to help their moms and sisters!

Eat Thai version of continental food 

Compared to all the other six cities I have seen in Thailand, Ayutthaya’s food is peculiar! I had a croissant with coconut jam here! They sell Sushi ( I don’t know how it tastes, I went to the shop just for curiosity) with sauces other than Wasabi. The kind of fish they use is fresh from the Chao Praya river. Other than Chiang Mai, I found Ayuttaya more Vegan-friendly than the other Thai cities. 

There are other usual Thai things to do here – Thai Spa, nightclubs and bars, Ayuttaya floating market and night markets if Ayuttaya is the only Thai town you are visiting. 

What are your thoughts on Ayuttaya? Plus, please let me know in the comment section below if you know how to handle the migraine headache by heat. So that I don’t lose half a day sleeping in the room next time 

Published by Sahana Kulur

Traveller | Blogger | Architecture and history

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