As one–time capital of Siam before its subsequent conquering and sacking by the Burmese, Ayuthaya has a wealth of temple architecture, although unfortunately most of it lies in ruins today. However, these crumbling relics still offer an impressive historic collection that has earned the site UNESCO World Heritage status. The central island is where most attractions and ruins reside, easily seen on foot or by bicycle. It may be an idea to hire a tour guide if you are really interested in the history of the place, yet simply wandering among through the charming area is rewarding enough for most people. And tere are some equally impressive sites on the outer banks of the river that shouldn’t be missed.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet and Wat Mongkonbophit
Wat Phra Si Sanphet, on the road of the same name, is the largest temple in Ayuthaya and is located in the grounds of the former royal palace. The temple’s most redeeming feature is long gone; a huge Buddha (16m tall) which was adorned with over 300kgs of gold. Of course, the Burmese made off with this after melting down the statue. Built in various stages over the 15th century as a royal chapel and burial site, the temple is today noted for its trademark trio of large chedi. Beside it is the rebuilt Mandapa of Wat Mongkonbophit, which covers a giant seated Buddha. This was built at the turn of the 17th century as a cremation site. Open: 07:00 - 18:30 daily.
Not much of this remains other than the foundations, but its previous magnificence can be seen by the scale model in the Ayuthaya Historical Study Centre. Located north of Wat Si Sanphet overlooking the Lopburi River, the Ancient Palace was another unfortunate victim of the Burmese onslaught. It’s possible, however, to discern the grandeur of the original palace through the sheer size of the compound. Parts of it have been rebuilt authentically in the Ancient City Historic Park south of Bangkok. Open: daily, 08.00 to 18.00.
Wat Phra Ram
Easily seen from the vicinity of Wat Si Sanphet, this temple complex is most notable for its central Khmer styled prang and is one of the oldest sites in Ayuthaya, dating from 1369, though records of renovation and who actually ‘built’ it are contradictory. It served as a burial site and is surrounded by pretty lakes, making it an excellent photographic subject. Open: 08:30 - 18:00 daily.
Just next door is Wat Ratachaburana, another of Ayuthaya’s more impressive temples. This one was built about 40 years after Wat Mahathat, in 1424, and has been well restored with its two huge monuments retaining part of their original stucco. You can climb down into the crypts – a slightly unnerving experience, particularly when no–one else is around – and take a look at some artefacts.
Two unusual stories are associated with the temple. The first is the legend of two princes who fought each other to the death over the right to succeed their father, leaving a third brother to unwittingly become king and build the temple in honour of all three.
And in 1957, looters broke into a hitherto unknown part of the crypt and stole a large amount of valuable amulets. They were apprehended and the amulets auctioned off to raise renovation money. Most of the artefacts can be found displayed at the Chao Sam Phraya Museum, including bronze Buddhas and jewellery. Open: daily, 08.30 to 18.30.
Wat Phra Mahathat
Wat Mahathat is the most impressive of Ayuthaya’s temples with its many headless Buddhas and striking stupa. Look out for the distinctive inverse-shaped tiers of the main prang. It served as a monastery and dates from 1374, although it has seen several renovations.
Perhaps the most eagerly visited site on the grounds of the temple is the Buddha head at the base of a large tree trunk, which was originally part of a statue before the Burmese disassembled it. It is thought that a looter left the head where it stands today and a bodhi tree (ficus religiosa) grew around, strangling it with vine–like roots.
It makes a great photo, though a Buddha head is eternally venerated and shouldn’t be on the ground, so do be respectful when visiting the site and especially when people are praying. Open: daily 08.30 to 16.30.
Chao Sam Phraya National Museum
Located on Rojana Road not far from the city centre, Chao Sam Phraya National Museum is the country’s second largest museum and features striking antique bronze Buddha images, other religious objects, intricately carved panels and many other impressive items from the age. Open: 09:00 to 16:00 (Wednesday to Sunday); tel: (035) 241 587.
Perhaps the most spectacular of all the Ayuthaya temple complexes, but often overlooked since it stands on the northwest banks of the river, this site is best reached on a river cruise around Ayuthaya. It’s relatively young by comparison (1630), but still displays the distinctive Khmer style with its main 35m prang and four lesser prangs laid out in a courtyard style, giving it a similarity to parts of Angkor. More on exploring Angkor.
It was a royal monastery, and was used as an army barracks by the invading Burmese in 1767 before falling into abandonment until its renovation in 1992. Its large grounds are worth exploring and it is easily the most photogenic of the Ayuthaya temples. Open: daily, 08:30 to 17:00.
Chandra Kasem Palace
Tied to the National Museum, this beautiful palace was home to King Naresuan whenever he stayed in Ayuthaya. The building was destroyed but later rebuilt by King Mongkut and features some amazing jewellery, plentiful Buddha images and numerous other delightful religious objects. The palace can be found in the northeast part of the old city. Open: 09.00 to 12.00 and 13.00 to 16.00 (Wednesday to Sunday), tel: (035) 251 586.
Wat Yai Chai Mongkol
Tricky to get to, this temple is nonetheless a favourite on Ayuthaya tours with its large, well preserved chedi that is one of the few that is not of Khmer style. You can climb half way up for a better view of the grounds and witness Thais making merit at the reclining Buddha. Also at the site is a memorial to King Naresuan the Great (with his distinctive hair cut!) and King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, who actually never lived in Ayuthaya. Open: daily 09.00 to 17.00. 40/3 Moo 3 Tumbol Klong Suanplu Pranakorn Sriayutthaya District, tel: (035) 242 640.
Ayuthaya Historical Study Center
Also on Rojana road and near to the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum, Ayuthaya Historical Study Centre is a great resource for students. It presents a good overview of Ayuthaya with some excellent models of the port area and ships, plus plenty of other impressive historical objects. This air conditioned facility is small but offers an excellent opportunity to get your bearings of Ayuthaya before visiting all the sites. Open: daily 09.00 to 16.30, tel: (035) 245124, tel: (035) 245 123-4.
The Chedi of Queen Suriyothai
Although striking a definite image when you take the much recommended boat tour around Ayuthaya, this lofty gilded white chedi isn’t built in the common Khmer style of the older Ayuthaya era, since it was constructed as late as 1548. It commemorates a heroine who went into battle to distract an attack on her husband whose elephant had stumbled. She saved him but lost her own life. This became the subject of a major film in 2003. Open: always, admission: free.
Khun Phaen Residence
Also on Sri Sanphet road, this beautifully–renovated traditional teak house is on most tourists’ itineraries. It is set in a park, not far from the centre of the old city, and is usually populated by several elephants at any one time on their usual trot around the city. Open: daily, admission: free.
Wat Phanan Choeng
Probably not on your itinerary if you are all ‘templed out’, this is in fact one of the area’s oldest sites and dates from 1324 before the city was founded. However, most of what you see today is Rattanakosin-styled temple buildings from its renovation and rebuilding in 1854. It’s popular as a pilgrimage site for Thais due to its enormous Buddha, which cannot be seen any other way since it’s too large in its enclosure to be photographed. It’s suffered quite a few traumas over the years with various attempts over the centuries to renovate it, then in March 1928 the cheeks and lower jaw fell off and had to be rebuilt. The 165 grams of gold leaf pasted on it over the years was collected and used for a new head ornament. Visitors may note the distinctive Chinese character to it. Open: daily 08.30 to 17.00. 2 Moo 12 Tumbol Kamang, Pranakorn Sriayutthaya District, tel: (035) 243 867-8.
St Joseph’s Church
A rather out of place structure in this ancient Asian capital, the church is the result of Portuguese missionaries who were among the first of a growing foreign community in Ayuthaya in the 16th century before all were expelled for 100 years. A school, hospital and missionary existed on the site from 1669, but the present structure, which is reminiscent of colonial churches in Latin America, was rebuilt long after being destroyed after the Burmese invasion. Open: always, admission: free.
The Elephant Kraal outside the moat to the northeast of the city is a must–see. The Kraal dates from the 16th century and was originally used to trap wild elephants. Huge teak posts have been sunk into the ground to form a fence, keeping the animals secure while humans wonder in and out. Today the elephants are cared for and trained here, some of which can be found wondering around the compound. Elephant rides can also be taken in the city itself from near Wat Si Sanphet. They are dressed in traditional regalia and make a fine souvenir photo! Open: daily, admission: free but donations appreciated.
Pom Phet Fortress
A small bastion located on the south side of the island facing the river’s departing course, this site is about the only remaining fortifications of the city and isn’t much to see. However, from this point you can take a ferry ride across to Wat Phanan Choeng. Open: always, admission: free.
Bang Pa–In Palace
This is not strictly part of Ayuthaya, with far less historic value and built long after the city’s sacking, but it’s included on all tours of the area. Built as a summer retreat by King Rama V, who had a soft–spot for anything European, it is an eclectic mix of 19th century Continental palace buildings and pavilions set amidst pretty ponds. The atmosphere is serene and the palace is good for photos.
The Chao Praya River slides by quietly, a reminder of the tale concerning one of the King’s consorts who drowned here after falling out of a boat. She could not swim and bystanders were too afraid as commoners to touch a royal, so no one was willing to help her. Open: daily 08.30 to 16.00.