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Ayutthaya, a small city not far from Bangkok, is best known for the multitude of temple ruins scattered around its historical centre.
Founded in 1350 as the capital of the Siamese Kingdom, Ayutthaya flourished for more than four centuries, growing into one of the largest cities of the period. Thanks to its strategic location on an island surrounded by three rivers, and with a direct connection to the sea, it became a key centre of commerce and global diplomacy. During it’s heyday, it was a grand and wealthy city full of ornately decorated palaces and temples. In 1767 the city was brutally sacked by the Burmese who burned Ayutthaya to the ground. Following this, the Thai capital moved to Thonburi (in present-day Bangkok), and remained there even after Ayutthaya was retaken from the Burmese, and the regions of Thailand were unified into a single kingdom.
Visiting the Palaces and Temples of Ayutthaya
Extensive ruins of many of the former capital’s palaces and temples remain virtually untouched; the city of Ayutthaya having regrown gradually around them. Others have been gradually eroded, their bricks stolen to build modern-day structures, however today many of the key historical sites are collectively protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 1991) known as the Ayutthaya Historical Park.
Many visitors to Ayutthaya come on a day trip from Bangkok, without spending a night here, and certainly you could see some of the key Ayutthaya ruins in the few hours this gives you. However, staying overnight allows you to visit not just three or four of the best known sites, but several others, many of which are far less crowded and just as stunning as the big name sites.
Organised day tours will generally take you to a handful of the most popular and significant temples – usually including Wat Mahathat, Wat Ratchaburana, Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Wat Chai Wattanaram and Wat Chai Mongkhon. These sites are incredible and each one is well worth visiting, though they are considerably more crowded than many of the other sites around Ayutthaya.
Map of Ayutthaya
To explore additional sites on your own, pick up a copy of one of the many Ayutthaya tourist maps available, on which all the key temple ruin sites are marked. Some of the sites located a little further from the centre of the main island, especially those outside the island, are far less crowded – indeed we had some such sites entirely to ourselves even though our visit was during Thailand’s peak season for tourism.
Note that the main sites charge a nominal entrance fee if 50 baht per person, but entry to the others is free of charge.
Our Top Three Temple Ruins in Ayutthaya
Although we’d made a tentative list of some of the temple sites we wanted to visit, we also left plenty of time to explore the historical centre of Ayutthaya and stop and admire other sites that caught our eye.
We also found that some sites we’d planned to visit were closed in order for extensive restoration work to be carried out, while other sites remained open during restoration, with small areas roped off from access.
Wat Chai Wattanaram
Chai Wattanaram was built in 1630 by King Prasat Thong, as a memorial to his foster mother and the design reflects the Khmer style popular at the time. It was one of the grandest monuments of the city, and took many years to complete. Evidence of the reinforcement of walls and the remains of cannons and cannon balls suggest it was used as a stronghold when the Burmese invaded. Eventually, when the city fell, the temple was abandoned until restoration efforts began in 1987.
During our visit, a team of skilled workmen were carrying out extensive restoration work, which is clearly an ongoing process.
The complex is huge with many impressive prang (tall conical towers) around the site. Around a central platform are eight chedi-shaped funeral pyres – these orginally had paintings on internal and external walls, fragments of which have survived. Also striking are the Buddha statues sitting against the exterior wall; there were over 100 of these, but many now have their heads missing, lopped off by the Burmese when they destroyed the city.
The site is a busy one, so expect to share it with plenty of fellow visitors. However as it’s also large, it’s easy to find quieter corners to sit and appreciate the beauty.
In the era of social media, this temple has become even more popular as instagrammers seek out the famous Buddha head held in the firm grip of a Banyan tree’s root system. To protect the relic from inadvertent damage, a small area in front of it is roped off, and a guard assigned to ensure that visitors behave appropriately as they jostle for pictures.
Even without the Banyan tree Buddha head, Wat Mahathat is one of the most significant sites, hence one of the busiest to visit. We made sure to arrive at 8.30 am, just as the site opened, and were able to explore with just a handful of other visitors for at least the first half hour.
It is thought that the site was initiated by King Borommaracha I and finished by his nephew King Ramesuan, dating its construction within the period from 1374 to 1388. It was renovated and added to by subsequent kings in the centuries that followed. Believed to enshrine relics of the Buddha, Wat Mahathat was one of the most important temples of the Ayutthaya Kingdom and hosted many important royal ceremonies and celebrations.
Originally, the site was surrounded by water on all sides in the form of canals and moats, however the relevant stretch of canal was filled in during the 20th century and the site is now bounded by roads on two sides and the Rama Public Park on the other two. My sunset photos of the ruins were taken from the park, the day before we made our proper visit to explore inside the complex.
Like Wat Chai Wattanaram, the main site construction follows the Khmer style in its architecture and decoration. The main prang (which was rebuilt by more than one King during the temple’s lifetime) but fell in 1904, since when it has been only partially rebuilt by The Fine Arts Department. The four smaller surrounding prangs are in good condition and in one of them you can see surviving mural paintings from the early Ayutthaya period.
Wat Kudi Dao
This was our favourite of the ruins we visited, not least because we were the only people there and had the entire site to ourselves as we peacefully explored the beautiful ruins.
There are conflicting stories about the origins of this temple site: archeological excavations suggest that a temple existed on this site since at least the founding of Ayutthaya in 1350, if not before, however there are also records that King Narai was responsible for building the temple here during his reign in the mid-17th century. Perhaps he simply upgraded or extended an existing site. More certain is that it, together with nearby Wat Maheyong, was restored in the early 18th century by King Thai Sa, and the two story building just outside the complex’ walls is believed to be the residential dormitories that quartered the workmen carrying out the renovations.
Today, both sites are among very few with buildings still standing after the destruction inflicted by the Burmese, and then by the ravages of time. The internal pillars and arched windows of Wat Kudi Dao’s two sermon halls make them strikingly impressive structures. Unlike the two halls, the main chedi of Wat Kudi Dao has collapsed, the top part lying where it fell on the ground below the chedi’s platform base. A metal bar has been positioned as a prop to stop it from collapsing further.
The sites that fall within the Ayutthaya Historical Park have a higher level of modern-day restorations, necessary to maintain the condition of the structures but Wat Kudi Dao is not one of the sites that is within the park’s boundaries, and we found it a little less manicured than the other sites we visited. Whilst I hope that doesn’t preclude local authorities from taking steps to protect and preserve the site, the little tufts of greenery pushing through the brickwork certainly add to the visual charm.
For detailed information on the architecture, construction and significance of the temples, check out this comprehensive website explaining the History of Ayutthaya.
Another advantage of spending a little longer in Ayutthaya is the opportunity to visit some of the other attractions the city has to offer, alongside the ruined temples for which the city is famous.
Hua Ro Market
We discovered Talad Hua Ro (talad means market) by accident when we drove past it while travelling between two of the city’s historical sites and I almost wrung my neck as I swivelled round and stared wide-eyed at the market’s roadside stalls. The market is located at the northeastern-most tip of the island in a series of buildings and streets looped off the main road.
We made a quick U-turn when we could and were lucky to find (free) parking in a lot on Soi 46, just off Uthong, the ring road around the island.
Heading back to the market we walked past a series of gold shops to the main Hua Ro Market. The southern entrance takes you into a large yellow-fronted building in which curving covered alleys are lined with lots of small shops selling household goods, everything from kitchenware to linen, clothing to furniture.
Further along, just before the road bends round to the west, is a large market area housing fresh produce area – a hive of activity and a truly wonderful visual feast of colours and textures. Plentiful fruit and vegetables, some of which we hadn’t seen before and couldn’t identify, fresh meat and fish, and all manner of food products from curry pastes to fermented seafood to pickled vegetables.
Hua Ro Night Market, Flea Market & Amulet Market
Back down near the car park, we came across an outdoor market area split into a flea market area and an amulet market. The location is marked as Hua Ro Night Market on most tourist maps, but it seems the space is used by different vendors during the day.
Buddhist amulet markets are fascinating, quite unlike any other kind of market we’ve encountered before. The majority on sale here were in the form of simplified Buddha icons on tiny clay, metal or wooden tablets or pendants; these are purchased by Thai Buddhists to seek Buddha’s blessings for excellent health, happiness in a new home, a good performance at work or in one’s exams, good fortune with wealth, or a successful harvest, or simply to ward off evil.
Bang Lan Night Market
Many head to Hua Ro Night Market for dinner, but on the recommendation of staff at our hotel, we headed instead to Bang Lan Night Market.
During the day, Bang Lan Road is a busy town centre road open to regular traffic. In early evening, however, a long stretch of it is quickly set up as a night market, with a strong focus on street food. Many visitors grab a tuk tuk or taxi to the market but since we had a car, we parked in a quiet spot on a parallel road, alongside many locals also visiting the market.
Most of the market is dedicated to food, with some clothing, make up, shoes and electronics stalls too. Some of the food vendors have dedicated tables and chairs, for others you’ll have to eat on the hoof. Food is also available to takeaway.
Getting Around Ayutthaya
Having a rental car was perfect for us; we found it easy to park near each of the sites (many of which have free-to-use dedicated car parks) and this helped us to save our limited energy (sapped by the relentless heat) to walk around the sites themselves.
You can easily hail tuktuks and taxis to take you between the sites, but prices vary hugely and you will need to haggle to agree a fair fare.
Some visitors enjoy renting bicycles to explore the centre of Ayutthaya, as the main concentration of historical sites is located within a fairly compact area – the island is about 2.5 miles from East to West and 1.5 miles from North to South.
How Long to Spend in Ayutthaya
If you enjoy culture, history and a small-town vibe, you will really appreciate spending extra time in Ayutthaya. In our 3 week thailand itinerary, we suggest giving the city two nights rather than the one night we spent here – we wished we’d had a little longer to explore more of Ayutthaya’s beautiful ruins, and also to relax.
Even one night will give you more time than the day trippers, and the chance to visit one of the city’s two main night markets for a street food dinner. If you have two nights, several of the city’s hotels offer the perfect place to while away half a day taking a break from sightseeing.
Our Ayutthaya Hotel
Baan Thai House was one of the best value accommodations of our trip, at just 2,800 baht (£65) a night for a deluxe villa; indeed Ayutthaya accommodation seems to be great value across the board, perhaps because so many visitors are day-trippers.
Inside our standalone villa – one of several set in beautiful gardens around a small lake – we had a huge bedroom with very comfortable bed, a private balcony looking out onto the lake and small but functional shower room and toilet. The resort also had an inviting pool. Breakfast, served in the bar and restaurant building, is made to order. Lunch and dinner are also available. As we were self-driving, the location (in a very quiet residential area off the main island of Ayutthaya but only a few minutes drive from it) was perfect for us, but might be too out-of-the-way for guests without their own transport.
Other Ayutthaya Hotels We Shortlisted
Phuttal Residence sits on the river bank at the north east corner of Ayutthaya island. The property looks bright and filled with natural light, but room sizes seem to vary quite a bit within the same category.
Baan Tye Wang Guesthouse is an inexpensive boutique hotel in a quiet location on Ayutthaya island, within walking distance of several of the key tourist sites. Rooms offer an open-air shower, outdoor seating area and views over a small canal.
Baan Luang Harn offers accommodation in charming individual bungalows, and is centrally located on the island near to several key tourist sites.
Travelling from Bangkok to Ayutthaya
Ayutthaya is only about 50 miles North of Bangkok, hence why so many tourists visit it as a day trip during their stay in Bangkok.
Taking the train offers a scenic option to reach Ayutthaya and it’s also budget-friendly. Journey time is about 2 hours each way, from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Station.
Another affordable option is to take either a public bus or a shared minivan from Mo Chit Bus Station in Bangkok, though you may lose a little time as the minivan drivers wait for their van to fill up before departure. The journey itself will be a little over an hour up to an hour and a half, depending on how many additional stops are made on the way.
For speed and a private transfer, a taxi is the best option, and shouldn’t take much more than an hour. Of course, it will be more expensive, likely at least 1200 baht each way.
For our itinerary, we planned a loop taking in both Ayutthaya and Khao Yai National Park. A rental car gave us the most flexibility, allowing us to travel without reliance on bus or train timetables, and to stop anywhere we felt like if we saw something we wanted to visit. It also made exploring Ayutthaya very easy, as parking was not a problem near any of the sites we visited. We booked our rental car for pick and drop off at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport.
A Three Week Itinerary For Touring Thailand
We visited Ayutthaya as part of an independent holiday, which we organised and booked ourselves. Check out our comprehensive three week Thailand itinerary, including tips on sightseeing, hotels, food and transport.
Fans of beautiful historical temples, and interacting with local wildlife, will also enjoy a visit to Lopburi’s Prang Sam Yod (Monkey Temple), located about 60 km north of Ayutthaya.
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