The Historic City of Ayutthaya in Thailand, located in proximity to China, India and Persia (Iran) was an ideal port in the 16th Century to trade wood, silk, ivory and numerous crafts. Merchants from Europe, China and Japan claimed it was a magnificent city and called it the “Venice of the East”.
Thirst to see UNESCO World Heritage Sites
On a trip to Bangkok, we had a choice to either go to Pattaya or Ayutthaya. Since we like seeing UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Ayutthaya happened to be one we decided to go for it, and we were glad we made the right choice. After all, we were not tourists who had to make ticks on a list of must-do things in Thailand. We were travellers with a thirst to see new places, embark on roads less travelled and experience beauty and culture up close.
History of Ayutthaya
Hinduism influenced Thailand because of the trade with Indian Merchants and Khmer hegemony. It is believed that Ayutthaya got its name from Ayodhya, the famous Indian city where Lord Ram was born. Founded by King Ramathodi 1 in 1351 Ayutthaya was a Siamese kingdom from 1351-1767 and became the second capital of Siam after Sukhothai. The Burmese attacked Ayutthaya several times, but the final assault was in 1767 when the city, its temples and Buddha statues were ravaged in a demonstration of power. The Historic City of Ayutthaya was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991 under criteria III as an excellent witness to the period of development of a true national Thai art.
Transport options to explore
After hiring a cab from Bangkok, which is 80 km from the city, we reached this archaeological site. Since the ruins are spread over a 15 square km area, it is difficult to explore it all on foot. A lot of people prefer to hire bicycles, mopeds, tuk-tuks while some choose an elephant ride to explore. Since we had the cab we requested our driver to stop wherever we wanted to go so that we could enter the premises, explore and have a closer look.
Ayutthaya Historical Park
The ruins of the old city are now an archaeological site called Ayutthaya Historical Park. They contain numerous palaces, chedis (stupas), wats (temple/monastery), prangs (tall tower-like spires) and statues. We began with Wat Yai Chaya Mongkol ‘The Great Temple of Auspicious Victory’ which got its name from the Chedi built to commemorate the victory over Burmese invasion in 1593. On climbing the tall Chedi, we got an excellent aerial view of the entire complex. Opposite to the Chedi was a series of Buddha statues covered with yellow ochre fabric, while a reclining Buddha was also in the complex. This by far, one of the better-preserved complexes bursting with tourists and monks.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet is one of the holiest temples located in the complex of Ancient Royal Palace. The most striking feature here were three chedis, which contain ashes of ancient kings. Since it was part of Royal Palace, in ancient times, no monks were allowed to reside here, and entry to them was by invitation to pray and to perform ceremonies.
Wat Mongkhon Bophit
Located adjacent to the Wat Phra Si Sanphet was an active and contemporary temple Wat Mongkhon Bophit that resembles the Grand Palace of Bangkok. Inside the Sanctorum was a gigantic gold Buddha statue named Phra Mongkhon Bophit, which was around 17 meters high. Numerous worshippers and tourists were lighting candles, burning incense sticks and offering lotuses here. I paid 20 Baths and picked some offerings and a gold foil which I rubbed on a smaller Buddha statue outside the main Sanctorum. Over a while, with several worshippers doing the same, the figure would be covered in gold. An excellent example of how small contributions over some time can make a big difference!
Cooling off with tropical fruits
The afternoon sun was now blazing right over our heads and our parched throats needed to be hydrated. What could be better than refreshing coconut water? We also picked some delicious tropical fruits like dragon fruit, guavas, pineapple and watermelon all neatly cut in slices and skewered on wooden sticks. Although we get these fruits back home too, the fruits here seemed so juicy, succulent and full of flavour or was it merely hunger which makes everything taste nicer!
Located outside the Grand Palace complex was the Wat Phra Ram. The temple complex had a tall prang and smaller chedis. On hiking up the prang, we got a view of the Bung lake and its surroundings.
The driver then took us to Wat Lokyasutharam, which has a magnificent reclining Buddha sculpture, called Phra Bhuddhasaiyart. It is 37 meters long and 8 meters high. There was a lotus at the head of the Buddha, and the figure was covered in yellow ochre fabric so that only the head and toes were visible. The Thai people believe that those who are born on a Tuesday must pay homage to a reclining Buddha image.
While we were busy clicking photographs an enterprising, elderly Thai gentleman, who owned a souvenir shop across the street, clicked our picture with the reclining Buddha. Without our knowledge, it was scanned on a plate as a souvenir and presented saying we could have it for 100 baht. We were surprised but impressed with the results and decided to take it. It had pictures of all the significant structures too. The shops across the street sold bags, pouches, knick-knacks and souvenirs. We picked some pouches to gift friends at a steal after bargaining hard. I am glad I chose these because I got them at a better price than in Bangkok city.
Buddha head embedded in a tree
On getting into the cab, we asked the driver what was next. He very confidently said we had seen it all. We had seen a picture of a Buddha head embedded in a tree and thankfully it was on the souvenir plate too. So I pointed it to the cab driver saying we wanted to see it. That’s when I realized we should not depend on our taxi driver. He just wanted to finish everything quickly and zip back to Bangkok.
Wat Mahathat (Temple of the Great Relics) located in the centre of Ayutthaya is where we saw this unusual sight of a Buddha head embedded in a tree. It’s a mystery as to how it all happened. The Burmese army had invaded Ayutthaya in 1767 and beheaded several Buddha statues and caused massive destruction of structures. It is believed that one of the buddha’s heads was engulfed by the tree which grew around it. Humans destroyed the Buddha statue, but mother nature ever so protective embraced it in its arms!
Wat Phu Khao Thong
The last structure that we visited was Wat Phu Khao Thong. It was on the outskirts of the city and was built to commemorate the victory of King Naresuan over the Burmese. It is an amalgamation of Burmese and Ayutthayan architectural styles. The higher parts were in Ayutthaya style while the base was in Burmese style. Unlike the other Ayutthaya structures that we saw which were brick red, this one was white.
Some of the other Wats of interest that we missed but are worth a look were Wat Chaiwattanaram, Wat Ratchaburana, Wat PhananChoeng, and so on. There was so much to see: museums, floating markets, settlement colonies that a day seemed just not enough.
After all that walking and climbing, we were exhausted. On the way back, I just dozed off in the cab. On reaching Bangkok, there was only one thing that our tired bodies craved. A massage! We chose a traditional Thai massage. After all the bending, pulling and stretching of our arms and legs, all the aches and pains miraculously disappeared. We were completely relaxed and rejuvenated. The rest of the evening was spent recalling all the beautiful memories that we now had of Ayutthaya.
Ayutthaya can be reached from Bangkok, which is 80 km away. You can get there by train, ferry, minivans or cabs. Because of its proximity to Bangkok, most people prefer staying in Bangkok and taking a day trip to this historical site. If you want to spend more time and plan to stay overnight, a net search will provide you with a list of hotels which you can choose depending on comfort and budget.
Urgent need to be conserved
Images of the ruins of the temples more than 3-4 centuries old crumbling, leaning and bending kept coming back . I wondered whether they would exist some years down the line. While a lot of conservation efforts are being made, only time will tell whether these historical structures will stand the test of time. These impressive temples are testimony and truly define and reflect the glorious ancient Ayutthaya city of a bygone era.
This travelogue was first published in Corporate Tycoons magazine, Oct 2016.