The ancient city of Ayutthaya in Thailand is a living museum. Once the capital city of the country called Siam, Ayutthaya was sacked by the Burmese in the 18th century, leading to the founding of Bangkok further downstream on the Chao Phraya River. The waterways of the former capital no longer act as the thoroughfares through the town, but they serve still as the backdrop to more than 400 temples, both active and ruined that draw thousands of visitors each year. This extraordinary set of temples, makes Ayutthaya Thailand’s temple city.
There are many ways to navigate Ayutthaya, once the largest city in the world. Many people opt for a bicycle, affording them a slower, but more relaxed way of navigating the centre of town. The central area, Ayutthaya Historical Park, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to some of the most impressive temples in the city. The huge spire of Wat Phra Ram stands high above the Ayutthaya’s skyline. Here you could employ the services of a mahout who will take you for a ride around the park on the back of his elephant. A majestic way to see the monuments, an elephant ride gives visitors a very different perspective of the city.
The large temple complex of Wat Ratchaburana is another major part of the park, but next to it, Wat Mahathat is the real draw for tourists. Wat Mahathat famously has the head of a Buddha statue embedded in the trunk of a tree. How it really got there is uncertain, but locals like to tell the story of how the head was buried by the Burmese and then came up with the tree as it grew on the site. The enormous temple of Wat Phra Si Sanphet is astonishing with its three bell shaped stupas. Next to it stands the prayer hall of a temple that has otherwise disappeared. Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit was restored in the 20th century from a roofless ruin, to a functioning worship site. Inside, the massive gilded Buddha image is one of the holiest in Ayutthaya.
For the brave, a 50cc motorbike rental will give you a swift option around the city. If you don’t feel like driving, then a motorbike taxi works for one, even two people at a pinch, but the unique Ayutthaya version of the tuk-tuk may be best. The advantage of motorised transport is that you can see some of the wonderful temples that lie further afield. The perfectly formed remains of Wat Chai Watthanaram are certainly worth the journey out of the centre of town, as is the spectacular complex of Wat Yai Chai Mongkol. A more traditional way of seeing the outer temples, is by water and renting a kayak means you can see temples such as Wat Putthaisawan from the perspective they were made to be viewed, or visit the Elephant Kraal, where the majestic animals are kept and trained. Paddling down the rivers and canals, also gives visitors the chance to see the large water monitor lizards and other creatures up close.
While Ayutthaya is not famed for its culinary heritage, the night bazaar offers a huge range of delicious Thai food, including fish straight out of the Chao Phraya. One legacy of the Muslim settlers in the ancient city is the sweet roti sai mai. Thin crepes are handed to you in one bag and and pulled, brittle strands of sugar fill another. The do-it-yourself snack is completed when you put a handful of the Thai version of candy floss into the crepe, roll it up and devour it. After a day of touring the temples in the blistering heat, the sweet treats are a welcome pick-me-up.
For more about the incredible temples of Thailand and more, check out The Temple Trail