Historically rich and visually stunning Ayutthaya—or Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, as it’s officially called—is a well-worn stop on the tourist trail. Buses and trains ferry visitors north from Bangkok day in and day out, discharging passengers with guidebooks in hand to be met by tour guides and taxi drivers hoping for a day’s work.
Tourists all end up wandering the same ruins and temples for the day, then packing up and heading back to the capital. But don’t let that deter you from visiting. There’s a reason so many people flock to Ayutthaya, and it’s an interesting and pleasant way to spend a day or two.
Most of the sights are located “on the island”—that is, in the middle of the old city, which is surrounded by the Chao Phraya River on the south and the Lopburi River on the north. Even though the island is only a little more than a mile across, because of the heat and the fact that the sites are scattered about, you’re much better off renting a bike or hiring a taxi or tuk-tuk than trying to see everything on foot.
The island itself is also more developed than most expect, so discard images of green grassy footpaths, scattered ruins, and nothing more (you’ll see that in Sukhothai) if that’s what you’re thinking. Ayutthaya has its share of concrete buildings, roads, and even banks, shops, and guesthouses, interspersed among the ruins and concentrated in the eastern part of the island. There are some idyllic spots; it’s just that that’s not all there is.
Ayutthaya Historical Park
The Ayutthaya Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, covers the ruins of the old capital and contains an impressive collection of crumbling temples. The park is contained within the island. Most of the temples are on the west side of the island, with the town itself on the east side. Some of the ruins are close enough to each other that you’ll be able to walk from one to another, but to see everything the park has to offer in a day, you’ll need at least a bicycle to get around.
The park’s sights are open 7:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. daily. At 7 p.m. the flood lights go on, illuminating all of the ruins. Although you can’t climb around the park at night, if you are in Ayutthaya after sundown, the view is striking.
There are actually three different museums within the historical park: the Ayutthaya Historical Study Centre, the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum, and the Chantharakasem National Museum. Those interested in understanding Ayutthaya’s history should spend an hour or so at the study center first to get an overview before venturing out into the ruins. The island’s other two museums house exhibits specific to a particular wat or palace. They are worth spending a little time in to give visitors an understanding of what went on inside these amazing structures when they were still standing.
Chao Sam Phraya National Museum
The Chao Sam Phraya National Museum (03/524-1587, Wed.-Sun. 9 a.m.-4 p.m., 30B), in the middle of Ayutthaya, has on display an extensive collection of gold items that were once kept in Wat Phra Mahathat and Wat Rajaburana. Many items here are more than 500 years old, dating from the Ayutthayan Empire. There are various bronze Buddha images and altars here. Particularly impressive is a lacquered book cabinet that portrays the Buddhist cosmos.
The Ayutthaya Historical Study Centre
This center (Rotchana Rd., 03/524-5123, Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m., 100B adult, 50B student) has models and exhibits that provide a good overview of Ayutthaya’s ruins. This is a good place to visit to get a sense of historical context before striking out to the ruins.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet
Wat Phra Si Sanphet (daily 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m., 30B), which dates from 1491, is located inside what used to be the Grand Palace, just northwest of the center of the island. It served as the royal chapel, much like Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok. Wat Phra Si Sanphet is one of the most popular temples due to its line of three picturesque chedi (pagodas) that are emblematic of Ayutthaya. These chedi contain the ashes of three of Ayutthaya’s kings.
Chantharakasem National Museum
The Chantharakasem National Museum (U Thong Rd., 03/525-1586, Wed.-Sun. 9 a.m.-4 p.m., 30B) in the northeast corner of the island contains a small collection of art and artifacts in the former Chan Kasem palace. Some of the items on display are personal effects of King Rama IV and are unrelated to the history of Ayutthaya (as the Chakri Dynasty did not begin until Ayutthaya had already been sacked). There are some interesting Ayutthaya period pieces, including devotional Buddhist artwork, weaponry, and plenty of ceramic containers used by traders during the time. The elephant armor and weapons tend to be favorites among visitors.
Wat Rajaburana, one of the best-restored wats in the park, also has an interesting history. As lore would have it, two brothers, both princes, fought to the death on the grounds of the temple and the third brother then had the wat erected. Most of the items once held at the base of the temple are now on display at the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum, but there are some remaining murals of life in Ayutthaya to see. The main temple building is roofless, but most of the walls are intact, and the detailing on the main prang (tower) is in very good condition, including statues of mythical creatures and carved flora detailing.
Wat Phra Mahathat
There is little left of 14th-century Wat Phra Mahathat other than rows of headless statues, a majestic corncob-shaped redbrick prang (tower), and some crumbling walls. Still, this is one of the most visited wats in the park, probably because of the nearby tree that’s grown around a broken Buddha statue, creating an ethereal effect. Wat Phra Mahathat is across the road from Wat Rajaburana.
Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit
Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit is a modern wat that’s architecturally unremarkable but is home to one of the most sacred Buddha images in Ayutthaya. Inside the white and red wiharn (Buddhist assembly hall) sits a large golden Buddha that was probably made during the 16th century and, according to common lore, was struck by lightning soon after its creation. Later, when the capital was sacked by the Burmese, it was damaged again and sat unrestored for nearly 200 years. In the 1950s, the current wiharn was built to house the Buddha, and it was later covered in gold leaf. Most Buddhists visiting Ayutthaya will make a pilgrimage to visit Phra Mongkol Bophit.
Wat Phanan Choeng
Wat Phanan Choeng, built before the establishment of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, is the oldest wat in the area and houses a 60-foot Buddha that was made in the 14th century. Thousands of worshippers visit the wat every week to pay homage to the Buddha and the hundreds of smaller Buddha figures that line its walls. Pilgrims visiting the wat can take part in a graceful, elaborately choreographed ritual changing of the statue’s orange robe. The wat is located just across the Chao Phraya River from the island on the southeastern corner.
Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon
Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon was built in the 14th century, but the primary attraction here is the main chedi (pagoda) that was built by King Naresuan in the 16th century (and you can even climb up the many stairs of the chedi to enjoy the view). In fact, there were three other large bell-shaped chedi built, although only one remains standing, as well as some smaller, similarly-shaped chedi on the wat’s grounds. The wat is just outside of the island on the southeast corner, about a 15-minute walk from Wat Phanan Choeng.
Wat Chai Wattanaram
Just on the other side of the river from the southwest corner of the island is perhaps one of Ayutthaya’s most impressive temple ruins. At just under 400 years old, Wat Chai Wattanaram is younger than many of the temples in the area, but it is one of the best-preserved and largest complexes. The Khmer-style prang (tower) is surrounded by half a dozen smaller structures, and there are more than 100 seated Buddha images on the grounds. This temple is definitely worth the extra time and 30-baht admission fee to visit.
Bang Pa-in Summer Palace
Located 20 kilometers south of central Ayutthaya along the Chao Phraya in the Bang Len sub-district, Bang Pa-in Summer Palace (03/526-1044, daily 8 a.m.-4 p.m., 50B) was remade by King Rama V, who vacationed here in the mid-19th century. It was originally used by kings of Thailand as a summer retreat in the 17th century, but it was abandoned after Ayutthaya fell in 1767. There are bridges lined with statues, various buildings, and ponds. The Summer Palace makes for a tranquil afternoon getaway from central Ayutthaya. You can get there by song thaew (pickup truck with benches in the back, 20B for the one-hour ride).
Located between Bang Ian Road and Naresuan Road is the Chao Prom Market , which begins in the morning and continues until the afternoon daily. Here you’ll find stalls with vendors selling everything from standard Thai dishes—noodles, soups, and curries—to Chinese dishes.
In order to sample a local Ayutthaya treat, head to the roti sai mai stalls on U Thong Road. Roti sai mai is a Muslim dessert consisting of melted sugar wrapped in a flour pancake.
If you stick around town into the evening, the Hua Raw Night Market, on U Thong Road, is the place to go for Muslim dishes like Massaman curry—beef in coconut milk with spices. There are tables next to the river.
Malakor (Chee Kun Rd., daily 11 a.m.-9 p.m., 50-100B) offers standard Thai food—curries, Thai salads, noodles, etc.—as well as continental dishes, and its location affords glimpses of nearby Wat Rajaburana.
Ban Khun Phra (48/2 U Thong Rd., 03/524-1978, daily 11 a.m.-9 p.m., 70-80B), next to the river, is popular for dishes like winged bean soup with prawns. There’s indoor and outdoor seating.
The smoked snakehead fish at Ban Watcharachai (9 Mu 7, Ban Pom, daily 10 a.m.-9 p.m., 03/532-1333, 200B) has an international following of fans, but nearly everything on the seafood-heavy menu here is worth trying. The restaurant is set in an old wooden house, with a garden and even a boat moored on the river that you can dine on.
The vast majority of visitors who come to Ayutthaya do so as part of a day trip from Bangkok. If you arrive in the morning from the Thai capital, as most do, the temples can easily be taken in during the day before heading back by sundown. However, if you’d like more time in Ayutthaya, here are some options for staying overnight. Most lodging here caters to budget travelers.
Situated in three Thai-style antique wooden houses, Bannkunpra Guesthouse (48 U Thong Rd., 03/524-1978, www.bannkunpra.com, 500B) is a good low-cost option if you’d like to be close to the temples. There are male and female shared dorm rooms and some private rooms have shared bathrooms and are fan-cooled, while some have private bathrooms, air-conditioning, and hot water. There’s a restaurant and a large wooden terrace. Much of the property was renovated in 2010, significantly increasing the charm and comfort.
Baan Lotus (20 Pamaphrao Rd., 03/525-1988, 600B) is a clean, basic place with a famously friendly owner. Some rooms have communal bathrooms and are fan-cooled, while others have private bathrooms and air-conditioning. The namesake lotus-filled pond in the back provides a tranquil touch.
Located just a couple of miles outside the center, Chow Praya Hut (45/1 Mu 8, Baanmai, 03/539-8200, www.chowprayahut.com, 900B) has quaint, romantic wooden bungalows right on the river. The rooms are simple but clean and come with basic “necessities” such as air-conditioning and en-suite bathrooms. Aside from the relaxed atmosphere and romantic setting, which are very nice, the biggest benefit to staying here is the outdoor waterfront restaurant that serves traditional Thai food.
Right in the center of the island and a stone’s throw from the historical park is iudia (11/12 Mu 4, U Thong Rd., 03/532-3208, http://iudia.com, 2,500B), a moderately-priced, small boutique hotel that caters to a more upscale crowd. Decor is modern Thai with a bit of Persian and Chinese thrown in, which all comes together nicely. The landscaped grounds with pools and gardens are beautiful, as is the view of the ruins across the way.
Baan Thai House Ayutthaya (119/19 Mu 4, Pailing, 03/524-5555, www.baanthaihouse.com, 2,100B) is just outside the old island and rents old-style wooden Thai houses that have been transformed into comfortable villas. The grounds are green and pretty and include a swimming pool.
There is a visitor information center (Si Sanphet Rd., 03/532-2730, daily 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.) on the west side of the island.
Getting to Ayutthaya
You can get to Ayutthaya from Bangkok’s downtown Hua Lamphong Station in 1.5 hours for only 35 baht if you take a non-express train and sit in third-class seats (otherwise expect to pay a little more). There are 11 scheduled trains running 7 a.m.-10 p.m. every day. Once you arrive in Ayutthaya, on the east side of the river, you can take a boat from the nearby pier across to the inner part of the island, or pick up a taxi for the day at the train station (prices are fixed and prominently posted).
The bus ride to Ayutthaya from Bangkok takes 1.5 hours and costs 50 baht. Buses leave at least every hour throughout the day, 5 a.m.-9 p.m., from Mo Chit Station in Bangkok. You’ll arrive right in the middle of the island. There are also minibuses from Bangkok’s Victory Monument Skytrain station, daily 5 a.m.-8 p.m., that go directly to Ayutthaya and take 1.25-2 hours depending on traffic. These buses cost 65 baht per person and leave frequently but only once filled with passengers, so you may have to wait around for a departure.
There are no public boats that run from Bangkok to Ayutthaya, but you can book a private tour. This typically includes the journey via the Chao Phraya River to Ayutthaya, a tour, and then a bus ride back to Bangkok. One such outfit is Asian Oasis (at the end of Chan Rd. in Chok Tran, southern Bangkok, near the river in the Menam Riverside Hotel, 02/651-9101, www.mekhalacruise.com, two-day trip from US$289), which runs trips to Ayutthaya on refurbished rice barges. Guests sleep on the boat at night.
Another tour operator is the upscale Manohra Cruises (in the Bangkok Marriott Resort & Spa across the Chao Phraya River, Thonburi, 02/477-0770, three-day journey US$700), which runs two-night, three-day trips on magnificently restored teak rice barges. This is an all-inclusive package that includes candlelit dinners.
If you’re driving to Ayutthaya, take the Don Muang Tollway heading toward the old airport, and then continue driving north on Highway 1. The highway will end just before Bang Pa-in, but continue driving north on local roads as the route is well marked with signs for Ayutthaya.
© Suzanne Nam from Moon Bangkok, 5th Edition