Ayutthaya is a city in Thailand, about 80 kilometres north of Bangkok. It was the first capital of the Kingdom of Siam and a flourishing international trading port from 1350 until it’s ruin by the Burmese in 1767. The remains of the old city now form the Ayutthaya Historical Park, an archaeological site that contains palaces, Buddhist temples, monasteries and impressive statues.
The Legend of Ayutthaya
The Legend of Ayutthaya tells of Prince U Thong – who was later to take the royal name Ramathibodi for his reign from 1350 to 1369. When sent to the countryside to escape a smallpox epidemic, he is said to have found a delicate conch shell buried in the ground while out walking. In a moment of revelation and clarity, he elected that very place as the site for his future capital. He instantly placed the shell upon a pedestal tray and had a pavilion constructed around it.
He named the capital Ayutthaya after the city of Ayodhya in Northern India, the birthplace city of Rama of Hindu Ramayana fame. Ayutthaya became the second capital of Siam after Sukhothai and was ideally positioned between China, India and the Malay Archipelago to mark it as the trading capital of Asia, and even the world. By 1700 Ayutthaya had become the largest city in the world with over a million inhabitants.
Many international merchants set sail for Ayutthaya from the Arab world, China, India, Japan, Portugal, France and the Netherlands, with the European merchants proclaiming Ayutthaya as the finest city they had ever seen. Dutch and French maps of the city show magnificent gold-laden palaces, grand ceremonies and a huge fleet of trading vessels from all over the world. In the 16th Century, Siam reached its peak in terms of sovereignty, military might, wealth, culture and international trade.
All this was sadly to come to an end when the Burmese invaded Ayutthaya in 1767, burning it the city to the ground. Today, the ruins offer a glimpse of the once impressive city that was characterised by prang towers and big monasteries. Most of the remains are of temples and palaces, as those were the only buildings made of stone at that time.
The Orientation of Ayutthaya
Ayutthaya was established on an island at the convergence of three rivers: the Chao Phraya River – that leads to Bangkok, the Lopburi River and the Pa Sak River. This was a strategic decision to place the capital above the Gulf of Siam, with the hope that the location would prevent an attack from the ocean side.
Architecturally, styles are an alluring mix of Khmer from ancient Cambodia and early Sukothai, with artistic features specific to the Ayutthuya period. Elements from these different eras can be seen within the layers and influences brought by the reign of 33 kings.
Diplomats and traders from afar were welcomed to stay in Ayutthaya and their influence can be seen in the old Japanese settlements and Portuguese village, as well as the palaces and buildings in Swiss, Belgian and Russian style. Historically, non-Siamese people were not allowed to live inside the city walls, which meant that foreign quarters were established off the island. These include the Muslim Quarter, Japanese Village, Portuguese Village and Baan Hollanda.
Visiting Ayutthaya Historical Park
Visiting the Ayutthaya Historical Park today, you will find the train station at the east side of the island with most visitors needing to cross the river by ferryboat. The U Thong Road is a ring road that circles the island completely, with most temple ruins found at the northwest of the island, while accommodation and other attractions are mostly clustered around the northeast.
For Thai people, Ayutthaya has become a place to honour ancestors and collect wisdom gathered over the ages and is a foundation of great nostalgic pride. This is a must-visit destination for anybody with a love of culture, history, art and archaeology. Its proximity to Bangkok makes it a popular day-trip destination for travellers and day visitors from Bangkok.
The great national significance of Ayutthaya’s ruins was officially recognised in 1991 when it became an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The essential to-do list for beyond the historical park
Most visitors to Ayutthaya understandably focus their time on the impressive historical park, although there is much on offer for those who can linger longer for a taste of the city that exists beyond the island. Here is our essential to do list, including a look at the old quarters.
1. Take a Boat Trip around the island
There are many operators offering short and scenic long-tail boat rides, as well as longer lunch and dinner cruises on the Chao Phraya River. These can be booked in advance, or simply head to the pier and find the one that best suits you. The most popular long-tail boat tour stops at Wat Phutthaisawan, Wat Chaiwatthanaram and Wat Phanan Choeng – a few of the best temples around the island.
2. Floating Market
The Ayutthaya Floating Market has been set up with visiting Thai tourists in mind and covers a considerable stretch of canals just south of Wat Maheyong. Here vendors offer food straight off their boats, or occupy stalls on either side of the wooden walkways. It is beautifully laid out with traditional wooden Thai stilt houses alongside the artificial canals. Bridges connect the sections, making for excellent photo ops. The highlight of the market is food and there are several restaurants serving delicious noodle and fresh fish dishes, while others provide takeaway street food and drinks to go. This is a lovely spot for the family to relax.
3. Chao Phrom Market
Located next to the Pasak River on U-Thong Road, this market offers food, clothing and a variety of shops and stalls. It is perfect for those who wish to experience a more authentic Thai marketplace. There are several night markets with street vendors selling a range of food too such as Ayutthaya souvenirs, T-shirts, fridge magnets and other Thai keepsakes. The markets are liveliest on weekends when you can watch traditional Thai dance and music performances.
4. Bangsai Arts and Crafts Centre
Home to many skilled artisans, Ayutthaya is one of the best cities to find handcrafted goods. In years gone by, each community in the city practised a specific craft; whether it was ironwork, boat building, wicker weaving or clay pottery. At the Bangsai Arts and Crafts Centre you can tour some of the twenty workshops for various crafts and even watch the craftsmen and women at work.
5. Million Toy Museum
Founded by a children’s literature professor at Srinakharinwirot University, illustrator and author of children books Krirk Yoonpun, the museum houses numerous Thai and imported toys from the past and present. The toys are displayed across two floors with the ground floor exhibition focussing on the Thai ways of life with homeware and toys from the Sukhothai, Ayutthaya and Rattanakosin eras. Toys from other countries can be found on the second floor. Most of the toys, made from wood, tin and later on plastic, show the revolution of toy making in each society.
6. Pridi Panomyong Memorial
Born in Ayutthaya in 1900, Pridi Panomyong was among the most influential Thai figures of the 20th century. The stilted wooden house where he grew up has been restored and stands as a memorial to a man who helped to shape the face of modern Thailand. Born into a wealthy Chinese-Thai family and educated in France, Pridi was instrumental in Thailand’s 1932 shift from absolute to constitutional monarchy. He founded Thammasat University and took on several key ministerial posts prior to World War II. In 2000, 17 years after his death, UNESCO named Pridi as one of the world’s great personalities of the 20th century.
7. Portuguese Village
Arriving in the early 16th century, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to venture into Siam. They quickly established friendly trade relations and set up a Portuguese village. By 1538 some 120 Portuguese lived here, with these numbers increasing over the next hundred years. Today there is a scattering of ruins dominated by the Dominican church. Inside the eerie church are the excavated remains of members of the settlement, with skeletons belonging to those who were of higher status within the settlement, like priests, displayed. It was said to be the largest community of Westerners after it was settled in the early 1500s. The Portuguese settlement was the first part of the city to be hit when the Burmese attacked in the 1760s.
8. Baan Hollanda Museum
First arriving in Ayutthaya in 1608, the Dutch East India Company traders were allowed offshore to set up a port and exchange ambassadors. Before long the Dutch had developed a settlement that housed one of the more stately buildings in the city. Using the Thai name for the settlement, a reconstruction of this building was opened in 2013 as the Baan Hollanda Museum. The Dutch compound was home to 1500 Dutch traders at one time. Overlooking the Chao Phraya River, the small museum contains information boards describing the history of Dutch-Thai relations as well, antiques used by the settlers, old paintings, maps and journals.
9. Japanese Village
The Japanese Village is found in the Ko Rein sub-district and dates back to the late 16th century when the Japanese government sent their traders to seek new opportunities; a group of them came to Ayutthaya. Like with the other nations, the king of Thailand let the Japanese settle outside the city centre. Since then, more Japanese have come to live in Ayutthaya. By the 17th century, some 1500 Japanese inhabited the village that stretches a kilometre along the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya River, just south of the Dutch settlement and across from the Portuguese. The museum tells the story of how the Japanese influenced the city, and how it changed them.
10. Muslim Quarter
Ayutthaya has a large Muslim-Thai community that can trace its roots to the Persian, Arabian, Turkish and Malay traders who have made their homes here over the centuries. While there’s no museum as in the other quarters, you can walk through the picturesque area. Known locally by the blanket-term Khaek, Muslims played an important role in establishing trade routes from Ayutthaya to India, Persia, Arabia and the East Indies. At the time many permanent Muslim residents made their livings producing ropes for ships or selling the jewels and fabrics that were imported from the Middle East. Grouped along the southern bank of the Chao Phraya, you’ll find a few centuries-old mosques and men and women in traditional wear. The large Nurun Imanwaritsunna Mosque is the most impressive.
11. The Tourist Information Office
The Ayutthaya Tourist Centre is housed in the old Ayutthaya town hall. Once a place of work for civil servants and the minister of Finance, there are six statues of brave kings and a queen of Ayutthaya Period in front of the building: namely Ramathibodi I or U-thong, Phra Boromma Trailokkanat, Naresuan The Great, Narai the Great, Taksin the Great and Phra Sri Suriyothai.nThe building’s ground floor is a tourist centre providing information for visitors, upstairs there is an exhibition of Ayutthaya’s history. You can pick up a free map of the city here.
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Read my other posts on Thailand. Photos supplied by the Thailand Authority of Tourism.