Ayutthaya - An Epic Adventure
I stood on top of the wall of the temple and looked north towards the ruins. I could almost hear the thundering canons firing on the city. Thousands of people would have been fleeing their homes and the central palaces and temples, their city in flames. Elephants clad in protective armor led an invading army that was crushing everything in its path. What I survey around me in the heat of the afternoon sun in this tranquil archaeological park bears witness to that epic struggle over 230 years ago. Ayutthaya, capital of the Kingdom of Siam, thought to have been unassailable, fallen.
Like many former capital cities, the weight of Ayutthayas' rich history is both a blessing and a burden. At the height of its powers, (as the capital of the Thai kingdom for over 400 years from 1351-1767), over one million people lived in Ayutthaya and it was one of the most spectacular cities anywhere in the world. Today, although there are over 700,000 people who live in Ayutthaya including the surrounding districts, the city itself has just 81,500 residents. What residents and visitors encounter daily all around the city are the architectural ruins of a vast empire including a vast archaeological park which was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991.
Walking around the Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya Historical Park one can easily imagine a complex of buildings and temples whose size and beauty would rival today's better known sites like Angkor Wat, in Cambodia (Ironically, the Thai kingdom at Ayutthaya had captured and held Angkor Wat for a brief period in the 15th century). The extended metropolis included temples, palaces, statues, shops, and houses located at the point where three rivers converge, serving as a major trade center between European and Asian countries. It is from the accounts of many of these foreign travelers from places as diverse as Portugal, Holland, England, and Japan that much of the narrative history of this golden period in Thai history is known.
But it was also a time when neighboring kingdoms were frequently at war. During the final days of battle to lay siege to Ayutthaya in January, 1767, after almost eight years of war against Burma (currently called Myanmar), the large cannons from an overwhelming Burmese army that included 6000 elephants toppled the city's palaces, temples, and over 10,000 houses. Anything that remained of the buildings after the siege was left as smoldering ruins in the landscape, and the Thai's moved their capital south to Thon Buri, and eventually to Bangkok.
Part of the mystique surrounding Ayutthaya is enmeshed in the interpretation and symbolism of the site that still evokes strong emotions in contemporary Thailand and Myanmar. Without this historical background, it is hard for western tourists to appreciate how much Ayutthaya means to Thailand as one of the high periods of their cultural history when there were many developments in the language, the arts, and architecture. But the ruins also testify to a tragic end, where Ayutthaya struggled through an extended period of war, and ultimately was almost completely destroyed at the hands of the Burmese. This conflict between countries who share a border to the north has not easily been forgotten, and it is a cultural challenge to portray a celebration of 400 years of Thai achievement, while minimizing the events surrounding the final downfall of the capital city of Ayutthaya.
A trip to modern Ayutthaya in the central region of Thailand, around 80 kilometers north of Bangkok, is easily done by car or boat (there is not a major commercial airport to receive direct flights). While a visit can be as short as a single day-trip just to take a break from bustling Bangkok, for those who stay longer there are hidden gems from both the past and the present to be found in the city.
There is activity along the three rivers, the Chao Phraya, Lop Buri and Pa Sak, and many visitors take the leisurely 3.5 hour boat trip up from Bangkok. The other option if arriving by road or on a train (a 1.5 hour trip from Bangkok) is to take a short boat tour around Ayutthaya passing by many of the most significant temples (Wat Phra Ram, Wat Ratchaburana and Wat Phra Si Sanphet). Another temple, Wat Lokaya Sutha although almost totally destroyed in 1767 has a magnificent, weathered 42 meter reclining Buddha.
A nice transition from exploring the historic ruins is a visit to the Chao Sam Phraya Museum to see impressive collections of Buddha images and treasures uncovered at Wat Ratchaburana that escaped the looting by the Burmese. The incredible artistic achievements seen in these artifacts, jewelry, and weaponry provide a beguiling vision of how glorious the city of Ayutthaya must have been when it was the capital.
One additional side trip worthy of consideration is the Bang Pa-In Summer Palace. Located 18 kilometers south of Ayutthaya, it was originally constructed during the reign of King Prasat Thong (1629 - 1656), and revived by King Rama IV of the Chakri dynasty (1851 - 1868). The present-day royal palace dates from the reign of King Chulalongkorn (1868 - 1919), with most of the buildings constructed between 1872 and 1889. The palace is still occasionally used by the current King and Queen of Thailand as a retreat, and for receptions and royal events.
After a full day of touring around the city, a couple of options for food and drink are Bannkunpra Restaurant on U-Thong Road near the river which has great food and a scenic setting, or the boisterous Hua Night Market also on U-Thong Road where the food is cooked right in front of you and the prices can't be beat. Hotel options in Ayutthaya for overnight guests have improved over the past few years. Among the best options are Krungsri River and Riverview Place.
Too often, travelers to Thailand do a rushed tour through Bangkok and than head to the beach for the rest of their stay. While capital cities like Paris, Tokyo, New York, or Bangkok all have a unique flavor that suggests their local culture, in many ways they are more similar to each other as international cities than they are to the rest of their native country. A visit to Ayutthaya is a small trip, but a huge beginning towards understanding the rest of Thailand as it is today. It also provides a window into its history that few western tourists bother to open, and an appreciation for the unique heritage of the Thai people.
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Published on 12/28/04