Ayutthaya was once one of the world's wealthiest cities. Founded in 1350, it was capital of Siam for more than 400 years and was home to more than a million citizens. In the 16th 17th centuries, merchants from across the globe were in awe of this major international trading port, with its 400-plus gilded temples and elaborate palace buildings.
All was lost in 1767 when, after two years of fighting, neighbouring Burma destroyed the city and enslaved its citizens: Buddha statues were beheaded, stupas were toppled, gold was looted, and magnificent wooden buildings were burnt to the ground. Today, only bricks and stone remain, yet the sheer scale and fascinating history make these ruins a mind-blowing place to visit.
Easy to reach from Bangkok
Travelling to Ayutthaya is easy from Bangkok: around 80km north of the Thai capital, it's just over an hour by bus or private transfer. You can also travel by boat on the Chao Phraya River, or take a train from Bangkok's Hualamphong station.
With the ruins spread across a vast, flat site that spans more than 14 kilometres square, guided cycle tours are the best way to take it all in. If cycling isn't for you, you could explore on foot or by tuk-tuk instead.
When I visited last year, the cycle company I'd pre-arranged my tour with collected me from my Bangkok hotel at 8am and drove to the rural villages and rice paddies of Phra Nakhon in Ayutthaya Province. A few miles before Ayutthaya, my driver dropped me off at the cycle centre where I met Soa, my English-speaking guide for the day.
Hopping on a bike, I followed Soa along dusty backroads, passing stilted houses, banana trees and fields of jasmine rice that stretched towards the horizon. A warm breeze wafted against my skin, and the smell of lush vegetation and hot earth filled the air.
Two hundred years ago, the destruction of Ayutthaya was so thorough that only one temple – Wat Naphrameru – survived intact. A slender, chalk-white building with a red and golden roof, this fully functioning temple sits on the northern edge of the historical park. This was the first Ayutthaya temple I visited on my tour.
After parking our bikes, we took off our shoes and entered the 13th-century temple. Inside, an orange-robed monk sat cross-legged beneath a towering six-foot Buddha statue. Following Soa's lead, I knelt beneath the statue and put my hands in a prayer position "like a lotus flower" before bowing three times. As I did, I felt a sprinkling of water on my skin as the monk blessed me with holy water.
As we exited the temple, Soa filled me in on some history:
"The Burmese King wanted to destroy this temple himself."
She told me.
"But when he fired the canon, it exploded and wounded him. After that, the Burmese were afraid of the temple, so they decided not to destroy it."
Venice of the South
Back on our bikes, we cycled beside a series of narrow canals and river channels. These canals were part of the city's elaborate grid system of roads and waterways, which divided it into distinct areas. The central zone was surrounded by three rivers (the Chao Phraya, Lopburi River and Pa Sak rivers), which created a protected island for the city's most important temples and royal palaces. The rivers were also engineered to create a flood prevention and hydraulic management system that, at the time, was one of the world's most advanced.
By the 16th century, Ayutthaya had earned the nickname "Venice of the East." A global capital of trade and economics, foreign merchants from Britain, Denmark, Portugal, Japan and China built their warehouses and homes on the riverbanks outside the island city.
The island city
Cycling around the city's grid system of pathways, you start to get a sense of just how big and impressive it was. The island complex was originally protected by a moated wall with 16 forts but little of this remains today. Entering the island, each landmark I stopped at seemed more impressive than the next, from the serene seated Buddha at the restored monastery of Wat Worachettharam, to the enormous Phra Buddha Sai Yat – at forty two meters long, this is the city's largest reclining Buddha.
The concentration of temples, stupas and Buddha statues heightens towards the heart of the island at the site of the old royal palace. With so much to see here, we parked our bikes and explored on foot.
As I strolled around the ruins, which are partly overgrown with twisted vines and roots, I felt like Indiana Jones discovering a lost city. I spend my first few minutes wandering around with my jaw dropped.
Covering several eras of Thai history, Ayutthaya's royal ruins reveal a fascinating transition from Khmer architecture to an authentic Thai style that symbolises the height of Siamese kingdom. Cob-shaped "prangs" are the most obvious evidence of the Khmer style, and a good example of this architecture is the main prang at Wat Chai Wattanaram. Surrounded by smaller prangs, it is thought to contain relics of Lord Buddha.
In contrast to these prangs are the more delicate, Thai style chedis that are dotted throughout the royal city. My favourite example of these was at the three chedis of the city's grandest temple, Wat Phra Si Sanphet. These chedis are said to contain the ashes of three Kings: King Trailok, King Borom Ratchathirat III, and King Rama Thibodi II.
Back on our bikes, we took a short cycle across green parkland and little bridges to the vast Wat Mahathat (Temple of the Great Relics) complex. Built in the 14th century, this was once the residence of the Supreme Patriarch (leader of the Thai Buddhist monks). Although thoroughly desecrated by the Burmese, you can still see glimmers of this temple's former glory in its party restored turrets, prangs and Buddha statues.
Wat Mahathat is also the site of Ayutthaya's most photographed landmark: a huge stone Buddha head engulfed by the roots of a Bodhi tree. For many visitors, this accidental sculpture is the highlight of their visit, and it's easy to see why.
Having explored most of the royal island, we got back on our bikes and made our way out of the old city walls and back towards the cycle centre. My daytrip to Ayutthaya had given me a fascinating glimpse into this astounding ancient city and, if you want to delve deeper, you could stay overnight and explore more slowly over two days.
The end of an era
Despite the carnage unleashed by the Burmese in 1767, Siam managed to restored independence within a year. By this point, however, Ayutthaya had been abandoned and the new capital of Bangkok was being established further downstream on the banks of the Chao Pharaya River.
Although Ayutthaya's era had come to an end, renowned architects were commissioned to recreate some of its elements in Bangkok. Ayutthaya's urban planning system, for example, was echoed in the new city, and bricks from the ruins were transported and reused in Bangkok's buildings.
Even Bangkok's official Thai name1 includes "Ayutthaya" in its title, giving a respectful nod to an astounding city that I would definitely recommend adding to your itinerary.
1Bangkok's official Thai name is "Krungthep mahanakhon amon rattanakosin mahintara ayuthaya mahadilok popnopparat ratchathani burirom udomratchaniwet mahasathan amonpiman avatansathit sakkathattiya visnukamprasit."