The ruins of Ayutthaya, Venice of the East

A couple of weeks ago, I visited Thailand and made a trip to the ancient city of Ayutthaya, capital of the Siamese kingdom from the 14th to 18th centuries. The city eventually fell to the Burmese, and the kingdom moved the capital to what is known as Bangkok today. But the ancient city still endures, and today it’s a World Heritage Site that’s a great way to spend a day or two if you’re based in Bangkok. In this post I’ll highlight some of the major sites and ruins in the Ayutthaya Historical Park.


But first, a little history… Ayutthaya’s a little island sitting at the confluence of the Chao Praya, Lopburi and Pasak rivers that became the second capital of the Siamese kingdom (the first was Sukhothai, another World Heritage Site) and was founded in 1350, where it became the seat of the Siamese kingdom until 1767, where, after a series of battles with the Burmese, it was sacked and razed. Despite the total destruction of the royal city, people eventually repopulated the area. Some of the ancient structures were restored during the reign on Rama IV (King Mongkut, who reigned from 1851-1868), and in 1991 the ancient ruins of Ayutthaya was inscribed as a World Heritage Site.

Ayutthaya from the sky. Numbers refer to places mentioned in this post.

Today Ayutthaya is a popular tourist destination, and an easy day trip from Bangkok where it’s possible to take a train, bus or boat up. The eastern side of the island is now dominated with modern buildings, shophouses and guesthouses mostly, while most of the city’s ruins lie on the western side of the island, along with several sites dotted along the “mainland”. In this post, I’ll cover the royal administrative centre Wat Phra Sisanpetch, the residence of the Buddhist leaders Wat Maha That, Wat Ratchaburana and the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum.

Wat Maha That [1]

At the centre of a Buddhist kingdom is the temple, and in Ayutthaya, the most sacred temple is Wat Maha That, which was built in 1367 during the reign of the second king, Ramesuan and was also the royal monastery. As you can see, the temple compound was razed by the Burmese in 1767, and the large mound at the back is all that remains of the principal pagoda (prang) which only collapsed a hundred years ago. Excavations in the collapsed central pagoda unearthed a seven-layered reliquary containing the relics of the Buddha, which is now housed in the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum. This temple is also famous for the picturesque Buddha head enclosed within the roots of a tree.

Wat Maha That, the most important temple in Ayutthaya. The central collapsed at the start of the last century.

Wat Phra Sisanpetch [2]

The administrative centre of Ayutthaya, Wat Phra Sisanpetch (sometimes known as Sisanphet) was established from the very start of the Ayutthaya capital, and continued expanding with new buildings until the beginning of the 16th century. Dominating the wat’s landscape is the very familiar row of chedis. The ruins of the surrounding buildings include remnants of throne halls, royal residences and administrative offices.

Wat Phra Sisanpetch, with its distinctive three chedis

Wat Ratchaburana [3]

One of the most intact massive prangs left among the ruins is Wat Ratchaburana, north of Wat Maha That. This Khmer-style prang carries a interesting but tragic story behind its construction in 1424. Following the death of King Intha Ratcha, his two sons battled for the through – leaving both dead. A third son, Chao Sam Phraya subsequently ascended to the throne and built Wat Ratchaburana in memory if his father and brothers. Atop the main prang, the Fine Arts Department has built a narrow (and rather scary staircase) that leads down into the vault 12 metres inside the heart of the structure. The interior of the vault it covered with murals, still unrestored. The gold ornaments stored inside these vaults were looted by robbers, although some of them were recovered and are now displayed in the Chao Sam Phraya Museum.

The Khmer-style Wat Ratchaburana.
At the top of the pagoda is an ominous-looking stairs leading to a deep, dark chamber.
At the bottom of the stairs is a small vault that once housed gold artefacts. The vault is covered with Buddhist murals, still unrestored.

Chao Sam Phraya National Museum [4]

Obviously not an ancient structure, the Chao Sm Phraya National Museum houses many of the artifacts found in Ayutthaya, including many of the Buddha heads that were lopped off by the invading Burmese during the final fall of the capital. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed inside the museum but it’s well worth the visit; besides the ancient statuary, there are two rooms featuring the Buddha relic artefacts found in Wat Maha That, as well as the gold treasures from the vault of Wat Ratchanaburana. It’s no wonder that modern looters have tried to excavate deep within the pagodas for a shot at the vault treasures. At Wat Rachaburana, thieves did, resulting in damage to some of the more fragile gold ornaments. Fortunately, it seems that the bulk of the relics were recovered from the thieves and are now displayed at the museum.

The Chao Sam Phraya Museum contains the artefacts excavated from Ayutthaya.
... like some of the Buddha heads that are seen missing throughout the historical park.

Practical info for visiting:
These are some of the major sites to be found at the Ayutthaya Historical Park, but there are many more ruins on, as well as off the island worth paying a visit to. Remains of the old fort can still be found in the capital, as well as the old foreign missions – Ayutthaya was called the Venice of the East in part due to its central trading role in Southeast Asia.

Most tour agencies conduct day trips to Ayutthaya from Bangkok, but you can just as easily take a train up to Ayutthaya from Bangkok’s Hualamphong Railway Station (which is what I did) – either way, the journey is about an hour and a half. The train station is east of the island [5], and a short ferry ride from the pier [6] takes you into the main island itself. The modern buildings are on the east side of the island, while most of the major monuments are concentrated on the west. I recommend renting a bike and exploring the island on your own, and to spend a couple days there if you want to catch everything.

Ferry across to Autthaya from the train station

I did manage to take quite a few good pictures in Ayutthaya and I might do a wallpaper thing with them, like what I did with Angkor. Look out for them in the near future.

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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