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Ayuthaya

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Wat Chai Watthanaram by night

Wat Chai Watthanaram by night

 

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Thailand - Ayuthaya

 

 

Introduction

It is said that Ayuthaya during the Ayuthaya period - a time of cultural renaissance in Thailand - was a magnificent city and never failed to impress visitors. Even now, hundreds of years later, it is easy to understand this.

 

The lush green grass, red brickwork and beautiful architecture of the temples of Ayuthaya

The lush green grass, red brickwork and beautiful architecture of the temples of Ayuthaya

 

For starters, the location is magnificent. Ayuthaya is located in the plain of the Chao Phraya basin at the confluence of the Chao Phraya, Lopburi and Pasak rivers. The central region of Thailand is incredibly lush and fertile with green vegetation everywhere. The soft green grass actually reminded me of England. The city is surrounded by rivers turning it into an island effectively but it is not an island in the traditional sense.

Many canals were constructed to bring water into the city and walkways were built for pedestrians. At least 30 wooden bridges were built and several markets operated, four of which were floating markets.

 

Some very serious-looking Thai schoolgirls

Some very serious-looking Thai schoolgirls

 

The city was founded in 1350 by King U-Thong, Rama Thibodi I and was the capital of Siam for 417 years. During that time there were five dynasties and 33 reigns. With so many natural resources in the surrounding area it was a wealthy city and this was reflected in the buildings. I am told that the Chedis were covered with gold at one time (maybe gold leaf).

The city was partly destroyed in 1569 (I'm not sure how) and completely sacked by the Burmese in 1767 during the reign of King Ekkathat. The city wall - five meters thick, six meters high and 12.5 kilometres long - wasn't enough apparently to keep the invaders out. The Burmese destroyed as much of Thai culture as they could, burning books and destroying important artefacts.

 

With lots of walls still intact it is still possible to get a good feel of what the city must have looked like originally

With lots of walls still intact it is still possible to get a good feel of what the city must have looked like originally

 

This signalled the end of the Ayuthaya period and Siam's capital was moved to Thonburi and then to its present location in Bangkok.

I have visited ancient Roman ruins thousands of years old but because of their age the ruins are now just two-dimensional. You can make out where walls stood from their outline on the ground but you have to use a lot of imagination.

In relative terms the ruins at Ayuthaya are quite young and they are still very much three-dimensional. There are no roofs left on the buildings but some walls go up to roof level and the towering Chedis are still intact.

It is therefore not necessary to use a lot of imagination to get an idea of how the city once looked. Given the opportunity of time travel I think my first choice would be Ayuthaya during the reign of King Naresuan.

 

Wat Phu Khai Thong in Ayuthaya

Wat Phu Khai Thong in Ayuthaya

 

I can't imagine a better sight than the temples of Ayuthaya in their prime with beautiful, elegant Siamese women walking around in traditional clothing. The city was very welcoming to many foreigners apparently with communities of Dutch, Portuguese, French, Indians, Malays, Japanese and others well established there.

The best description I have read of Ayuthaya in its heyday is in the book 'Popular History of Thailand' by M.L. Manich Jumsai, the details of which can be found on the bibliography page of this site.

 

King Naresuan the Great (1590-1605)

King Naresuan the Great (1590-1605)

 

The old temples are the main attraction in Ayuthaya. There aren't a lot of other 'attractions' but it's just a nice, peaceful place to be. The downside is that because of its close proximity to Bangkok it is a major tourist attraction.

The Japanese, in particular, seem to love it there. There were thousands of them and I noticed a few Thais speaking Japanese, as well as there being a dedicated Japanese TV channel in the hotel.

 

One of the tuk-tuk drivers who took me on a tour of the old temples of Ayuthaya

One of the tuk-tuk drivers who took me on a tour of the old temples of Ayuthaya

 

Tuk-tuk tours of the temples are popular and, as in other touristy areas of Thailand, the drivers operate a cartel system trying to charge Bt200 an hour but I was able to halve this.

Tourists make Thais greedy and it is a real shame. Both of my drivers (one is pictured here) were actually nice guys but their first instinct when they deal with a tourist is to get the highest amount of money possible. I think it helps if you can negotiate in Thai.

The tours are OK but I felt a bit like a stereotypical Japanese tourist. Arrive at one temple, get out of the tuk-tuk, take photos, get back into the tuk-tuk, drive to the next temple and repeat. I did two tours, one in the evening and one at night, but on the second day I just walked around a few temples at my own pace and it was much more relaxed.

 

If anything, Ayuthaya looks even more magnificent at night but use LOTS of mosquito repellent

If anything, Ayuthaya looks even more magnificent at night but use LOTS of mosquito repellent

 

Some of the temples are lit up at night and look very different to how they look in the day time. The worst thing at night are the swarms of hungry and aggressive mosquitoes. I don't suffer many problems with mosquitoes normally but I did in Ayuthaya. The bites turned quite ugly as well whereas I normally just get a little lump if I'm bitten which disappears after a couple of days.

When going on a temple tour in the evening smother yourself liberally with a good repellent. Don't bother with the organic ones. They may smell nice and be environmentally friendly but they don't work very well. Use a repellent containing DEET.

While on the subject of evening temple tours it seems that most people don't have a very good understanding of basic photography. I saw lots of flashes going off as people tried to take night shots with their little compact cameras.

 

Reclining Buddha at Wat Lokaya Sutha

Reclining Buddha at Wat Lokaya Sutha

 

Cameras record light. The way flash works is that the light emitted from the flash bounces back from the object being photographed on to the film or digital sensor. Even powerful flashes have quite a limited range and the little flashes on small compact cameras are only good only for about three meters. Trying to photograph a temple 100 meters away at night using flash is a complete waste of time and will result in horribly underexposed photos.

What you need to do is turn the flash off and use a long exposure time. It is essential to keep the camera stationary though so you need to use a tripod or set it on something solid. You can't hold it by hand. I didn't have a tripod with me so just sat my camera on the walls that surround the temples. It wasn't ideal but I managed to get some reasonable photos.

Some temples charge an entrance fee which is Bt10 for Thais and Bt30 for foreigners. This fact is hidden to foreigners by the Thai fee being written in Thai using Thai numerals. What I found however was that the best views were often from outside the temples so it is unnecessary to pay to get in.

 

Amporn Floating House; an unusual but interesting guesthouse in Ayuthaya

Amporn Floating House; an unusual but interesting guesthouse in Ayuthaya

 

Finding accommodation in Ayuthaya wasn't a problem. I stayed at the Ayothaya Hotel which bills itself as the only hotel on the central island. My room cost Bt1,200 a night.

There are some quite upmarket hotels overlooking the river on the other side of the island, such as the Ayothaya Riverside Hotel and the Krungsri River Hotel. There are also a few floating guesthouses on the river. One I spotted (pictured here) is called Amporn Floating House.

 

The Chao Phraya river connects Bangkok and Ayuthaya making it possible to travel from one place to the other by boat

The Chao Phraya river connects Bangkok and Ayuthaya making it possible to travel from one place to the other by boat

 

There is a guesthouse area for backpackers just around the corner to the Ayothaya Hotel (near the bus station) and another one on the other side of the river opposite the train station. A Bt3 ferry shuttles people across the river.

Getting to Bangkok is easy. Buses and minivans leave regularly from Thanon Naresuan and cost Bt48 and Bt60 respectively. The minivans actually looked quite decent and weren't stupidly overcrowded as they are elsewhere in Thailand.

Getting the train back to Bangkok is another transport option. It's quite slow but probably a little more interesting.

 

Eventually, the elements will probably complete what the Burmese attempted to do in 1767

Eventually, the elements will probably complete what the Burmese attempted to do in 1767

 

Ayuthaya has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site but what does that actually mean? I understand that restoration has been carried out but what about preservation?

Indeed, is it actually possible to preserve Ayuthaya's old temples? It's a huge task and how do you preserve bricks and mortar from the ravages of the weather?

 

Preserving what remains of the temples of Ayuthaya is a massive task for the Thais

Preserving what remains of the temples of Ayuthaya is a massive task for the Thais

 

Many of the old buildings are now crumbling and it is sad to see but I'm not sure what can be done. Millions of tourists visit and hand over their Bt30 entrance fees at the temples so money shouldn't be an object.

It is up to the Thai authorities to invest this money wisely to preserve what they have.

 

In this cemetery there was hardly a grave that hadn't been broken into by grave robbers

In this cemetery there was hardly a grave that hadn't been broken into by grave robbers

 

Something else that was very sad to see was that many graves have already been robbed.

I took a look around one graveyard and every single grave had been smashed open by robbers looking for gold and other valuables inside.

I got the impression that this kind of thing isn't so much of a problem now but it was in the past. It is very unlikely now that anything of value remains inside any of the graves or temples.

 

Just lying on the ground around the temples are an amazing number of original artefacts

Just lying on the ground around the temples are an amazing number of original artefacts

 

Ayuthaya is quite an amazing place and should be on everyone's list of places to visit in Thailand. It is easy to get to from Bangkok and makes a nice break from the chaos of the capital.

It takes only a little imagination to visualise how the city would have looked in its heyday and throughout history there cannot have been too many places like it.

 

What a fabulous place this must have been. It still is though and I can't wait to return

What a fabulous place this must have been. It still is though and I can't wait to return

 

The Burmese attempted to destroy everything in 1767 but despite their best efforts a lot still remains. And it isn't just buildings that remain.

In the grounds of the old temples are thousands of statues and stone carvings.

There must have been an army of craftsmen employed to have produced so much.

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Accommodation

While in Ayuthaya I stayed at the Ayothaya Hotel.

Address: 12 M.4 Tessabarn Sai 2 Road, Phranakhonsriayutthaya, Thailand, 13000.
Telephone: +66 (0)35 232855
Fax: +66 (0)35 251018

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