Bangkok is the busy and modern capital of the Kingdom of Thailand. With its skyscrapers, elevated Skytrain, underground MRT and different infrastructure, it is hard to imagine how the kingdom looked before all these. But just 50 miles north of Bangkok is the ruins of what was once the capital of Siam, the Ayutthaya Kingdom.
The capital of Siam was transferred from Sukhothai to Ayutthaya to escape an epidemic. Historians have noted that at its peak, Ayutthaya was one of the biggest and wealthiest city of the East. It was even regarded as the “Venice of the East” as it is a little island surrounded by three different rivers. Unfortunately, several attacks of the Burmese army caused the kingdom to collapse. These left the city in ruins. But with the government’s effort to preserve and to restore most of what were left, they transformed Ayutthaya into a historical park. It is currently recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Going to Ayutthaya:
There are numerous ways to get to Ayutthaya from Bangkok. You can take a minibus (van) located at Victory Monument. A minibus leaves every 30 minutes and is open from 06:00 – 17:00. The ride takes at least 1 hour and 30 minutes depending on the traffic. Tourist minibus even offers a pick-up from your accommodation.
If you are on a budget and you have time to spare, you can take the SRT (State Railway of Thailand). Just get off Hua Lampong MRT station and walk towards Hua Lampong Railway Station. You can choose from the different classes of trains available depending on your budget and schedule. You don’t need to worry as all trains heading north stop at Ayutthaya Station.
Protip: Visit the railway website to check the train schedule from one station to another. It will also show you the fare depending on the train class.
I took the standard train that leaves at 9:25 AM and arrives at 11:27 AM. It was a fan-only train so it was free seating. I will take the last trip from Ayutthaya to Thanaleng-Nong Khai (North East) so the travel time was not an issue for me. Affordable and delicious meals, snacks and drinks are sold inside the train so you will not get hungry during the trip.
The only downside was the number of passengers with baggage. Most of them had huge boxes and shopping bags. One of my seat mates even had a basket full of live crabs. It was interesting to see the other passengers buying from him then and there. But for a three-seater seat, it can get crowded.
Unfortunately, my train stopped where no train station was in sight. It took almost an hour before the tourists were advised to alight the train and wait in the middle of the train tracks for the next train to pass-by. Basing from the unfazed look of the locals, it seemed to happen often. I was definitely concerned for our safety. I was exhausted from the heat. And I was definitely confused on what train we were waiting for. None of the locals there can really explain the situation in English. Fortunately, an air conditioned train stopped for us. It was faster and more comfortable. But we were asked to pay an additional 15 BHT. Disregarding all the delays, my trip took 2 hours.
Protip: Ask for the train timetable sheet from a train station attendant. This will indicate all the stops trains make and their expected time of arrival.
Ayutthaya train station is definitely not easy to miss as it is bigger and busier than the other train stations you will pass-by. You can leave your luggage at the train station office for 10 BHT. This is ideal especially if you’ll take the train going to Chang Mai (North) or to Thanaleng-Nong Khai (North East) later that day. It also have pay bathrooms and shower rooms that are well maintained.
Protip: Buy your ticket before you leave the station if you’re on a day trip. Tickets are limited as the trains already have passengers from the main stations.
Going around Ayutthaya:
Traveling around Ayutthaya is fairly easy. You can hire a tuktuk for the day. There is a board at the train station where the accredited tuktuk drivers are listed. They even wear a blue polo as a uniform. You will need to negotiate with the drivers how much for a day tour. The price depends on what you want to visit such as the city island and/or the circus.
But for me, renting a motorbike or a bicycle is best way to go. The rental fee is standard to all shops. But it is cheaper to rent from the shops in front of the train station. The shop will provide you a tourist map and a bicycle lock.
To go to the city island, you can either travel from the station all the way to the bridge or you can simply ride a motor boat. Just cross the street and enter the alley in front of the station. At the end of the road, you will see the pier where you can ride a motor boat to cross the river. It is a 10 minute trip that costs BHT 5. The boat can accommodate a lot of people and even bicycle and/or motor bikes.
I don’t know how to drive a motor bike so I rented a bicycle. Here are some tips you can use.
- Remember that Thailand is a right-hand traffic country. I almost got to a lot of accidents because I was not used to it.
- Act like a car. Use the car lanes so other vehicles can easily see you. There is no designated bike lane where you can stay. There are not many cemented sidewalks you can use. The red brick sidewalk you may sometime see is the elephant walk way so be careful.
- Park your bike properly. Most of the wats have an allotted parking space for bicycles. It is best to padlock your bike because most look alike.
- Choose a comfortable and sturdy bicycle. You have an option from mountain bikes to bicycles with front basket at the rental shops. The city island’s wats are located close from each other so you wouldn’t really travel a far distance. But if plan to go outside the island, you will need to pedal a lot.
- Be prepared for the changing weather. Once you are inside the historical park, there a few shades where you can take shelter during the rain so you might want to bring a coat. Also, it can get hot and dry so bring your own drinks. Only the more popular wats have stalls that sell refreshments.
Looking back, it’s relatively easy to navigate around the historical park especially the city island. Their tourist map lists all the existing wats you can visit. But I realized that I can’t read a map. I got lost several times. On the upside, I was able to see most of the wats found in the city island. I was even able to explore the northern and southern Ayutthaya.
My first stop was Wat Maha That (15) which is located closest to the historical park’s arc. It was once the residence of the leader the Buddhist monks. It has an entrance fee of 50 BHT. The wat is mostly in ruins and it’s former beauty is hardly recognizable. But it most known for the Buddha head in the fig tree.
Just north of it is Wat Ratchaburana (16). It’s large prang with the original stucco such as the garudas still stands. You can already see it from a far as it welcomes you entering the gate of the historical park.
I did not intend to leave the city island. But I was unable to see the roundabout to the Ancient Palace as indicated in my map. The long bike ride with nothing but grass on my left and river on my right scared me. I can’t even stop to check my map because of the fast buses and trucks that passing by. So when I saw a bridge with a sign to a wat, I immediately turned towards it.
Luckily, I immediately saw Wat Na Phra Men (17). It is located north of the city island opposite of the Grand Palace. With it’s clean surrounding and fresh paint, you would think Wat Na Phra Men was not built during the Ayutthaya period. This wat escaped the pillage during the Burmese attacks. It was then restored in the 1800s. The buddha images located in the temple are in royal attire that was a prominent style during the later years of the Ayutthaya Kingdom.
Protip: If you want to sit inside the temple, please read about the different temple etiquette beforehand.
In my attempts to get back to the city island, I found Wat Choeng Tha (18). It was not easy to see as the newer temple hides the ruins of this wat. The ruins are surrounded by tall grass and foliage. The most interesting for me was the abandoned Ubosoth. If I was not alone, I would have explored inside as its doors were ajar.
I was finally able to find my way back to the city island. But the wide green field that welcomed me made me more anxious. Apparently, it is all part of the Ancient Grand Palace grounds.
Inside the Ancient Palace Grounds, you can see Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit and Wat Phra S Samphet
Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit (9) is an active temple south of Wat Phra Samphet. The buddha located inside was once outside the Grand Palace.
Wat Phra S Samphet (10) was once a royal temple inside the Grand Palace grounds. The Grand Palace was completely destroyed by the Burmese but the this temple stands strong. It has a 50 BHT entrance fee. With its magnificent three large chedis surrounded by smaller ones, it was definitely astounding.
I am not a good at taking photos but my photos of this temple turned out pretty well. Canon provided a marker north-east from the temple gates for the best angle to take a photo. It is a no wonder that Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) located at the current Grand Palace grounds was patterned from it.
South of the Ancient Palace is Wat Som (58). Not much can be seen in this monastery. It is mostly in ruins except for its main prang. Its main prang is considered as the most preserved stucco in all Ayutthaya.
Once you cross Tungmakamyong Bridge (Wongheanutsahakam) to go south of the city island, you can immediately see the main prang of Wat Worachet Thep Bamrung (26) at your left. This once monastery was accessible through the canals from Cho Pharaya. It is currently located in the middle of a residential area.
Out of all the temples I saw that day, Wat Chai Watthanaram (27) was definitely my favorite. The temple and pathways are made of red bricks. Under the blazing heat of the sun, the temple looked on fire. It is prone to flooding as it is located at the banks of Cho Pharaya river. But the conservation effort and improvement of the drainage system by the local government and international agencies helped the wat to retain it’s beauty. It now looked unscathed from any flooding. It’s Cho Pharaya river backdrop also improves the unique look of this temple.
St. Joseph’s Chruch (28) is not a grandiose church but it definitely stands out amidst all the Buddhist temples in Ayutthaya.
If you still have the energy to pedal, you can visit Wat Phutthai Sawsn (29). It is an active temple that escaped the pillage though time has taken it’s toll on the older temple compound. You can still see it’s main prang and the reclining buddha in the courtyard. It’s a wonderful wat to explore. You would need to to detour or bike towards the pier to go back to the city island from here.
Once I got back to the city island, I explored the wats located in the west. You can see Chedi Sri Suriyothai (35) along the banks of Cho Phraya with its huge chedi that is still important to the military. Another is Wat Lokaya Sutharam (34). It is most identifiable for its enormous reclining Buddha (37m x 8m). Wat Worachettharam (33) is often confused with Wat Worachet Thep Bamrung that shares the same name. One of its main features is its restored bell shaped chedi.
My last stop was Wat Phra Ram (7) located at the middle of the city island. After all that pedaling, this was a nice place to explore on foot. The different structures are scattered around the complex and are well conserved. It was a monastery that served as the cremation site for the first Ayutthaya monarchy.
There are other sites to see inside the historical park such as museums and elephant parks. The number of places you can visit will really depend on your stamina. Just remember to take your time exploring the places you visit. Take some breaks. This will help you prevent temple fatigue.