After a week in Bangkok, we were ready for a change of pace and took a short train ride to Ayutthaya. The city is full of history as it previously served as the capital of Siam beginning in the mid-1300s until the Burmese conquered and destroyed much of the city in 1767. The heart of Ayutthaya (uh-YOU-tie-uh) is an island surrounded by three different rivers.
The island and surrounding area are absolutely packed with interesting temples to explore. There are undoubtedly some major highlights, but I found the greatest appeal of Ayutthaya to be the juxtaposition of a modern town with all the centuries-old ruins interspersed throughout. Imagine walking down a street lined with shops and houses and stumbling onto the remains of these beautiful wats, all day long!
A lot of people make Ayutthaya a day trip from Bangkok, but such a rush job does this town no justice. It’s beautiful, with a friendlier and calmer atmosphere than Bangkok. The air is cleaner and we could actually cross the street without fearing for our lives. The island itself is relatively small and easily walked, which is a great way to get your bearings and explore the city. We also took a long-tail boat ride to circle the island, which was a fun way get a different view of the city.
But in order to explore in true Thai fashion, we had to rent a motorbike.
For the equivalent of USD $6, we had the freedom of the open road for a day. We set off early, with me white-knuckling Schuyler and the bike for the first fifteen minutes while I yelled for him to slow down. But motorbikes are everywhere in Thailand, and as I kept seeing 70-year-old ladies driving and schoolgirls riding sidesaddle on the back of mopeds, I began to relax. I could do this too!
With my trusted partner driving, we spent the day venturing over the river and back again. Early in the morning, we found Wat Cherng Tha and had the temple to ourselves. Legend has it that the wat originated when the beautiful daughter of a wealthy man eloped. The father had the bridal hall built and waited many years for her return with no luck. Then he had a monastery built on the site, facing the Lopburi River. The original name of the temple meant “the waiting.”
As we explored, we found temples that weren’t even on our map. But there were a few major sights that we wanted to see, including the largest outdoor reclining Buddha in Ayutthaya. The image is over 126 feet long and was completed restored in 1954. The reclining position is important in Buddhist iconography and represents the Buddha during illness at the end of his life. In this particular statue, lotus flowers support his head.
Our next stop was Wat Thammikarat, which was destroyed and abandoned during the second fall of Ayutthaya in 1767 but restored during the reign of King Rama V. Here we experienced our first “rooster army.” Hundreds of rooster statues adorn a tribute to King Naresuan, who is idolized here in Ayutthaya for his pivotal role in obtaining independence from Burma. Legend has it that as a prince, he bet the prince of Burma that if his rooster won their cockfight, Ayutthaya would one day be independent. His rooster won, of course. After a popular movie came out about him, these rooster statues started mysteriously appearing at wats associated with him.
The most special moment at Wat Thammikarat, however, occurred in the ordination hall when we entered to pay respect to the Buddha images. An old monk called us over and signaled that we sit down. He began chanting, offering us a blessing as he tied a string bracelet around our wrists. He continued the chant as he dipped a broom-like handle into a bowl of water and splashed it on our heads (a welcome relief in the heat of the day!). From what I’ve read, these are called sai sin bracelets. Monks have a special ceremony to bless the thread and the holy water, and offer the bracelets for good luck in travels.
After a full morning, Schuyler had the brilliant idea to pick up some street food and picnic for lunch. The park in Ayutthaya, of course, has quite a few temple ruins among the green space. We sat in the shade of a huge old tree and enjoyed pad Thai, meat sticks, grilled bananas and coconut cakes. Just like every single thing we’ve eaten here, it was all completely delicious.
After taking an hour to cool off in our guesthouse, we jumped back on the motorbike to head out and explore. We found the Ayutthaya city park, which was extremely well-landscaped and maintained compared to the parks at home and in Bangkok. We bought a bag of corn puffs and fed them to the pigeons, giant catfish and turtles. Next to the park was another beautiful temple, where we climbed the stairs and joined the other visitors to drop a coin down a Goonies-like wishing well for luck.
We were really excited to visit Wat Chaiwatthanaram, which looked stunning from the long-tail boat, so we planned our day around catching it at sunset. Constructed in 1630, this impressive royal temple did not disappoint! There is a tall main prang, four smaller prangs and eight chapels. 12 reliefs along the exterior depict scenes from the life of the Buddha, althought most have been destroyed.
One sad thing to see was that nearly all the Buddha images at the Ayutthaya temples had been beheaded during Burmese attacks. However, Thailand has put many resources into restoring and maintaining these sights in order to preserve their history and promote tourism. The architecture is so impressive that you can’t help but wonder how much more stunning the wats must have been during their glory days.
After a very full day of exploration, we took one more loop around the city before returning our moped and heading to the night market for some dinner. We had a blast on the motorbike and will definitely be renting them more often as a fun way to explore new cities.
While we are excited to head north and see a different part of Thailand, we grew quite fond of Ayutthaya and look forward to visiting this town again on future travels!