Ayutthaya kingdom is one of the most influential and progressive kingdoms in the history of Thailand.
Ayutthaya, today, is a small city that is just an hour's train ride from Bangkok. Nevertheless, it shows no signs of the progressive town used to be, as portrayed in museums or history.
The muddy Chao Phraya river flowed down swiftly as I watched the sunset from my homestay. The sunset was from behind one of the pagodas of a temple that I waited to explore the next day. A noisy cruise passed on with people dancing in and lights shining brightly. The celebrations were evident at a resort in the opposite bank with party lights and blaring music.
Neither did the river wait for anyone, nor was it bothered about the noise. It kept flowing swiftly to meet the sea. Before the darkness started to loom, my friend and I decided to check out the local market that seemed abuzz on the way.
On the whole, Ayutthaya is a simple town, and it doesn't cater to tourists. It is in its raw state, and the cuisine, people, drinks, everything is native. I couldn't stomach the papaya salad here, which was high on fish sauce. Maybe this is how some tum tastes. A bite into a savoury snack made of sweet potato and coconut and some dried nuts along with cold coffee was my dinner. I retired early, anticipating a long day the next day.
Before we dive into my experience of exploring the ten most sought-after temples in Ayutthaya, let us dive into the city's history and how to approach the tour.
History of Ayutthaya
Ayutthaya is also known as Phra Nakhon. Si Ayutthaya was the former capital of the Siamese kingdom (Thailand). Founded with a strong influence of Hinduism and named after Ayodhya, the birthplace of Lord Rama, there is no trace of Hinduism anymore or ruins that compliment it.
It came into existence in 1350 by King U Thong. Ayutthaya, being an island with rich rivers flowing all around and being high land with flourishing rice fields, the king found it a suitable place to set up his kingdom.
Ayutthaya period was after the Sukhothai period. This justifies why we can see that the kings were more open to the world and had better knowledge about the world, opening doors to trade from many countries as far as Europe.
One of the prominent kings of the Ayutthaya period that you will often see in museums and around Thailand is King Phra Narai. He is one of the progressive kings who allied with France and other countries. One of the curious and controversial kings wanted to learn languages, exchange goods with other countries, and bring foreigners into his court as advisers. This, some say, worked in his favor, and some say that led to burning many ties and the fall of Ayutthaya eventually.
With the Burmese invasion in the 1700s, Ayutthaya fell, and the Burmese burnt down everything in the city. Though the Ayutthaya period is considered the golden age of Thai in terms of literature, art, medicine, and infrastructure development, there are not many of such sorts you will get to see with the Burmese invasion.
Present Ayutthaya is filled with ruins that are managing to hold up. With it being so close to Bangkok, Ayutthaya has become a popular heritage site to visit. You have to be someone who can appreciate history and ruins, and you will not find it interesting otherwise.
Ten Ayutthaya Temples - Ayutthaya Historical Park
Before we get to see the Ayutthaya temple, let me introduce the terms that describe the temple's structure. Almost all the temples have a similar structure, and you will come across these terms again and again..
Wat - the temple complex containing the below
Chedi/ Pagoda/ Stupa - referred to by many of these names, is the main structure we see in the temples. The tall cylindrical tower has a broader base and gets narrow towards the top. The pagodas are usually flanked with smaller pagodas on either side. The pagodas are adorned with stuccos depicting some life story or anecdotes from mythology.
The Chedi usually has the relics of kings, monks, or that of Buddha itself.
Prang - Prang is also a pagoda, just that the structure will be different. Chedi will be conical or cylindrical. Prang will be like a pyramid.
Ubosot or Bot - The ordination hall, the main prayer hall, is an important part of the movie. Ubosot is surrounded by eight Sema or Sima stones. They are installed by doing rituals, and iron balls are placed under these stones. It marks the sacred boundary wall of the bot. A ninth sema stone is placed below the main Buddha statue in the ubosot.
Viharan - Assembly hall where some of the ceremonies are performed. They look similar to ubosot, but they do not have sema stones around them. Some of them adorn a library too.
Now is the time to discover the temples in the city.
It is advisable to hire a vehicle or two-wheeler /bike or cycle as it is a long adventure that I will take you to.
Some of them will have a library too.
Let us now visit the places to see in Ayutthaya. Do hire a vehicle or two-wheeler /bike or cycle. It is a long ride that am gonna take you around.
The first thing on the Ayutthaya map and the first thing you will see before the Ayutthaya historical park is the Ayutthaya Elephant Centre.
Please do not go there to hire an elephant to go around the city on an elephant. It is a shameful thing as they put huge bench-like stuff on the neck of the elephant. You will not look like a king and queen going around the city on top of the elephant.
Book your tour to go around Ayutthaya here - Ancient city tour by Klook
1. Wat Phra Si Sanphet
The main attraction marked inside the Ayutthaya historical park is the Wat Phra Si Sanphet. It was situated on the premises of the royal palace built by King U Thong. So this is not actually like a temple or open to the public. But all-important royal ceremonies like swearing-in would take place. It is also the royal family's private chapel.
The main attraction here is the three grand pagodas standing adjacent to each other. These pagodas contain the ashes of three kings.
Closer view of Pagoda, Wat Phra Si Sanphet
2. Wat Phra Ram
Wat Phra Ram is on the opposite side of Wat Phra Si Sanphet.
Get one ticket for all the major attractions, and you will be able to visit all the temples.
King Ramesuan built the temple at the cremation site of his father, King U Thong. It hence gets the name of Wat Phra Ram. This also is consumed under the original palace complex. This explains why there were many restoration projects often as the Pagoda is still up.
Around this temple, or rather to the front, is a swamp, now a lily pond. It is said that inside the relic chamber, the walls are decorated with the image of Buddha and other motifs. This is one of the temples which have Buddha statues intact on the sides of some of the pagodas.
3. King U Thong Monument
Though we cannot call it a temple, it is still worshiped by the people of Ayutthaya. After the Burmese war, Ayutthaya was ruined, and many people lost their lives. Considered as a town of misfortune, the governor then had the idea to construct a memorial for the founder, hoping that he would shower the city with good luck. These are the recent developments of 1970. So they built this memorial and opened the King U Thong statue.
He can be seen in a standing posture with a sword in hand and dressed like a king. Every year on April 3rd, people assemble at the monument to pay their respects. As tourists, we pay our respects too and seek His blessings.
4. Wat Mahathat
This is the most visited temple and the most revered temple here. It has the relics of Buddha. But, the main Pagoda no longer stands. While looking at its base, one can judge that it must have been the tallest Pagoda constructed during that time.
Wat Mahathat is known as the 'Temple of the Great Relics,' where the supreme Buddhist monk resided. What it is famous today for is the Buddha head among the roots of a Bodhi tree.
The most photographed and seen, this is an iconic image. The Buddha head, which must have fallen off from a statue, is now entrapped with roots. This being a Bodhi tree around a smiling Buddha head, some people look at it as a cosmic connection. This is probably the only good Buddha head that you will see, which is so big and up close in the whole of Ayutthaya.
Mahathat is also one of the temples where you can see the ubosot, viharan, and library.
Go early if you intend to avoid the crowd. It is a more giant complex than any Wat that you will probably visit.
5. Wat Ratchaburana
To the right of Wat Mahathat stands the Wat Ratchaburana. This temple is well maintained and one of the few pagodas that you can climb and see the Pagoda inside. However, it is not so clear whether the Buddha images can be found. I was surprised with the statue of Garuda, the vehicle of Lord Vishnu, which was seen flanking on the Pagoda walls.
I am not sure why this kind of representation was displayed on the Buddhist Pagoda, though.
6. Wat Thammikarat
This was my favorite place to visit because no other tourists were there to make it hard to enjoy a place.
Hardly a couple or two apart from me and my friend. The architecture of this temple was different too.
The moment you park your vehicle, you get to see the Chedi, which has lion sculptures all around. The lions are square-faced, and the entrance of Chedi has naga sculptures. I am a little biased towards the Khmer style.
The ubosoth is enormous, and the red brick pillars stand tall, giving you the impression of what big a structure it could have been.
This is still a place of worship.
So we can see many offerings of cock idols. It is quite perplexing what this custom is, but in many temples, we can see sculptures of cock and elephants placed.
Just when I thought this was all and walked a little down to see what the monks were up to, I saw a small room with people praying in it.
When I walked in, I was surprised to see that there was a giant reclining Buddha.
Have you seen one in Wat Pho in Bangkok? It is similar to that.
It is a Huge one, and people stick the gold leaf on this statue.
Thailand surprises you this way many times!
I had a bizarre experience of a conversation with a monk there !!
The monk there asked me if I had been to Bodhgaya in India, and I said no!
He burst out laughing, and he exclaimed, "What are you doing in all these temples when you have not been to one close home."
Well, I gave a wry smile and moved on.
It has an adjacent new temple too.
7. Wat Cherng Tha
This temple is a little secluded from the other group of temples. And this new wat which was close to the ruins seemed to be abuzz with all the activity.
There were many Chedis and stupas here of all sizes.
The history written on the board said, 'it was not a temple in the beginning but a bridal house.' The daughter of a rich man eloped with her lover, and the disappointed father built a bridal house and kept waiting for her to return. She never came, and so later, he turned it into a monastery.
When I walked in through the bushes, some everyday prayer was in the procession, and it was soothing to listen to. You can give this place a miss if you find it out of the way.
8. Wat Lokaya Sutha
This one is really pretty to be my other favorite. It has a giant reclining Buddha in the open, which has the most pleasant smiling face I have ever seen. It is like you know that face, and you automatically smile back. But, since the figure is painted in black and white, it gets difficult to capture the smile in a picture.
I just tried to take so many pictures hoping to capture that smile but only in vain. It is said that this entire giant Buddha was once inside a Viharan because we can see the base of the pillars in front of the statue. The Buddha is seen reclining on a bed of lotus flowers. This is a must-visit temple.
9. Wat Yai Chai Mongkon
Yet Another famous Wat of Ayutthaya. This is one of the temples where the Buddha statues' have a head still intact, and the Chedi is up. You can climb up the Chedi and see what it is like inside and all of that. It is also relatively new, and many Buddha statues around the Chedi have been contributed recently, so it looks like a brand new temple in some parts. It is also one of the functioning ones.
There were few monasteries for some reason which hosted the monks who were returning from Ceylon. I am not sure if the teachings were different as they were in a separate monastery. This is one such monastery that hosted monks who were back from learning in Sri Lanka.
From here the Japanese village museum and one more was also close by.
But we decided to skip them as we had Wat Chaiwatthanaram to be completed before closing time.
10. Wat Chaiwatthanaram
I was saving the dessert for the last.
There was more character to this one because the Chao Phraya river flows right next to it. It still has some Buddha images intact despite it being in old ruins. I watched the sunset from here, and I could see this place from Airbnb. It was so serene to sit on those lawns and watch the towering pagodas.
This place stole my heart.
It was a royal temple complex built during the Ayutthaya period. The temple complex was constructed as an Aranya sector temple, meaning Buddhist monks would practice meditation in forest hermitages.
Four others around them flank the main Pagoda. There are also some stuccos around the temple depicting stories from the life of Buddha. This is probably the temple you should see if you need to understand all the structures of a Wat complex in Ayutthaya.
Those are the ten must-visit temples of Ayutthaya.
Now let us get you on the journey there.
Those are the ten must visit temples of Ayutthaya. Now let us get you there.
How to Reach Ayutthaya
Bangkok to Ayutthaya
We took the train from Don Muang station, which is right opposite the Don Muang international airport.
I was heading on this train to Khao Yai National Park, and this train passed through Ayutthaya. It is a third-class train and about 30 bhat or so tickets but no confirmed seats to Ayutthaya. This train starts from Bangkok's Hualamphong Train station. It is just about a one-and-a-half-hour journey to Ayutthaya. You can go on a one-day tour by hiring a cab or going as part of tour packages.
There are also regular buses that leave from the Mo Chit bus terminal regularly.
It was so cool to have traffic signals around Chedi!!
You will come across many spots like this in Ayutthaya City.
I came to Ayutthaya from Lopburi. So a minivan going to Bangkok picked us up and dropped us on the highway near Ayutthaya city park. It is about 10km away from the town, and you will need to shell out again for tuk-tuk or cabs.
The train is another option from Lopburi to Ayutthaya, but ticket availability was there only for a later point of time in the day, so we opted for the minibus.
Explore Ayutthaya on a bike - Take a cycle tour with Klook