Text & Photos By Percy Roxas
Located 76km north of Bangkok, Ayutthaya boasts magnificent ruins that indicate its status as one of Southeast Asia’s most prosperous cities in the 17th Century and beyond. The capital of Thailand (then called Siam) for 417 years (1350-1767), it is today a modern city that is jealously guarding its priceless ancient heritage, which makes it a favorite tourist attraction of many visitors to the kingdom. And there’s more to Ayutthaya than just the Ayutthaya Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that recognizes the city’s immense cultural value.
WHY GO To explore and appreciate the glorious period of Thai history; to see the ancient grandeur of the kingdom — still visible through the magnificent ruins and structures proudly standing in and around the island-city; to embark on an enlightening religious (Buddhist) tourism of sorts, as Thais are wont to do when coming here; to delight in the simple joys of Thai countryside living, and to have fun soaking in some unique facets of local culture along the way. Lots of great “very Thai” photo ops too.
WHAT TO DO Enjoy the splendor of Ayutthaya Historical Park, which covers the ruins of the old city founded by King Ramathibodi in 1350. Historic temples are scattered throughout the city, including the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Si Sanphet (the Royal Chapel), and Wat Mahathat (the Temple of the Great Relic). Spend a day in Bang Pa-In Palace, first used as a summer retreat in the 17th century. The structures represent a variety of architectural styles, set in a large park around ponds and waterways. Buy handmade works of art at the Bang Sai Arts and Crafts Center, where farmers from all over the country undergo training in folk arts and crafts and create items that make for valuable keepsakes such as weaving baskets, hand-woven silk and cotton, Thai dolls, and many more.
Ride a boat and explore Wat Chaiwatthanaram, built in 1630 by King Prasat Thong to honor his mother. This temple was built to replicate Angkor Temple, and its great beauty is reflected from the main stupa and satellite stupas along the gallery. Take a river cruise, to see best of Ayutthaya. Get a glimpse of the lifestyle of the people along the Chao Phraya River, as well as hints of life during the Ayutthaya period when the river served as a channel for trade. Many of the cities numerous temples can be seen from the cruise too. Celebrate with Ayutthaya World Heritage Fair, held annually in December. The fair features local ways of life, handicrafts, Thai traditions and culture, as well as a light and sound presentation on the history of the kingdom of Ayutthaya.
Romp with the elephants, a hands-on experience – working and playing with, and taking care of retired elephants – that will surely enhance your Ayutthaya experience, especially if you’re a first timer. Discover Thai cultural roots, at the Ayutthaya Historical Study Center, Ayutthaya Tourism Center and the National Art Museum, among other important museums and galleries. Bring Ayutthaya back home by buying palm leaf fish mobiles, bamboo fans, palm leaf hats, miniature crafts, and Aranyik knives. There are numerous shops selling all kinds of local products at the grounds in front of Wihan Phara Mongkhon Bophit and Wat Phananchoeng.
Dine with a spectacular view at the riverside restaurants, which are ideal to enjoy local specialties such as the famed Ayutthaya boat noodle soup. Some establishments offer their own dining cruise service. Oh, and don’t forget to Visit the Chao Phrom Market, located next to the Pasak River on U-Thong Road. More for locals, the market lacks the usually touristy trinkets; however, the food is fantastic, good clothing deals can be found, and the visit may be of interest for those who wish to experience a more authentic Thai marketplace.
STAY & SLEEP Hotels in Ayutthaya, as is everywhere in Thailand, varies in range according to the needs, tastes, and budgets of travelers. But the Krungsri River Hotel, Grand Hotel, Ayothaya Riverside Hotel, and U-Thong Inn Hotel, are regarded as among the best and with upper bracket room rates than guesthouses. High-end accommodation is limited although there are some options by the riverside, probably because many people go to Ayutthaya usually on a daytrip from Bangkok. For those staying overnight or more though, guesthouses are a plenty especially in and around Soi 2 between Naresuan Road and Pamaphrao Road, opposite the western end of the Chao Phrom Market.
Budget options include Chang House, Naresuan Road Soi 1; BJ Guesthouse, an old small Thai House family run place; The Lima Place at 139 Moo 2 Bankao Ayutthaya (1.5 km from Ayutthaya Railway Station; Mint Guest House, located within the alley right in front of the train station; P-U Guest House, hidden off Soi Torgorsor; Sherwood House (known to locals as the MM Pool) on 1/25 Dechawut Road; Thong Chai Guest House, on a road directly opposite Wat Ratchaburana; the Old Palace Resort, 1/35 Moo 5, Tavasukree (Near Wat Na Phra Men; Promtong Mansion, 23 Pathon Road, Pathon Soi 19, (5 minutes walk from Wat Mahathat; and Somjai Place Ayutthaya, 69/16 Buawaan Soi Rattranachai in the heart of the city. Please note that selection of these guesthouses is random. Prices start from Bt100 to a little over a thousand baht.
EAT Boat noodle (in front of the telephone authority building and opposite Sri Nakharin Park along U-Thong Road) — Original boat noodle, a specialty of Ayutthaya, was cooked on a boat. It is noodles and soup with meat and vegetables, served in a little bowl usually at Bt10 per bowl. Malakor on Chee Kun Rd (opposite Wat Ratchaburana) – very good food at reasonably prices. It also serves some of Ayutthaya’s best coffee. Roti Saimai on U-Thong Road and Si Sanphet Road junction (opposite Phra Nakorn Si Ayutthaya Hospital) — Roti Saimai is a Thai-style candyfloss wrapped in a roti, a very popular local dessert. Roti Sai Mai, is known as the best sweet roti in Thailand. Siam Restaurant on Chee Kun Road – food a bit unremarkable says many but location is excellent location with views of Wat Mahathat. Don’t be shy about trying out Thai food at the night markets; they might surprise you. They’re very inexpensive too.
DRINK For tourists, the best area to converge for drinks is probably Soi Torgorsor, between Pamaphrao Road and Naresuan Road opposite the western end of Chao Phrom Market. It has a number of bars staying open until late, some with projection screens for sports. Two tourist favorites are Street Lamp and the Jazz Bar.
By bus There are air-conditioned and non-air-conditioned bus leaving the Bangkok Northern Bus Terminal for the usual two-hour journey. Call 02-936-2852/66 (www.transport.co.th) for more information.
By train Trains depart from Hua Lamphong Station in Bangkok daily, the cheapest and most scenic way of reaching Ayutthaya. The trip takes about two and two-and-a-half hours depending on the type of service. Second-class seats (A/C) cost Bt245, while third-class seats are just Bt15 baht but don’t expect guaranteed seating.
By car One can also get to Ayutthaya by car using various highway routes, which are well paved and safe. Car rental companies abound in Bangkok for reasonable per day rates. Don’t forget to bring a map though.