After the rise and fall of the first Siamese capital of Sukhothai, the Kingdom of Ayutthaya graced not only a long chapter in Thai history but also volumes of chronicles, books, and theses. Its legendary glory through war and peace was captured in both historical records and the imaginations of far-flung fortune seekers from Europe. As a major prelude to Bangkok, Ayutthaya’s legacy lasts longer than its four centuries of grandeur.
Wrapped around by the confluences of the Chao Phraya, Lopburi, Pahsak, and Noi rivers, Ayutthaya is an island with waterways that act as natural fortresses. The fertile plains of the Chao Phraya river valley make this region abound with agricultural products as well as foraged finds from forests. These rivers, which used to be wider and deeper, were the main thoroughfares and lent themselves to commerce. Thus, Ayutthaya prospered from both agrarian abundance and foreign trading.
Founded by King Uthong, or King Rama Thibbodi I, in 1351 and ended in 1767, during the reign of King Ekathat, or King Boromraja III, Ayutthaya’s history has seen many ups and downs—through war and wealth. During the warring episodes in the 15th and 16th centuries, if Ayutthaya didn’t wage wars with Angkor or Burma, its royalty and nobility would make Game of Thrones look like a comic strip. With five revolving dynasties and 33 kings, backstabbing, coup d’états, treasons, poisoning, and plain old murder were just part of the game. Some of these monarchs were on the throne for only two months or less.
In its heyday, during the 17th and 18th centuries, Ayutthaya peaked and surpassed the sizes of both London and Paris, with more than one million inhabitants. Multi-national diplomats, missionaries, and merchants sailed up the river and were in awe of the shining palaces with golden spires and temples adorned with golden roof finials. Tall ships anchored along the banks, while the flotilla of royal barges stunned the onlookers. The original phrase “Venice of the East” was coined here when Bangkok was just a small village.
Globalization didn’t start in the last few decades, but rather centuries ago when the Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Persians, Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch, and French (among many) mixed and mingled with the locals in this old capital. With its successes, coupled with political intrigues, King Narai built his second palace in Lopburi to escape from the prying eyes of the main court. France’s King Louis XIV sent his ambassador, entourage, and gifts there. After the pomp and ceremonies, they fêted in the palace garden with Constantine Phaulkon, the Greek adventurer who became King Narai’s prime counsellor, and his wife, Maria Guyomar de Pinha, a woman of Japanese-Portuguese-Bengali descent. In short, Ayutthaya was always filled with colourful characters.
Ayutthaya lost its sovereignty to Burma twice—in 1569 and 1767—and gained it back with much blood, sweat, and tears. Nowadays its ruins and remnants have earned it accreditation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
One of my favourite temples in Ayutthaya is Wat Nha Phra Mane, which survived fully intact and has been spruced up by some modern fixtures, such as electric lamps. Its elegant structure and the presiding Buddha image command reverence and attention from visitors. The gold-laden sculpture has a severe-looking visage and finely decorated with royal regalia of crown and jewellery like a king in full formal costume. Classical, royal Ayutthayan art and culture reflect Hindu beliefs and influences in the Devaraja doctrine as the king is the avatar of Vishnu. Hence Ayutthaya is named after Rama’s city, “Ayothaya,” meaning invincible. Ironically, the Burmese called it “Yodea” while the Dutch voiced it “Iudea”, without the prefix, meaning conquerable.
History buffs should make a visit to the Ayutthaya Historical Study Centre which has a good library and interesting exhibitions about this region. However, if you would like to see the real Ayutthayan treasures, the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum exhibits splendid, priceless pieces such as gold artefacts found in the troves of the principal prangs (stupas in the form of shiva lingam) of Wat Ratchaburana and Wat Mahathaat.
Among the most romantic ruins, Wat Chai Wattanaram on the Chao Phraya River is best viewed at sunset. The central prang and its surrounding towers represent Mount Meru, the tallest mountain where the deities live, and the cosmos. Modelled after Angkor, Ayutthaya once prided itself as the centre of the universe where many nations converged. Its riches made many impressed and some like the Burmese envious.
Nowadays, Thai people visit Ayutthaya to pray at various temples or see King Rama V’s fantastical buildings at Bang Pa-In summer palace, and have lunch along the river with famed river prawns. In addition, if you are curious to see what Ayutthaya looked like in all its glory, more temples and mural paintings from this period can still be found in Petchburi, Ratchaburi, Suphanburi, and Uthong, for example. Even the Ancient City (Mueang Boran) in Samut Prakarn has a reconstructed, scaled-down replica of the Phra Sri Sanphet Prasart Throne Hall as one of its highlights.