Exploring the grandeur of the Ayutthaya Historical Park
At its peak, between the years 1350 and 1767, Ayutthaya was the capital of Siam and the Kings in power ruled over an area larger than England and France combined. The island city had become one of Asia’s major trading ports—home to over a million people—and international merchants visiting from around the globe waxed lyrically about the gilded temples and treasure-laden palaces therein. Unfortunately, the Burmese sacked the city in 1767, and a general period of instability followed until General Taksin, who reigned until 1782, relocated the capital of Siam to what is now the greater Bangkok region, further down the Chao Phraya River.
Despite its fall from grace Ayutthaya continued on as a provincial trading town, but it’s once glorious temples and palaces were looted and eventually fell in ruin. Thankfully, during the 1950s the Thai Fine Arts Department began restoring the site, with major restoration work beginning in 1969.
In 1991 the area became a UNESCO World Heritage site and today the dozens of ruins in the Ayutthaya Historical Park offer a glimpse into the city’s glorious past. The area that the ruins take up is quite large, and quite spread out, so although the major sites can be covered in a day on foot, bike rentals allow for a less exhausting tour. A two-day excursion allows for a more intensive visit, and also lets you admire the ruins lit up at night. The more famous sites each charge a small entrance fee, however a one-day pass, which covers the six major temples, can be purchased for B220. Most sites in the park are open daily from 8am till 5pm.
WAT PHRA SI SANPHET: A definite park highlight is Wat Phra Si Sanphet, a temple used exclusively for royal ceremonies. The three massive conical chedis, displaying classic Ceylonese design, are all that remain, although a gigantic gold Buddha—16 meters high, and covered in gold—once stood within the royal chapel (it was taken and melted down by the Burmese when they ransacked the city). Nearby to Wat Phra Si Sanphet is Viharn Phra Mongkol Bophit, a sanctuary hall that is home to Thailand’s biggest bronze Buddha, measuring 17 metres high. This is an “active” temple compound, and throughout the day many people visit to worship the Buddha image.
WAT PHRA MAHATHAT: Constructed in 1374, Wat Phra Mahathat was one of the most important temples in the Ayutthaya Kingdom. The rather large monastery features a huge central prang, a very large principal viharn and ubosot, and a great number of subsidiary chedis and viharns. The upper part of its once massive central prang has collapsed. Today only the base remains.
SACRED BUDDHA HEAD: Within Wat Phra Mahathat there is one ancient relic that probably gets photographed more than all the others combined—a Buddha Head inexplicably tangled within the roots of a large Banyan tree. It’s an extremely sacred site, located not far from the entrance of Wat Mahathat, but nobody knows for certain how this Buddha head came to be so firmly entwined within the tree’s exposed roots. One theory is that the tree simply grew around the Buddha head during the period when the temple lay abandoned and overgrown. A second theory suggests that a thief moved the Buddha head away from the main temple to hide it, but the thief either never returned for his prize, or felt remorseful, or simply couldn’t move the heavy object any further beyond the walls that surround the temple. Either way, the abandoned stone Buddha head can be seen today nestled in the snaking tree roots that have grown around it. The presence of a guard and a small chain-link barrier around the head are there to remind visitors of the fact that touching the head is not permitted. Photos are allowed, but to be respectful these should be taken from a kneeling position.
WAT RATCHABURANA: The main Khmer-style prang (tower) of Wat Ratchaburana is one of the finest in the historical park. Built in 1424, and located immediately north of Wat Mahathat, it was constructed by King Borom Ratchathirat II at the place where both his brothers died (they killed each other in a fight for the vacant throne of Ayutthaya). When it was constructed it was accessible by boat as it was on the banks of a canal, but that waterway has been filled in for almost a century now.
WAT CHAIWATTHANARAM: One of Ayutthaya’s most impressive temples is the Khmer-style Wat Chaiwatthanaram. Dating back to 1630, it was used as a Royal temple by King Prasat Thong and other members of the Royal family. The King built the temple as a means to gain Buddhist merit and as a memorial to his mother. Her ashes are enshrined in two square chedis flanking the ubosot on the east side of the temple. Interestingly, cannonballs and canons were dug up during excavations, leading historians to surmise that the temple may have been used as a fortress during the last war with Burma.
JOSEPH’S CHURCH: Not all historic attractions in Ayutthaya are of Thai heritage. There are still remnants of the Dutch, Portuguese, and Japanese settlements in the region, and a strong Muslim community still exists to this day. But one of the prettiest European-influenced landmarks still standing is St. Joseph’s Church, located to the southwest of the main island, right on the banks of the river. It was first built during the reign of King Narai, in 1666, as requested by the missionaries headed by Bishop Lambert de la Motte (whose remains lie interred within). It was destroyed during the 1767 Burmese invasion and lay in ruins for nearly a century. Restoration began in 1831 and was completed in 1847, adding more Romanesque details, including a series of attractive stained glass windows.
WAT YAI CHAI MONGKHON: To the southeast of the central island of Ayutthaya lies Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon, or the ‘Great Monastery of Auspicious Victory’. The name refers to the battle of 1592 in which King Naresuan defeated the Burmese Army at Nong Sarai by killing the Burmese Crown Prince in single-handed combat on elephant back. However, parts of this historic structure, which is still an active temple, are said to date back to the 14th century.
The main bell-shaped chedi is one of the primary landmarks of Ayutthaya, standing 60-metres-high and often draped in bright orange silk (although not always). Stairs on the east side lead up to the first terrace, and continue inwards to the domed chamber where the relics were contained (part of the original structure). In the outside gallery, around the base of the main chedi, rows of identical Buddha statues—newly sculpted in order to replace those which collapsed over time—sit solemnly along the walls of the square enclosure (sometimes draped in saffron robes and sometimes not). Another item of interest is the reclining Buddha image in the northeast corner of the grounds.
Words by Bruce Scott Photos courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand