Among the ruins and remains at the Ayutthaya Historical Park
Between the years 1350 and 1767, Ayutthaya was the capital of Siam, which at its peak ruled over an area larger than England and France combined. Home to over a million people, the island city was one of Asia’s major trading ports and international merchants visiting from around the globe wrote of its gilded temples and treasure-laden palaces that glittered from a distance. After the Burmese sacked the city in 1767, there was a general period of instability until General Taksin, who reigned until 1782, relocated the capital of Siam to what is now Bangkok, further down the Chao Phraya River.
In the years that followed after Ayutthaya continued to be a provincial trading town, but it’s once glorious temples and palaces fell in ruin and were looted. In the 1950s the Thai Fine Arts Department began restoring the site, with major restoration work beginning in 1969. The area became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991, and today the dozens of ruins in the Ayutthaya Historical Park offer a glimpse into the city’s glorious past.
The property is quite large—715 acres—so renting a bicycle or hiring a tuk-tuk driver is advised. 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 sites, can be purchased for around B220.
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 Buddha statue—measuring 16 metres high, and covered in 250 kg of 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 Wiharn 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.
Meanwhile, Wat Phra Mahathat, built in 1374, is famous for both its prang (Khmer-style tower) and its mysterious Buddha head entwined in tree roots (see boxed text). Just to the north of this temple lies Wat Ratchaburana, which was built in the 15th century, while to the west sits Wat Thammikarat, dominated by a central chedi surrounded by guardian lion sculptures.
There are dozens more beautiful crumbling ruins on the island to see, each adding another chapter to the story of ancient Ayutthaya.
Mystery of the Buddha Head
At the Ayutthaya Historical Park there is one iconic image that appears time and again on postcards and in guide-books—a Buddha head tangled within the roots of a Banyan tree. It’s an extremely sacred site, located not far from the entrance of Wat Mahathat, but nobody knows for certain how the Buddha 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, and more detailed theory suggests that a thief moved the Buddha head away from the main temple to hide it. This may have happened in the early years of the 20th century when it was recorded that one of the remaining areas of the temple collapsed and this led to treasure hunters rummaging through the area. After the stone Buddha head was moved away from the ruined main temple, 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 was left by the wall where it 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.
Words and photos by Bruce Scott