Thailand’s Answer to Angkor Wat

An 80 kilometer trip north of Bangkok takes you 400 years back in time. Ayutthaya is Thailand’s Angkor Wat: the remains of a former royal capital, now in ruins. But unlike Angkor Wat, which largely stands by itself, Ayutthaya is still a modern town. That leads to sights like high school students using the lawn around a ruined temple as a parking lot for their motorbikes. (Sorry, we didn’t get a picture of that.)

The ruins of a huge 14th-century temple, Wat Mahathat

Ayutthaya was Thailand’s capital from the mid-1300s to the mid-1700s. During that period, the Thai empire grew and shrank, at times encompassing parts of current Laos and Cambodia (including the ruins of 12th-century Angkor Wat) and at times falling prey to neighboring Burma. Its glory days ended when the city was sacked by a Burmese army in 1767, after which the next dynasty of Thai kings moved the capital to Bangkok. In its heyday, Ayutthaya had a million inhabitants and was home to merchants from as far away as Arabia, Persia, Portugal, France, and Britain.

Buddhist monks are among the visitors who come to Ayutthaya. These are admiring a large old reclining Buddha.

With the wooden dwellings burned, all that remain of the buildings of old Ayutthaya are the brick and stone ruins of numerous temples. At most ruined sites, it’s hard to visualize what things looked like when they were intact. But we were lucky to have just come from Bangkok, where many of the temples and palaces that were built shortly after Ayutthaya’s fall were constructed in the style of the former capital. So when we looked at brick walls and towers, we could mentally cover them in plaster and whitewash, gold leaf, bright paint, and glittering tiles, to match the ones we’d just seen in Bangkok.

Ayutthaya is an island, surrounded on all sides by rivers and crisscrossed by canals. (Visiting Dutch merchants must have found that a familiar sight.) As the capital city, it was a watery place. Palaces, temples, and other important structures were built on the firmest ground, while homes and shops sat on stilts over the water or floated on houseboats. (To get a sense of what that might have looked like, visit our photo gallery of a floating village in Cambodia.)

One of the fun things to do in Ayutthaya—besides visiting the ruined temples and the museums that house their artifacts—is to take a boat trip around the island. Chugging along at water level, you see old and new temples, people fishing behind their homes, tug boats pulling long barges, water monitor lizards swimming among the reeds, and people being ferried across the river. In other words, you see all of the hubbub of daily life that filled this area when Ayutthaya was the most important city in Thailand.

This ferry across the river is so quick that there’s no reason to get off your motorbike

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