I had been back in Bangkok for just over a week. I needed some alone time to take care of a little business and to ponder where I wanted to travel next.
Bangkok can be fun but after several days the noise, traffic, pollution and high population density can become overwhelming for me. A shift of perspective was needed and I decided it was time to visit Ayutthaya, site of the second kingdom of Siam and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
One can reach Ayutthaya by bus, automobile or even barge; but the best way is to take the train from Bangkok. I left my hotel in the Sukhumvit district at a civilized 9:30 am and walked five minutes to the MRT station down the street.
The MRT is a clean modern subway line that runs way below Bangkok’s crowded streets. For the price of 27 baht (about 90 US cents) I was quickly and quietly whisked across the city to Hua Lamphong Railway Station. A couple of flights up the escalators brought me to the Italian Neo-Renaissance style train station proper.
Local trains leave almost hourly for Ayutthaya. A third class ticket costing 20 baht (65 cents) gets you a seat with the locals where the windows open and one can really feel connected to the whole experience. You can also buy a second class seat in an air conditioned car with sealed widows for 240 baht, more than 10 times the price! The trip is only about 90 minutes and once the train is moving, a nice warm breeze circulates through the windows.
I love train travel in Thailand and have made several longer overnight trips in very comfortable sleeper cars. (Hint: second class sleeper cars have the same comfy beds as first class sleeper cars at half the price and they are more sociable).
Arriving in Ayutthaya, I waded through the touts offering tuk tuk rides and quickly crossed the street where I immediately rented a bicycle to tour the nearby historic areas. The rental cost was 30 baht for the day (one dollar)! My only other transportation cost was a payment of three baht to cross the river with my bike.
The historical park covers a large area similar to Sukhothai and like that earlier Thai Kingdom there are many outlying Wats (temples), stupas and residences that have been restored as well. After many decades, craftsmen with the advise of archeologists and historians continue to unearth and faithfully restore buildings.
Many tourists hire a tuk tuk, motorcycle, car or seat on a large tour bus. There is even an option to take a barge tour up Thailand’s Chao Phraya, the River of Kings, from Bangkok to Ayutthaya. These options are all considerably more expensive and you are locked into a tour schedule that does not provide the flexibility of bicycling or walking at one’s own pace.
Unfortunately all of these vehicles are allowed in the historical park unlike Sukhothai where vehicles are much more controlled. It’s not exactly a traffic jam, but one needs to stay alert for the semi-frequent vehicle (and no, they do not stop for pedestrians or bicyclists). Nonetheless, it is a beautifully preserved site with ongoing site excavation and restoration.
Ayutthaya was established by King U-Thong in 1350 A.D. as the second capital of the Kingdom of Siam. It held that position for more than 400 years. In recent years it has become such an important industrial center that flooding here in late 2011 brought the Thai economy to a standstill.
King U-Thong chose the location for its protected position as an island formed by the confluence of three rivers. In its heyday, it was an important trade center often hosting emissaries from the Chinese and Japanese imperial courts as well as from the French Court at Versailles and the Mughal Court in Delhi. Three palaces and over 400 glittering temples led foreign visitors to describe Ayutthaya as “the most glittering city on earth.”
And so it remained through 33 kings and five dynasties until it was sacked by the Burmese army in 1767. Most of the temples were demolished. The vast majority of Ayutthaya’s treasures were stolen, burned or melted down by the Burmese or later by looters.
Ayutthaya remained empty and abandoned until the 1950s when the Thai government began excavation work. In 1991, Ayutthaya was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Renovations and restorations continue to this day.
The soaring stupas and temples as well as the riparian setting one sees today, “allows one to imagine how grand Ayutthaya was some 300 or even 500 years ago,” according to Christophe Pottier, Director of the École Française d’Extrême-Orient a French institute in Bangkok which studies Asian civilizations.
Of special note is Wat Phra Si Sanphet, completed in 1491 and now Ayutthaya’s most recognizable ruin with it’s row of three gigantic Buddhist stupas built to house the remains of three kings.
Also notable is the 14th century Khmer-influenced Wat Mahathat. Once famed for its soaring 40 meter tower, its main draw now is the serene Buddha head cosseted by the roots of a holy Bodhi tree.
Seven months after the sacking of Ayutthaya, the Thai-Chinese General Taksin overthrew the Burmese and became the new king Taksin the Great. He moved the capital downstream to Thonburi opposite Bangkok. In 1782, Taksin’s successor, Rama I, the founder of the current Chakri Dynasty (the revered and very popular current king is known as Rama IX), established the capital on Rattanakosin Island in present day Bangkok.
MRT (underground to train station) — 27 baht X 2 = 54 baht
Third class train ticket — 20 baht X 2 = 40 Baht
Bicycle rental — 30 baht
Admission ticket to all the sites — 50 baht
Ferry crossing 3 Baht (I rode back across the bridge but do not recommend it as the traffic is fierce.)
Total costs for a wonderful day trip: 177 baht or US $ 5.67.