In its heyday during the 15th and 16th centuries, Ayutthaya was one of the greatest cities in the world. Benefitting from prosperous trading links to the Arab world, Europe, and the Far East, its streets and marketplaces were graced with imposing temples and royal palaces. Today, much of that grandeur is gone but the charm remains and although many of the temples are now merely relics of their former self, the city is well worth a visit.
Start the day at one of the city’s many cafés, enjoying a freshly brewed cup of coffee and perhaps a croissant before heading out for the day. Many places know that visitors are out for a day of exploration and offer take away lunch boxes.
One of the best ways to explore Ayutthaya on your own is to rent a bike. Head east to the Ayutthaya Railway Station where bicycles are readily available for rent. The quality of the bikes on offer vary, so it’s a good idea to take it for a test ride to see if the brakes work. Most of the shops open in the early morning, so you can get the most out of the day, and they don’t require you to return the bike until nightfall. To rent a bike is cheap–just 40 baht for a whole day and many conveniently have a map attached to the front of the bike, making navigating the city a breeze. The sights in Ayutthaya are all within easy reach of each other and there are also a few attractions outside of the city for those who don’t mind driving a bit further.
The Thai Boat Museum
Bicycle across the King Naresuan Maharaj Bridge and into Ayutthaya town where, along Ho Rattanachai road, you’ll find the Thai Boat Museum. Surrounded by well-kept, tropical gardens, the museum is part of the private home of professor Paitoon Khawmala and his wife, Rattana, and the elderly couple is more than happy to give you a grand tour of the exhibition, which contains traditional Thai boats and models of royal barges. Thai Khun Paitoon was a professor at the Technical School of Shipbuilding and it is his hope that the museum will help educate people about Thailand’s proud shipbuilding tradition.
Just around the corner from the Thai Boat Museum you will find one of the famous landmarks of Ayutthaya: Wat Mahathat. The temple is perhaps most famous for the head of Buddha, which is lodged in the roots of a large tree close to the temple entrance. The head is in fact one of the only ones remaining at the temple–most of the Buddha images were destroyed when the Burmese invaded Ayutthaya in 1767, their heads cut off as a way of adding insult to injury. Behind the temple is a picturesque lake and park, perfect for taking your bicycle for a spin.
There is no shortage of lunch options in Ayutthaya. We stopped for a traditional dim sum lunch at Tapestry restaurant, just off the city centre. Make sure to order the signature xiaw long bao, perfectly prepared with just the right balance of soup, flavourful pork filling and soft, yet textured, bun. The kra por pla, a traditional, Chinese soup made with fried fish maw, is also highly recommended.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet
If you can muster the energy with your stomach full of dim sum, get back on the bicycle and make your way across town to Wat Phra Si Sanphet, set within the old palace grounds where it functioned as the royal chapel. Two of the three iconic, bell shaped stupas were built in 1448 by order of King Boromatrailokanat while a third was added at a later stage together with a 16 metre Buddha image, covered in gold, that the Burmese melted and stole when they invaded. It is believed that King Rama I gathered the remains and brought them to Bangkok where he placed them in the chedi at Wat Po.
If you’re feeling extra energetic, swing past the Wat Loyakayasutharam, the giant reclining Buddha. The site isn’t as impressive as Wat Mahathat or Wat Phra Si Sanphet, but the sheer size of the Buddha statue is.
It’s time for a mid-afternoon snack. From Wat Loyakayasutharam follow the Chao Phraya River along the western and southern bank until you reach the so-called “Roti Road” along U-Thong road near Ayutthaya Hospital. The road takes its name from the many stalls serving Ayutthaya’s most famous dish, roti sai mai, a light pancake wrapped around thin, colourful strands of sugar not dissimilar to cotton candy.
If you haven’t yet filled up on roti sai mai, head to the night market along Bang Lan road. Despite its modest size, the market has an impressive collection of Thai comfort food and snacks, including moo ping, satay, kanom krok and pad thai.
- There isn’t much traffic in Ayutthaya but it can still be a bit tricky navigating a bicycle around cars and motorbikes. Always take the conservative approach and follow the traffic rules and regulations. Ask the place where you are renting your bike if they have helmets.
- The best time of the year to visit Ayutthaya is November to February when there is less chance of rain and where cooler temperatures make riding a bicycle less hot.
- The many ruins may start to look the same once you’ve seen a few. The key to enjoying Ayutthaya and its many historical sites is to do a little bit of research beforehand so that you can really take in the significance of this fantastic place.