It's hard to put into words the experience of Ayutthaya.
I can still see the imagery in my minds eye - row upon row of headless scarlet Buddha statues, crumbling prau's (towers) reaching hundreds of feet in the air - green lawns, palm tree's, mangy dogs, calm lakes and everywhere that feeling of exotic bygone grandeur. A graveyard of brooding russet-red crumbling temples stretching as far as the eye can see.
Ayutthaya along with Erawan NP and Chiang Mai was the highlight of my trip to Thailand. And it was really special as I stepped away from the grind of the backpacker trail so prevalent in Katchanaburi and Bangkok's Khao San - and immersed myself in Thai culture. And the experience did me the power of good, though it did have some hairy moments.
But if you only make one excursion out of Bangkok then head for Ayutthaya. This was the ancient capital of the kingdom of the Thai's. It once was a city so massive and important that it rivaled medieval London and Rome. Now it is a city of ruins and ghosts where eerie red temples soar out of massive fields situated on an island 4 miles wide at the meeting of the Lopburi and Chao Phraya rivers. Redbrick prangs soar above the palms and loom above the meandering rivers. Quite simply, if I had to choose a town which evoked the soul and history of Thailand - then it would be Ayutthaya.
So why come here?
Why make the daytrip from Bangkok or break your journey north to Chiang Mai? Well, it has to be one of the best archaeological sites in Asia. It is up there in world terms with Pompeii, Stonehenge, Luxor, Khajuraho and Knossos. The whole city within it's four mile square moat is one giant open-air museum. This was a city of great kings, canals, soaring prang's and temples coated in so much gilt that the sparkle dazzled from miles away. It's empire at it's height stretched to cover most of central Thailand reaching into Cambodia. It was always coveted by the Thai's ancient enemy - the Burmese, who repeatedly tried to capture it. They finally breached the walls in 1757 and sacked the city completely. It's great temples were destroyed, it's monks massacred and the population herded away to Burma to become slaves. The king escaped to die of starvation in the jungle - the Thais consider it the greatest calamity ever in their history and the damage was so great that it became uninabitable - and a new capital was started in Bangkok. The locals say that you can hear the screams of the dying still very late at night.
This journal concentrates on the best ruins to see in Ayutthaya, the next will be about the practicalities of visiting this special town.
Wat Maharat - Temple of the Great Relic
This is the most famous ruin and the one most people head to when they reach Ayutthaya. It is smack in the middle of town along the Chao Phrom Road and costs 30 baht admission. The sweet old ladies in the ticket booth will watch your bicycle while you visit the ruins. The ruins themselves are about 500ft square and after being sacked 250 years ago are still in good condition. Walls are apparent and great swathes of crumbling red-brick broken by statues and prau's. The first thing you notice are the number of freestanding pillars and headless Buddha statues (the Burmese decapitated the one's they didn't have time to destroy properly). Originally it had a 100ft prang lording it over a number of chedi's. The prang collapsed many years ago leaving the inner ruins of a temple including a 10ft grey seated Buddha now dressed in a saffron robe (see photo). The vista of the stone buddha with the red prau's in the background looke the epitome of Asia - very mysterious and exotic.
Whatever you do head to the west of the ruins. There a stone head of a Buddha has become emeshed in the grey roots of a bodhi tree (see photo). At the rear of the temple was another immaculate stone Buddha facing an army of broken headed ones, steps behind him led up to the first tier of the prang. From here you get terrific views across the lawns to the lake and the scarlet prau of Wat Rajpuna.
Wat Rajpuna - Khmer styled temple
This is real Indiana Jones territory.And a visit here will satisfy those stubble and bullwhip fantasies you have been harbouring all these years. It is next to Wat Maharat on the Chao Phrom Road and costs 30 baht admission. It dates from 1424 and was built in memory of two brothers who killed each other in an elephant backed duel. It's prime attraction is a 50ft high prang (tower) which stands in the middle of a ruined compound (see photo). The prang contained a royal tomb which when it was opened in 1958 spilled out with Thai treasure now in the Ayutthaya museum.
To get to the prang you must walk through a number of 10ft room where you can spot the edifice in a central courtyard. Steps lead up into the prang which is unsurprisingly empty but does contain some nice carvings of mythological creatures. I was there very early in the morning and had the 800 year old ruins to myself. It was easy to imagine how they were coated in marble and gilded ornamentation rather like Wat Po is today. If you looked carefully you could see where the Burmese had set fire to the temple 200 years ago and scorch marks were still apparent on the statues of the Buddha's.
Wat Wang Luang - the Royal Palace
This is the image of Ayutthaya stamped on all the postcards - the three giant ruined chedi's with elephants in the foreground. There are elephant rides at Wang Luang for the daytrippers from Bangkok and cost about 300 baht to circumnavigate the ruins. They dress the elephants up in gaudy colourful ceremonial gear including a headress and howdah. Wang Luang is very popular with Thai's as well as westerners and you may find, as I did, that you are more of an attraction then the ruins.
This was once hundreds of years ago a magnificent palace complex as big and shiny as the Grand Palace in Bangkok. It was a massive palace of pavilions, chedi's and audience halls - like something out of 'The King and I'. The Burmese torched it to the ground and all that is left are ruins that stretch over a quarter of a mile. Three colossal white-streaked chedi's dominate the main building which was over 500ft long. This is central to an extensive russet-red brickwork landscape of broken walls and solitariy column's. I have never seen anything so utterly exotic and it must have been breathtaking in it's prime.
Make sure you alot much time to Wat Wang Luang, for however long you spend there I can guarantee that you will not see it all...