The Thai city of Ayutthaya is an hour-and-a-half’s journey by train north of Bangkok. Central Ayutthaya stands on an island, surrounded by a natural and manmade moat consisting of the Chao Phraya, Lopburi and Pasak Rivers and the Klong Muang Canal. In 1991 it received World Heritage Site status from UNESCO in recognition of its many ruins, of temples, monasteries and palaces, which are leftovers from its four centuries as capital city of the Kingdom of Siam. This golden period of its history came to a destructive end in 1767 when Burmese forces seized and razed it.
Though most tourists are content to visit a handful of key sites in Ayutthaya, there are plenty of less well-known historical landmarks dotted across the city, both inside and outside the World Heritage Park and within and beyond the boundaries of the central city’s moat. For example, standing across the road from our hotel just north of the Klong Muang Canal was the modest, unpublicised and unvisited but perfectly pleasant Wat Hasadavas.
During our recent holiday in Thailand my partner and I had a single day to spend temple-hopping in Ayutthaya, so we hired a tuk-tuk to shuttle us around half-a-dozen of the most auspicious attractions. If you’re accustomed to the spacious tuk-tuks of Bangkok, be warned that the Ayutthaya tuk-tuk is a different species. It resembles one that’s been crossbred with a pick-up truck, with the driver sitting in a cab at the front and the passengers sitting in a cramped compartment around the back. Passengers of above-average-Thai height, like myself, will regularly knock their heads on the roof.
After a quick visit to the museum above the local tourist information centre, to get some background information about the places we were planning to visit, we headed across the Pasak River to Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon southeast of the central city. As well as being the first temple we went to, it was also probably the busiest with tourists. It has a handsome if slightly discoloured main chedi whose upper chamber is accessible by a flight of steep stone steps. Around it stand many timeworn but intact Buddha statues and there’s also a giant reclining one, mostly swathed in a huge golden-covered sheet.
It was here, unfortunately, that we spied a couple of strong contenders for the title of ‘Biggest Knobhead Tourist during our Trip to Thailand’. Firstly, a British woman carrying a baby thought nothing of placing the baby on a plinth and changing its nappy in front of a large statue of Buddha, so that for a few minutes one dirty baby-arse got waggled at the most sacred image in Buddhism. Secondly, a seedy-looking guy with a North European accent, in the company of three backpacking British girls whom he was desperately trying to impress, scrambled up atop another plinth that was also near the large Buddha statue. “Look at me, look at me!” he exclaimed. “I am zee Spiderman!”
From there we headed back over the moat to the central city and to the Heritage Park proper, where our first stop was Wat Mahathat. This site, dating back to 1374, contains lots of beehive-shaped prangs built of rust-orange and ash-grey bricks, some with subsiding foundations and a slightly lopsided tilt; and a few tapering chedi, and tiled paths and pavilions, and some grey-stone Buddhas. The most photographed item at Wat Mahathat, though, is a stone Buddha face peering out through a gap in a dense mesh of tree-roots. I remembered seeing this the previous time I was in Ayutthaya, back in 2005, and it was quite a tourist draw then. But Thailand has since opened up to the Chinese tourist market and today the crowd looked ten times bigger. There was even a security guard seated on a chair next to the roots and face, hurrying the sightseers on if they took too long with their selfies and held up the queue behind them.
Five minutes’ walk along the road from Wat Mahathat is Wat Ratchaburana, a structure that resembles a vertical torpedo – well, half of a vertical torpedo, one that’s planted in a mass of arched brick porches and stone staircases. It looks particularly impressive when seen framed in the doorway of the site’s entrance. I climbed a staircase to a point midway up its side, from where I had a good view of the surrounding premises – lines of nearly disappeared walls, stumps of demolished chedi and prangs, and patterns of lawns and pathways. I was also unlucky enough to spot the ‘I am zee Spiderman’ guy from Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon wandering down below. Even from a distance, he sounded obnoxious.
In central Ayutthaya too is Wat Phra Mongkhon Bophit, which contains one of the biggest bronze images of Buddha in Thailand. According to a sign, it’s ‘9.55 metres at the widest point across the lap’ and ‘12.45 metres high without the base’. I have to say, though, that I got as much enjoyment from walking along the passage around the main image and looking at the smaller-scale Buddha figures and Buddha heads on display there, with their offbeat colours and embellished surfaces.
Next door is Wat Phra Si Samphet, the entrance to which features a monument with the UNESCO plaque certifying Ayutthaya as a World Heritage Site. This has rows of fantastically ornate chedi, resembling cakes that’ve been iced by a psychopathically decorative cakemaker. There’s something very organic about the flowing lines and curves of the structures here, which make them seem almost part of the surrounding woodland. Lounging at the top of a narrow, off-limits staircase climbing to an opening high in the side of one chedi was a black-and-white dog. He looked like he was guarding it and I hoped that if ‘zee Spiderman’ guy flouted the rules again and ventured up the staircase to do more showing off, the dog would bite him on the bum.
Also close by is Wat Phra Ram, another vertical, torpedo-shaped structure in the style of Wat Ratchaburana. Actually, this one seems even taller and more elongated and has the look of a rocket on its launchpad. The raw colour of its brickwork – which was maybe the result of the light, which at this point in the late afternoon was starting to dim – gave this site an eerier, more primordial feel than the others we visited.
Our final port of call that day was the sizeable complex of Wat Chai Watthanaram, southwest of central Ayutthaya and by the shore of the Chao Phraya River. Here we witnessed another witless intrusion by an idiot tourist. Despite the very visible signs telling people not to do this, someone was operating a drone and having it buzz around the site’s highest pinnacles. However, Wat Chai Watthanaram did treat us to the most gorgeous spectacle of the day. Getting to its entrance involved walking along a path by the riverside, from where we had a stunning view of the complex silhouetted against an evening sky of faded pink and violet. Meanwhile, the setting sun peered between its chedi, prangs and treetops and burnished them with orange light.