This was once the largest city in the world
It’s weird to stand in the middle of what was once the largest city in the world and be surrounded by rubble.
Ayutthaya, the former capital of Siam, was home to more than a million people in the 1700s. It was a huge trading centre in the middle of the world that brought together merchants from places like Japan, Holland and Portugal. During a period when modern Australia didn’t exist and the United States was just a colonial outpost, this city was flourishing from its location at the epicentre of international commerce.
But it all came to a firey end in 1767 when the Burmese invaded and set the city alight. Much of Ayutthaya was made of wood and the blaze ripped through the urban areas and destroyed far too much. The city never recovered.
A new city has grown up from the ashes but it is uninspiring and, in most parts, feels like any dull South East Asian hub. But the ruins of that old metropolis are stunning and fascinating… and this is the wonder of Ayutthaya.
A lot still exists, just not in the form it once did. All through the city are the ancient temples in various stages of ruin and restoration. Dozens of them coexist with the mundane modern. You can use a tourist map to visit them but otherwise you can’t help but stumble across the greatest. Many of them are so large you can spot them from blocks away.
There are obvious influences of the Khmer architecture which is present through much of this part of the world. The enormous gherkin-shaped structure in the middle of the complex, surrounded by stupas and watched over by seated images of Buddha.
Temples in Ayutthaya, Thailand
Most of the sights are walking distance from each other. The main part of the city is referred to as ‘an island’ because it is surrounded on three sides by rivers and this was the heart of the business. But foreigners weren’t allowed to set up camp on the island so the tens of thousands who came from faraway lands have left their mark over an extended area.
If you’ve only got a few hours to spend, let me give you some recommendations. My four favourite temples (and, to be fair, four of the best-known) are:
Wat Phra Si Sanphet:
Wat Phra Mahathat:
Many people visit Ayutthaya as a day trip from Bangkok, which is only a couple of hours’ drive away. You can definitely see the highlights that way but it would be worth spending the time to at least stay overnight so you can explore the city in a bit more depth.
In some ways, I feel like we owe that to Ayutthaya. To have been so grand and to have such a dramatic and sudden fall from the top can’t have been easy. Perhaps we should show some respect for such a legend.
Civilisations ebb and flow and the tide of human nature can wash away the greatest so callously. Where will a tourist like me be standing and thinking the same things in another 300 years’ time?