This was once the largest city in the world

Ayutthaya, temples, thailand, day trip from bangkok, ancient capital of siam

This was once the largest city in the world

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This is the website of travel writer, Michael Turtle. After working in broadcast journalism for a decade in Australia, Michael left Sydney to travel the world indefinitely and write about his discoveries.

Ayutthaya, Thailand

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.

Ayutthaya, temples, thailand, day trip from bangkok, ancient capital of siam

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.

Ayutthaya, temples, thailand, day trip from bangkok, ancient capital of siam

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.

Ayutthaya, temples, thailand, day trip from bangkok, ancient capital of siam

Ayutthaya, temples, thailand, day trip from bangkok, ancient capital of siam

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.

Ayutthaya, temples, thailand, day trip from bangkok, ancient capital of siam

Ayutthaya, temples, thailand, day trip from bangkok, ancient capital of siam

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:

Ayutthaya, temples, thailand, day trip from bangkok, ancient capital of siam

Wat Phra Mahathat:

Ayutthaya, temples, thailand, day trip from bangkok, ancient capital of siam

Wat Ratchaburana:

Ayutthaya, temples, thailand, day trip from bangkok, ancient capital of siam

Wat Chaiwatthanaram:

Ayutthaya, temples, thailand, day trip from bangkok, ancient capital of siam

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.

Ayutthaya, temples, thailand, day trip from bangkok, ancient capital of siam

Ayutthaya, temples, thailand, day trip from bangkok, ancient capital of siam

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?

UNESCO world heritage siteThis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For more info click here.
You can see all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites I’ve visited here.

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24 Comments
  • Vera | Jan 19, 2013 at 2:01 am

    Very well! It’s indeed pretty fascinating how civilisations rise and fall. But Ayutthaya will rise again, because it has redefined the Thai rotee – cotton candy in a pancake! Available in the colours gold, green and pink. I’m glad we managed to leave, but let me tell you, it wasn’t easy – we basically lived on Rotee Street and how we got out, I’ll never know. I do know that I ate too many and that I could have eaten more. In fact, I could eat one right now! Oh Ayutthaya.
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    • Michael Turtle | Feb 5, 2013 at 11:07 pm

      How did I not find Rotee Street?! What was I doing wasting my time and all the other boring food places when I could have been having the colourful cotton candy in a pancake? Sigh…

  • A Montrealer Abroad (@amontrealer) | Jan 19, 2013 at 2:35 am

    I had no idea! Who said Internet was a waste of time? ;-)
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    • Michael Turtle | Feb 5, 2013 at 11:08 pm

      I had no idea either! Who said travel was a waste of time? :)

  • Laura @Travelocafe | Jan 19, 2013 at 4:52 am

    I love how nature conquers some of these old temples…
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    • Michael Turtle | Feb 5, 2013 at 11:09 pm

      Yeah, it’s actually quite nice to see things which haven’t been overly restored or cleaned up too much. The confluence with nature just adds to the ancient charm.

  • Jarmo | Jan 21, 2013 at 3:08 am

    Looks really nice, but I had just visited Angor Wat before coming to Thailand, so I was not in the mood for more temples. But looks like it might have been worth it.
    Jarmo recently posted..Top 5 Things to Do in EstorilMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Feb 5, 2013 at 11:27 pm

      It’s definitely got nothing on Angkor Wat… it’s a very different style of temples. But I would say it is worth the trip (even if only for the day from Bangkok). It’s nice to know Thailand is more than just beaches and wats.

  • Jennifer | Jan 21, 2013 at 4:43 am

    Wow, I had no idea about this city! The ruins are beautiful and it looks like a very worthwhile place to visit to explore a bit of history.

    It really makes you think about what the world will look like in another 300 years. Bustling metropolises could be completely wiped out and others new ones prospering.
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    • Michael Turtle | Feb 6, 2013 at 12:09 am

      I guess cities are always in a state of rising or falling. Think about some of the big US cities that are slowly losing their populations as their economies fail. They will go the way of Ayutthaya and who knows how they will look in 300 years’ time?

  • Lillie - @WorldLillie | Jan 22, 2013 at 3:15 am

    Really?! Thanks for this important History lesson! And I LOVE the photo of the statue head poking through the tree.
    Lillie – @WorldLillie recently posted..Startling, Colorful Photos of Paharganj, New Delhi, IndiaMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Feb 6, 2013 at 12:37 am

      I would never have known myself if I hadn’t gone there. It’s amazing the things you learn when you travel around!

  • Andrew | Feb 6, 2013 at 7:21 am

    Are there anything other than temples still there? I like ruins, but am often disappointed that the day to day life of people has disintegrated. Not that I am really surprised, as much of it would have been wood or tents. Just seems weird to be in a set of ruins and only see the “big sites” and read that there were tons of people living here, but unable to picture exactly where.
    I do want to go see this though.
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    • Michael Turtle | Feb 9, 2013 at 3:32 pm

      Yeah, there isn’t much of the actual city left because, as you say, it was all wood and the like. Foreigners weren’t allowed to live on the island part of the city and so they set up camps on the other side of the rivers. There are some small bits left from those camps – churches and the like – but not enough to get a sense of anything.

  • Ali | Feb 6, 2013 at 8:25 am

    Definitely sounds interesting, I had no idea this existed. You seem to have Andy convinced to go, so I’m sure we’ll make a trip out there whenever we get around to visiting Thailand. Some of those ruins look gorgeous. So sad how their city came to such an abrupt end.
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    • Michael Turtle | Feb 9, 2013 at 3:33 pm

      It’s definitely worth visiting when you’re in Thailand. The ruins are quite good because they haven’t been overly-restored, but enough of them are in good condition that you can really explore them properly. The rest of the ‘new’ city is pretty blah, though.

  • BlogDaz | Feb 8, 2013 at 7:11 pm

    Ayutthaya also plays a very central role in the history of Thailand, after the sacking of Ayutthaya by the Burmese a new capital city was formed at Thonburi by Taksin The Great. When Taksin was deposed and replaced by the first king of the present Chakri Dynasty the capital was moved across the river and Named Bangkok.
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    • Michael Turtle | Feb 9, 2013 at 3:49 pm

      You’ve got to understand history to understand a country, I think. I didn’t know about Thonburi – thanks for the info!

  • Freya | Feb 11, 2013 at 12:17 am

    Stunning photos, I never heard of this place but looks amazing … added to my list.
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    • Michael Turtle | Feb 16, 2013 at 5:42 pm

      It’s not a place that is particularly well-known and isn’t on the typical Thailand tourist trail. But it’s so close to Bangkok, it’s an easy overnight or day trip and worth i if you have some spare time and like history.

  • Wally | Sep 5, 2013 at 8:28 am

    Are these after the flood of 2012?

    • Michael Turtle | Sep 13, 2013 at 4:17 am

      Yes, these photos are from early 2013. So, as you can see, there really isn’t too much flood damage.

  • Sam @ Travellingking.com | Dec 30, 2013 at 9:22 pm

    This is one of the most amazing places we have ever been!
    Its amaxing to think that it used to be the Capital before Bangkok.

    We went shortly after the floods and couldnt get into some of the areas as they were flood damaged and the locals were worried the building might collapse as the ground was very soft.

    Im so glad we got to experience this history full area!

  • Tripper | Dec 30, 2013 at 11:52 pm

    Buddhist art at its best! Now the list of countries to visit should be expanded. It kind of reminds me of similar sites in Sri Lanka.

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