This was once the largest city in the world

It was once the largest city on earth, a trading metropolis with people from around the world. Now there are just ruins… still worth the visit, though!

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

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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 Temple tour from Bangkok, Thailand

But it all came to a fiery 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 Temple tour from Bangkok, Thailand

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 Temple tour from Bangkok, Thailand
Ayutthaya Temple tour from Bangkok, Thailand

There are obvious influences of the Khmer architecture which is present through much of this part of the world.

Take for instance the enormous gherkin-shaped structure in the middle of the complex, surrounded by stupas and watched over by seated images of Buddha.

Ayutthaya Temple tour from Bangkok, Thailand
Ayutthaya Temple tour from Bangkok, Thailand

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 Temple tour from Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Phra Mahathat:

Ayutthaya Temple tour from Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Ratchaburana:

Ayutthaya Temple tour from Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Chaiwatthanaram:

Ayutthaya Temple tour from Bangkok, Thailand

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 Temple tour from Bangkok, Thailand
Ayutthaya Temple tour from Bangkok, Thailand

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 logo

This site is on the UNESCO World Heritage List!
I'm on a mission to visit as many World Heritage Sites as I can. Only about 800 more to go... eek!

26 thoughts on “This was once the largest city in the world”

  1. 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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  2. 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.

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    • 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.

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  3. 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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    • 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?

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  4. 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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    • 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.

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  5. 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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    • 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.

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  6. 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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    • 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.

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  7. 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!

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