With the fall of Sukhothai in the north of the country, Ayutthaya emerged in the middle of the 14th century as the new power in Thailand, taking control of its neighbours’ lands and bringing surrounding cities into its influence.
The new Ayutthaya Kingdom was considered the second capital of Thailand, following on from Sukhothai. But it also became an international city, attracting foreign traders from across the globe, growing to be possibly the largest city in the world in the 16th century.
Today, it’s this combination of power and international trade that defines the city’s heritage and is at the heart of the best things to do in Ayutthaya as a visitor.
A brief history of Ayutthaya
Ayutthaya was officially founded in 1351, although there were people already living in the area before then. As Sukhothai’s influence waned, Ayutthaya saw an opportunity to assert itself as a new power in the region and began to expand its territories and take over other urban centres adjacent to it. The Ayutthaya Kingdom, the second of Thailand’s capitals, was born.
The Kingdom of Ayutthaya didn’t control vast swathes of land, but it was able to grow as one of the wealthiest cities in Southeast Asia. One of the main reasons for this was that the city was locate on an island where three rivers met.
Aside from the strategic defence advantage of this location, its position put Ayutthaya at a critical juncture of international trade, because these rivers led to seas where ships could sail in from.
Ayutthaya grew in size and an ambitious campaign of construction saw great temples and monasteries built around the Royal Palace in the city centre. At the same time, traders came from across the world and began to form settlements along the riverbanks around the main island.
The Portuguese were the first to arrive, followed by other European powers like the Dutch and French, as well as traders from China, India, and the Middle East. Some experts believe that during this period, Ayutthaya would’ve had a population of more than a million people
By the beginning of the 18th century, the Thai rulers had become concerned about the impact of foreign religions, and the borders were closed to Westerners. However, trade with other regional powers – particularly China – meant Ayutthaya maintained its economic and political status.
It wasn’t until the Burmese, after generations of conflict, finally toppled Ayutthaya in 1767 that the kingdom came to an end. Rather than rebuild, the Thais moved their capital down the Chao Phraya River to Thonburi… and then Bangkok.
What is Ayutthaya known for?
Ayutthaya is known as the second capital of Thailand, with the Ayutthaya Kingdom emerging after the fall of Sukhothai. It was a large and grand city, full of temples and monasteries, where merchants came from across the world for its rich trading culture.
Is Ayutthaya worth visiting?
For tourists in Thailand, Ayutthaya is certainly worth visiting, and it’s easy to reach from the capital, Bangkok. The historic temples are still accessible (although many are partly in ruins) and they show the opulence of the former capital. The historic centre of Ayutthaya has been listed as a World Heritage Site.
How long should you spend in Ayutthaya?
Ayutthaya is worth much more than a day trip (and, in fact, it’ll be hard to see all the highlights on a day trip to Ayutthaya from Bangkok). I would suggest two full days to see the temples and explore some of the local culture.
You could easily spend even longer than that, because there are lots of other things to do in Ayutthaya beyond just the historic sights.
The historic centre of Ayutthaya was on the city’s main island, which is about four kilometres long and two kilometres wide. It’s here where you’ll still find many of the most interesting things to do in Ayutthaya – including the main temples and the most vibrant markets.
But there are also many other significant sights on the other side of the river – and further out, where the modern city has expanded.
I would recommend finding accommodation either on the island or in a spot across the river that is easily accessible. When you visit Ayutthaya, you’ll want to spend much of your time in the centre, but it’s also well worth visiting some of the other area to see a variety of Ayutthaya attractions.
With that in mind, here are my tips for the best things to do in Ayutthaya.
There are dozens of temples across Ayutthaya, but the most important ones were built in the centre of the historic city, on the main island where the rivers meet.
When you’re planning a visit, these three temples are must-sees and should be at the top of your list of things to do in Ayutthaya.
Built on the edge of Ayutthaya’s Royal Palace, Wat Mahathat was one of the city’s most important temples – particularly in the early years after it was founded in 1374. It was here that relics of Buddha would’ve been housed and where kings would’ve held important ceremonies.
These days, Wat Mahathat is particularly famous for the head of a Buddha statue that has been embraced by the roots of a tree as its grown around it over the decades. It’s one of the most iconic photos in Ayutthaya.
But the temple is also significant for the treasures that were found within the central tower (prang) that is now largely restored. The precious artefacts that were found here can be seen in the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum.
Treasures were also found in the central prang of Wat Ratchaburana and this collection was even more spectacular, with golden tablets and other precious offerings. When you’re in the tower, you can see down into the crypt (although it’s inaccessible) but you need to go to the museum to see what was discovered.
Wat Ratchaburana is an impressive looking temple and its prang, framed by the entrance to the royal vihara building, is another popular photo. The wooden roof from the vihara is gone, but you get a sense of how large it would have been.
This was another important royal temple and it was built by King Chao Sam Phraya, apparently in honour of his two older brothers who both died while fighting each other for the throne.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet
This is quite a spectacular temple and I would recommend you leave some time to explore Wat Phra Si Sanphet, which was built on the site of the original Royal Palace. It became the king’s main temple after it was founded in 1448 and was used for ceremonies.
What makes Wat Phra Si Sanphet so distinctive are the three large stupas in a line down the centre of the site. They hold the ashes of King Boroma-Tri-Loka-Nat and his two sons who also became kings. Other buildings that would’ve surrounded them have not been restored, but you still get a sense of their size.
It was an important temple right until the end of the Ayutthaya Kingdom and was used as the inspiration for Wat Phra Kaew (better known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha) in Bangkok.
While the most important temples were originally on the island, close to the Royal Palace, other monasteries and temples began to be built on the other side of the rivers, by traders and royalty alike.
There are dozens of them so it’s not possible to see them all during a visit to Ayutthaya, but here’s a selection of some of the most interesting ones to add to your itinerary.
Of all the Ayutthaya temples off the main island, the most famous is Wat Chaiwatthanaram – and it’s certainly one you should visit.
Wat Chaiwatthanaram was built by King Prasart Thong in 1630 as a tribute to his late mother and he chose this location because it was the site of her residence. It doesn’t hurt that it’s right on the river so gets beautiful views across the water and catches sunset and sunrise.
The design of the temple takes its influence from Khmer architecture and has a central prang representing the Buddhist cosmological centre of Mount Meru. Around it are four smaller prangs to symbolise the continents, plus eight towers around the square cloister to denote the layers of mountains around Mount Meru.
Wat Na Phra Men
Although it doesn’t have the grand prangs and towers of some of the royal temple, Wat Na Phra Men is one of the city’s significant and holds some important pieces of art, including a unique seated Buddha image carved in green stone from the Dvaravati period.
Wat Na Phra Men was the site of several important historical events, including peace talks between the kings of Thailand and Burma in 1569, and as the base for the Burmese king to attack the royal palace in 1760.
Because the temple survived the final sacking of Ayutthaya, it still looks similar to the era of the kingdom and can give you a good insight into how the temples now in ruins may have looked.
Wat Phu Khao Thong
At 50 metres tall, Wat Phu Khao Thong is the largest temple structure in Ayutthaya, with a soaring stupa painted white. It has staircases up to a large panoramic platform from where you get a wonderful view across the countryside and can even see some of the city’s other prangs in the distance.
The temple was founded in 1387 but the main stupa next to it was built in 1569 by the Burmese king as way to celebrate a victory over Ayutthaya. Two decades later, when Ayutthaya was liberated, the stupa was enlarged to mark that victory.
Wat Phana Choeng
Visiting Wat Phana Choeng means joining the crowds, because this is one of Ayutthaya’s busiest temples for locals. The first version of the temple was built in 1324 – before the city was even officially founded. And over the centuries, it was renovated and expanded, including a big restoration in 1854 by King Rama IV.
During the peak of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, this part of the city was the main Chinese settlement and it became a popular place of worship for those residents. That’s why there are still a lot of Chinese design elements mixed in with traditional Thai Buddhism.
The highlight is the enormous 19 metre high Buddha statue that is covered in gold and dominates the main vihan building, with worshippers often filling the space beneath it.
Wat Ya Chai Mongkhorn
Another of Ayutthaya’s temples that is often busy is Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon, originally built in 1357 with its magnificent pagoda added in 1592. It’s still an active temple, with monks living here.
You can walk up the steps of the pagoda, from where you can look into the centre of the structure, or walk around the terrace that goes around the outside. Looking out across the complex from here, you realise how large it is.
Other highlights at Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon include a reclining Buddha that was first built during the reign of the great King Naresuan (although the current version is a replica); and the rows of Buddhas that sit in the gallery surrounding the main pagoda.
If Ayutthaya really did reach a population of a million residents, as some experts think, then all those people had to go somewhere. For the foreign traders, the rulers of Ayutthaya granted the most important ones plots of land along the river, where they could live and build commercial facilities.
The remains of these foreign settlements are interesting things to see in Ayutthaya because they each have their own distinct elements and the museums can be quite fascinating.
The Japanese were among the first foreigners to arrive in Ayutthaya, bringing boats along the river as early as the end of the 1500s. They were based on a site on the eastern bank of the Chao Praya River which was used not just by traders, but also by mercenaries who were hired by Ayutthaya to fight in its wars.
The Japanese Village today has a beautiful garden, a shrine, and tori gates that make for a wonderful riverside location. But the highlight here are the two museums that tell the stories of some of the Japanese residents and cover this period in Ayutthaya’s history. I think it’s one of the best exhibitions in the city to understand the heritage here.
Of the Europeans, the Portuguese were the first to come to Ayutthaya and agree to a formal relationship with the kingdom. They did more than just trade, though, and their fighters were hired by the king to help in wars against the Burmese. In return, they were given land for a settlement on the Chao Phraya River.
The population of the Portuguese Village would have been one of the largest foreign communities (certainly amongst the Europeans), with at least 3,000 people at its peak and three Catholic churches. However, these days, it probably has the least to see. The foundations of the buildings are on display and there’s a building with a simple exhibition of information signs.
The Dutch arrived in 1601 and quickly established a trading relationship with Ayutthaya, as they had done in much of Southeast Asia by this point. They settled the Dutch Village (known as Baan Hollanda) in 1634 on land that the king gave them after they gave naval assistance in a war.
There are a few remains of buildings on the site but they are not particularly impressive. For visitors, the most interesting thing at the Dutch Village today is the two-story building that is a replica of the East Indian Company’s headquarters. It has an interesting exhibition inside covering the heritage.
While the French also came to trade, they saw the spread of Christianity as one of their main goals and the first people to arrive were actually missionaries. The king gave them land to build a Catholic church and school in the area that would become the French district.
The original church was destroyed during war between Ayutthaya and Burma, but it’s been rebuilt and is now used for worship by local Christians. Around the site there is a replica of one of the French boat, some information signs, and a lovely garden on the side of the river.
You might think that much of the Historic City of Ayutthaya is a museum, considering the number of heritage buildings and other artefacts that are so easy to see from the streets. But there are a few actual museums here – with one of them among the most important things to see in Ayutthaya.
Chao Sam Phraya National Museum
I’ve already mentioned the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum because it was founded in 1961 specifically to house the treasures that were found in the towers of Wat Ratchaburana and Wat Mahathat, after thieves had tried (successfully to some degree) to steal the artefacts from the temples.
Within the museum there is a special room dedicated to each temple where the treasures are on display. The layout gives a sense of how they might have looked in the crypt and it’s quite incredible to see these invaluable pieces up close. It’s worth visiting just for this alone.
The rest of the museum has a collection of significant items found across the historical park, including Buddha statues, wooden doors, ceramics, and artworks. Although they are important, there’s not a lot of interpretation and they alone would probably not justify a visit.
Million Toy Museum
The Million Toy Museum is probably not somewhere for the average tourist – but for youngsters (or the young at heart), it’s a nice break from all the temples around the World Heritage Site.
Although you’ll recognise a lot of the international toys here, there’s an emphasis on things from Thai childhood, including even from centuries ago during the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya periods. It means you can trace the evolution of toys in Thailand from simple items to more complex wind-up toys and then modern battery-operated ones.
Thai Boat Museum
The Thai Boat Museum is small – but that’s one of the things that makes it so adorable. It’s located in the traditional-style house of a former boat builder who has a passion for protecting the maritime heritage of Ayutthaya and other parts of Thailand.
There are small models of some types of boats, including those used by royalty, plus full-size examples of some vessels from history, including a dugout and a sail boat. There’s also lots of information here and interesting exhibitions about the topic.
Beyond the historic sites and the official tourist attractions in Ayutthaya, the city offers some fantastic opportunities to immerse yourself in the local culture and discover some authentic experiences.
I suggest spending some time away from the temples and also trying some of these other things to do in Ayutthaya that will broaden your understanding of the city.
As I’ve discussed, Ayutthaya has a deep trading heritage, so it’s understandable that the city is still a hub of commerce. Across the main island, in particular, there are a host of markets that bring the vitality of the trading history into modern times.
One of the main traditional markets is Chao Phrom Market, where you’ll find food stalls, Thai sweets, and some well-known noodles shops, along with shops selling clothes, jewellery, and Buddha amulets.
Another excellent local area to visit is Hua Ro Market, located on the waterfront at the junction of two of Ayutthaya’s rivers. In the modern, you can soak up the vitality of the food section, with tables covered in fresh produce, while the permanent shopfronts get busier during the day, selling clothes, household items, and Buddhist offerings.
And south of Ayutthaya, the Kong Khong Market offers a different style. At first it can feel a bit touristy because it’s been designed to look like a historic Ayutthaya commercial district, and lacks the chaotic local feel. But all the crafts, food, and souvenirs are authentic local products and you’re just as likely to find locals here as foreigners.
There’s plenty of great food in Ayutthaya but one dish you have to try is ‘boat noodles’, which is not just delicious, but is an important part of the heritage.
Because the city was laid out around rivers, with canals criss-crossing the island, much of the city’s commerce happened on water. To make the most of this, vendors during the Ayutthaya Kingdom used to cook noodles on their boats and sell them directly from there. This is how the dish got its name.
The soup is made with a dark broth and usually served with pork or beef and meatballs. It was served in small bowls because it was often eaten as a snack, and because it was less likely to spill than if it was in a large bowl.
These days, boat noodles are served in restaurants, but many of them still have replicas of boats around the cooks, or other throwbacks to its history. The noodles are still served in small bowls and it’s common for locals to order several of them if they want a hearty meal.
Buddhism is intertwined with life in Thailand and Ayutthaya, as the site of some of the country’s greatest Buddhist temples, has a strong tradition of Buddhist customs.
One of the most iconic traditions in the country is the morning alms giving, when monks walk the streets with a large bowl and local residents donate food. The idea originated because monks didn’t have time to farm or cook, so nearby Buddhists would give them some of their food each day.
Now, the tradition continues but it’s more common to give a prepackage hamper or an offering of another kind. The monks will bless the worshipper at the same time.
You’ll see this happening around Ayutthaya at dawn and it’s a wonderful sight to see because it’s such a pure and authentic moment. You are also welcome to join and give an offering to the monks.
One of the main crafts that Ayutthaya is known for is an item called a ‘pla taphian’, which is a mobile of fish made with palm leaves.
The leaves are woven together to make the shape of a barb fish, with an arrow-shaped head and large flashy tails. They can be coloured or left natural, and there are normally several of them hanging off strings in the mobile.
The fish represents prosperity and abundance and so was traditionally put above a child’s bed to bring them good luck. That still happens but they are also used just for decoration these days.
At a small workshop called Sala Pla Thai you can buy some of these mobiles or even join in a workshop with the owners to learn how to make them yourself.