Today, UNESCO World Heritage Site Ayutthaya is a sleepy town about 70 km north of Bangkok. But 250 years ago it was the capital of Siam (Thailand) with grand architecture and a sprawling trade with all corners of Asia and even with some of the European royal courts. As it is custom, each of the kings not only had the royal palace improved but also new temples built.
Founded in 1351, the architecture of the Ayutthaya Kingdom incorporated Khmer (Cambodian and Hindu) influences. But comparisons with the Angkor temples fall short. Not only is Ayutthaya younger, but the sites are also a lot smaller, and the construction with red brick covered in stucco for ornate decorations means that only comparatively few elements remain. Also, Ayutthaya has always been a living city — even after 1767, when the Burmese conquered the city and burned it to the ground. While the Thai capital moved to Thonburi (today part of Bangkok), the Burmese had to withdraw back North within months to fight off the Chinese forces about to conquer their capital. So Ayutthaya was rebuilt as a smaller version of its former royal self. Subsequently, the temples didn’t get swallowed by the jungle. They simply fell into disrepair. One of the largest prangs in the Ayutthaya Historical Park collapsed only 100 years ago — recent enough for photographs of the before to exist!
What’s a prang, you ask? I’m glad you brought it up!
There are two types of buildings that remain of the Ayutthaya temples: prangs and stupas.
Prang (the large cucumber shaped pagodas) – A prang (Khmer: ប្រាង្គ) is a tall tower-like spire, usually richly carved. They were a common shrine element of Hindu and Buddhist architecture in the Khmer Empire. They were later adapted by Buddhist builders in Thailand, especially during the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1350–1767) and Rattanakosin Kingdom (1782-1932). In Thailand, it appears only with the most important Buddhist temples.
Stupa (the pointy pagodas) – A stupa (Sanskrit: m.,स्तूप “heap”) is a mound-like or hemispherical structure containing relics (śarīra – typically the remains of Buddhist monks or nuns) that is used as a place of meditation.
The buildings are mostly made of red brick with a base of shaped blocks of rock, covered with stucco to create vivid details. Even the large Buddha sculptures have been built in that style.
There are dozens of smaller and bigger temple complexes in the old city of Ayutthaya — that is an island formed by the large Chao Praya River, upstream from Bangkok, the smaller Pa Sak, and the Muang channel connecting the two — and in the surrounding area. The city, of course, has itself long spilled across the rivers and stretches for several kilometers. I recommend either renting a bike just to go out and explore (maps should be available at your accommodation of choice) or to rent a tuk-tuk for the day and have the driver take you to the sights. Note, that while the land is flat, it is Thailand after all and temperatures can reach the high-30s °C in the scorching sun.
But for your convenience, I have whittled down the list to my ten favorite temples plus two more unmissable Ayutthaya sights.
I recommend going out for explorations in the first morning light (that’s before 6 am). Most temples don’t open before 8. However, there are always openings in the walls. So you can sneak inside and simply pay your entrance fee when you leave after 8.
If you are looking for practical information, make sure to scroll down to the end of this post.
Click on the gray star next to the map title to show the map markers in your regular Google Maps view. Click on the markers to reveal what’s what.
When approaching this temple from the water, you’ll notice people throwing chunks of bread into the water and giant catfish stumbling over one another to catch it. The fish are holy to the people praying at Phananchoengworawihan. So don’t even think about getting your fishing rod out.
The entrance fee to the actual temple is 20 Baht. Step through into the main hall and see the oldest giant Buddha statue in Ayutthaya: It’s 700 years old, 19 m tall, and gilded. Quite an impressive sight! You might also observe people praying. For a small donation, you can have one of the helpers drape an orange piece of cloth around the Buddha “for good luck.”
The first thing I noticed, approaching this temple from the water was an array of roosters announcing the coming new year of the rooster.
Entrance to the temple is free (donations encouraged).
Leaving the roosters to the right, I entered the old part of Wat Phutthaisawan. A colonnaded courtyard reminded me of Christian cloisters. Just that it was lined with dozens and dozens of serenely sitting Buddhas. In the center of the courtyard are some white prang guarded by cobras.
Don’t forget to step all the way through the courtyard. On the other side is a big reclining Buddha, protected by brick walls with windows. Traditionally, the large Buddha sculptures were never covered with a roof.
The third stop along the river cruise is a small complex that has the perfect location to see the sun set behind the prangs and the small sitting Buddhas. You can either pay a 50 Baht entrance fee for just this temple, or you buy a temple pass for 220 Baht, which allows you to visit five other sites. Or you just observe the scene from the outside, which is perfectly possible and might even make for nicer photos than from the top…
Note, that you cannot get anywhere near the water on the other side of the river for a sunset view of Chai Watthanaram as the land over there is all privately owned.
This is probably the most famous image from Ayutthaya: The beautiful face of a Buddha looking through the roots of a Bodhi tree. To get the best shots, you want to arrive early (the temple opens at 8). As you can see from this 8 am shot: the morning light highlights [sic!] the serenity of the moment.
Don’t miss the rest of this temple complex: a few steps on there is a very well kept sitting Buddha.
Wat Mahatat is included in the 6-temple ticket and costs 50 Baht for an individual ticket. If you want to be super-cheap, you can also get a peak of the Buddha’s head from the outside from Chikun Alley.
The big Wat Ratchaburana prang is visible from almost everywhere in Ayutthaya. You can also climb it and then climb down on the inside (cue to claustrophobia) to see some of the last remaining murals in the Ayutthaya temples.
Another iconic Ayutthaya image is the line of stupas in Wat Phra Si Sanphet. The can not only be climbed (though the insides smell heavily of pigeon and bat manure), they also make a beautiful ensemble when shot from outside the walls at sunrise or sunset.
Wat Yai Chaimongol is a bit out of the way. It took me 45 minutes to walk there. But you can either get a bike or a tuk-tuk. Because it is worth the journey.
Entrance is 20 Baht.
The temple is very active and the old structures extremely well maintained. So you not only get a better idea of what the rest of ancient Ayutthaya might once have looked like, but you can also observe Buddhist practice.
Upon entering you first see another giant reclining Buddha surrounded by a brick wall. However, there are no windows allowing for nicely framed shots.
The main complex is a prang worth scaling, surrounded by numerous large and smaller sitting Buddhas, often clad in orange cloth.
Next to it is a large prayer hall, where Buddhist will attach gold leaf to Buddha statues or cast sticks to learn their fate. I’ll put a video on my Facebook page so you can get an impression of the proceedings.
Finally, there is a large pond with lotus flowers and holy turtles. So don’t stick your feet in the water.
Wat Thammikarat is the oldest temple on Ayutthaya island. Over centuries, each king would add another building to the complex. This in itself is remarkable. But Thammikarat has one feature you won’t find anywhere else: One of the pagodas is surrounded by a guard of lions (the same style you’d find in Angkor).
Entrance fee is 20 Baht plus 20 Baht to go inside the large prayer hall, where a cheerful young monk will happily tell you the story of Thammikarat.
This is a great sunset spot if you find the right angle. Reclining Buddha sculptures look into the sunset. So you can get the orange ball of the rising sun to be exactly in the neck of Buddha.
A very small site but worth the short detour, Wat Suwandawas allows you to see the handcraft behind creating the thousands of Buddha sculptures in Ayutthaya.
Some historians say that large parts of Ayutthaya island were once a swamp, but the kings had the water channeled into large ponds. Rama Public Park is now freely accessible. Stroll under ancient trees, discover smaller temples and watch the locals collect snails to be sold as a snack.
For dinner, there is really only one place you should go in Ayutthaya: the night market. There are plenty of restaurants catering both to tourists and Thai people. But the night market is the preferred destination for both groups. You can get “harmless” fare like squid skewers or Pad Thai here as well as more local things like chicken foot salad or super-spicy fish stew.
Keep your hands off the sushi, though: I wouldn’t be concerned about the ingredients. It’s just not good sushi.
Come early, between 5:30 and 6:30 pm, and you’ll catch some of the delicious coconut puddings sold about half-way into the market in pretty little banana leaf bowls.
Ayutthaya seems to have so many great places to visit! I am saving the the buddha head in the tree! I have never seen or heard about but how cool and is it! And thanks for the reminder about the dress code!
I absolutely loved this! I didn’t get a chance to go here when I lived in Thailand in 2012 and have always regretted it. Will have to go, as you convinced me its a must see when I make it back there!
What a comprehensive guide. I haven’t been to Thailand but I’d love to go. And, believe it or not, I’d never heard of Wat Mahatat – how stunning
I am so sad we didn’t go to Ayutthaya when we were in Bangkok. We really need to go back not only to explore Bangkok more rather than just passing through like what we did but also to check out this beautiful place! I want to see that famous face in the tree roots!
What a great list of things to visit. I usually tend to visit as many World Heritage Sites as possible when I travel because they’re always super interesting. This is not exception.
Really interesting finding out a bit more about the history of the place.
I visited Ayuthaya, but that visit lasted just 6 hours or so. Seeing your post I realize how much more I could have seen.
I have to attend the night market to eat thai food to my heart’s content. Hopefully I get a chance again.
I love the idea of getting up at first light to enjoy Ayutthaya. I am a big fan of seeing the city as it sleeps, or before the crowds appear. It’s such a unique way to explore, plus you can get some beautiful photos that time of day!
Although unlike most of the people, Thailand is not high on my bucket list, of course, I would love to visit it and I have to admit that there are really some amazing places to see there.
Ayutthaya is absolutely beautiful! Last time when I was in Thailand, I didn’t get to see the historic side of the country. There’s so much history and beauty to this part of Thailand! Thank you for such an informative guide. I will need to plan another trip to Thailand soon!
Lovely post. I’d love to be up early to sneak into the temples! That morning light and feel would be magical in these beautiful buildings.
Never been to Thailand, but I’m so saving your article so that I have a good reference when I happen to travel there. Great read and very helpful! I myself am always in hunt of UNESCO sites 🙂
I really like your tip on arriving there before 6am!! We couldn’t make to Ayutthaya because we were on a tight schedule for the Vipasana Meditation, but really wanted to. Well, I kinda felt I had just visited though. It was a very informative post. Thanks for that!
By the way, very cleaver having your pictures as they are from Instagram. Thumbs up for that!