The first time Europeans officially set foot in the Kingdom of Siam, the forerunner of modern Thailand, the great city of Ayutthaya had been the political and economic capital of one of the most powerful kingdoms in Southeast Asia for a century and a half. The Portuguese arrived in 1511 at a time when Ayutthaya was a vast and flourishing city to rival anything in Europe.
It wasn’t long before Dutch, English and French traders showed up seeking to supplant the Portuguese. European interest was matched by that of China and Japan, both of which had forged strong trade links with Siam. The merchants from the Dutch East India Company must have felt at home in Ayutthaya, a map they created in the early 18th Century shows a city surrounded by water and crisscrossed with canals.
Ayutthaya was founded around 1350. By the time Europeans arrived, the Kingdom of Siam had displaced the mighty Khmer Empire centred on Angkor. These were violent times and throughout the second half of the 16th Century, Siam itself came under sustained attack from Burma. This culminated in a legendary battle, mano a mano, between the kings of the two kingdoms. Siam came out on top and went on to flourish.
Remarkably, by 1700 one estimate I read claims that Ayutthaya was the largest city in the world with upwards of a million inhabitants. Its trade with Europe and the rest of Southeast Asia made it fabulously wealthy. There were Dutch, English, French and Japanese trade missions occupying parts of the city, and there were Siamese embassies dotted around Europe, including at the court of Louis XIV of France and in my home town of the The Hague.
All this came to a dramatic end in 1767. The Burmese returned with a vengeance, laid siege to Ayutthaya, breached the city walls, killed the inhabitants and destroyed the city, but not before they had stolen everything of value. The Thais relocated their capital to Bangkok, and what you see of Ayutthaya today is pretty much what the Burmese failed to destroy. This place has witnessed some history, and the ghosts of its glorious, violent past still seem to wander the ruins.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet, is the largest temple in Ayutthaya and my start point. Identifiable by a distinctive row of chedi (Thai-style stupas), this was the main temple serving the former royal palace and was exclusively for royal religious ceremonies. It once housed a 16 metre high Buddha covered in approximately 200kg gold. The Burmese melted and stole the gold, destroying the temple in the process.
Reflected in the waters of Nong Sano Lake, Wat Phra Ram is a striking monument to the former greatness of the city. In the centre of the temple sits a giant (and phallic) prang surrounded by chedi. For some reason Wat Phra Ram seemed to be out of favour with tourists, walking around I had the whole place to myself. I found some shade, sat down and tried to cool down. The heat and humidity were ferocious.
Wat Phra Mahathat is home to probably the most famous and widely circulated image of Ayutthaya, the stone head of a Buddha that over the centuries has been encircled by the roots of a tree. While the most dramatic, this disembodied Buddha isn’t alone. The Burmese did a thorough job of destroying Wat Phra Mahathat, everywhere you look there are rows of headless Buddhas. It’s a terrifically atmospheric place away from the crowds.
My final stop before heading back to Bangkok was Wat Chai Wattanaran. This extraordinary temple shouldn’t be missed, or at least that’s what my guidebook said. I was going to walk there but it was just too hot, I took a tuk-tuk rather than one of the elephants lumbering around with tourists on their back. The driver could see I wasn’t in a fit condition for protracted negotiations over price, I was thoroughly ripped-off – striking a firm negotiating position is just easier when you’re not drenched in sweat.
The temple sits on the banks of the Chao Phraya and was damaged by the 2011 floods; it also sits on just about every piece of literature that Thailand’s tourism authority produces. It is that special. The 35 metre high central prang is surrounded by eight chedi. Inside are rows of headless Buddhas, yet more evidence of the ruthless Burmese destruction. At this point I was pretty much templed-out and headed back to the railway station for my slow train back to Bangkok.