Ayutthaya’s ghost temples

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.

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand

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.

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Chai Wattanaran, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Chai Wattanaran, Ayuthaya, Thailand

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.

Wat Chai Wattanaran, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Chai Wattanaran, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Chai Wattanaran, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Chai Wattanaran, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Chai Wattanaran, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Chai Wattanaran, Ayuthaya, Thailand

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.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

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.

Riding an elephant, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Riding an elephant, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Ram, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Ram, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

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.

Wat Phra Ram, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Ram, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Ram, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Ram, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand

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.

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand

A journey back in time, ancient Ayutthaya

In travel, as in life, it is the journey and not the destination that is the most important thing. Or so we are led to believe. Whoever came up with this maxim clearly hasn’t tried to get a Bangkok tuk-tuk to take them to the railway station for less than five times the fare a Thai person would pay, or without having to stop at a dodgy shop selling overpriced and possibly fake semi-precious gems.

By the time I found a tuk-tuk willing to only overcharge me by 200 percent I’d almost given up on going on a trip to Ayutthaya, the magnificent ancient capital of the Thai Kingdom. It would have been a mistake to have turned back, both the journey and the destination were wonderful, but tuk-tuk drivers don’t make it easy.

Hua Lamphong railway station, Bangkok, Thailand

Hua Lamphong railway station, Bangkok, Thailand

Hua Lamphong railway station, Bangkok, Thailand

Hua Lamphong railway station, Bangkok, Thailand

It was a scorching hot day, barely a breath of wind and a wall of humidity. The sort of day when even the smallest of physical exertions is ill advised…a perfect day to spend wandering around a large ancient city with hardly any shade. I bought my train ticket at Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station, and went off to find a cold drink before getting on the train for the two hour journey to Ayutthaya.

Hua Lamphong railway station, Bangkok, Thailand

Hua Lamphong railway station, Bangkok, Thailand

Water mist, Hua Lamphong railway station, Bangkok, Thailand

Water mist, Hua Lamphong railway station, Bangkok, Thailand

En route to Ayutthaya, Thailand

En route to Ayutthaya, Thailand

As I stood on the platform watching the world go by, I noticed a cooling mist of water being sprayed from the roof of the station. On a hot day, this gesture towards climate control was greatly appreciated. Sadly the train had no such facilities. I snagged a seat next to an open window, but for much of the journey the train moved at a leisurely pace and the hoped for breeze never materialising. I found myself welded to the plastic seat.

Ayutthaya railway station, Ayutthaya, Thailand

Ayutthaya railway station, Ayutthaya, Thailand

Ayutthaya railway station, Ayutthaya, Thailand

Ayutthaya railway station, Ayutthaya, Thailand

The journey took us through seemingly endless Bangkok suburbs, past a slum area with wooden shacks crammed up against the rail tracks, at a snails pace. Finally, we hit open country and our tempo picked up. The scenery was luscious green, but flat and uninspiring farm land – I get enough of that in the Netherlands – and we made several stops at tiny stations without anyone at them.

Eventually we arrived at the modern city of Ayutthaya, where a gaggle of tuk-tuk drivers were vying for people’s attention and money. I popped to the toilet and by the time I returned my choice was somewhat diminished. Only one tuk-tuk driver remained, but he and his wife didn’t seem interested in using their sudden monopoly to exploit me.

Wat Chai Wattanaran, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Chai Wattanaran, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Chai Wattanaran, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Chai Wattanaran, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Chai Wattanaran, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Chai Wattanaran, Ayuthaya, Thailand

We struck a deal and off we went towards the wondrous UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ayutthaya Historical Park, home to the ancient Thai capital of Ayutthaya. The city is an island sitting at the confluence of several rivers. These formed a natural protective barrier from enemy attack, which served the city well until the 18th Century.

Here the Lopburi River and the Pa Sak River join the Chao Phraya River on its journey from the mountains to the Gulf of Thailand. In 2011, these three rivers overwhelmed flood defences and devastating floods struck the region. Hundreds of people were killed and over US$40 billion worth of damage was inflicted, including massive destruction in Bangkok. The flooding also caused significant damage to Ayutthaya’s ancient buildings.

Wat Phra Ram, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Ram, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Chai Wattanaran, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Chai Wattanaran, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

The ancient city covered a vast area, incorporating hundreds of kilometres of canals, grand palaces and dozens of temples. To do it justice you would really need two or three days. I didn’t have that luxury. I wanted to see some of the sights off the island, including the remains of a Dutch trading colony which was established here in the 1608, but there just wasn’t time and, if I’m being honest, the heat and humidity were just too much.

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Mahathat, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya, Thailand

It was so hot that I was bathed in sweat most of the time – there is only so much of that you can endure before needing to climb gratefully into a shower and a clean set of clothes. I divided my time exploring some of the beautiful ancient temples on the island, and one off the island, vowing to see the rest next time.