Ayutthaya was the second capital of Thailand, founded in 1350 and coming to dominate the region as a centre of local and international trade until being burned to the ground by the Burmese in 1767. It is a Unesco World Heritage listed site and one of the best historical destinations in Thailand. Read on for my picks of the best historical sites to visit here as well as some interesting facts and other info to help you enjoy your trip.
Be sure to check out our companion guide on the best ice cream shops in Ayutthaya in case you need a break from the sun and an injection of sugar to power you back up!
1) Wat Ratchaburana
Wat Ratchaburana was founded in 1424 by King Borommarachathirat II of the Ayutthaya Kingdom and built on the cremation site of his two elder brothers. The two brothers had fought to their deaths in a duel for the royal succession to their father Intha Racha.
The temple’s central prang has undergone restoration and you can climb up the steps to get a great view of the surrounds as well as look around inside. You can even make your way down the incredibly steep staircase (be careful!) to the crypts below.
In 1957 a number of valuable Buddha statues and golden artefacts were stolen from this temple and few were ever recovered.
2) Wat Phra Mahathat & Ayutthaya Park
Wat Phra Mahathat, or ‘The Monastery of the Great Relic,’ was constructed in 1374 and probably expanded around 1388-1395. It was a great temple and one of the most important in the kingdom due to its location in the centre and it proximity to the Grand Palace.
When King Borommaracha II attacked Angkor in 1431, many sacred relics were captured and brought back to Ayutthaya where they were installed in Wat Phra Mahathat as offerings.
One of the most popular parts of this temple ruin is the ‘Buddha head in the tree’ you can see in the picture below.
Many of the other ruins in the Ayutthaya Historical Park are similar to this one from a tourism perspective which is why I’ve included them together under one item here. I definitely recommend looking around at the other ruins though as each have their own visual appeal. The experience of exploration is also a highlight as you can cycle or drive between and amongst the ruins for half a day to a day.
3) Phet Fortress
Phet Fortress was the most important of 16 fortresses in Ayutthaya’s defences. It stands at a strategic point at the intersection of the Pa Sak River and the Chao Phraya River and protected the harbour where foreign ships anchored for inspection and unloading.
You can visit the fortress from land but I also recommend checking it out via a river tour so you can see it as it would have been seen by foreign traders and invading armies.
4) Elephant Kraal & War Elephant Monument
War elephants were a major part of battles throughout Thai and Southeast Asian history and its interesting to learn how they were used in combat and the role of the Elephant Kraal for capturing and sorting the animals.
There’s also a series of war elephant monuments showing how the animals and soldiers worked together as a military unit in battle.
This site is a bit controversial because elephants are still exploited all over Thailand, including at the Elephant Kraal, for rides and other activities which are said to be quite bad for the animals.
- Ayutthaya Tourist Centre – free to visit and they have a great exhibition giving you an overview of local history
- Japanese Village Museum – great museum to get information about all the foreign settlements that were located south of the old city (Dutch, Portuguese, French, British, Makassar and Japanese). The focus is on information which is well presented visually as well as some artefacts but there are no historical ruins here.
Note: there are several museums to mark the foreign settlements to the south of the old city. The Japanese Village Museum is just the one I happened to visit, partially due to its proximity to a local ice cream spot I was trying out.
Interesting Historical Facts
- The site of the city at the intersection of three rivers was strategically chosen as it was above the ‘tidal bore’ of the gulf of Siam which meant that warships of foreign powers couldn’t sail up the river to attack the city
- Ayutthaya was estimated to have been the largest city in the world in 1700 with a population of around 1 million
- In 1767, after nearly 400 years of power, the Kingdom of Ayutthaya was brought down by invading Burmese armies
- At first Ayutthaya was only a small city on the northwestern outskirts of the Khmer Empire. However, as the power of the Khmer fell, the Ayutthaya Kingdom rose and ended up invading and sacking the great capital of Angkor in 1431
- Bangkok’s original defensive walls were built with bricks from Ayutthaya
- A large number of Buddha statues and golden artefacts were found at Wat Ratchaburana in 1957, however, they were subsequently stolen and although the thieves were caught, only around 20% of the artefacts were recovered
- The original design of Phet Fortress was circular and probably built with Portuguese guidance. However, the circular shape created dead zones and it was later rebuilt with help from French experts to have a diamond or star shape
- Ayutthaya experienced an explosion in local tourism in early 2018 as it was brought back to life in the hit period comedy series “Buppesannivas” (“Love Destiny”). Visitors enjoy dressing in period costumes and posing for photos amongst the ruins
Temple hopping can be hard work, especially in the Thai heat. Not to worry, we’ve got you covered with our guide of the best ice cream shops in Ayutthaya.