The great thing in this world is not so much where we stand as in what direction we are moving.
-Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
Visiting a new country, I'm always surprised the differences between capital cities and the rest of the country. Taking a 1.5 hour train from Bangkok to the ancient city of Ayutthaya made for a delightful day trip. Sparkling skyscrapers, pink taxis, and crowded sidewalks gave way to lush trees, green rice paddies, and a slower pace. And while Ayutthaya is still a well-populated province in Thailand, by no means is it as dense as Bangkok (815 people per square mile in Ayutthaya versus Bangkok's 24,036). Many tourists like me visit Ayudhaya to see the UNESCO-listed ruins of Buddhist temples, monasteries, and statues dating back to the 1300s, yet few realize that the city was once one of the largest in the world, and definitely larger than Bangkok.
King U-thong of Siam established Ayutthaya as the kingdom's second (to Sukhothai) capital in 1350 and the city served as a major trading port until the 18th century. (Ayutthaya sits on its own little island surrounded by three rivers connecting the city to the sea.) During this time, the city grew in wealth and population, with nearly one million residents versus 4,000 in New York City and 600,000 in London at the time (source). According to UNESCO, Ayutthaya came to be one of the world’s largest and most cosmopolitan urban areas and a center of global diplomacy and commerce. Unfortunately, in 1767 the Burmese army forced residents from the city and burned it to the ground, and the city was never rebuilt. Today, the city is part archaeological site part bland concrete city with waterways darting all over the place. (This article describes how urban sprawl is negatively impacting the site.)
Ayutthaya is fairly spread out and hot as blazes, so I opted to have a tuk tuk chauffeur me around the sights. (It is entirely possible to bike the city and I saw many bike lanes and parking, I just took the path of least resistance on account of the heat.) Fortunately, the train station is swarming with tuk tuk drivers eager for business and they are ready to bargain with tourists daytripping from Bangkok. So for four hours and 900 baht (roughly $26), a friendly young Thai drove me around and pointed out highlights along the way. It was definitely worth the small price, and tourists with more patience than me can negotiate an even lower price.
Enjoy my day in Ayutthaya!
Wat Yai Chaya Mongkol
With its name meaning "the Great Temple of Auspicious Victory," King U-thong proclaimed this temple to be the "royal" temple in 1350. Since then, it has served as the place for many important historical events, including the seat of Buddhist patriarchs and monks of the Forest Tradition (Aranyavasi School) known for the practice of meditation and insight. Wat Yai Chaya Mongkol was the first stop on our tour and I was quite impressed by the reclining Buddha, gold swaths of fabric, and spectacular views.
Wat Mahathat is best known for its surreal Buddhist head tucked into tree roots, truly a sight to behold. According to signage at the temple, in the 1600s (the Ayutthaya Period) the head was part of a sandstone Buddha statue that fell from the main body to the ground. Over time, the roots of a nearby Bodhi tree covered the head as we know it today. Outside of this spectacle, Wat Mahathat dates back to 1374 when the first temple was erected.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet (Complex of the Ancient Palace)
Before Ayutthaya was razed by the Burmese army, Wat Phra Si Sanphet was the grandest and most beautiful temple in the capital, serving as a model for Wat Phra Kaeo in Bangkok (Wikipedia). The three Chedis, or hemispherical structure containing the remains of Buddhist monks and used for meditation, have been restored but the rest of the site remains in ruins.
Wat Thammikarat was first mentioned in 1548 and it was important during the Ayutthaya Period because of its location. The bell-shaped pagoda, built on top of ruins from the 1600s, is decorated with 13 friendly but fierce stucco lions in the Khmer-style. Interestingly enough, there is also a shrine (?) for King Naresuan that is packed with rooster statues, an unexpected yet quirky surprise.
By far, the highlight of my day trip to Ayutthaya was the train trip to and from Bangkok's Hua Lamphong Station. I selected a third class ticket for just 40 baht round trip (about $1.18!) and enjoyed the sights along the way, both the people watching on board and the country scenery passing outside. Third class is the cheapest way to travel on trains in Thailand and the AC-less cars can be crowded, but it's definitely the way to go.