Written by Lynn
Ayutthaya was the capital of Thailand for over 400 years starting in the 1300's. It sits a mere 2 hour bus ride from downtown Bangkok (or 1 hour if you are squashed in a sardine can-like minibus). It was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 1981 because of its unsurpassed collection of ancient Thai wats.
Here there is evidence of the creativity and beauty seen in ancient Thai architecture. It seems that every king that ruled ancient Siam was determined to leave his mark in the capital with a series of ever more impressive Royal Palaces and temples. Most of these buldings were constructed somewhere between the 14th and 17th centuries. Considering the time that has passed, the wats are in amazing condition. Several are in the process of being restored, while others need little to any work on them.
Jose Santen, a Dutch trader, was one of the first European's to visit the capital of ancient Siam in the 1400's. In correspondance home he wrote the following description:
"Pra Nakorn Sri Ayutthaya is the capital city in which the king lives, and so do the nobles, officials, and all administrators. The capital city is situated on a small island in Chao Praya River. Its surrounding area is a flat field. The stone wall was constructed to surround the city with 2 Dutch miles circumference. So it is a very big capital city. Its vicinity consists of many immediate Buddhist monasteries. The population is dense in the capital. There are long, wide and straight aligned roads. There are canals that are converted from Chao Praya River to the capital. So it is very convenient for transportation. Besides the roads and canals, there are also small ditches and alleyways. So, in the rainy season, people can easily travel to houses. The houses are built in Indian styles but roofed with tiles. Ayutthaya is therefore a luxurious city packed with over 300 Buddhist monasteries exquisitely built. There many are pagodas, topes, molded figures, and statues that are coated with gold brightening the whole area. The capital city situates on the riverbank and the city plan was orderly planned, so it is a very beautiful city. Its location is good, its population is dense, and it is a good trading area both domestic and foreign trade. As far as I am aware, there has not been any king in this region has ever reigned the beautiful and prosperous city as Ayutthaya. The city is on a very good location, regarding the militarily strategies, so it is very difficult for the enemy to impregnate because the surrounding area will be flooded for 6 months annually in the rainy season. The enemy cannot stay for a long time, so they will eventually retreat."
The first ruler of Ayutthaya, King Ramathibodi I, made the official religion of Siam Theravada Buddhism. This choice influenced many of the building structures, and as a result, shows a wide variation from the temples built by the neighbouring Hindu Angkor kingdom (see later posting regarding this).
The history of the royal family that ruled Ayutthaya is long and complex. It involves delicious intrigues of assassinations, military coups, and fraternal bickering. The shortest reign was a mere 7 days before Prince Thong Lun was killed by his prodigal brother. In total 33 kings ruled in Ayutthaya. During these 4 centuries there were a number of wars fought with neighbouring Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia. Many of the altars are dedicated to the brave elephants that the warriors and kings used as war steeds, fighting hand-to-hand from their backs. Finally, in 1767 the last of the great kings of Ayutthaya was overthrown by a Burmese army consisting of 1,500,000 soldiers and 6,000 of these elephants. He fled the city and died a mere 10 days later of starvation.
Many of the temples, statues and other irreplaceable artwork were destroyed by the conquering Burmese army. The victorious Burmese king was so appalled by the wanton destruction created by his soldiers that it is said he wept in sadness and had an enormous temple built as an act of contrition. Still, in spite of being partially demolished many amazing structures remain and are open to the public for viewing.
There's nothing quite like the feeling of wandering through these ancient temples, meandering between the dilapidated structures and staring in wonder at the imposing buddha statues, where many people still worship. Somehow the crumbling stone makes it all the more impressive, especially in comparison to some of the relatively new wats we had visited in Bangkok. But this was just a taste of what was to come. Our next destination - Cambodia and Angkor Wat.