Ayutthaya: Thailand’s Ancient Capital

Ayutthaya is Thailand’s ancient capital, only an hour’s drive from Bangkok – perfect for a day trip to see its picturesque temple ruins and a river cruise back into the big city

Being a bit of a fan of ancient ruins – see my previous articles on Angkor Wat and Sukhothai, as well as Petra in Jordan – I’ve long wanted to go to Ayutthaya, Thailand’s ancient capital which was lost to the Burmese and led to the establishment of Bangkok. Today Ayutthaya is a popular tourist haunt with some spectacular ruins of the former royal palaces and temples.

Given Ayutthaya is only an hour’s drive from Bangkok, it’s easy enough to get there either on a public bus from Bangkok’s northern bus terminal (up by Mo Chit BTS station) or to catch a train from Hua Lumphong rail terminal, although most of the trains are 3rd class hard seat style and prone to taking their own sweet time to get to their destination.

I’d heard that one of the big attractions for going to Ayutthaya was to enjoy a river cruise from the city back into Bangkok, letting you see something of life on the Chao Phraya and how it connects back into the modern capital. Given I’m not a fan of going on package trips with crowds of other people, we opted to do the flashpacker version of the Ayutthaya daytrip with a company called Sala Thai – 2550 Baht each for three of us got us our own private mini van driver and tour guide to take us direct from our house in Bangkok to the Ayutthaya temples, onto the Summer Palace and then onto the Grand Pearl river cruiser, which provides a buffet lunch and takes around 4 hours to gently move back down the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok, where you’re met by the minivan and taken back to your hotel. You can get a similar version of the same trip where you share a minivan for around 1500 Baht each.

Originally we’d wanted to get a bus up to Ayutthaya, spend the night and then come back on a river cruiser the next day. Unfortunately this seems to be pretty difficult to organize, as all the river cruiser boats seem to work only as part of day package trips, and it’s hard to get your own transport from Ayutthaya proper to the boat pier because it’s at least an hour’s drive away. As such, you’re a bit of a hostage to fortune trying to get on a boat independently.

The usual format for Ayutthaya day trips starts with a visit to the three towering chedis of Wat Phra Si Sanphet and Wang Luang, the site of the former Royal Palace of which nothing now remains, and then Wat Phra Mahathat with the now iconic Buddha’s head amongst the trees, as well as the still functioning place of worship Viharn Phra Mongol Bopit with its 16 metre high bronze Buddha statue. I enjoyed seeing these temples very much – there is a real serenity to the stupas and chedis that survived Ayutthaya’s destruction at the hands of the Burmese in the late 18th century and they are incredibly graceful edifices.

My photos of Ayutthaya – click for larger images:

However, the history of what happened here is unsettlingly borne out by the scores of smashed Buddha statues that are still left within the temple compounds – the invaders hacked off the heads of virtually every image, which creates a weird electricity over the site, to my mind at least. It’s easy to see these temples as mere pretty ruins wholly divorced from their history, but just knowing a little about what happened here – as our tour guide explained to us – throws them into a different, more troubling light. Indeed, the Grand Palace in Bangkok is directly modeled on its predecessor in Ayutthaya, but there is nothing left at Wang Luang in Ayutthaya to which it can be compared – it was razed to the ground by the invaders. All that’s left is a flat, empty patch of grassland.

That the Buddha statues have been mainly destroyed doesn’t stop them being considered sacred icons by the locals, and many of them are still venerated with incense and other offerings as well as saffron sashes tied around them. Visitors have to be careful to show respect for the Buddha images – don’t stand up on the platform so that you are level with any Buddha image, otherwise you might find yourself being furiously whistled at by one of the security guards who will also insist you delete any images you took of the Buddha from that vantage point. A couple of Japanese teenagers incurred the guards’ wrath in this way.

After that it’s a 45 minute drive to the Bang In Summer Palace, and then another 45 minutes from there to the river pier. It’s easy to see why the Palace has become a regular part of these trips as it breaks up the long journey from the ruins to the pier, but the Palace is frankly pretty garish – sickly sweet architecture that mimics the worse excesses of French grandiosity, and all coated in a Disney like veneer of being gleamingly new and complete with piped music throughout the estate. Plus the chance of getting run over by a golf cart. The only saving grace of the Palace is the Chinese Pavilion, every piece of which was indeed imported from China. Even so, I would have much preferred to have spent another hour exploring some more of Ayutthaya’s ruins and then had a 90 minute drive direct to the pier than stopping here at the Palace. If you can, avoid it.

The other logistical thing to bear in mind is that, unsurprisingly, it is extremely hot wandering around the ruins and that you will also probably start getting hungry around 11 – so it worth bringing some snacks to keep you going until you get to attack lunch on the boat around 1pm.

I wasn’t expecting much from the river cruiser but I was actually pretty impressed with the Grand Pearl. The buffet lunch was excellent, rather than the usual indifferent food mass catering gives rise to, and the boat was well laid out. Passengers had their own tables of four and there were seats around the side of the boat and plenty on the top deck too. The cruise down the Chao Phraya was my highlight of the day, watching the river banks gradually transform from sleepy villages to the skyscrapers of Bangkok and the seemingly endless temples that were built every kilometer or so along the way.

Being met by our driver once we disembarked at River City in Bangkok was a welcome relief – we were all pretty hot and tired after a long day, so being ferried home was definitely worth the extra we’d paid for this trip.

For my part, I’d like to go back to Ayutthaya and explore some more of the ruins under my own steam, and also to do a dusk cruise around the city when you can see the ruins lit up in the evening sky, which must be pretty spectacular. But despite the disappointment of the Summer Palace, the ruins and river cruise made our trip to Ayutthaya a great day out.


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