For over 400 years, Ayutthaya was a major political, economic, and cultural powerhouse of Southeast Asia. Home to the eponymous kingdom, which traded with, among others, merchants from China, Vietnam, India, Spain, France, and Holland, Ayutthaya was perhaps the first, true Thai realm, holding sway over much of what is now modern-day Thailand. In 1767, the kingdom was sacked and burned by a rival Burmese army, and reduced to rubble.
Today, the little that remains of Ayutthaya's former glory takes the form of crumbling temples, such as Wat Maha That, or partial reconstructions, such as Wat Phra Si Sanphet. Happily, restorations and renovations are underway, and most, if not all, of Ayutthaya is open to the general public.
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Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the largest temple in the area, is a 15th-century temple whose iconic three chedis (another word for stupa, or Buddhist reliquary) were originally created to enshrine ashes of Ayutthayan kings, Buddha images and royal accoutrements. The temple was partially reconstructed in the 20th century, and many of the relics it originally contained are now housed in Thai museums.
At the north end of the Grand Palace is Wat Maha That, a weathered temple that was founded in the late 14th century. Visitors can see rows of headless Buddha statues, a testament to the arson wrought by the Burmese invasion in 1767. Similar to the ruins of Ta Prohm in Siem Reap, Cambodia, this iconic sight features a stone bust of Buddha peeking out of overgrown, entwined banyan tree roots, and is considered sacred by Thai Buddhists.
On the opposite side of river that runs through Ayutthaya, Wat Chai Watthanaram was once used as a cremation site for members of the Thai royal family. The main prang, or tower, at this temple stands approximately 115 feet (or 35 meters) high and is surrounded by eight smaller towers prangs, all of which are adorned with stucco depictions of scenes from the Buddha’s life, and have been recently restored. Chaiwatthanaram is particularly splendid when illuminated by floodlights at night.
Enjoy a gourmet lunch on a private cruise around Ayutthaya. While it may not seem like one, Ayutthaya is technically an island, surrounded by the Chao Phraya, Lopburi, and Pasak rivers, and a cruise affords another perspective on the ancient capital’s ruins.
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