PHRA NAKHON SI AYUTTHAYA, Thailand — The capital of ancient Siam lies in ruins amid a bustling country town. It has no first-class hotels, but if you're willing to settle for basic accommodations, eat local food and ride in noisy thuk-thuks (pedicabs), it's worth more than a day trip from Bangkok, 40 miles south.
In the 14th Century, King U Thong built Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya as his capital, at the convergence of the Chao Phraya, Lop Buri and Pa Sak rivers. A canal was cut in a loop of the Chao Phraya, making the city an island. A wall around the city gave additional protection, but in 1767 Burmese invaders destroyed the capital.
Ayutthaya was once a major center for commerce because of its location and its river route to the South China Sea.
The island city was Siam's capital for 417 years. Europeans called it "the most beautiful city in the East," and one early traveler said it was "the commercial capital of the universe."
Most Extensive Runs
Remnants of the old capital cover the island and the nearby river banks, making it one of Asia's most extensive ruins.
The way to see most of Ayutthaya is by thuk-thuk . The cost is about 200 baht ($7) per day. It is worth paying extra for an English-speaking driver willing to travel to the more remote sites. It's easy to hire transportation near the market or bus and train stations. A map, marked with places to be visited, makes communication simple.
The two museums are a must. The Chao Sam Phraya National Museum has an impressive collection of Buddha images. It also houses many gold artifacts, which were discovered in a crypt under Wat Ratchaburana's main tower during restoration work in 1958.
The Chan Kasem Museum, once the Palace of the Front, was destroyed by the Burmese, but King Mongkut, Rama VI, rebuilt this teakwood palace. He was the ruler depicted in "The King and I."
The market near the Chan Kasem Museum is the heart of modern Ayutthaya. It is ripe with the aromas of fresh fruits and Thai cooking.
Thai specialties may be sampled here at the lowest prices in town. The best time is early morning, when the bronze-clad monks walk barefoot from stall to stall collecting food in their bowls.
Wat Maha That and Wat Ratchaburana, two of Ayutthaya's temples, are near town and separated by Naresuan Road. Wat Maha That was built by King Ramesuan in 1384. Its main prang (spire) once towered 150 feet. Now only the base remains.
Wat Ratchaburana's main prang is visible from a distance, and its subtle hues are stunning in the early morning light. This partially restored wat was built on the site where King Boromraja II's brother was cremated.
A five-minute thuk-thuk ride away is Wat Phra Si Sanphet, which once stood on the grounds of Wang Luang, the old royal palace. It is known for the perfect alignment of its three gigantic white chedis (monuments). Little of this wat remains, but the grounds are littered with crumbling brick foundations.
Outside its walls is Wat Mongkhon Bophit. This temple was built around one of Thailand's largest bronze Buddha statues. The chapel is a replica of the one that housed the Buddha.
The souvenir stands and food stalls near this wat offer cold coconut water served in its natural green shell. It's a good location to buy spices and fruits never found in America's supermarkets.
Wat Suwan Dararam is on the southwest corner of the island. The interior walls of both its bots (chapels) are covered with frescoes depicting life in ancient Ayutthaya. This array of early Siamese art is an interesting treat.
At Wat Lakayasutha, only a huge reclining white Buddha remains. It is still regularly used for worship. It rests in the open, surrounded by neatly trimmed grass and a paved road with refreshment stands.
Wat Suvannavas and Wat Thammikarat confirm my feeling that unrestored ruins have more appeal. Both are in walking distance of Wat Ratchaburana, and seeing the decaying stucco lions around the crumbling stupa, fighting the encroaching tropical vegetation, turns this walk into an adventure.
History has it that Queen Suriyothai, disguised as a warrior prince, rode her war elephant between the king and his attacking foe. She lost her life, but saved her husband's. The Chedi Si Suriyothai contains her ashes.
The chedi is across U Thong Road from the Chao Phraya and is a vantage point for watching lines of tethered, bulky, rice barges snake their way along the river. Rice barges are the workplace and the home of people along the river.
A thuk-thuk or a boat is necessary to reach ruins off the island. The thuk-thuk is best for seeing Wat Phu Khao (the Golden Mount) or Wat Maheyong with its mutilated stucco elephants supporting a stupa; Wat Phanan Choeng can be reached either way.
Wat Phanan Choeng was visited by early Chinese traders. They prayed here before making long voyages, and they gave this wat its character.