The ancient kingdom of Ayutthaya, the previous capital of Thailand, is a day trip away from Bangkok and a soulful place to visit. If you’re planning to go, you may have already scoured through the millions of travel guides, Lonely Planet advice, and perhaps even Wiki-ed it, but let me show you what makes it special. Having visited the ruins of Ayutthaya as a young child there were details I may have missed, like the wonderfully tropical thatched roof that shades the floating reception hut at the Bang Pa-in Royal Palace, or hand painted tiles that adorned its Chinese building. Perhaps it was the faint memory of eating Thai candy floss (sai mai), a specialty of the region usually eaten with thin and soft pancakes. Yes, returning in adulthood gave a new context to those old faded photographs of a five-year-old me pouting on a UNESCO world heritage site.
So here I’ve put together a little day trip that involves my perfect amount of tasties, sources of inspiration, architectural awe, and local produce. Whether you decide to take the slow route by boat, or a comfortably air-conditioned zip over, the city of Ayutthaya is a change of pace from Bangkok. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for some to be in the presence of 600 year old structures that have stood through wealth and war, after Burmese warriors attacked and Siam’s capital twice over.
En route to Ayutthaya by car you can pop in to Bang Pa-in Royal Palace, the summer palace to the Thai royal family. I come here for the equisite Chinese building, adorned with hand painted indigo tiles, the most intricate carvings of mystical stories that seem to bring magic into the atmosphere, and some really incredible antiques. Stop for a moment at the royal reception barge that floats gracefully, once welcoming guests to the palace who came by boat. The thatched roof and crisp white carpentry is what I picture to be the perfect tropical cottage. The palace grounds are home to a lush variety of Thai flora and fruit trees, so keep an eye out for spike bulbous jackfruit, all kinds of mango varieties, and some very exotic looking flowers. A little note for newcomers would be to visit the palace with sleeved tops (no bare shoulders) and pants covering the knees.
Lunch stop in Ayutthaya
You can’t miss a lunch at Mae Pra Pai restaurant in Ayutthaya where they specialise in Kanom Jeen noodles, a kind of stretchy rice noodle served with a curry of your choice. This is a truly local spot, and on weekends families come for their weekly get-together lunch. Have a look at what sort of curries they have on offer – you’ll see them in great big industrial-sized pots and it’ll come right to your table. Kanom jeen is eaten with fresh herbs and vegetables so help yourself at the self-serve veggie bar to spruce up your lunch. Pictured here below is a Shan style kanom jeen curry called ‘Kanom Jeen Nam Ngiew’, a dish that came from the nomadic Shan people and eaten up North and in Burma. The dish reminds me of an Asian style bolognese thanks to the slightly acidic tomatoes and fatty minced pork, but the special ingredient in this dish is the ‘ngiew’ flower which is steeped with the other ingredients. If you find the flower go ahead and eat it, it tastes almost meaty itself.
Ayutthaya Historical Park
After lunch follow signs to Ayutthaya Historical Park where the ancient ruins rest. The remains of this age old city peacefully lie in and amongst newly built temples. Here you’ll find locals shoulder to shoulder with people from all over Thailand coming to make holy merit. We happened to be there on a very spiritual day, Visakha Puja, the day Buddha was born, enlightened, and died. They all occurred on the same date. So, the sound of chanting and the hustle of holy visitors gave great spirit to the space.
It’s interesting to also take note of the Bodhi tree that grows all over Ayutthaya and throughout the country. It’s an old sacred variety of fig tree, and you’ll stumble upon some really old specimens growing amongst the resting ruins. This tree was the same variety of tree that Buddha sat under while he attained enlightenment, and its heart shaped leaves have been depicted in religious script for centuries.
Sadly you’ll not see many headed Buddha figures in Ayutthaya because of the value that their heads run for on the black market. This is a region wide issue that has left many historical sites incomplete, and many holy sites without their guardians. It’s a message for us to stop the demand for Buddha head figures, and a lesson to respect religious depictions despite whether or not we share the same faith. To use these images or figures for decoration or adornment stands opposed to the principles of Buddhism.
Last but not least, a great token to take back to Bangkok with you is a load of seasonal fruit. The sound of mega phone will be your first sign, so look out for a truck packed with the fruit of the day – whatever is in season at the time – and make sure you ask to try before buying.
At the moment mangosteens are in season. They are a deep purple on the outside and when you break through its thick flesh you will find pristine white morsels inside that taste of blossom and mango. It’s a rare find outside of South East Asia so I urge you to try one if you see any.
Ayutthaya by car
Take the Sirat Expressway bound North. Follow signs to Bang Pa-in and take the exit toward Route 347/Ayutthaya/Bang Pahan/Pathum Tani and continue onto Route AH2 and follow signs to Ayutthaya until you turn right onto Route 3263. Look for signs to Ayutthaya Historical Park and you will reach the area within 10-15 minutes of the turn off.
Ayutthaya by boat
At Saphan Taksin Pier, just under the BTS station, you will find a counter for the boat to Ayutthaya. The boat usually takes 3.5 hours to reach Ayutthaya but it’s a pleasant way to see Bangkok and the countryside by water as Thais once used to travel.