The Temples of Ayutthaya
I told you all about how I got to Ayutthaya, but I didn’t really let on to why I stopped there. I went for the same reason that any traveler goes: for the temple hopping. Ayutthaya is one of Thailand’s former capitals and reportedly once one of the largest and most impressive cities in the world. Today it is a popular as either a day trip from Bangkok or a stop on the northern tourist trail, as visitors come to admire the unspoiled grassy ruins. While the temples have extreme historical significance in Thailand, I admit that my main interest was in exploring them from a photographic perspective.
Though it is possible to explore the ruins via tuk-tuk or mini bus, I have dreamed of visiting Ayutthaya since I first came to Thailand in 2009 and that dream has always involved a bicycle. The majority of the archaeological park is contained in central Ayutthaya, which is basically a small river island, making bicycling a feasible and pleasant way to get around. The major ruins that are off the island are accessible by bridges or by a sunset boat cruise. Right next to my guesthouse on Naresuan Soi 2 I was able to rent a bicycle for a mere 40 baht ($1.25). This is the cheapest bicycle rental I’ve ever found, even cheaper than Cambodia or Laos. Even more amazingly, there was no deposit needed, not a passport, not a bit of cash. Just trust and a handshake and I was off. I like Ayutthaya already.
My first stop of the day was a temple that contains Ayutthaya’s (and reportedly one of Thailand’s) most photographed images: an abandoned Buddha head. Wat Mahathat (50 baht admission fee) was built in 1374 and is a relatively intact and large site.
One thing that struck me about all the ruins in Ayutthaya is that they were very… unsupervised. Aside from the sleepy ticket takers there were no guard or caretakers roaming the grounds. And as there were very few fenced or roped off areas, there were only occasional signs to keep visitors from “climbing on the monuments”.
Combining the lack of signage and fences with the complete lack of crowds I often had the sensation that I had stumbled upon an otherwise undiscovered ancient city. I think this was good timing on my part- April is the hottest month of the year in Thailand (regularly over 100°F) and so most people don’t spend it cycling around an ancient city like a maniac. Also, I left super early in the morning to avoid tour groups from Bangkok.
At this point in the trip I realized I was really going to have to start working on my self-portrait taking skills. I really like having photos with people in them, which can be a problem when you’re traveling solo sans tripod!
I quickly stumbled upon the main event: the famous Buddha head tangled in a web of tree roots. I had seen endless images of this Buddha head but had a little shock when I saw it in real life: I had pictured it the size of a grapefruit but in reality it was enormous!
The size explains one of the theories of how the Buddha head ended up in it’s current state. While some say it was abandoned when the Burmese ravaged Ayutthaya, others believe that thieves tried to make off with the relic but it was too heavy and got left behind to Mother Nature’s devices.
This slightly more successful self-portrait (I balanced my camera on a brick wall and used the self-timer) shows the massive scale pretty well. I smiled when I read the sign behind me that read:
PLEASE… DO NOT STAND OVER THE BUDDHA’S HEAD. (It’s insulting).
I was so grateful for the amazingly beautiful blue sky and fluffy white clouds that came out for my photo shoot that day. Nothing makes me want to hurl my camera more than a gray, blown-out sky. Isn’t this gorgeous?
My next destination was right across a busy street. One of the fascinating things about modern Ayutthaya is that the city has just built up right around these ruins. So you can be standing at the foot of an ancient wat and look to your left and there is a 7/11 staring back at you. Strangely I found it charming the way history and real life intermingled. It reminded me of Athens, where you are walking through a major metropolis and look up and boom, there’s the Parthenon: symbol of the beginnings of modern civilization.
Wat Rarchaburana (50 baht admission) has a pretty dramatic history, as far as old temples go. It was built in the 15th century as a cremation site for two royal brothers who fought to the death for the throne. Then, in the 1950’s, looters made away with many valuable treasure, which prompted an official excavation that uncovered previously undiscovered rare Buddha images.
The temple was under repairs at the time of my visit, which I loved observing up close. No big fancy machinery here- just people working with their hands and colorful plastic buckets of grout. Inside the walls I didn’t find anything as fascinating- aside from this amazing framing angle. That one shot made this temple a worthwhile stop.
Also, Lonely Planet told me that this was the best preserved prang in the city. Thank God for Lonely Planet, or I wouldn’t always know when to be impressed by something.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet
After a nice little ride along a lake I came to Wat Phra Si Sanphet (50 baht admission). This is often hailed as Ayutthaya’s most impressive complex, and it too has an interesting background. It was once the largest temple in the city and contained a 52 foot tall Buddha covered in 550 pounds of gold, gold that was eventually melted down when the Burmese conquered the city.
At the time of my visit all three of the stupas were covered in scaffolding. Some might find this a disappointment but I loved it! The natural wood of the primitive scaffolding echoed the scruffy plants found around the site, making for some beautiful images.
Adjacent to Wat Phra Si Sanphet is the Wihaan Mongkhon Bophit sanctuary hall, home to one of Thailand’s largest and most resilient Buddha images. In the 1950’s the Burmese government donated 200,000 baht to the restoration fund for this building in an act of atonement for Burma’s ravaging of the city 200 years prior. The Buddha really was impressive. See that tiny white dot over the Buddha’s knee on the right? That is a bird! It really shows the massive scale.
Wat Worachetha Ram
The nice thing about riding a bike as opposed to going on a tour was that whenever I pleased I could stop at smaller, less visited temples like Wat Worachetha Ram (free admission). There wasn’t much to see but the trio of oranges in the photo below caught me eye while I was riding by and I had to stop.
The final ruin that I visited on my bike tour was Wat Lokayasutha. This reclining Buddha was so beautifully aged and colored, and still clearly revered today. Many visitors were praying and leaving offerings to the Buddha while I was there.
And the rest…
Of course on of the fun things about traveling on a bike is all the quirky little things you get to observe and take in, such as elephants parading through the streets.
While it was quite the sight to see the elephants sharing the roads with bicycles, motorcycles and tour buses, it hurt my heart a little to see these babies all chained up. I believe the bright body paint is left over from Songkran, in which elephants are regally decorated.
I also spotted this adorable little truck- locals know what their town is famous for.
And finally, the statues. These statues can be found all over Thailand, often next to shrines. I know they are symbolic and spiritual symbols but I admit I don’t know anything beyond that. I’ve noticed Bangkok has a lot of zebras, while Ayutthaya seemed to be all about the chickens.
There were many other temples I could have visited but the midday sun was becoming a little to much for me. I wasn’t really eating or sleeping well at this point and I started to feel a bit faint on the bike! I was surprised to be done so soon but I had knocked off all the highlights that the woman renting me the bike had circled on my map, so I didn’t feel too bad. And as it was still early I decided that after a few hours of air-conditioning I would join a sunset boat tour to see highlights of the off-island temples. Stay tuned!
I had so much fun taking pictures in Ayutthaya! Which photo is your favorite?
Wow wow wow!!!!!! Love the Buddha head in the tree — just amazing! And you look gorgeous as usual.
Thank you Andi! Another post I’ve been excited about… happily there are a lot lately!
Great photos. Thanks for sharing. Reclining Buddha is awesome!
Thank you Brad! I have seen Buddha images all over Southeast Asia but that was one of my favorites.
Everyone knows about Thailand for the great beaches and vacation value, but they often miss out on all of the temples and ruins. Great post and awesome pics!
Thank you so much Reid! I admit that for a long time I really knew little of Thailand outside Bangkok and the beaches, and I’m so grateful for this time I had to explore another aspect.
I love all three stupas covered in scaffolding.
Wasn’t that cool? Thanks for commenting Judy!
that shot with the reclining buddha with the flowering branches is pretty awesome.
looks like I shouldnt have missed this place…really great shots.
I missed it for almost a year in and out of Thailand! Always a reason to return 🙂
The reclining Buddha is so awesome and more impressive than the one in Bangkok that is enclosed within the temple. I like the picture of the Buddha tangled in the tree roots (interesting theory on how that occurred) and then the shot though the doorway at Wat Worachetha Ram. I like your photos that are ‘framed’ like that. So three favs.
Those are some of my top shots as well. Yes, the reclining Buddha is made even more impressive by his location, just kind of plopped in a field. No crowds either, which is very different from the famous cousin in Bangkok!
Fantastic post, Alex ! Your artistic eye is amazing.
Thank you Gram! It’s not hard to take great photos in a place as beautiful as this.
These photos are just beautiful! You should be so happy with them. Ayutthaya is definitely on my list for the next time I get to Thailand!
Thanks for that, Sarah! I definitely recommend Ayutthaya as well as the city I’m covering next, Lopburi…
I feel like I should be saying something about all the amazing wat photos, but honestly, I liked the photo of the little truck so much I’d have to pick that as my favorite 🙂
It was so cute! I wish I had a person in there to show the scale 🙂
I opted for Sukhothai during my last extended visit to Thailand, but Ayutthaya looks equally impressive.
I heart the framing shot you took. Definitely Photo of the Week worthy.
Some people say you only need a day to see it all, while others suggest two days. What would you recommend?
Good question and I address it in my next post! I spend two days and two nights in Ayutthaya. I realize that’s more than the average person but I obviously slow down and take time to blog, work, etc. You could see it all in a day, but why rush?
It’s official. we HAVE to go on vacation together! My favorite day in Italy was the one where I got up extra early and went on a photo walk around the farm we were staying at. We would have so much fun setting our itinerary based on good photo spots, and we wouldn’t have to use the self-timer because we could take pictures of each other 🙂
Yes I think we would be great travel buddies, except I am a picky eater and you are a foodie 🙂 But yes, love photo walks/photo days. Sometimes I feel guilty saying so on my blog because people are all “it’s supposed to be about the experience” but hey, sometimes for me it really is about the photos. Whatever.
Wow. You have great photos here. Thanks for sharing them. I’ll bookmark this page for more of your amazing adventure stories.
Really glad to find your blog. I will take a self tour in Ayutthaya with my two friends next thursday. This blog is really helpful.
Good luck on your journey 😉
Hi Aftri, so glad this post could be of help! I hope you enjoy Ayutthaya as much as I did!
Greetings from Malaysia!
Just stumbled upon your blog.
It has great information in it and nice shots to compliment it.
Great job! 🙂
Thank you Linda! Welcome to Wanderland 🙂 I’m so glad you enjoy the posts!
We are going to Ayutthaya this month. Do you remember the train number or name that you took from Bangkok to Ayutthaya? Or can we take any train that goes North (e.g., Chiang Mai-bound train) to go to Ayutthaya? What time is the earliest train trip from Bangkok to Ayutthaya?
How about the train trip from Ayutthaya to Bangkok? What time is the last train trip from Ayutthaya to Bangkok?
Your blog made me more excited about our upcoming trip. Thanks in advance.
Hey Gene, you can use this site to check Thai railway schedules. Hope that helps, and happy travels!
how did you find your accommodation – google, lonely planet guide book? 😉 do you think it would be easy to show up and find a cheap place or should i book in advance? i’ll be there in 2 weeks for a couple of nights.
thank ya much! loved your photos!
Hey Marie! I usually do a mix. In this case I just showed up and found a place, can’t remember if it was in my guidebook or not — I think it was. It really depends on the trip, the destination, the time of year and my mood 🙂 I’m sure you’ll be fine just showing up, though if you prefer a bit more of a plan you might as well book ahead!
Hey Alex 🙂
I was so pleased to read your notes, it was amazing. Btw, I am heading to Thailand in two weks and since I dream to visit Ayutthaya, I want allocate one day to this place.
So do you think hiring a bike would be a nice idea to explore the area? Please advise me for any tips.
Thank you very much, Sam
Absolutely! I loved my bike ride around Ayutthaya, as you can see in this post. Aytthaya is well worth the visit — enjoy!
I’d like to visit Atutthaya by bicycle . However , the trips advertised leaving Bangkok seem pricey . I’m happy enough to show up and rent a cheap bike and ride by myself – would you say this is an easy enough thing to find and do, once I arrive in Atutthaya ?
Absolutely! That’s exactly what I did — just showed up and rented a bike. Take the train, the ride is gorgeous! Good luck Paul!
It’s easy to find bike rentals. Try asking your hotel in ayutthaya. I believe they have contacts on bike shop that can deliver it to you! Keep hydrated though and plan your temple destination carefully 🙂
Cool! Oh did you go here with an agency or just diy? Thanks!
DIY! It was a great trip and very easy to do — thanks for reading!
Nice! Do you have any breakdown of amount you paid for this DIY trip?
Any advice and tips where we can get trusted driver in ayutthaya?
Hey Ren, I just rented a bike so no driver recommendation, though I’d probably just ask at your guesthouse! You can find the rest of my Ayutthaya posts here. Hope they help!
I absolutely love your photos! Am going to Ayutthaya in a week time n wondering should I haggle for a night tour tuk tuk or join night bicycling (risk knee n back pain?)?
One thing night bike tour is not cheap n my main concern is it starts at 6pm so I would miss some freedom to go to wat Chai for sunset photos?
Appreciate your comments! Thanks
Hey Phyllis! I actually didn’t do either of those options — I took the night time boat tour. Maybe that’s a nice compromise? I remember it being a very good deal. Good luck!
This was SOOO helpful!
Thanks Heather! So glad to hear that!
Hi Alex! I enjoyed reading all about your Thailand trip. I’m heading to Thailand with a few friends this July, was wondering if you happen to notice how much were the 2nd class tickets for the train ride? And what was the name of that bike shop
Hey Deniece! Sorry, I don’t remember either 🙂 But the trains are CHEAP — you can check the exact price on the official Thai railway website, and your guesthouse will help ya find bikes. Good luck and enjoy!
This is so helpful and you have given me much confidence that I can do it too! I will be travelling with my 17yr old daughter next week. Should I be worried about the traffic conditions while cycling without a guide?
Hey Jeanette! You’ll definitely be sharing the roads with others, and it can be a bit chaotic, but Ayutthaya is a pretty small, slow town — I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all! Happy travels with your daughter, love that you are traveling together <3
Hi Alex, a quick question. What time do you start your bike tour around Ayutthaya? I would definitely prefer to start early where it is less congested in each sites.
Hey Danns! I can’t remember specifically but I’m definitely not an early morning kind of girl 🙂 That said, tour buses do hit Ayuthaya from Bangkok, so hitting them at opening time is not a bad idea to beat the crowds.
Ayutthaya can be easily done on a budget. Its sad to see people paying huge amount to travel agents in Bangkok to see Ayutthaya. Me and my wife visited Ayutthaya under 1200 THB for both of us.
I’ve now done Ayutthaya two ways — once on a tight budget and once totally splashing out 🙂 Both were a blast! I did both independently, though. No tour groups necessary.