Seeing in the New Year in Ayutthaya
Ayutthaya is one of the ancient capitals of Thailand, or Siam as it was called then. Consequently, it is a town covered in the ruins ancient temples and palaces, statues and other buildings.
Trip to Ayutthaya number 3 – the one where we see real temples
We’d actually been to Ayutthaya twice before, but not managed to see any temples. The first time we went when we first arrived in Thailand, over ten years ago. We had been to Bangkok and Kanchanaburi and headed to Ayutthaya to see some old temples. Bear in mind that it was our first time in South East Asia and we were already quite overwhelmed by the heat, humidity and general atmosphere.
We got to Ayutthaya and headed off down a long street to find some temples. We walked and walked and walked. And got hotter, and hotter, and hotter. Sweatier and sweatier. Tuk tuks were doing slow drive-bys, trying to get us into their vehicles. It was all a bit too much. We ducked into the nearest air-conditioned place, which happened to be the museum. I’ve no memory of the exhibits, or of it at all, other than it was cool. As in the temperature. Not in the ‘fashionable’ sense.
There was some problem with our camera on that visit, so we don’t even have any pictures.
The second time we went, we were visiting some friends who were teaching there. We went out for some drinks, but gave the temples a miss.
For New Year (‘Western’ New Year – 31st December, not Thai New Year or Chinese New Year – they celebrate New Year three times in Thailand!), we had a long weekend, and because of the way our timetables were, we had four days off. This seemed like a good opportunity to properly visit Ayutthaya and see some actual temples, rather than just a road, an air-conditioned museum, and some bars. We don’t like New Year’s Eve much, feeling that it’s a bit overrated and we don’t like the forced ‘fun’, so we thought a night in a new city would be a nice way to see in 2017.
How did we NOT find the temples the first time we came? We must have been a) blind and b) lost. They are all over the old part of the city. You literally cannot walk anywhere without seeing a stupa or chedi or some part of an old building. The old city was built on an island in the middle of three rivers, so most temples are within a walk of each other and easy to spot.
A necessary bit of history
As I said, Ayutthaya was one of the old capitals of ancient Siam, the country that became Thailand. In the 14th century, King U-Thong moved the capital from Sukhothai to Ayutthaya because the proximity to the rivers meant there were lots of fertile lands on the flood plains. At one point, it is said that it was the biggest city in the world, and foreign traders described it as one of the wealthiest. While foreigners were not allowed to live within the city walls, there were many foreign settlements on the other side of the river.
The City held onto its power until the 18th century and the Burmese-Siamese War, where the Siamese lost and the Burmese invaded. Ayutthaya was sacked. King Taksin the Great, a soldier at the time, led a revolt against the Burmese invaders and reunified Siam. He took the crown of the country but moved its capital to Thonburi, on the edge of what is now Bangkok. It remained there until King Rama 1 moved it again to Rattanakosin Island, on the other side of the river, where you can now find the Grand Palace.
Ayutthaya historical park includes many of the main ruins in the area and there is one admission charge for those temples. However, when we visited, it was shortly after King Rama 9 had died, so all historical parks were free. There are various ways to explore the temples: by tuk-tuk or by bicycle, or on foot like we did. Not deterred from our first attempt to walk around the temples, this time we felt more confident with the country and the weather, plus we had a better map. And Googlemaps. Remember, the first time we visited, people didn’t have a hand-held GPS that also made calls, posted photos and played farming games.
We planned a route visiting all the major sites over a two day period. This included the key sites:
Wat Phra Mahathat
This has the iconic image that most people have seen of Thailand, with the Buddha head in the tree. It turns out that this appeared after the temple was ruined. People believe that the head came off the statue and then the tree grew around it.
The Royal Palace
This huge area is mainly flat, with foundations just sticking out of the grass, but has a good replica model of how it used to look, so you can look out and imagine the glory days. It’s main temple, Wat Phra Si Sanphet, still has three white chedis standing.
A lot of this building still stands. Inside, you go down a very dark and steep staircase to the bottom, where you can see two rooms with walls painted in the original gold design.
Wat Lokaya Sutha
The main site of this area is the huge statue of the reclined Buddha, 42 meters long and 8 meters tall. It was restored in the 1950s, oddly by the alcoholic beverages factory in the area – although everyone needs to ‘make merit’ I suppose.
Wat Phra Ram
A tall chedi looking over a huge ‘pond’, created when material was dug out to construct the temple, but now a site in its own right.
Wat Thammikarat – chicken temple?
When we arrived at this temple, it was clearly still in use for worship, as there were people buying incense, flowers and offerings and praying. The odd thing about this place was the chickens. There were statues of chickens everywhere, and you could buy statues of various sizes to add to the number. Apparently, this is because of a wager between a King of Ayutthaya and a King of Burma over a cock fight.
There are many more buildings that we explored. It was lovely just to wander from building to building, exploring the ruins. The more famous temples were full of tourists, but getting off the beaten track a bit meant we almost had the ruins to ourselves. There is a boat trip to see some of the temples on the other side of the island. However, as it was New Year, it wasn’t running, so we couldn’t take it.
The evening of 31st December brought our New Years’ Eve celebrations. We headed out to what is known as ‘Soi Farang’ basically ‘foreigner street’, where there are several bars and restaurants, along with some guesthouses. The row of bars has tables and chairs into the street and many have live music. There was a great atmosphere of big groups of both Thais and foreigners, as well as some couples and family travellers, all gathered to eat and drink and see in the New Year.
At one point, several police cars and army officers appeared (Thailand still has a military government at the time of writing), who seemed to be telling the bars and restaurants to close. At 10.30pm. On New Years’ Eve. Hum…..
Whether or not this was serious or just the need for beer money, there was some negotiation with the bar owners and they went away. We were all allowed to continue our night. Well, it has to be rubbish working on New Years’ Eve for anyone, right?
There is some amazing live music in Ayuttaya. Zerum rock band played covers of lots of rock music – Pearl Jam, Soundgarden etc. and the singer’s voice was great. He really got the sound of the likes of Chris Cornell and Axl Rose down. Look out for them if you are there.
Disappointingly, they weren’t the headliners that night, although members of them were. The headline act was headed by an English singer, who to be honest, was not a patch on the Thai guy. The guitarists etc. were awesome, but we couldn’t help feeling that the only reason the lead singer was on was the colour of his skin. Sorry if he’s reading this, but we just felt the Thais were better.
Still, the atmosphere in the bar was fantastic as we all sang along and people danced. When midnight struck, we hugged and kissed strangers and wished a whole load of people we will never see again a Happy 2017.
A New Year’s Eve to remember
Nuts and Bolts
Transport to Ayutthaya
We travelled to Ayutthaya from Bangkok by train. It cost a tiny 15 baht (about 30 pence) to go 3rd class, and we just turned up at the Hualampong railway station, bought a ticket and jumped on the next train. Third class carriages have wooden bench seats and fans, with open windows to let the air in. It took about 1 1/2 hours.
Hualampong railway station is on the MRT (metro) line, and is in Chinatown, so not far from Khao San Road.
From the railway station, you need to cross the road in front and walk down the street in front of you, with the bicycle hire place/cafe on the corner. You’ll pass a lot of places renting bikes, but if you rent it from there, you’ll have to take it across the river. The road ends at the river, where you need to pay 15 baht for a small boat to take you across.
On the other side, go up the steps and up the street. You can hire a bike here if you want one. You can also get a map, which will take you to the various sites.
You can get to Ayutthaya by minibus from Morchit bus station. While there is a BTS (skytrain) station called Morchit, the bus station is actually a taxi ride from there. You can read how to do it on our blog on visiting Khao Yai National Park.
There aren’t any minibuses from Victory Monument in Bangkok anymore, but you can get a bus out to one of the main bus stations.
If you are staying in the Khao San Road area, there are minibuses run by tour companies from there.
Minibuses back to Bangkok go from the bottom of Soi Farang.
Travelfish gives a very detailed explanation on how to get to and from Ayutthaya from various places.
Getting around Ayutthaya
There are tour operators all over the city renting out bicycles and motorbikes. You can also rent boats to take you around to the further away temples. Several areas have groups of tuk-tuks who you can negotiate to take you around for the day.
Accommodation in Ayutthaya
We stayed at the Good Morning by Tamarind Guesthouse, which was away from Soi Farang but near enough to walk to it and then temples. We had a double room with small balcony, bathroom, air con and TV and paid 595 baht a night. Good Morning by Tamarind has a big open area downstairs, with lots of multicoloured umbrellas on the roof which is quite funky. There are common kitchen areas with free bananas and water, advice on travel and helpful staff.
There are lots of places to stay on the island for various budgets, from dorms to nice hotels. We usually use either Booking.com or Agoda.com to search for accommodation within our price range with good reviews.
Food and Drink at Ayutthaya
There are restaurants all over the historical park, so it’s not difficult to get something Thai, or international to eat. Soi Farang also has a selection of eating places, and is a good place to hang out at night. A night market is set up on Bang Lan Road, which is near the main temples, where you can get all kinds of Thai food and sit down to eat it.
It’s possible to see Ayutthaya on a day trip from Bangkok, either as part of a tour or on your own. As it’s only a 1 1/2 hour trip there, you can leave early morning and get back in the evening and still see a good selection of temples. My parents did a tour with Tours by Tong, which they would recommend, and Linda Goes East has a good blog on how to do a day trip.
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