Ayutthaya: The Remains of a Once Great City

My original plan for summer vacation was to spend 3 days in Bangkok, and then fly to Siem Reap for 5 days. When I hit my head and cancelled the flight, I changed my plans and went to Ayutthaya after an extra 4th day in the Thai capital. I had considered going to Ayutthaya as a day trip before I cancelled the Siem Reap flight, but ended up deciding to spend the third day in Bangkok, since I was planning on seeing temples in Angkor Wat anyway.

Ayutthaya is a former capital of Thailand, a Unesco World Heritage site once one of the world’s most important capital cities. The kingdom lasted from 1351 to 1767. It was open to foreign traders and it’s location between China and India proved ideal. It became one of the wealthiest and most beautiful cities in the East and even the World, as French traders compared it’s wealth and beauty to Paris. Unfortunately, in 1767, the entire city was burned down and sacked by the Burmese, so all buildings other than brick temples are now gone.

Since I gave myself extra time when I cancelled the flight, I planned on staying in Ayutthaya for one or two nights, but after the Bangkok bombing I stretched it a few more nights until I had to fly back to Korea. I stayed in a couple of different places during that time and did a tuk-tuk tour, walked around some ruins, and did a boat trip.

I would say that Ayutthaya can definitely be done either as a day trip or as an overnight trip. Not much more time is actually needed than that, though two nights wouldn’t be bad either.

Most tourists in Ayutthaya tend to rent bikes to see the city, but if done as a day trip, I think renting a motorbike or doing a tuk-tuk tour is better. The city is very spread out and several of the temples are located off the city’s main island, and these temples are actually more impressive than the ones on the island.

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Wat Yai Chai Mongkol, one of the most impressive in Ayutthaya.

For myself, I don’t know how to ride a motorbike and I already had stitches from a gashed head, so that was far out of the question. The tuk-tuk that took me to my accommodation offered to give me a tour, and he offered the price of 200 baht per hour. We finished the tour after two and a half hours. That price is pretty standard for a tuk-tuk tour. We actually didn’t cover all the temples, but we covered most of them, so it probably wouldn’t take more than three or so hours to see everything. The driver waited in the parking lot while I visited the attractions.

If doing an overnight in Ayutthaya or longer, I think renting bikes would be a good way to see the temples on the island, and either a boat tour or a tuk-tuk or motorbike tour could be done later in the day (if you start early) or the next day. Pretty much all accommodations offer boat tours, for about 200 baht per person. There are also boat tour services at the piers on the island but these cost 500. The boat tour I did with the last hotel I stayed in (called P.U. Resort) was good, it was in a small canoe-like boat. I saw some larger boats that had tables and meals but I imagine these are pricier and the fancier hotels offer them.

On the main island, the most famous temples are probably Wat Mahahthat, Wat Ratchaburana, and Wat Phra Si Sanphet.

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The famous Buddha head engulfed in a tree at Wat Mahathat.
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Wat Phra Si Sanphet, one of the most popular temples known for it’s 3 chedis.
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Wat Ratchaburana, known for it’s main prang.

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Although the ruins in Ayutthaya may not be as impressive as Cambodia, it was somewhat sobering in a sense to wander around a once-great city that had left behind nothing but some brick ruins and headless buddhas. Back before the sacking, I can only imagine how stunning and brimming with activity Ayutthaya was.

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The Burmese were so merciless to the poor Buddhas.

Another commonly visited temple on the main island is Wat Mongkhon Bophit, an active temple that had restoration done in the 1950’s, and a large Buddha image that was covered with gold leaf in 1990. It is right next to Wat Phra Si Sanphet.

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Out of the outer temples, one of the most commonly visited is Wat Yai Chai Mongol, a large complex with a reclining Buddha.

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View from the top.

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Another outlying temple is Wat Chai Wattanaram, an impressive and well preserved complex with a Cambodian style prang. I visited this one twice, first on the tuk-tuk tour and then again on the boat tour, in time for sunset.

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Another temple I visited on the boat tour was Wat Phutthai Sawan. one of the earliest built temples in Ayutthaya. It houses several Buddha images and a reclining Buddha.

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Those black things are bats. They were everywhere in the complex, keeping the Buddhas company. Their smell is strong.
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Another day, another reclining Buddha.

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I think Ayutthaya is definitely worth a visit at least as a day trip from Bangkok. As someone who really enjoys history and ancient ruins, I was really glad to see it. Just being in a former capital of the world, that was sacked and pillaged to nothing, was quite interesting to me. For these reasons I do hope to actually make it to the Angkor complex soon as well.

In the next post, I’ll go into more detail about the places I stayed in Aytthaya and the pros and cons of each.

The Jim Thompson House

One of Bangkok’s top attractions, aside from the Grand Palace and the temples nearby (Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho, and Wat Arun) is the Jim Thompson house. Jim Thompson was an American architect born in 1906, who joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II. One of his assignments was to free Thailand from the Japanese army, and soon after Japan surrendered Thompson went to Thailand to set up an OSS office in Bangkok. Thompson fell in love with Thai culture and decided to make Bangkok his home. He built a traditional Thai house, which is actually six different houses connected together, as his home. The house has several antiques from Thailand, as well as many other Asian and European countries.

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Thompson is also credited with saving the Thai silk industry, which had been declining. Thompson founded a silk company and Thai silk’s were used in the musical film The King and I which gave Thai silk worldwide acclaim and recognition.

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Two women weaving silk outside the house.

The house grounds are really quite beautiful, as well. Tourists are required to see the house in a group tour and lock up belongings in a locker before going in, and photos of the inside are prohibited.

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But there is another thing about this place that draws in tourists like myself, aside from the silks and Thompson’s eye for design — the mysterious disappearance of Thompson decades ago in 1967. Thompson disappeared while on holiday in the jungles of Malaysia, and was never seen or heard from again. Perhaps his activities with the OSS (precursor to the CIA) had something to do with it. Maybe Thompson wanted to start his life over in another Southeast Asian country, and made for Burma or Cambodia. Or maybe he died in the forest not long after. There was a very large search party conducted for the man, but no results. No theory has any evidence to support it.

This was the first attraction I visited because it was so close to my hostel, Lub’ d Bangkok Siam Square. Almost right next door. If coming from the Skytrain, simply take exit 1 and walk down the stairs and turn to walk in the opposite direction.

Lub’ d has a pretty large sign that’s easy to see. The house is located up a small street, called Soi Kasemsan (2) Song, which is a short walk past Lub’d. There is a sign at the end of the street indicating where the house is.

Lub’d itself I thought was a decent place to stay, but I think I would probably stay elsewhere next time in Bangkok. Lub’d has a great location and good facilities, and (most of) the staff were nice and helpful (they upgraded me to a single room for a dorm price the day after I hit my head). I liked the fact they had all female dorms for 4 and a separate women’s bathroom. The problem was that the dorm room smelled quite funky at times (but appeared clean) and it was quite expensive for the city. I didn’t stay anywhere else to compare it to but I’d imagine there might be better places to stay in Bangkok for cheaper.

Travel warning: Watch your head!

For my summer vacation this year, I had 8 days off, so a total of 10 days with the weekend. My original plan was to fly to Bangkok, spend three days there and see the sights, fly to Siem Reap, and spend 5 days there to see the Angkor temples, and then head back to Bangkok one more day and fly out.

This was the first trip I had ever done where I was completely solo: On all three of my short vacations to Japan, I had a friend or friends with me. On my trip to Malaysia and Singapore last year, I had a travel buddy. At times, my friends and I did split up and I was alone, but this was the first trip where I actually went myself.

I did quite a bit to prepare for this trip, I bought a money belt, made sure to later with mosquito repellent to avoid Dengue Fever, got vaccinated for Hepatitis A and Typhoid, and I never wandered far from my guesthouse at night.

The one thing I forgot to do was watch my head.

I gashed my head while sitting on a top bunk bed in a hostel. The ceiling and wall were concrete, and the ceiling above the bed had a lower sort of beam. I was sitting up on the bed and threw myself back to lay down, not thinking about the fact that the ceiling behind my head was lower, so I hit it hard on that concrete and gashed it. The pain wasn’t unbearable and luckily I suffered no concussion, but it was bleeding quite a bit and I put pressure on it with a towel. My hostel roommate went to the staff to tell them and they called a taxi where I was taken to a nearby hospital. One staff member of the hostel and my roommate went with me. At the hosptial, I got stitches and was told I had to get the stitches cleaned every day, and they could come out after a week. This was the first time in my life I had gotten stitches or had my head bleed this bad so it was quite scary for me.

It happened my third day in Bangkok, and I had a flight scheduled to Siem Reap the next day. Originally I was going to postpone the flight to the day after, but ended up cancelling because I was afraid of having a lot of pain after the painkiller wore off for the stitches. I figured that if I changed my mind, I could book a different flight. It turned out though that I didn’t feel much pain at all even after the painkiller wore off, and I really could have just flown as scheduled. I looked at other flights to Siem Reap but the prices were quite a bit higher than what I originally paid so I really wished I hadn’t cancelled or at least just tried to postpone it.

One bit of good news though is that Air Asia did add the money for the flight to my Air Asia credit once I sent them the medical certificate, so at least the money isn’t totally lost. I’m still a bit bummed I cancelled that flight, but I still had a pretty good time on my vacation. I know that I have more time to travel later on so I can always visit Angkor another time.

Aside from gashing my head, the other thing that put a damper on my plans was the Bangkok bombing. The popular Erawan shrine in the middle of Bangkok was bombed by someone targeting tourists, and over 20 died in that accident, both Thais and tourists. Thankfully, I had already left Bangkok for Ayutthaya that day so I was safe. However, I was planning on spending only one or two days in Ayutthaya and then returning to Bangkok to go elsewhere, but because of the bombing I ended up staying in Ayutthaya until I had to return to Bangkok to fly back to Incheon.

I did learn quite a few things from this experience.

  1. Be careful of my head when staying on a top bunk bed in a hostel.
  2. Read the fine print on travel insurance: apparently only international hospitals are covered on my travel insurance so I had to pay out of pocket for the stitches, but luckily it wasn’t that much.
  3. Stitches or other fairly minor injuries aren’t necessarily a reason to cancel a flight or travel plans; next time I’ll try not to panic if something like this happens again.
  4. Be flexible with plans and learn to work around issues while traveling without getting too upset that my plan, that I was really looking forward to, changed.
  5. Be cautious of possible dangers toward travelers, such as the recent Bangkok bombing, but don’t panic. Usually after such events occur security increases and most travelers are safe.

Perhaps all experienced solo travelers are already well aware of all of these, but as a novice solo traveler, this experience did teach me a lot. I do hope that I don’t suffer any accidents while on my Chuseok vacation next month (going to Taiwan and looking forward to it!).

My plan at the moment is to go to China for winter break (though this may change) and travel Southeast Asia in February when my contract is up. I am still not sure if I will stay another year in Korea — I do not want to renew with my current school, but I will look for another job for the coming March school year. If I don’t find a job, then I will probably go home either until the September job intake or indefinitely. I may try and teach in another country at some point or come back to Korea if the job scene in the U.S. doesn’t work out.

I have a few more months to think about this, and perhaps experiences in the coming months can help me make a decision. I know I’ve come quite a long way from my first year in Korea, when I was much too anxious to travel anywhere on my own. As an introvert and someone who really needs alone time, now I’ve come to really enjoy solo travel. The adventure, combined with meeting new people and going at my own pace is the key.