13 Jul Notes on Ayutthaya, an ancient capital
Ayutthaya is a city in Thailand, about 80 kilometres north of Bangkok. It was the first capital of the Kingdom of Siam and a flourishing international trading port from 1350 until it’s ruin by the Burmese in 1767. The remains of the old city now form the Ayutthaya Historical Park, an archaeological site that contains palaces, Buddhist temples, monasteries and impressive statues.
The Legend of Ayutthaya
The Legend of Ayutthaya tells of Prince U Thong – who was later to take the royal name Ramathibodi for his reign from 1350 to 1369. When sent to the countryside to escape a small pox epidemic, he is said to have found a delicate conch shell buried in the ground while out walking. In a moment of revelation and clarity he elected that very place as the site for his future capital. He instantly placed the shell upon a pedestal tray and had a pavilion constructed around it.
He named the capital Ayutthaya after the city of Ayodhya in Northern India, the birthplace city of Rama of Hindu
Ramayana fame. Ayutthaya became the second capital of Siam after Sukhothai and was ideally positioned between China, India and the Malay Archipelago to mark it as the trading capital of Asia, and even the world. By 1700 Ayutthaya had become the largest city in the world with over a million inhabitants.
Many international merchants set sail for Ayutthaya from the Arab world, China, India, Japan, Portugal, France and the Netherlands, with the European merchants proclaiming Ayutthaya as the finest city they had ever seen. Dutch
and French maps of the city show magnificent gold-laden palaces, grand ceremonies and a huge fleet of trading vessels from all over the world. In the 16th Century, Siam reached its peak in terms of sovereignty, military might, wealth, culture and international trade.
All this was sadly to come to an end when the Burmese invaded Ayutthaya in 1767, burning it the city to the ground. Today, the ruins offer a glimpse of the once impressive city that was characterised by prang towers and big monasteries. Most of the remains are of temples and palaces, as those were the only buildings made of stone at that time.
The Orientation of Ayutthaya
Ayutthaya was established on an island at the convergence of three rivers: the Chao Phraya River – that leads to Bangkok, the Lopburi River and the Pa Sak River. This was a strategic decision to place the capital above the Gulf of Siam, with the hope that the location would prevent an attack from the ocean side.
Architecturally, styles are an alluring mix of Khmer from ancient Cambodia and early Sukothai, with artistic features specific to the Ayutthuya period. Elements from these different eras can be seen within the layers and influences brought by the reign of 33 kings.
Diplomats and traders from afar were welcomed to stay in Ayutthaya and their influence can be seen in the old Japanese settlements and Portuguese village, as well as the palaces and buildings in Swiss, Belgian and Russian style. Historically, non-Siamese people were not allowed to live inside the city walls, which meant that foreign quarters were established off the island. These include the Muslim Quarter, Japanese Village, Portuguese Village and Baan Hollanda.
Visiting the Ayutthaya Historical Park today, you will find the train station at the east side of the island with most visitors needing to cross the river by ferryboat. The U Thong Road is a ring road that circles the island completely, with most temple ruins found at the northwest of the island, while accommodation and other attractions are mostly clustered around the northeast.
For Thai people, Ayutthaya has become a place to honour ancestors and collect wisdom gathered over the ages and is a foundation of great nostalgic pride. This is a must visit destination for anybody with a love of culture, history, art and archaeology. Its proximity to Bangkok makes it a popular day-trip destination for travellers and day visitors from Bangkok.