We had initially planned on taking a day trip to Ayutthaya back in October, but the region was inundated by the floods and we were forced to cancel. The city of Ayutthaya is about one hour north of Bangkok on the Chao Phraya river.
In 1350, Ayutthaya succeeded Sukhothai as capital of Siam. For over 400 years, Ayutthaya was not just the capital but also a major trading port with Europe (primarily the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, and French), China and Japan. Because of the trade, the city was wealthy — in the late 17th century, the French ambassador compared Ayutthaya with Paris in both size and wealth. The city, however, came to a horrible end in 1767. After enduring a fourteen month siege by the Burmese army, Ayutthaya capitulated. Over a 15 day span in April, the Burmese sacked and burned the entire city to the ground. According to documents from the time, the fires destroyed over 10,000 monastic structures and houses.
The fires were used to melt the gold statues from the temples so that the precious metal could be captured. Wat Phra Sri Sanphet, for example, housed a 50 foot tall golden Buddha image coated with nearly 400 pounds of gold. The French Jesuit missionary Guy Tachard wrote about his visit to this temple in 1685. He related: “This Pagod is pretty long, but very narrow, and when one is within it, there is nothing to be seen but Gold. The Pillars, Walls, Ceiling and all the Figures are so well gilt, that, all seem to be covered with plates of Gold.”
The Burmese rule over Ayutthaya was short-lived. Its army was forced to evacuate in less than a year when the capital of Burma was itself threatened by invading Chinese forces.
In 1991, UNESCO designated Ayutthaya as a World Heritage site, a place of special cultural or physical significance. There are currently 936 UNESCO-designated sites worldwide, five in Thailand, and 21 in the U.S. including Independence Hall, Carlsbad Caverns, the Everglades, the Grand Canyon, and Monticello. The Ayutthaya World Heritage Park contains 95 sites including 67 temples.
Bang Pa-In Palace
Our first stop in Ayutthaya was Bang Pa-In Palace (point B on the map above), a summer palace built on an island in the Chao Phraya River. While the complex dates back to 1632, most of the buildings were constructed in the late 1800s by King Chulalongkorn. The palace is a mix of European, Chinese, and Thai architecture that reflects that outward vision of Rama V. Since the palace is still used by the Thai Royal Family, visitors need to wear proper apparel to visit the grounds.
Roughly half of the palace complex is covered by water, which makes sense since boats on rivers and canals were the primary mode of transportation back when it was built. A large gate controls entry from the Chao Phraya, and eleven bridges span the palace’s inner waterways.
The European influence can be seen throughout the complex. The Doll Bridge, for example, has a set of eight statues of Greek gods and goddesses on the outer railings. Phra Thinang Uthayan Phumisathian, a favorite residence of Rama V, was built in the style of a two-story Swiss chalet. The original wooden structure burned down when undergoing renovation in 1938 and a fireproof replacement was built in 1996. The Devaraj-Kunlai Gate was the principal entrance to the Inner Palace. The gate is connected to one of the mansions by a covered bridge with a louvered wall that allowed the ladies of the palace to look out while not being seen.
The only building that is constructed in a distinctly Thai-style is the Aisawan-Dhiphya-Asana (Divine Seat of Personal Freedom), a pavilion constructed in the middle of a pond. Inside the pavilion is a statue of Rama V.
Today, Devaraj-Kunlai Gate is a museum for the royal coaches that were used by Kings Chulalongkorn (Rama 5), Vajiravudh (Rama 6), Prajadhipok (Rama 7), Mahidol (Rama 8), and Bhumibol (Rama 9, the current king.) There were five coaches on display, all of which were made in England. The ones used by the king in formal processions are painted yellow while those used by other members of the court or for private transport are black.
In 1889, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce built the Palace of Heavenly Light. The palace is, of course, built in a Chinese style and it is heavily decorated in red and gold. Fabulous Chinese lanterns hang from the ceiling and there are intricate carvings of dragons and other Chinese symbols throughout. Nearby is a Chinese-style observatory (Ho Withun Thasana or the Sages’ Lookout) from which the royals could view the countryside. Ayutthaya is very flat so it is possible to see a long distance from the upper stories of this lookout tower.
Around the outer perimeter of the property are houses for the queen, royal consorts, and princesses. Rama V had 36 wives and consorts and 77 children, and there are nowhere near that many houses. The consorts, who typically came from non-noble families, lived in large residence halls; the royal queens had their own homes. Rama V’s favorite wife, Queen Sunanda, and their daughter, Princess Karnabhorn, died in a boating accident in 1881 when they boat that they were in capsized. Since no one was permitted to touch the queen except the king, onlookers watched helplessly as the pregnant queen and two-year old princess drowned.
After leaving Bang Pa-In Palace, we had lunch on the river and then drove to the center of Ayutthaya. During four hours, we visited six historical temples, four of which were ruins and two of which were still active places of worship.
Wat Maha That
Wat Maha That or the “Monastery of the Great Relic” (point C on the map above) was the royal temple located just east of the grand palace. The construction of the chedi — the principle pagoda that housed sacred relics from Buddha — can be traced back to 1374. This temple was the most sacred one in Ayutthaya and it was home to the Supreme Patriarch of the City (there was another Supreme Patriarch for the Forest.)
Wat Maha That was built in the Khmer style. This means that:
- it had a large central prang (or tower) that was 50 meters (150 feet) high;
- its main entrance was to the east, an auspicious direction since the sun rises in the east and this signifies life and sexual prowess;
- the sanctuary was in the center to represent Mount Meru, which the Khmers believed was the center of the universe; and
- the layout of the temple was square to represent the borders of the universe.
Wat Maha That, like many other temples in Ayutthaya, had an internal structure made of laterite rather than sandstone. Laterite is a soil found in hot and wet tropical areas that contains iron and aluminum. When wet, this soil can be easily cut into brick-like shapes with a spade. As the blocks dry, the moisture in the clay evaporates and the iron salts lock into a rigid structure. When dry, the laterite blocks are more resistant to air and water than fired clay bricks. The outsides of the temples were finished with stucco, and despite the years, the fire, and the natural elements, some stucco remains on some of the ruins.
There were a large number of building at Wat Maha That with many smaller pagodas added over the years. The largest building was the Royal Assembly Hall that measured 120 feet long by 60 feet wide. Unlike other vihans (prayer or meeting rooms), this large hall had openings in the walls for lighting and ventilation.
The pictures below are all from Wat Maha That. Perhaps the most iconic picture from this site is the Buddha head that is entwined by the roots of a Bodhi tree; every visitor had his or her picture taken with this.
Wat Ra Cha Burana
Our next stop in the historical district was Wat Ra Cha Burana, or the “Monastery of the Royal Restoration”, which was right across a major road from Wat Maha That. This temple dates back to 1424 and, like What Maha That, it was also built in the Khmer style.
We were able to climb the external stairs to the top of the main prang. From the top, we then descended down a narrow internal staircase (built in the late 1950s) into a two-level crypt. The lower crypt is quite small with room for only two or three people at a time. Murals of Buddha and his followers cover the ceiling and walls. While much of the detail has faded there appears to be gold gilding on the ceiling and arches.
Wat Mongkhon Bophit
Wat Mongkhon Bophit (point D on map) is an active temple compound that many people visit in order to worship the Buddha image called Phra Mongkhonbophit. This image is almost 17 meters (55 feet) tall and dates back to 1538.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet
Wat Phra Sri Sanphet is right next to Wat Mongkhon Bophit. Wat Phra Si Sanphet was built in the 1400s within the royal palace grounds, and it was exclusively used by the king. This temple is noted for its three chedis that are believed to hold the ashes of King Trailokanat (ruled 1448-1488), King Borom Ratchathirat III (ruled 1488-1491), and King Ramathibodi II (ruled 1491-1529).
After Ayutthaya was destroyed, the capital was moved to Thonburi and ultimately to Bangkok. A new Grand Palace was reconstructed in Bangkok with a layout that resembled the original Grand Palace in Ayutthaya. The similarity is striking, particularly when one looks at the three chedis.
Wat Chai Watthanaram
After a short drive to the west, we reached Wat Chai Watthanaram or “Monastery of the Victorious and Prosperous Temple” one of the major tourist attractions in Ayutthaya (point E on the map). Construction of this temple began in 1630 and historians estimate that it took about 20 years to complete. The temple has a large central prang (over 100 feet tall), four smaller prangs, and eight chedis in the rectangular compound. While the temple was built in the Khmer style, this was done to signify a victory over the Khmer. The central prang at Wat Chai Watthanaram was the first built in the Khmer style since the prang at Wat Ra Cha Burana over 200 years earlier.
The temple is symmetric along the east-west axis. As usual, the main entrance faces to the east, which in this case is both toward the west bank of the Chao Phraya river and the rising sun. There was a boat landing on the river that lead into the temple. The temple was enclosed by two meter (six feet) tall rectangular walls that were 194 meters (636 feet) long by 177 meters (580 feet) wide.
Because of last fall’s flooding, we were unable to go onto the grounds of the temple since the authorities are still assessing the damage to and the safety of the structures. The height of the flood could be clearly seen on the temple buildings. If you look at the picture below, you can see the tan color on the bottom of the chedi contrasted against the red laterite. The tan marks the portions of the temple that were covered by the muddy waters last fall. To give some perspective on the height of the flood, the water level in the Chao Phraya during our visit was about 3 or 4 meters (10-13 feet) below the temple grounds. Based on the visible marks on the structures, the river must have risen by 4 to 6 meters (13-20 feet).
Our last stop for the day was at Wat Phutthaisawan, or “Monastery of Lord Buddha of the Heavens” (point F on the map). King U-Thong, the first king of Ayutthaya, order that this temple be built in 1353, just three years after the founding of Ayutthaya. The temple is located on the south bank of the Chao Phraya on the site where the king lived while the original Grand Palace was under construction. Like most of the other temples that we saw on our trip, the central prang here was also built in the Khmer style. On top of the prang is a trident, known as a Thishul, the weapon of the Hindu god Shiva, and this shows the interrelationship between Buddhism and Hinduism.
While this temple was spared destruction by the Burmese, its treasures were taken by King Taksin to fund construction of the new capital in Thonburi and to wage war against the Burmese. The main reason for the visit to this temple was to see the Reclining Buddha that dates back to the founding of Ayutthaya.
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2012 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.