If you love beaches and islands, Ayutthaya is definitely not the place to visit. But for anyone with even a passing interest in Buddhist archaeology and historical sites, then Ayutthaya is among the best destinations in Southeast Asia. See the amazing triple-pagodas of Si Sanphet Temple, each housing the remains of a once-great king. Take a boat ride to the exotic palaces and gardens of Bang Pa-in, or if you need a break from all the history, try shopping at Bang Sai, Thailand’s center for folk art and handicrafts. Best of all, Ayutthaya is just minutes away from Bangkok. You can visit as a day trip from Bangkok, for a weekend or as long as you wish.
Bang Pa-in Palace
Bang Pa-in is a small district, 18 km south of Ayutthaya town, which is noted for its picture-postcard palaces and pavilions, set on an island in the middle of a lake. King Prasat Thong of Ayutthaya (1630-1655) first built a temple and residential palace at Bang Pa-in in the mid 17th century.
The palace was set on an island at the middle of a 400-meter-long lake. Subsequent Ayutthayan kings used the palace as a country residence. After the destruction of Ayutthaya in 1767, the palace was abandoned and fell into disrepair. It wasn't until the reign of King Mongkut (1851-1868) that the palaces of Bang Pa-in were once again used as royal retreats. King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910) stayed at Bang Pa-in every year and built the royal palace as it is seen today.
Buildings of particular interest to the visitor include:
Aisawan Thipphaya-at Pavilion: This is the classic Thai-style pavilion in the lake, pictured in all the guidebooks. The beautiful wooden structure, set on concrete foundations, was built for King Chulalongkorn in 1876.
Warophat Phiman Hall: King Chulalongkorn built this European-style building for royal ceremonies. The hall houses important paintings and historical records.
Uthayan Phumisathian Hall: A two-storey European-style building, Phra Thinang Uthayan Phumisathian was originally an all-wood structure, filled with mahogany furniture from Europe. The original building was destroyed by fire in 1938. The current replacement, built to the same design, is concrete.
Wehat Chamrun: This Chinese-style palace was donated to the King by the association of Chinese merchants in 1889. The royal court resided here during the rainy and cool seasons.
Withun Thatsana: This look-out tower was erected by King Chulalongkorn in 1881. The three-story building, with a spiral staircase to the top, offers fine views over the palace grounds.
Bang Pa-in can be reached by bus or minibus from the Chao Phrom Market in Ayutthaya. From Bangkok, air-conditioned buses leave the Northern Bus Terminal every half an hour (Tel 537-8055) between 5.30 am and 7.20 pm. Non air-conditioned buses are even more frequent. Trains leave Hua Lampong Station every hour between 6.40 am and 10.00 pm. No public boat services are available for Bang Pa-in or Ayutthaya but several private companies organize tours, including the Chao Phraya Express Boat (Tel 222-5330), Horizon Cruise (Tel 226-8164), Oriental Queen & Ayutthaya Princess (Tel 236-0400), and River Sun Cruise (Tel 266-9125). The palace is open to the public daily from 8.03 am to 4.00 pm. Admission costs 50 baht. For further information, call (66 2) 224-3273 or (035) 261-044.
Phra Si Sanphet Temple
Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayutthaya's most important and outstanding temple, is located within the compound of the Grand (Ancient) Palace. It is comparable in importance to Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaeo, located in the present capital's Grand Palace.
King Borom Trai Lokanat (1448-1488) founded the temple in the 15th century. Initially used as a residential palace, it became a monastery during the reign of King Ramathibodi I. In 1500, King Ramathibodi II cast a 16-meter tall standing Buddha, covering the image with 170 kg of gold. When the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya in 1767, the image was melted down and the gold plundered.
The ruins of the three hollow pagodas, built in the typical Ayutthaya style, are all that remain of the once magnificent temple. Each of the three pagodas enshrines the ashes of a King (Borom Trai Lokanat, Borommaracha III and Ramathibodi II), together with royal regalia and precious Buddha images. Other elements of the temple, including the Prasat Phra Narai and the Viharn Phra Si Sanphet were completely razed and only the foundations can be seen today. Some of the original treasures found at the site are housed in various museums, including Ayutthaya's Chao Sam Phraya Museum.
Bang Sai Royal Folk Arts and Crafts Center
Set on an area of 285 rai (14 acres), this Royally supported art and craft center is located at Bung Yai, Bang Sai District, 24 km from Bang Pa-in. The center offers a glimpse of how farmers in the four regions of Thailand live and work, and how Thai folk arts and crafts are produced.
It also offers training to farmers and villagers in folk arts and crafts as a means to keep traditional art forms alive. Products and activities on view include fern vien basketry, woven basketry, artificial flowers, hand-woven silk and cotton, silk dyeing, wood carving, miniature hand-modeled dolls, furniture production and cloth-made products. The products are sold at the center and all branches of Chitrlada Stores.
The Royal Folk Arts and Crafts Center is under the Promotion of Supplementary Occupations and Related Techniques (SUPPORT), an organization under the Royal Patronage of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit.
An annual fair at the end of January highlights the center's craft products. A variety of performances enliven the fair. To get there, take a bus from Bangkok's Northern Bus Terminal (Tel 272-0299) or take a boat up the Chao Phraya River. The center is open 8.30 am to 4.00 pm daily except Monday.