Ayutthaya is a place that’s been on our list of Thai places to visit almost since we got here. As we’re back in the country and unable to leave it anytime soon, a lot more local destinations within Thailand are becoming good options for weekend visits, and Ayutthaya was the ideal first choice.
Situated about 80km north of Bangkok, Ayutthaya is the former capital of Thailand (or the kingdom that became Thailand), famous today for – as far as I can tell – ruins, river prawns and roti. We took the best part of a weekend exploring all three.
Ayutthaya is a breeze to get to from Bangkok. On the way out we took a private car at a princely yet still quite cheap 1600 baht. Typically it’s an hour-long journey from downtown Bangkok to Ayutthaya, but in long-weekend traffic we took closer to two.
Compared to a lot of Thai destinations, this is practically next door in travel time and ease. There are also dozens of trains every day to and from Ayutthaya, more on which later.
We immediately knew we had made a good choice of hotel upon arrival at iuDia – a small boutique hotel nestled literally on the banks of the lazy river. It’s not a large hotel by any stretch and all the rooms looked spacious and had a great view. By some stroke of fortune we had been upgraded to the cavernous Okun suite with a private terrace, four poster bed and bathroom larger than several flats I have lived in. And a random foot.
Oh and the view, we should talk about the view. The benefit of being on a river in the middle of a UNESCO heritage site is that you get unfettered views of beautiful old temples on the other side and a rather swish setting for an evening beer or two.
Located on a man-made island surrounded by canals on several sides and the Chao Phraya river on the other, the bulk of the UNESCO-listed heritage park sits squarely on the island, making it really easy to see a good deal of the main and lesser ruined temples and buildings that make up the star attractions of Ayutthaya.
We decided to get around by bike as the island is relatively small and everything is in easy cycling reach. Our hotel, and indeed most hotels, give away free rental bikes in a range of vintage conditions. You will not be doing a Tadej Pogacar impression on these machines, but they’re great for pootling around.
If you haven’t cycled much before, do be careful – the roads are pretty busy although there are marked cycle lanes. This being Thailand, there may be an elephant in it…
The real benefit of being on a bike is you can see whatever you like, whenever. Ayutthaya is, quite literally, littered with temples ruined in the 18th Century by invasion by the Burmese.
Many of these are free and, when we visited at least, totally deserted. Wat Worachettaram was a treat – a crumbling ruin of brick with a serene Buddha smiling in a roofless room. The only others around were a sleeping dog, a couple of ladies selling offerings of incense and flowers for the Buddha, and their tiny children pretending to be dragons and chasing us around. These aren’t the most visually arresting of sites, but the solitude really makes places like this a great part of the Ayutthaya experience.
There are dozens of free temples you can just wander around, but a group of the biggest and best-preserved six are paid. You can pay on the door at around 40-60 baht, or buy a 1 month pass to all 6 for 220 baht.
If you’re on bikes it’s unlikely you’ll get round all 6 in a couple of days unless you’re really pushing it. It does of course get very hot through the day in Ayutthaya so we chose to see 2-3 sites per day and then enjoy cold drinks, dips in the pool and fun things to eat. Unless you’re a real temple hound this is the way I would recommend to do it.
Of the paid temples, we visited Wat Mahathat, Wat Phra Ram and Wat Phra Si Sanphet, which are all lovely.
Wat Mahathat is the site of the famous ‘buddha in a tree’ which is a must see! This is a buddha head that either fell or was lopped off a statue a long old time back, and has since grown into the roots of a tree. It’s a popular photo site, but be sure to keep your head below the buddha’s by crouching or sitting!
Wat Si Sanphet was our favourite as it just sprawls over a vast area and has a beautiful trio of spires in the centre. Wat Phra Ram just across the road is also worth a trip.
We didn’t see Wat Ratchaburana but this is in the same cluster as the above three, so you could plan one day around seeing these four and a second just seeing the free ones dotted about.
If you don’t fancy a day schlepping around on a bicycle, ask about a tuk tuk tour from your hotel. They will help you find someone who can ferry you around all day and you would probably see a bit more, but trade off the slow amble of the biking life!
One tip on Ayutthaya transport – there are officially only tuk tuks, no taxis. Grab is available for a better price and more convenience than a tuk tuk, but be discreet as the tuk tuk drivers apparently do not like it much. The tuk tuks we used were absolutely fine and not overpriced, but we arranged any tuk tuk through our hotel to avoid the bartering and overcharging you sometimes get with this mode of transport. They’re also quite a distinctive sight in Ayyutthaya so it’s nice to zoom about in one from time to time.
Food and drink in Ayutthaya
Trunlding around a Thai town on a pushbike is hungry and thirsty work, and thankfully Ayutthaya has you covered for good food and drink options.
At the left of the entrance to Wat Mahathat is Sanoh – an excellent pick for coffee and cold drinks. There is a tiny interior but a nice garden at the back that looks onto a small lake and the park at the centre of Ayutthaya. Their sodas are a brilliant way to cool off after a hot morning of temple-hopping.
For more sustenance, Ayutthaya is popular for boat noodles at lunchtime.
Across the road from Wat Mahathat is Pa Lek boat noodle which seems by far the most popular with locals. In the likely event there’s a queue, put your name down at the front and wait for them to call you. As with all boat noodle shops, simply choose your meat (pork or beef), noodle type and whether you want them dry or with soup, and then feast on tiny bowls of happiness. The Pa Lek noodles were very good. We ordered in our school-child Thai but they did speak enough English to be able to get by in there.
In the evening, there are plenty of good restaurants around, many that specialise in the local, gigantic river prawns. For something at the fancier end of the spectrum, Sala does good (if expensive) food with exactly the same view as our hotel. Their seafood platter was a highlight.
We are notorious cheapskates, and as such headed for the night market to eat. The ‘tourist’night market (marked as KrungSri Walking Street on the map) which runs at the weekend is currently closed, but the daily one is open. As visitor numbers are low right now, this winds up by about 8.30pm but there is a good selection of food to be had.
At the very far end from the main road is a lovely little seafood stall knocking out great goong ob woon sen (prawns steamed in a pot with glass noodles and spices). For the more adventurous/foolhardy, there are also ceviched/raw prawns in chilli, fish sauce and coriander. Your call on raw prawns from a street cart, I like them but there are sometimes, ahem, consequences.
The other Ayutthaya special to try is roti sai mai, stalls of which you’ll spot all over town and especially on the road in and out. This is effectively a beefed up candy floss in a rainbow of colours wrapped in a pancake, and it’s exactly as sweet and delicious as it sounds.
The slow way back
While we took a taxi out, we had a bit more time heading back and so jumped on one of the many trains all heading to Hua Lamphong station in Bangkok. Thailand Trains has a full list of departure and arrival times.
We took the slow train at a barely conceivable 15 baht per person (40 pence). Your 15 baht does not get you a luxury trip, but it gets you a gentle, meandering trundle through the vivid green countryside between Ayutthaya and Bangkok. Your rock hard seat has a fan but the open windows keep a nice breeze going. Sellers are constantly up and down the train selling home made snacks, drinks and meals so there’s limited need to bring your own. I for one really love Thai train travel and this route is great – lots of trains, only a couple of hours, and – 15 baht!
For a bit more comfort there are Express trains which are a little quicker and have air con, these are a bit more expensive and I prefer the slow amble through tiny stations in the middle of nowhere.
Ayutthaya made for an excellent weekend trip from Bangkok. Interesting sites, nice food and drink, and something a bit different from your average city break.