1YoT: Ayutthaya and Sukhothai

So far, we’ve been to ruins in Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cambodia, but Thailand has ruins too! Thailand has two popular ruin destinations: Ayutthaya and Sukhothai. We visited both of them.

Ayutthaya was the capital of the Ayutthaya kingdom, which reigned in present day Thailand from 1351 to 1767. This kingdom was very successful, having trade relations with China, Vietnam, India, Japan, Europe (Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, England, and France), and Persia. Not only did Ayutthaya have trade relations with these empires, it was also central to all of them, making it a major trade destination. The result was a huge capital city, at one point the largest in the world.

Sukhothai, on the other hand, was a smaller empire that existed in present day northern Thailand from 1238 to 1438. This empire formed by breaking off from the Khmer empire (whose capital was Angkor), and it fell when it was invaded by and absorbed into Ayutthaya.

Since Ayutthaya is south of Sukhothai and we were traveling south to north, we visited Ayutthaya first. And so we will cover it first in this post.

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Conceptually, Ayutthaya is pretty similar to Angkor. Both were large capital cities that now lie in ruins, both have so many ruins that they’ve been divided into several sites, and both requiring some form of transportation to get from one site to the next. In Angkor we went by tuk tuk, in Ayutthaya we rode bikes.

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While Ayutthaya may be similar to Angkor, it does have two significant differences. One, Ayutthaya is still a functioning city, one that happens to be filled with ruins, whereas Angkor was solely ruins. Secondly, the architecture was very different here, as you can see in the photograph above.

To get more specific, the main architectural difference between Ayutthaya and Angkor was the building material: Angkor was made out of sandstone while Ayutthaya was made out of brick-like materials. Ayutthaya also had a larger emphasis on individual structures, whereas Angkor was more about giant buildings.

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Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that Ayutthaya didn’t have large structures. It’s just these structures weren’t as big as at Angkor.

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So far all the structures shown were from one Ayutthaya site: Wat Mahathat. This is the most famous site in Ayutthaya, but its fame doesn’t stem from these structures, it stems from this Buddha head.

What happened was: when Ayutthaya fell in 1767 (to invaders from Burma), many of its statues were destroyed. Like this one, which somehow fell with head upright and intact (it is possible an invader turned the head upright after the statue was destroyed). Then, over the next 100-200 years, this tree grew in the area, its roots taking the path around the Buddha head as shown above.

Today this is one of the most iconic images in Thailand.

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Wat Mahathat might be Ayutthaya’s most iconic site, but it isn’t its most spectacular one. That title belongs to Wat Phra Si Sanphet, shown above. If the design looks familiar, it may be because Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew was designed after this, after all, the capital moved from here to there after Ayutthaya fell to Burma. 

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Wat Phra Si Sanphet houses Ayutthaya’s grandest, largest, and holiest temple, used only by the royal family and only for royal ceremonies. Interestingly, Wat Phra Si Sanphet was originally built as a Royal Palace; it was converted to a temple when a new palace was built a century after its construction. 

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Unfortunately,  much of Wat Phra Si Sanphet no longer remains. This is because the Burmese destroyed almost everything when they conquered the city. Most tragically, the Burmese completely destroyed a 50-foot Buddha statue that took more than three years to make, one that was covered in 64 tons of gold. Today the gold is gone and most of Wat Phra Si Sanphet is destroyed, with only the three large chedis (pictured in the previous photograph) being rebuilt to their original form.

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On a more positive note, unlike most of the buildings at Ayutthaya, you could climb Wat Phra Si Sanphet. Doing so was fun!

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This complex I believe is Wat Phra Ram, although I could be mistaken. Whatever it is, its centerpiece is one of the finest prangs in Thailand.

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I don’t know what the above is but I believe it is the ruins of the palace that was created a century after Wat Phra Si Sanphet. Whether or not that is true, one thing that is definitely true is that whatever was here was huge! It took us quite a while to ride our bikes around it.

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Check out that dog up there. What a cool place for a nap!

Unfortunately, Inna and I only spent half a day at Ayutthaya, and even with bicycles we missed a lot. Specifically, we missed half of the Ayutthayan ruins and all the international sites, which include Japanese, Portuguese, British, French, and Dutch settlements.

As for Sukhothai, these ruins were not as spectacular as Ayutthaya, but in some ways they was even more enjoyable. Read below to discover what I am talking about.

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Sukhothai and its ruins were much smaller than Ayutthaya, and it was also less crowded, more shady, and very flat. This made it great place for bikes, so we rode them again!

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Bike selfie! Sukhothai was so perfect for biking that we rode around the entire site something like two or three times.

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Here is Sukhothai’s grandest site: Wat Mahathat (same name as the temple with the hugging Buddha tree in Ayutthaya). This temple, built sometime in the early 14th century, was the main temple for the Sukhothai kingdom.

Wat Mahathat was most notable for its Buddha statues, depicting him both sitting and standing, but not sleeping or reclining, as we’d seen elsewhere.

Similar to Ayutthaya’s sites, Wat Mahathat contained large chedis and tons of prangs. But unlike Ayutthaya, historians have discovered at least four different archaeological styles here, including: Lanna, Singhalese, Sukhothai, and Mon Hariphunchai. All these styles come from this area and time period, as before Ayutthaya came along, this was a very fractured region.

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Here is another major Sukhothai temple, this one named Wat Si Sawai. This temple, founded in the late 12th/early 13th century, is one of the oldest and best preserved temples in Sukhothai. 

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Outside of these temples, and a couple smaller ones that have been mostly destroyed, Sukhothai was all about its grounds, beautiful and isolated and peaceful, and lots of fun to ride around.

Here’s an interesting story. While researching Sukhothai I read about an elephant temple (officially named Wat Chang Lom) that sounded awesome, but we never found it when exploring the grounds. This would have been disappointing, but luckily I had forgotten about the temple by this point. Then, while riding back to our hotel, I decided to explore a random side road, not to see ruins (we had left Sukhothai’s historic area), just to see how the locals lived. So you can guess my surprise when that random road took me straight to the elephant temple I had forgotten about; for some reason the temple was in a completely separate part of town, on some random road that I just happened to use as a detour.

After the elephant temple I went back to our hotel (Inna did not take the detour with me), marking the end of our stay in Sukhothai. Sukhothai was actually the last set of ruins we visited in Southeast Asia, but it definitely was not the last thing we did here.

Up next, we went to one of Thailand’s most popular destinations, popular for good reason: Thailand is known for elephants, and this is the best place to visit them. To read about our elephant adventures, head over to our next post.

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