Historic City of Ayuttaya: Carefully Picking Things Up

 

The challenge posed by this site is to make sense of the scattered remains of a former strong Southeast Asian empire’s capital.  The historic city of Ayutthaya gained global importance due to its strategic trading location and strong diplomatic networks that were highly prized by the Chinese, Indians, Japanese, Dutch, Portuguese, and even the British. Its inscription to the World Heritage List, however, is anchored on criteria (iii)to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared.

The ruins of Wat Maha That.
The ruins of Wat Phra Mahathat, the most sacred temple in Ayutthaya as it once held sacred Buddha relics.

 

I agree with Els Slots (www.worldheritagesite.org) that ruins here are really ruins. It is a bit sad that nearly everything here was destroyed during the 1767 Burmese siege. To think that Ayutthaya even brought the downfall of the powerful kingdom of Angkor in the 14th century, the present condition of this site does not, in any way, give justice to how it used to be based on historical records and accounts, descriptions and praises, and even map renditions.  It is interesting to note, furthermore, that with the fall of Ayutthaya, the role of Malacca in Malaysia as the sole trade hegemone in Southeast Asia was eventually cemented and secured – traveling makes more sense if you can stitch stages in history all together, right? Nevertheless, I believe that this old city’s current state still holds a distinct charm and mystery for heritage enthusiasts and tourists alike.

Wat Chaiwatanaram: probably the most beautiful, but not WHS.
Wat Chaiwatanaram is probably the most beautiful temple, but it is not a listed as a World Heritage monument as this is located outside the island that makes up the core zone. Notice the Khmer influence on this temple.

 

Upon arriving Ayutthaya, my agenda there was not really clear: either I visit the World Heritage-inscribed sites only, or just choose some major ones and pay those other temples that didn’t make it to the inscription a visit as well. Eventually, I decided to do the latter. Much to my surprise, two temples that are not inscribed left me with really strong impressions: Wat Yai Chaimongkhol and Wat Chaiwatanaram. Interestingly, these two temples are even the most photographed ones used in advertising Ayutthaya!

Wat Yai Chaimongkol: rows of the sitting Outon style Buddha in the courtyard
Wat Yai Chaimongkol: rows of the sitting Outon style Buddha in the courtyard

 

I later found out that the WHS core zone is only limitted to the those temple-ruins in the island proper. I actually used this very useful website as my guide in understanding better the composition of the historic park: http://www.ayutthaya-history.com/Temples_Ruins_List_C1.html

 

Among the inscribed temples, however, Wat Rachaburana probably offers the most unique experience with its two-tiered crypts and few remaining old murals inside the principal prang. I also observed that not too many tourists climb the prang to see these! Maybe, they do not know about it.

Wat Rachaburana: ancient murals inside the chambers
Wat Rachaburana: ancient murals inside the crypts. Climbing the tower can be an arduous thing to do, but it definitely is worth it! Besides, not many tourists know what is hiding inside 🙂

 

Although the scales of Wat Phra Mahathat and Wat Phra Si Sanpet are impressively grand, these being largely in ruins, it was hard for me to reconcile the fact the these two sites were the most important — socially, politically, and religion-wise — during the peak of the Ayutthaya empire. There is obviously a big disparity between “status quo” and “history” in these two major sites. Nevertheless, seeing the Buddha head entangled among the roots of a tree in Wat Phra Mahathat was still among the highlights of the visit.

Wat Maha That: the iconic Buddha head
Wat Phra Mahathat’s iconic Buddha head eaten up by a Bodhi tree.

 

One can also not fail to notice the seemingly uniform and cohesive images of the Buddha all around Ayutthaya, though most have been mutilated. The style of the images is one of the signature exponent of the Outon style, which is a cross between the earlier Sukhothai architecture and to that of nearby Lopburi. Outon style is, thus, commonly referred to as the Ayutthaya style as well.

The picturesque chedis in Wat Phra Si Sanphet.
The picturesque Ayyuthayan chedis of Wat Phra Si Sanphet

 

I also managed to visit other temples such as Wat Phra Ram (its picturesque  late afternoon reflection on the pond was very calming), Viharn Phra Mongkol Bopit (the only temple to be completely reconstructed), and Wat Chang complex where the elephant rides are being executed. If there is one thing I like most about Ayutthaya, it is how the temples and other monuments are really taken care of despite their conditions.

Elephant ride around  Wat Chang. The Elephant Village is near this compound.
I certainly enjoyed riding an elephant while exploring the ruins of Wat Chang.

 

Let’s face it: it’s really ‘just’ the best — and the only! — thing that they can do with whatever remains standing (or leaning, falling, collapsing).

The-Bern-Traveler

Bernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero is a self-confessed cultural junky. Based in the Philippines, he has delivered several talks on tourism, destination promotion and management, and the importance of cultural conservation. As an independent heritage researcher and consultant, he has assisted and appeared in some features by the Euronews, NGC-Asia, and Solar News Channel's What I See travel show. He has traveled (both work and leisure) extensively in the Philippines and in Southeast Asia, and takes high interest in ticking off as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as possible. So far, Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak, the Temple of Preah Vihear in Cambodia, and the Philippines' Apo Reef and Ifugao Rice Terraces are the best places he has seen in SE Asia. Instagram: theberntraveler

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