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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).