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The Ruined City of Ayutthaya, Thailand


In Thailand, amongst the country's many temples and famous floating markets, is a major tourist attraction: the ruined city of Ayutthaya. Once one of the largest city in the world, Ayutthaya was attacked, sacked and abandoned.

Photography by the authors

A favorite uncle used to intone, “I’ll say this for travel: it sure broadens your … feet!”

Uncle Will must have had narrow feet. He never traveled, never knew the fun, the fatigue, the excitement, the mystery of travel. He never even knew that more exalted people shared his view, never knew Henry David Thoreau had declared “It’s not worthwhile to go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar,” nor that humorist Robert Benchley had once said, “In America there are two classes of travel — first class and with children!”

Uncle Will would have had difficulty in following any religion but his own and — as a farmer raising cattle — he wouldn’t have understood Buddhism’s gentle way with animals.

But, especially, Uncle Will would have found a forlorn field in Thailand a bit too much to fathom, for within it lies the ruined city of Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya.

In the year 1700 Ayutthaya had a population of about 1 million. As the capital of what was then called Siam, the city was one of the largest in the world. At that time Boston had 6,700 inhabitants, New York only 4,937 and Philadelphia just 4,400. Even London only had about 600,000 people in 1700.

King U-Thong, the king of Siam, came to Ayutthaya to avoid a smallpox epidemic and proclaimed it his capital in the year 1350. During its splendor as a glittering capital, 33 kings in sequence ruled the kingdom.

Then something happened.

War! Ayutthaya was attacked and sacked by the Burmese in 1767 and the overwhelmed nation abandoned its now-desolate city and hurried south to the present position of today’s capital, Bangkok.

The world has seen the rise and fall of empires, of course: Greek, Roman and Ottoman, for example. Powerful nations with colonial ambitions and dominant navies such as Portugal, Spain and Germany have all had their day in the sun, especially the former Great Britain of whom it was claimed grandly, the sun never sets on the British Empire.

Those academics with a sense of history might quote Ecclesiastes 3; maybe “there is a time for everything and a season… a time for war and a time for peace…” because here’s a capital city that lasted 417 years, then was destroyed dramatically — and now we hear that this new century we have entered will belong to Asia.

It’s a depressing thought that all empires fall and the next in line is the American one! Although Ayutthaya has now been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that’s scant comfort as we survey this stricken city. Its former glory is still palpable.

The site is vast; the province is about 990 square miles in size. It was, after all, the center of one of the most successful and prosperous civilizations in the Far East

Ayutthaya is one of Thailand’s most-visited tourist sites. It is not easily understood and a guide might be worth the extra expense.

Many temples each with its massive Buddha dot the countryside, so many that photographers may have problems identifying their image once they are back home. The problem is compounded by the preponderance of misidentified photographs on amateur websites and aggravated by the difficulties experienced at the well-meaning but complicated Thailand tourism website.

Images of the Wat Mongkhon Bophit Temple and its Buddha do not show the size of this huge icon.

It might be difficult to identify your photographs but it is easy to get to Ayutthaya; you have choices.

— By train from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Rail Station.

— By bus from the terminal on Kamphaeng Phoet Road.

— But, by far, the fun way is by a private company boat. Chao Praha Express Boat offers a one-day service.

The Chao Praya River that runs through Bangkok offers visitors extra experiences from dining on the river to heading north into the interior.

The memory visitors are most likely to bring back from Thailand — if they get round to facing the James Bond experience is taking a longtail canal boat side trip while they are heading for Ayutthaya. Many companies offer this, but we suggest tourists be guided by their hotel concierge to make sure they are buying the real thing.

You’ll know you have the real thing if it’s blisteringly fast and noisy. Our boatman, sitting in the rear while we got the spray and the fun upfront, shouted his engine came from an aviation jet but, later, our concierge whispered it was just a heavy truck engine.

The longtail boats offer a unique experience of fast boating — an event in itself — but part of our canal long boat trip was passing those villages on stilts along the canals and ending at one of the floating markets that identifies this far away and mysterious foreign land.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.

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