Ayutthaya, Thailand: Bangkok Day Trip

temple ruins and leaning stupas

Historic City of Ayutthaya

World Unesco Site

First, a little history, because we travel to learn new things about new places…plus I’m a geek and this stuff is fascinating for me! Founded in 1350, Ayutthaya, Thailand flourished between the 14th and 18th centuries. This city was the second Siamese capital after Sukhothai and at the time was one of the world’s largest cosmopolitan port cities.

Ayutthaya, Thailand

Ayutthaya, Thailand warred with neighboring Myanmar/Burma multiple times before the Burmese burnt out the city in 1767, when most of its residents then fled. The heads of Buddha statues were cut off so fortune seekers could remove gold and other treasures placed inside them (one story). Or for museums around the world to buy them (a second version). Ayutthaya’s remains, standing majestically against time, weather, and humans continue to show a glimpse into its past splendor.

Wat Maha That The Monastery of the Great Relic

Our first temple stop in Ayutthaya on our day trip from Bangkok was Wat Maha That. After the trip to the train market, it’s the site I was looking forward to the most. This site held one of the most important monasteries of the Ayutthaya kingdom, since it was the religious center; it held enshrined relics of the Buddha; and also because of its proximity to the Grand Palace. 

Of course, upon entering I immediately saw monks. I’m kind of a monk stalker, shhh, don’t tell. Every time I see a monk, I think of our friend, Brother Cyril at the Mt. Angel Abbey in Oregon. So even though I’m stalking other monks, he still crosses my mind and I send him well wishes.

These monks were a little different as two were women. I’ve seen a bunch of nuns who are female but these are the first women I’ve seen in the orange attire of monks. So I had to google it. Turns out women aren’t allowed to be ordained as monks in Thailand so they leave the country, become ordained and then return. The gentleman and one of the women had on maroon colored robes, so I had to look that up too.

I learned that the saffron orange robes monks wear dates back centuries with the color chosen because of the dye available then. The tradition stuck and orange is now the color of choice for Theravada Buddhist followers in Southeast Asia, as opposed to a maroon color for Tibetan monks. If you’d like to read a more insightful reason for the color, I found this website to be pretty awesome…not that I want you to click away from us…so wait till after you finish reading here, ha!

Ayutthaya, Thailand monks visiting the temple, two are females
Two female monks!

According to the BBC in 2019 (when they named her one of their top 100 women in the world) Dhammananda Bhikkhuni flew to Sri Lanka to be ordained in 2003 and returned as Thailand’s first female monk. There are now about a hundred more. The Venerable Dhammananda is the abbess (head monk) of Songdhammakalyani – the country’s first all-female Buddhist monastery.

I think it’s pretty cool that I saw one of only 100 female monks in Thailand! And a Tibetan female monk too! I think I’ve got this right…

We went into the temple grounds and wandered a bit. Our tour guide began telling us Ayutthaya’s history and it was super interesting. Unlike anything I’ve read online, our guide still seemed fairly angry that the Thais warred with Myanmar way back hundreds of years ago. She’s who told us that the Burmese stole the gold and treasures from inside the Buddhas. I’ve not really been able to find that online or even found too much evidence that reliquaries are placed inside the Buddha images.

Natty said the Burmese took the gold home, melted it and created a huge golden Buddha for themselves. She kept repeating, “It is believed”. A lot of articles I’ve read about the headless Buddhas say the heads were lopped off to be sold to museums and collectors throughout the world. I don’t actually know which story is true. If you’ve done some homework and know, then please leave me a comment below!

No matter the reason, it was sad and eerie to see so many headless Buddha statues. The solemnness created a different sense of respect in the air than in some of the other temples we’ve visited in Bangkok.

One of Thailand’s most famous sites is the Buddha head grown into a fig tree. Our guide said the tree is the protector and she was extremely reverent there, even though later she told us she takes people on the tour 3-4 days a week. Her high regard even with such familiarity spoke volumes to me.

Ayutthaya, Thailand Buddha growing in fig tree Wat Maha That Thailand
Buddha growing in fig tree Wat Maha That Thailand

It’s not proper to stand above Buddha, so we sat for a photo, us and fifty other tourists vying for a spot.

Ayutthaya, Thailand Steve and Noelle sitting at the Buddha head in a tree
Decorum requires that you sit to be lower than the Buddha.

The ruins here were beautiful. Stupas. Pagodas. Gardens.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet

Inside this beautiful temple, we shook a cylindrical container of sticks. The first numbered stick that came out is said to correspond with that person’s numbered fortune, which you pay for at a booth. Steve and I both shook out sticks with the number one on them. Another couple with us both shook out sticks with the number 18 on them. Our guide thought this was a very lucky sign for all of us.

It takes time to get success in any matter, you will get help from others. Business will go will (sic) and run successfully. Sickness will get recovered. Happiness and luck are approaching. Relative and friend will come to visit you. Good luck is expected. Those in love will find the right one.

Around the grounds were more ancient stupas and headless Buddhas. Are you seeing the trend here? It’d be easy to think more ruins, blah blah blah, but like I said earlier, the history is very intriguing to me. Ayutthaya, it’s glory days, it’s struggles with neighboring countries is all fascinating.

Even as recently as 2011, the entire area of Ayutthaya, Thailand flooded and remained buried under water for over a month, following a strong monsoon season and four tropical storms. Some of the stupas lean as a result. So our guide said that now you see tourists “holding up the leaning tower” in their Instagram shots. Just like in Pisa.

Ayutthaya, Thailand stupa that's leaning due to flooding
Leaning Stupa Wat Maha That

Wat Yai Chai Mang Khon, Great Monastery of Auspicious Victory, in Ayutthaya, Thailand

Another reclining Buddha stop! These are my favorites, well actually maybe the sitting Buddha is my favorite, I guess I like them all!

This recliner was draped in a yellow robe. I like that the statue’s last renovation occurred in the year of my birth, 1965, after the fortune hunters ruined the original. The statue lies in a north-south position, with its head in a southern direction and facing the east.

Ayutthaya, Thailand Reclining Buddha draped in saffron colored robe
Reclining Buddha Wat Yai Chai Mang Khon in Ayutthaya, Thailand

We watched in fascination and a little bit of terror as a temple worker uncoiled a portion of the yellow covering way up high on the main pagoda. It was crazy how high he was with no safety harness! Maybe there’s no OHSA in Ayutthaya, Thailand?

The sitting Buddhas here were also draped in yellow cloaks. They were stunning amidst the barely-blooming trees.

Ayutthaya, Thailand Buddha next to a blooming tree
Buddha in Bloom

And all these statues had their heads! These newly sculpted rows of Buddha statues replace those which have collapsed over time. The statues are all identical and spaces in their bases are used (by wealthy families) to place cremated remains of their loved ones.

I asked Natty, our guide, what happens to the remains of people who can’t afford a fancy temple, since we haven’t seen any cemeteries. She said most people take a small portion of the ashes home in a little urn, but the remainder is usually but into the river to flow out into the ocean. It is believed that floating the ashes of their loved ones in a river or in the open sea will help wash away their sins but also help them go more smoothly to heaven. On a side note, we did see two Chinese cemeteries on our travels today, and they look pretty fancy, unlike any I’ve seen before.

I spotted a nun (and a cat) taking a quiet moment to herself. I snapped her picture and then once I steppe a little closer I snapped another one. She was taking pictures on her phone! Monks and nuns taking photos on their phones cracks me up. I know, I know, they’re just regular people but I can’t help myself.

These grounds were more intact than most we saw this day. A lot of restoration has taken place in this portion of Ayutthaya.

Wat Lokaya Sutha

The main attraction of this massive temple ruin, just west of the Royal Palace in Ayutthaya, Thailand, is a reclining Buddha. It was a huge one. Not quite as long as the one at Wat Pho though. That one is 46 meters long, while this one was only 42. It’s head is pointing towards the North, feet to the South and face to the West. I especially liked the lotus blossoms supporting it’s head and that it seemed to be smiling. I probably liked this reclining Buddha better than the one at Wat Pho because there weren’t throngs of people angling to get the best selfie! Surrounding the Buddha image, visitors find traces of 24 octagon-shaped brick pillars, suggested that it was probably once encased by a Vihara (part of a monastery).

This temple wrapped up our day exploring temples and ruins in Ayutthaya. The day was coming to an end, children were getting out of school, so we jumped back into the tour van for the drive back to Bangkok. The day was full of history lessons from our guide and amazing sites from parts of Thailand’s tumultuous founding days. For me, taking the day trip from Bangkok to Ayutthaya is a must on any trip to Thailand.

Ayutthaya, Thailand mom, grandma and school boy ride a scooter
Family on Scooter Wat Phra Si Sanphet

Related: Bangkok Highlights: The Grand Palace

4 Comments

  1. Heidi Halverson

    I did a search on your blog because it seemed that you never told a story I just heard re Buddhas. Maybe I missed it, but there was a Golden Buddha located in the temple of Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand. It was made in the 14 Century. Then in the 1700s they protected it by covering in plaster because Burmese invaders (?). Then in 1950 they were moving it and knocked some of the plaster off to discover a golden Buddha underneath. I hear this story referenced to the Chicken Soup Soul book, as in under shoddy cover you can discover a treasure in yourself / others, no idea? Anyhow – now I’m really curious if you guys saw that Buddha because I didn’t remember seeing the blog tell that story. But then again as I revisit these posts I don’t retain a lot of the Buddha info you gave us. I think you had to be there.

    Reply
    • mcgarveysan

      Hi Heidi. That’s a true story as far as we know. We were actually saving that Buddha, which is in Chinatown, to visit when Steve’s sister joined us in Bangkok. But then Covid happened and we instead of going back to Bangkok we came by to the US. We plan to still see that Buddha when we go back “sometime”. Thanks, Noelle

      Reply
  2. VFat

    For some reason I read “Steve at Wat Mahathat” as “Steve at Wal-Mart”, and was surprised they had them there.

    Engaging and well-written as always.

    Reply
    • mcgarveysan

      Haha! Before hiking this past summer Steve basically refused to ever go in a Walmart. I’m a little surprised they don’t have them here. There’s a 7-eleven around every corner! 😂

      Reply

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