Thailand, for a number of reasons, is one of my favorite countries, and Bangkok is definitely way up there in my list of cities to visit again and again.
Sure, it’s full of tourists; when Westerners visit Asia, Bangkok is most likely their first destination. It’s one of the reasons why I love Bangkok as a solo traveler — the diversity of the people in the capital make for an interesting visit. It doesn’t lack of local color, too, for those who want a “more authentic” experience, whatever it means for them.
If you’re visiting Bangkok for more than just a few days, I would urge you not to miss a day trip to the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, an ancient capital of Siam only a couple of hours from Bangkok.
DIY Trip — One Day in Ayutthaya
I first went to Ayutthaya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in 2012 on a DIY trip. I picked up a map from the BTS, went to Hua Lamphong train station, and got a third class seat for around 20 baht. It was really hot, but sitting by the window cooled me up a bit.
The railway is not in Ayutthaya itself, but across the river. When you go out of the train station, just go down straight to the riverside, you will find a lot of boats crossing to Ayutthaya.
If you’re going around Ayutthaya on your own, rent a bike. It’s around 50 baht for the whole day. You would have to give some sort of identification (mine was my passport) as collateral for the bike.
Rent the bicycle after you have crossed the river! Duh, right, but I rented mine just across the railway station and I ended up lugging the thing down the steep stairway going down to the dock, bringing it on the boat, and doing the same thing again going back. Big mistake!
Bring a hat and sunscreen. It was December when I first went there, and even a tropical girl like me couldn’t stand the heat.
I ended up spending 2 hours in a restaurant for lunch just to avoid the heat, and had to buy a bottle of (overpriced) sunscreen at 7-11 to avoid getting burned. (Yup even brown skin gets burned!).
Don’t forget to bring your map; it’s what you will use to go around. I went to see Wat Mahathat (Buddha head tangled in the roots of a tree), of course, and Wat Lokaya Sutha (Temple of the Reclining Buddha, with the biggest reclining Buddha in Ayutthaya) among many others in the park.
Some have entrance fees, others didn’t. None charged a fee, though, from November 2016 to January 31, 2017 in honor of their late king.
Taking a Group Tour to Ayutthaya Historical Park
In November last year, I got to go back to Ayutthaya on a group tour with Voyagin. I took their Bangkok to Ayutthaya Historical Park Full Day Tour (without the cruise). It was priced reasonably at $45 per person.
I usually don’t take group tours, but as a solo traveler, it’s definitely one of the ways to save on costs while traveling in convenience, and to meet other travelers as well.
You will be picked up and dropped off at your hotel (though I had to meet them somewhere as I didn’t stay in the center), buffet lunch is provided, there’s a guide, and of course, you didn’t need to worry about how to get to where.
From 9am to around 5pm, including travel time, here are the places we covered: Bang Pa-In Royal Palace (the royal family’s summer palace), Ayutthaya Historical Park which included Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon (The Great Monastery of Auspicious Victory) and Wat Mahathat (Monastery of the Great Relic), and the Ayutthaya Floating Market.
Bang Pa-In Royal Palace
Located half an hour from Ayutthaya Historical Park, the Bang Pa-In Royal Palace is a big complex by the Chao Phrya River used the royal family as a summer palace.
The landscaping and the gardens are impressively maintained, and for a 200-baht entrance fee (included already in the group tour ticket), you get to gawk at the beautiful structures inspired by different cultures.
One of the first thing you’ll see from the entrance, for example, is the stupa inspired by Khmer architecture; walk on farther, and you’ll see a gorgeous Thai pavilion in the middle of the lake. Called the Aisawan Dhiphya-Asana Pavilion, it was used as the changing area of the royal family during celebrations.
You can admire the pavilion from the bridge which was inspired by Ponte Sant’Angelo in Rome, or take pictures of the tower inspired by the Portuguese. There are Chinese-styled structures, too, among many others.
Our guide did his best to get us to rent the carts, because he said it was a long walk to the end of the complex. Good thing I was the odd (wo)man out; each cart could accommodate 4 people, and there were nine of us.
I begged off (cart rental: 200 baht), saying I wanted to walk, and was justified. It took less than 30 minutes to walk from one end of the complex to the other, and that included a lot of picture taking!
Ayutthaya Historical Park
From the summer palace, we went on to the main attraction: the historical park in Ayutthaya. The guide told us a little about two of the most important temples there: Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon and Wat Phra Mahathat, and let us just go around for the rest.
It looked the same as the last time I visited in 2012; what was once one of the richest and most powerful cities in Asia, has now been reduced to ruins due to wars (with the Burmese army), human greed (looting), and natural disasters.
Founded in 1350, the second capital of the Siamese Kingdom (the first is Sukhothai, another really lovely historical park), enjoyed the peak of its power until the 18th century, when the Burmese army succeeded in burning it down and making the residents leave.
While a lot of the structures are in ruins, there are still a number of intact temples and figures you can see all throughout the park, from stupa or chedi to Buddha images and prang temples (Khmer).
There was a reclining Buddha in Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon but it was much smaller than the one in Wat Lokaya Sutha Ram, a giant one at 37 meters long. It’s at the opposite side of Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon and well worth a visit.
You can find the Buddha head entangled in tree roots at Wat Mahathat. All visitors to Ayutthaya go there so you need to wait a bit before you can have your picture taken. Just remember: you can’t be above the Buddha, so you need to squat when you pose in front of it.
For more details about the many, many temples and other structures in Ayutthaya Historical Park, check out this Temples Ruins List. It’s a good guide (though the design is so 1990s).
The Floating Market of Ayutthaya
I would have preferred to stay longer and walk around more at the park; unfortunately, the guide wanted us to check out the floating market. This was the bit I liked the least.
The floating market is completely made for tourists. Nothing in that place was authentic. We were taken to the entrance where we could fall in line to get into the boats, but again, I begged off, knowing what I would see there.
The Westerners in our group (two couples) were initially excited; then begged off when they learned there was a fee (200 baht per person, not included in the tour). The other two couples (Asians) pushed through, and while waiting for them, I just went around.
When our group was complete again, our guide took us to another place (still in the same area) where we could ride an elephant for another 200 baht per person. Only the two Asian couples did it.
I was really tempted to ask them not to do it; there have been a lot of flak about how the elephants (and tigers) are treated in the tourism industry in Thailand. Tourists love it, not knowing the abuses the animals suffer in the process.
The seat alone can weigh over 100 kilos; together with the couple plus the mahout (the “driver”), can you imagine how heavy the elephant’s burden is, and how hard it has to work the whole day?
I emailed Voyagin about this, and suggested they partner with tour operators that don’t involve animal attractions in their tours. I understand wanting an experience involving elephants and tigers (huge cat lover here), but not in a lot of places in Thailand where they’re known for unethical treatment. Fortunately, Voyagin was very open about the issue and assured me that they will do something about it.
To DIY or not to DIY Ayutthaya?
As a solo traveler, I love being in control of my time and my itinerary. When I went to Ayutthaya on my own in 2012, I saw a lot more of the park, and only went to places that I wanted to see.
However, it was also tiring and hot, and probably not a good idea if you’re traveling with family. (Unless y’all are those nomadic families that I greatly admire.)
So, yes, by all means, if you like convenience, take the group tour by Voyagin when you visit Ayutthaya on a day trip. It will save you time and energy, and give you a lot more information than if you just go on your own.
Just let them know — no riding elephants, no petting drugged tigers (though of course, this wasn’t included in the package), no animals being made to do human tasks (like painting, OMG). Let’s try to be responsible travelers; if no one wants to take those rides, they would be forced to stop offering them. Maybe.
Despite the last bit, I did enjoy my second time in this UNESCO world heritage site. It’s highly recommended as a day trip from Bangkok if you have time to spare.
Have you been to Ayutthaya? How was your experience?