Buddha

Sure, you can visit the ancient Thai capital of Ayutthaya on a day trip from Bangkok, but this doesn’t do the ruins justice. You end up spending just a few hours seeing the ruins, often during the hottest time of day. If you spend the night instead, you can time it better and also see the stupas all lit up at night, which is gorgeous.

What is Ayutthaya?

This was the capital of Thailand during one of its glory periods, from 1350 to 1767. It reached a population of around 300,000 and was one of the world’s most prosperous trading centers. It was sacked by the Burmese and the government figures who survived high-tailed it to what’s now Bangkok. The former capital of Sukothai is more serene and the monuments don’t have a modern city smack up next to them, but it’s much harder to get there. Ayutthaya is just a couple hours from Bangkok and you can explore the bulk of it on foot after arrival.

archaeological park

What you see are the remains of the former government headquarters and the monasteries, with the most famous image being the three large aligned stupas you see on one of the banknotes and the nearby Buddha head enclosed by roots that seems to show up in every magazine story about the place. It’s on an island surrounded by three rivers and follows much of the same grid pattern laid out originally. The actual archaeological park is broken up into multiple parts as the city grew up around the ruins over the years without much zoning or care. Sometimes you see ruins right in the back yard of a commercial business or house.  It’s bizarre, but at least it’s easy to hop a cab to the next spot if you’re getting tired of walking. Many of the sites are free; those that aren’t charge 50 baht (about $1.70), less for kids.

Getting to Ayutthaya

Ways to make the short trip from Bangkok include a direct minibus from Victoria Monument for a few dollars, a regular bus from the northern Mo Chit station for about $2, an expensive tourist boat tour, or the train. The last option is the best for most budget travelers as it’s quick and easy to get to the central Hua Lamphong railway station from wherever you’re staying and there’s no hassle bringing all your luggage. From Khao San Road it’s a short taxi or tuk-tuk ride, from many other hotel zones you can reach it on the city metro. Once there, an English-speaking helper will probably appear to help you buy an air-conditioned second class ticket for $8, but if you’re already accustomed to the Thai heat, a third-class ticket (no assigned seats) is a mere 15 baht—around 50 cents.

Traveling ThailandOnce you arrive at your destination, you still have to get to where you’re staying. Ayutthaya is much larger than it looks on most maps, so you might have to suck it up and pay a few bucks for a taxi. Otherwise, from the train station you take a ferry across the river and start hoofing it.

Hotels and Hostels in Ayutthaya

The first time I visited I stayed in a cheap guesthouse a quick hop from some of the ruins. These run $6 to $12 for a fan-cooled double, with a single room or hostel bed as low as $4. Try Hostelbookers or Hostelworld to book ahead, or just head to the cheap hotel zone where they’re clustered in your guidebook or app and start looking around.

If you’re on a mid-range budget, hotels here are a great deal. We scored an air-conditioned  triple room in a large hotel with a swimming pool for less than $40, breakfast included. You can check a meta site like Hotels Combined, but honestly you’re usually going to find the best deals in Southeast Asia on one site: Agoda. They’ve got the deepest inventory and usually the best rates.

Getting Around in Ayutthaya

Again, this place is bigger than it looks on a map and getting from one set of ruins to another can be a long slog. Carry plenty of water or be prepared to pay up for it. You can get around faster on a bike, which you can rent from most hotels or a local shop for $1 to $2.50 a day. It’s easy to flag down a tuk-tuk or bicycle rickshaw, or a group can hire a tuk-tuk for $7 to $10 an hour depending on your bargaining skills. This is especially worthwhile at night to get a quick tour of the lit up ruins.

touring Thailand

Want to get around in a unique fashion? You can take an elephant ride through a circuit past several sets of ruins. It’ll cost you $15 or so, but when else are you going to have the chance to ride past 15th-century buildings on…an elephant? I stayed behind, but my companions went for a lumber and loved it.

We were heading out to Cambodia shortly and had to get back to the capital. Otherwise, it would have been nice to spend two nights here. Much mellower than Bangkok and there are a lot of ruins off the island that we didn’t get to see. Another time…

For more info on Thailand’s former capital, visit the UNESCO World Heritage page for the site.