Ayutthaya had a history as the capital of Thailand centuries ago (1351-1767 AD), when Bangkok was below water. Thanks to its well-preserved buildings, its status as a UNESCO World Heritage will keep it on the tourist map for a long time to come.
The best part, for this intrepid traveler? A nice mix of mainstream destinations and off-the-beaten-path places only the locals know about. Ayutthaya is pretty similar to Gyeongju in southeastern South Korea – a pedestrian, biking-friendly historic town with plenty to see.
Start with Wat Mahathat – the home of an ancient temple where the heads of all the Buddhist statues were systematically chopped off when the Burmese invaded in 1767. What remains are plenty of brick buildings sans ceilings with plenty of Buddhist statues sans heads.
The highlight: the Buddhist head that’s become intertwined with a tree. It’s about 3 kilometers west of the train station (GPS: 14.356959,100.567485).
Also around for the mainstream tourists is the Ancient Royal Palace (GPS: 14.35593,100.558757), including a temple that was only open to the kings of Ayutthaya. Even the monks didn’t live in the temple.
OK, with some the mainstream destinations visited, it’s time to begin enjoying the weirder side. Enter the Million Toy Museum – two floors full of toys and other oddball items.
Opened in October 2008 by an artist / professor, you’ll find some of his own artwork as well as hundreds of amulets and other historical pieces on the second floor. There’s very little in the way of English explanations, but you don’t really need them. (GPS: 14.360343,100.552529)
Wat Tuek is an otherwise unremarkable temple – until you find the one-eyed cyclops dog, that is. The story is that he’s somehow a lucky dog – if you pray to him you’ll be blessed with the lucky lottery numbers. (GPS: 14.358357,100.550892)
One highlight is Wat Kai / Wat Gai – easily the most unusual temple around town. It’s one example of a ‘hell temple’, complete with exhibitions of how one’s sins will catch up with you in the next life. If you’re bringing kids, however, skip that side of things and cross the road to a patch of monkeys:
Bring some bananas, and watch your water bottles! If it looks like food there’s a fair chance they’ll try to grab it. (GPS: 14.507358,100.519406)
The piece de resistance is the Arunyik sword village – the best place to pick up a sharp edge of almost any size you like. The locals have been making the knives and swords here for centuries, and while they’re set up for tourists from around Thailand, they don’t really market themselves to foreigners.
The upside? Obscurity means prices are cheaper than you’d expect – just be sure to put them in your checked luggage! It’s about 20 kilometers out of Ayutthaya, so rent a scooter to get there (GPS: 14.50167,100.65150)
Ayutthaya’s a solid weekend destination from Bangkok, and a relatively short two-hour minivan trip from the capital. There’s enough to fill a week, and there’s plenty of side streets to meander – get going!