We returned to Bangkok to plan our exploration of the Thai islands. The first item on our list, counter-intuitively, meant heading north and inland.
The ruins of the old Siamese capital, Ayutthaya, sit on an island formed by the meeting points of the three rivers Mae Nam Lopburi, Chao Phraya, and Pa Sak.
Ayutthaya was its own city-state nation for 400 years, the rivers providing both protection from invaders and wealth from merchants and traders, until the Burmese finally successfully invaded in 1767 and Bangkok became the capital of the whole of Thailand.
After an easy 80p train journey from Bangkok we stepped out of our carriage and into the Arctic. Somewhere between Bangkok and Ayutthaya we’d lost about 20 degrees! We had planned a leisurely exploration of the island by bike that morning, but the bikes were now looking like an essential way to keep warm rather than just a way to meander around the ruins.
We picked up bikes across the road from the station, loaded them onto the little shuttle boat, and crossed the river to the island.
We quickly realised that pedal power alone wasn’t going to cut it to keep us warm. Neither was wearing two t-shirts; only staying one night we’d packed just one change of clothes, leaving the rest of our things in Bangkok. Teeth chattering, we arrived at the Visitor Centre and spent more time than’s normal (certainly more time than’s recommended) studying every single exhibit, description and picture in the warmth of the History of Ayutthaya exhibition. Which we shared with a lost pidgeon. After watching the Top 20 Things To Do In Ayutthaya video (twice) we decided it was time to go and brave the cold again.
Given the importance of the rivers in Ayutthaya’s history, it was fitting that we stayed on the Chao Phraya river, on a houseboat. This was across the river, on the far side of the island from the train station, so we made a mental check-list of the sites we wanted to revisit as we cycled past.
The houseboat at Ayothaya Riverside House was a great find. Bobbing peacefully on the river at the end of the guesthouse garden, we had a little deck at the back of the boat plus table and chairs on the roof, with views of passing river traffic, Wat Kasatthirat, and popular sunset-spot Wat Chai Wattanaram.
Ya, the owner, wrapped up in a winter coat, clearly thought we were mad arriving in shorts and t-shirts. He brought us coffee on our roof deck along with a pile of blankets and jumpers to borrow!
Thankfully, the next morning the sun was out and it was warm enough to happily cycle around the island ruins as we’d planned. Our first stop was Wat Chai Wattanaram, right on our doorstep. It looks very manicured today but apparently just 40 years ago was covered by dense jungle.
Next up was the huge reclining Buddha at Wat Lokayasutharam, followed by the three towering chedi stupas at Wat Phra Si Samphet and the Wihaan Phra Mongkhon Bophit Buddhist temple. Wat Phra Si Samphet once had a 16m high Buddha covered in 250kg gold, but it was melted down by Burmese invaders. Mongkhon Bophit next door still houses an impressive 17m high bronze Buddha.
Our favourite stop was at the much-less restored Wat Mahathat with its crumbling, leaning towers and the famous carved Buddha head lying entwined in thick banyan tree roots.
Feeling a little templed-out having just come from Angkor Wat, we hadn’t felt the need to pay the entry fees at the other temples – the views are great from before the ticket booth. At Mahathat, however, it was definitely worth the 50 Baht fee to see the Buddha head up close and explore the ruins.
Thanks to all the trading that happened on Ayutthaya’s three rivers, the ancient Siam capital became a very multi-cultural place. The Thai population lived alongside Japanese, Portuguese, and Dutch communities. Mosques and churches were built alongside the Buddhist temples, and cuisine from all around the world was eaten here.
On our way to our last temple, Wat Phanan Choeng, we stopped at the roti sai mai stalls along the southern edge of the island. This traditionally Muslim dessert became very popular in Ayutthaya and we were intrigued to try it. We were given a stack of roti and a bag of what looked like dyed hair, and were motioned to a table in front of the stall to build our snacks. The hair was in fact strands of melted palm sugar that tasted just like candy floss. The end result was a kind of candy floss fajita, which was ok but definitely needed some sauce.
From the nearby pier, a local boat owner was happy to shuttle us and our bikes across the river to the temple for 20 Baht. Phanan Choeng was much busier than the temples on the island and not at all in ruins. Everything was pretty glossy, developed, and very much in everyday use.
The gigantic gold-covered seated Buddha was very impressive, though. Even more so as temple workers had climbed high up onto the statue and were cloaking it in saffron robes by knotting together hundreds of human-sized monk robes.
Ayutthaya is a UNESCO world heritage site, so a lot of land is protected from development. Whilst there is a fairly main road looping around the edge of the island, most of the time we were cycling along quiet shady roads, and through parkland interspersed with ancient ruins.
This was almost as idyllic as it sounds, apart from one thing: Ayutthaya’s gang problem. Or pack problem. The island has a lot of stray dogs, more than we’d seen anywhere else in Asia so far. They weren’t aggressive, (but we had read warnings that they can be after dark), but the sheer amount of them meant Rebecca left the island a much quicker cyclist than when we’d arrived!