Having lived in Thailand for almost a year and travelled here on and off for just over five years since the spring of 2008, when I made a day trip to Ayutthaya in June it was to be the first time I had set foot inside the grounds of Wat Mahathat. That this temple complex, in the ancient Thai capital and now UNESCO World Heritage Site, houses arguably one of the country’s most photographed tourist sights makes it even more of a wonder that I had managed to spend so much time here without visiting. Just about every tourist who has stepped even slightly off the well-worn Bangkok-Chiang Mai-some-island-in-the-south trail has taken their own version of this instantly recognisable photo.
Wat Mahathat is often the first stop for many visiting Ayutthaya, and it’s easy to see why. The site has a rich history, its construction having been started back in 1374 during the reign of King Boromma Rachathirat I. It has been reconstructed a number of times -its main prang spire first collapsed in the early seventeenth century and, as part of the work to restore it, it was also made taller. In fact, at 51 metres high it became Ayutthaya’s tallest monument in history.
However, the temple needed further restoration work in the first half of the 1700s, before being burned in 1767 when the Ayutthaya capital was sacked during the Burmese invasion – still evidenced today by the shocking decapitated buddha figures they left behind. Then in the early twentieth century (1904 or 1911 depending on who you ask) it collapsed for the final time. In the years to follow, looters are said to have taken their chance at digging for treasure, and local folk tale even has it that the police hired to protect the temple used dynamite at the site in the hope of uncovering riches.
Since then the site has largely remained in ruins, though the central area of the prang was excavated by the Thailand Fine Arts Department in 1956. Today, the rather dishevelled nature of Wat Mahathat only adds to its appeal, a number of the former complex’s spires doing their very best to defy gravity but leaning increasingly in a way that makes them look like they belong in Pisa. A large and spacious site bathed in rich sunlight and yet with the shade of a number of large trees, it has a decidedly calm and soothing feel about it – provided you don’t spend too long among the small crowds that gather around the principal attraction, a Buddha head entangled in the roots of an age-old Banyan tree.
The origin and history of this infamous buddha head is less than clear, and a number of theories exist as to how it ended up in its current position. It is generally assumed that the figure fell to the ground during the burning and destruction of the temple complex by the Burmese. According to some, folklore holds that the roots of the tree then reached out and embraced it, recognising how holy it is.
Others perhaps more rationally conclude that it simply laid there for so long, given the temple remained in utter ruin and abandon for over a hundred years, that the tree grew around and covered the head. Aside from the suggestion that a thief was caught red-handed and dropped the head to flee, or couldn’t quite manage carrying the weight over the wall and left it next to a tree, it is also possible that it was left behind during the Fine Arts Department’s restoration.
Whatever the background, today it makes for an unusual and captivating sight for foreign tourists and holidaying Thais alike – something akin to the bizarreness of the whole temple shrouded in a tree at Wat Bang Kung or, say, a fresh market with a train running right through it eight times a day (both in Mae Klong). But it is remains too a hugely sacred site, so you’re expected to dress reasonably well (though not as strictly as elsewhere, given this is a site of ruins rather than a functioning temple) and remain positioned low while taking photographs – not towering over the buddha image. Because of this, you also shouldn’t expect to get as close up as postcards would have you believe, since there’s a small barrier a little way back from the tree and a guard there to make sure you’re on your best behaviour.
But buddha head or no buddha head (and it’s true that, if you’re a total cheapskate, you can see much of the snap-happy opportunity from outside the complex and avoid paying the admission fee), for me a large part of the attraction of Wat Mahathat is the serenity of the complex as a whole. Again outside of the fee-paying area, the grassy banks of the Rama National Park’s Bueng Pharam lake are lined with trees that provide some much welcome shade and make for the perfect spot to pop yourself down and soak up some countryside calm and fresh air. If like me you’re on a day-trip from the smog and choking traffic of Bangkok, no doubt this little dose of peace and calm will come as a relief.
Though the temple as a whole does at times pack out with foreign tour groups and the buddha head has such a reputation that the area around it attracts a pretty much constant stream of photographers and posers, the rest of the complex has a much calmer feel – and often a very local one, too. Sat by the river in particular, you can expect to have a few Thai families for company, likely to strike up friendly conversation as one or two did with me. It’s possible to make a day trip to Wat Mahathat and a few surrounding sights on a very low budget – I did the whole day for 163 baht all-inclusive from home in Bangkok – and, if that’s your plan, then an hour or two perched by the water with a book and some great views can be a relaxing and low-cost part of the excursion.
To get to Ayutthaya, take one of the 35 daily departures from Bangkok’s Hualumphong railway station – services run up to every ten minutes and a ticket on an ‘ordinary’ commuter train will cost you 20 baht (Thai citizens go free) for the roughly 90-minute journey. Buses and minivans also operate from Bangkok’s northern Mo Chit bus terminal and will get you there more quickly.
On arrival by train, avoid any lingering tuk-tuk drivers and instead cross the main road outside the station, walk down to the end of the small street directly opposite and take the 4-baht ferry across to the main ‘island’ of Ayutthaya that sits at the confluence of the Chaophraya, Lopburi and Pa Sak rivers. From there, it’s an easy 15-20 minute walk to the right along U-Thong Road, turning on to Naresuan Road and continuing until the junction with Sikun Road, from where you’ll be able to see Wat Mahathat on the other side of the road to your left. Alternatively, hop on a motorbike taxi for around 30 baht from the ferry drop-off point or a tuk-tuk, likely for slightly more.
Wat Mahathat operates a two-tiered pricing system, charging 50 baht admission for foreign tourists and 10 baht for those resident in Thailand (Thais and non-Thais). Despite reports to the contrary, there was pleasingly no objection to me paying the local price on production of my passport showing my permission to work here – though the member of staff did seem to want to almost whisper the cheaper price to me, presumably for fear of nearby foreign tourists finding out they were being charged five times more. Other nearby temples provide other sightseeing opportunities if you have more time to spare.
This post was updated on 10 May 2016 to remove reference to elephant rides available to tourists in Ayutthaya, which are widely regarded as inhumane. See this post on the Expique blog for more.