Ayutthaya | Historic Powerhouse of Southeast Asia

The reclining Buddha Ayutthaya

I paused frequently to admire the great city Ayutthaya, cited upon an island round which flowed a river three times the width of the Seine. There rode ships from France, England, Holland, China and Japan while innumerable boats and gilded barges rowed by 60 men plied to and from.

No less extraordinary were the camps and villages outside the walls inhabited by the different nations who came trading there, with all the wooden houses standing on posts over the water, the bulls, cows, and pigs on dry land. The streets stretching out of sight, are alleys of clear running water. Under the great green trees and in the little houses crowd the people. Beyond these camps of the nations are the wide rice fields. The horizon is tall trees, above which are visible the sparkling towers and pyramids of the pagodas. I do not know whether I have conveyed to you the impression of a beautiful view, but certainly, I have myself never seen a lovelier one.

Abbe De Choisy, (1644-1724) Jesuit priest with the first French embassy to Ayuttaya 1685, Journal Du Voyage de Siam /Paris 1687.

From this description, I can very much imagine what it must have looked like coming sailing up the Chao Phraya River. Imagine passing through dense jungle and the occasional village and rice paddies. Then suddenly this city of gold and gemstones appears in the middle of nowhere. Walking through the alleys and smelling the smoke and taking in odours from exotic spices sipping out from cooking pans when the inhabitants prepared their food under the floor in the stilted houses. Languages from both near and far could be heard from the holy Indian priests, Chinese traders, Christian Japanese samurais that escaped the Tokugawa purge of Christians, and Europeans blended in this metropolis.

The Buddha head in Ayutthayas Wat Mahatat.
The iconic Buddha head in Ayutthaya entwined in the roots of a strangler fig. The location is the temple of Wat Mahathat. A temple constructed in the 1400th century but destroyed in the Burmese invasion of 1767.

Today’s Ayutthaya is a modern industrial town, more or less a sub-district to Bangkok but the city still holds the ruins of a golden era, 1350-1767 when Ayutthaya was one of the regions most important cities and kingdoms.

Ayutthaya Historical Park is on the UNESCO world heritage list since 1992 and is well worth exploring for a day. Today tourists are storyliving in the park by dressing up in historical outfits. The park has been experiencing a local tourist renaissance after a popular historical drama series called Love Destiny.

Historic timeline for Ayutthaya

  • 1350 Ramathibodi founds the kingdom that is named Ayutthaya just as the kingdom of Ayudhoya from Ramakien/Ramayana. One legend says that he escaped an epidemic by moving to this island. First Ayutthaya was a small vassal kingdom to the Khmers.
  • 1431 Ayutthaya invasion and puts the nail in the coffin of the superpower of its time Angkor Wat
  • 1438 The kingdom of Sukhothai becomes a part of Ayutthaya
  • 1516 Trade relations with Portugal
  • 1560s Ayutthaya falls to the Burmese, but then King Naresuan defeats the Burmese Crown prince in a famous elephant battle and liberates Ayutthaya after a 15 – year battle.
  • 1604 Dutch trading station in Ayutthaya
  • 1612 British trade relations
  • 1650 Cosmopolitan Ayutthaya has a population of over a million citizens.
  • 1662 French Catholic Mission to Ayutthaya
  • 1684 Siamese delegation to France followed by the French embassy in Ayutthaya 1685
  • 1758 new wars with the Burmese leads to the fall of Ayutthaya and the destruction of the capital in 1767 King Taksin will establish a new capital 70 km south of Ayutthaya down the Chao Phraya River in Thonburi.
Wat Phuttai Sawan. A temple ruin in Ayutthaya.
Wat Phuttai Sawan seen from iUdia hotel at night. Stands out with its white prang, khmer style temple tower founded at by king Utong/Ramatibodi the first king of Ayutthaya in 1350.

Sakdina Hierarchy

The Ayutthaya version of feodalism was different from the European way. In Sakdina(saktina), “the power ver the rice fields” the King owned all the land and let his subjects cultivate it. But they could not directly own the land.

Moreover, sakdina was a strict hierarchical system that granted the citizens different positions, rights and duties. The subjects had points in a complex numerical system and if you had fewer points and committed a crime towards someone with a higher rank the punishment was worse than if the case was the opposite.

Furthermore, free men were obliged in a system of rotation to serve as soldiers and build for the crown. When they were free from their duty they could grow rice and work for themselves. This gave the theoretically lowered rank women quite a lot of power in practicality since they had to run the show while the men worked or served the crown.

Administration in the Sakdina system

Under the King was a viceroy, a son or a brother the different high ranking groups at the top.

1. The ministers handling Royal issues and the crowns rice and concerned with everything in the capital

2 Military handling minor states and regulations in the smaller surrounding cities.

3. Traders and merchants also in charge of relations to foreigners.

4. Brahmin and holy men, responsible for astrology and bookkeeping.

Close up, Buddha’s hand.

The non – free citizens were called “that“. They were slaves caught as prisoners of war, or previously free citizens that offered themselves to become slaves to pay off some family debts. In some cases, slaves had certain rights when it came to agreeing to move from one owner to another.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet
Wat Phra Si Sanphet. Dating from 1491, this temple used to be inside the king’s palace and had the function as a royal chapel just like Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok today. The three chedis hold the ashes of three of Ayutthaya’s kings.

Trade and economy in Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya was open to the world during a time when some other great kingdoms were not. It was multicultural with some estimates putting the total number of foreigners at 400 000. If we start with the foreigners, they had their settlements outside the main city. Ayutthaya had this strategic position between the South China Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Chinese citizens are mentioned by the number of 300 000 at one stage.

Some examples of Chinese goods brought in are porcelain and copper coins. Chris Baker mentions in his History of Ayutthaya that coconuts and salt were sold by Mon people. Additionally, foodstuff and wooden products were brought in from areas not far away for exports. Lastly, mining products came in from the north on boats on the Chao Phraya.

There were silk and cotton producers. Sugar was brought from the Chinese , Cham and the Kaeks(Indian). The so called Kaew from Malayu and Java brought good quality rattan and betel nuts. Also there were many areas devoted to craft, and certain settlements produced whatever that was needed for religious rituals such incense and coffins. Ayutthaya was a great producer of wooden boats and barges.

Esthetics of teeth in the Ayutthaya kingdom

One thing that the Siamese ladies cannot endure about us is the whiteness of our teeth, because they believe that the devil has white teeth, and that it is shameful for a human being to have teeth like beasts. Therefore, as soon as the boys and girls reach the age of fourteen or fifteen, they start trying to make their teeth black and shiny.

Nicolas Gervaise (1662 -1729), A French missionary to Ayutthaya.

The Mark of Empire

See the well-researched documentary by Peter Lee

Great documentary that cover many aspects of Ayutthaya

Snack time in Ayutthaya

Don’t forget to try the Roti Sai Ma, Ayutthayas own cotton candy that comes in all kinds of colours. See how you eat it in this video.

Bang Pa In and Bangkok seen from the river

Bang Pa-In the Royal Summer palace nearly is also worth a visit on a day trip to Ayutthaya. Then, another recommendation is to enjoy a lunch cruise back to Bangkok and see the river life along the Chao Praya. Also as a bonus, you get views of the palaces and temples, Grand Palace, Wat Arun, and Wat Pho from the river.

Bang Pa In
Part of the Bang Pa In Royal summer residence.

Books and films about Ayutthaya

The cartoonish Tuk Tuks in Ayutthaya

Finally, a personal favourite

Last but not least, my choice for the hotel is the boutique hotel iUdia by the river. It offers some great views of the historical park at night. Individually designed and spacious rooms. However, it has been some time since my last stay. As usual during covid times. Do your research first.

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