THE VENICE OF THE EAST: AYUTTHAYA

The royal city of Ayutthaya (ah-you-tah-ya) was a small kingdom in Siam (modern Thailand), and it was an unrivalled commercial and maritime power from 1350-1767 CE. Ayutthaya became the second capital of Siam in 1438 CE when it absorbed the Sukhothai kingdom in northeast Thailand.

Ayutthaya came to prominence just after the fall of Angkor, taking its place as Southeast Asia’s hub of global diplomacy and commerce. The royal court at Ayutthaya regularly welcomed merchants and ambassadors from courts as diverse as the Palace of Versailles, and imperial Japan and China. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ruins are slowly being embraced by the roots of jujube trees (a relative of the date tree, which Siam kings believed to be lucky). But, this isn’t a desolate place. The Buddha statues are still draped in saffron robes, temple altars are bright with lotus flower offerings and monks grant blessings.

The city was built on an island surrounded by three rivers, The Chao Phraya, the Pa Sak and the Lopburi river that served as a natural barrier against invaders. Ayutthaya was connected to the Gulf of Siam about 100 kilometers South by the Chao Phraya river.

Portugal was the first European nation to establish commercial contact with Ayutthaya in 1511 CE. Modern Thai cuisine and language reflect Portuguese influence (the Thai word for soap sbū̀, for example, comes from the Portuguese sabão). By the 17th century CE, Ayutthaya was a strong maritime power and a centre for global diplomacy. The Versailles court of Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715 CE) received Ayutthaya’s foreign minister, Kosa Pan (1633-1699 CE), who was sent to France in 1686 CE to discuss the possibility of a military and trading alliance.

Ayutthaya also attracted some notable foreigners: the Greek adventurer, Constantine Phaulkon (1647-1688 CE), who became a trusted adviser to Narai the Great, king of Ayutthaya (r. 1656-1688 CE); French Jesuit missionary Father Guy Tachard (1651-1712 CE); and English merchant George White (1648 – c. 1707 CE) who was a co-founder of the reformed East India Company.

Ayutthaya was described as the Venice of the East by the Portuguese explorer Fernao Mendez Pinto (c. 1509-1583), but the city’s 417-year dominance came to an end in 1767 CE when the Burmese army attacked and destroyed Ayutthaya, including most of its official records, art, and literature. The city’s history and that of its 34 kings had to be pieced together from the accounts of foreign visitors and old maps.

A number of palaces and many imposing temples were built. Architecture and art were influenced by neighboring empires as Sukhothai and Angkor, as well as China, Japan and several European countries. One of the most clear examples of foreign influence is the large Angkor style prangs like the ones of the Wat Ratchaburana and the Wat Chaiwatthanaram.

The park is extensive, so it is advisable to first visit the Chao Sam Phraya Museum, located on the island’s Rojana Road, to get a sense of Ayutthaya’s history and cultural importance. There are several exhibits to see such as ceramics and clothing and a golden sword known as Phra Saeng Khan Chai Sri and thought to have belonged to King Intharacha (r. 1409-1424 CE). The handle is made of quartz crystal and the sheath is inlaid with precious gems. You can also take a virtual tour of ancient Ayutthaya on the National Museum of Bangkok website or on Facebook.

Generally, the best time to go to Ayutthaya is between November and early April, when it stays relatively dry. Temperatures hover at around 29°C (84°F) year-round, with the coolest months being December and January (although they rarely dip below 20°C, 68°F).

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