Ken May

Skeletons splitting the sky

Alternative tours around Ayutthaya

I was a young and naïve tourist once. I thought I had seen everything. The section for Ayutthaya in my Lonely Planet guidebook was fully ticked. I had seen all the big places listed: Wat Mahathat, Wat Chaiwatthanaram, Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Wat Phanan Cheong. Been there and done all that. I had conquered Ayutthaya. I could then go back to Khao San Road in Bangkok and pretend that I was expert. I was qualified to swap advice about Ayutthaya with ultra-cool travelers. I had also taken quick photographic evidence to show friends back home. What else was there for me to know?

This false confidence rapidly evaporated as soon as I started living in Ayutthaya. After one freezing winter in Mormon-dominated Utah, in a brief stint as a temp-hired librarian, I boomeranged back to the freedom of Thailand once again. I spent the next two years as an expatriate English teacher in Ayutthaya (2000-2002). Layers of ruins continued to unravel during this time. Each day I stumbled across an old chedi or prang that I had never heard about before. Walls of former temples poked out from behind trees everywhere. None of these sites had any name listed in English and few of them were even known to my Thai students. Many of the ruins hadn’t even been fully excavated yet. But, the layers kept on rolling. The ruins were like dormant plants springing to life; stretching upward toward the hot sun after centuries of slumber. These decaying buildings emerged from the graves of the past Ayutthaya empire. I imagined them as towering skeletons splitting the sky.

Before long I realized how little anyone actually knew about the old city, especially the mysterious ruins lurking off Ayutthaya Island. Lonely Planet and other guidebooks were only scraping the most visible surface, but I couldn’t really blame them for not digging any deeper. The Ayutthaya Empire was as significant for its time as the kingdoms in Angkor (Cambodia), Champa (Vietnam) and Pagan (Myanmar). There were over 400 temples constructed in the heyday of Ayutthaya. That is too large of a project for guidebooks to document alone, and the local TAT office only produces a limited amount of information for tourists. I think the latter has even used the same map and brochures for well over a decade. Therefore, I slowly chipped away at my own research. I started to map out the locations of more obscure ruins and explore them in person. There were a lot of false starts and misleading data. The more I learned about this former empire, the more I realized how little I actually knew about it. It was overwhelming. Before long, I simply left Thailand. I had fallen into the typical lifestyle of a transient English teacher, and it was time to move on.

My latest round in Ayutthaya is what did it. I was given my present class on tour planning and management. It was a good opportunity to try something different. There are some decent day excursion that can be done from Ayutthaya, however hotels and travel agencies are reluctant to offer anything new. Therefore, I assigned my students several unique tours to see if they could be made affordable. They came up with budgets and itineraries as a mid-term project. The tours to cities far outside of Ayutthaya proved too expensive because of the high cost of renting a mini-van, so our class revised the original plan. We decided to create new tours that were mostly specific to Ayutthaya (all less than three hours long; under $5 per tourist). I seized the chance to introduce students to remote countryside ruins. Most of these former temples are unknown to both locals and foreigners. Few students had ever visited any of them before. But, in the classroom I was hit with a serious problem: I had difficulty coming up with material about these potential tour sites to share with my students. If our class could work together to find enough data and photographs we might be able to spark some interest. This way many more hidden layers of Ayutthaya ruins could be inexpensively revealed to tourists for the first time.

The Skeleton Lecture:

What do we know about the ruins in Ayutthaya, really? The Burmese destroyed most of the libraries and the royal records when they invaded in 1767. Only a small number of documents survived, and much of what is preserved comes from foreigners that traded with the Ayutthaya empire. This might suffice for basic tour guiding because students could glean some data from locally produced brochures, but how could we learn more about the ruins in the remote countryside? This was my problem as a teacher. How could I help my students learn when I lacked access to important information myself? Knowledge was either destroyed or still buried. The best I could do was to scrape stringy meat off a few skinny bones. The next day in class I presented a thin shadow of information.

I started off by showing them some old maps drawn by foreigners. It is interesting to note that most of the early maps were visually centered from the south looking northward. The angles of the buildings, forts, and ruins are drawn as if cartographers were sketching from the old center of trade along the Chao Phraya River. For example, see the anonymous maps drawn by the Dutch school (1650) and Johannes Vingboons (c.1665). These were trader maps, really. The early Dutch cartographers didn’t make any observations about the temples located off the island, although it is well established that many were already in existence at that time. In fact, a mountain range is often shown in the north; hinting of the Lan Na/Chiang Mai region. This oversight, in part, is because foreigners were not allowed to take ships beyond the southeastern harbor. The outer temples were not necessary for them to know for trade. Therefore, Dutch cartographers simply drew what they could visualize as useful from port. In result, the shape of Ayutthaya Island and the city’s waterways were very contradictory and inaccurate.

Maps improved with the growing French influence in the city. Alain Mallet (1683) created a map in a style similar to the Dutch. It added significant details, but still neglected to explore most temples residing off the island. In 1686, Father Courtaulin of the Mission Etrangeres (or possibly Abbe De Choisy) created an in-depth map that acknowledged water systems and ethnic villages. It was drawn with a tilt favoring a view from the south, but this map also signifies the later French trend of looking down from above onto the city. Maps drawn by French cartographers in 1687 (Vollant Des Verquains?) and 1693 (La Loubere) have the first totally aerial perspectives that I could find. La Loubere’s also details ethnic villages and other landmarks. A map penned by Jacques Nicolas Bellin, in 1750, has one of the most accurate portrayal of them all. However, there is virtually zero acknowledgment of any temple off the island to the north and east. The first map that I could find that specifically documented pagodas and other ruins was drawn by an European around the time of King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910) long after the fall of the empire. Only a handful of major ruins are observed by name and the freshly built modern train station slices across the map.

The purpose of this map display was to show students how difficult it would be to find information for these countryside tours. The early cartographers virtually ignored the areas where we planned to take tourists. Courtaulin is one of the few to bother sketching any resemblance of countryside temples, but he also omits names. Europeans simply had little interest in these areas. Therefore, it would be difficult to use these old maps to track down when new temples were originally constructed. Map comparisons won’t provide a timeline of how buildings developed in the countryside. I challenged students to find maps drawn by Thai and other Asian sources, especially one that wasn’t oriented to the southern perspective. I even promised them a bonus 10 points, but none of them ever took me up on my offer. Nevertheless, there is a massive number of ruins to the north and east. Some of them are rather large and impressive. There is an entire history to be told about these places. However, there are also an exponential number of question raised in the process.

It was an odd lecture, really. Students are supposed to learn facts, but I was teaching them about how little is actually known. But, we did need to gather some type of information for these future tours. I opened up some history books next to read about the founding of Ayutthaya. Historians generally place the city’s beginning at 1350 or 1351, and they attribute King Uthong as the original founder. However, there is overwhelming evidence that a number of temples already existed prior to this time. A Northern Chronicle speaks of King Sai Nampung, who founded Wat Pananchoeng (which is still active today, and especially venerated among the Chinese). There is a folk story that a Chinese emperor gave his daughter to King Sai Nampung for marriage, but his new wife committed suicide in despair. Thus, Wat Pananchoeng was built as a memorial to her. In 1324, a 19 meter high and 20 meter wide Buddha image was constructed at this temple. It was completely covered with gold leaf. How could people from a non-city be able to afford to built a meditating image of this magnitude and cover it with gold? Why would they build it in the middle of nowhere? Where did the labor come from? What forces could protect the investment?

The most likely answer is that Ayutthaya exited as a city long before King Uthong’s arrival. Derick Garnier writes: “Archaeologists have founded traces of a pre-12th century Dvaravati town on and below the island at Wat Khun Muang Chai, Wat Maha That, and Tambon Bang Kracha. Some historians believe that there was an old city to the east of the island, which they call ‘Ayothaya’, and that traces of some of these old buildings remain” (p 40-41). Wat Ayothaya’s main chedi may be from the Sukhothai period. Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon has two Buddha images from the Dvaravati period. A large bronze Buddha head was discovered at Wat Dhamikaraj that predates establishment by King Uthong, and the same temple has Khmer-style lions around its main chedi. The artifacts listed above may have been stolen from other cities after military conquest, but there is no proof of origins or records of acquisition. Therefore, Ayutthya’s past remains shrouded in mystery.

The only certainty is that the majority of the ruins mentioned above can be seen either on the island or to the eastern side. Therefore, it is important to know that prior to 1350 both these areas were connected by land. Back then the geography was an ox-bow of a river bend. The eastern canal had not yet been dug to create an island. King Uthong constructed the canal so that the new city would be encircled by water as protective moat. This shifted the political center to an enclosed island and opened up new trading routes. The former pre-canal section is referred to as “Ayothaya”, which is pronounced quite distinctively from “Ayutthaya” (also known as Ayuthia, Ayuthya, Iudia, Iodea, and Iudiad). It isn’t a question of faulty transliterated spellings. These words actually refer to two different cities. The former city preceded the latter. But, there is little information about it.

There are references to at least two distinct kings with connections to a pre-existing “Ayothaya”: Sai Nampung and a Thai named Phraya Kraek (who was supposedly linked directly to Buddha). But, I still can’t find details about either of them or their origins. A Persian scribe, Muhammad Ibrahim, was told by city inhabitants in 1686 that some of the local temples and buildings were over a thousand years old. French explorer, Henri Mouhot, cites a document allegedly written by a Thai king that states, “Our ancient capital Ayuthia, before the year A.D. 1350, was but the ruin of an ancient place belonging to Kambuja (now known as Cambodia), formerly called Lawek … Sometime near the year 1300 A.D. the former inhabitants were much diminished by frequent wars with the Northern Siamese and the Peguans, or Mons, so these cities were vacated, or left in a ruinous state, and nothing remained but their names … [King Uthong] made Ch’a-liang the seat of his government for six years, and then, in consequence to the prevalence of disease of a pestilential character, he caused various researches to be made for some more healthy location, and finally fixed on the site of Ayuthia … in 1350” (p 29-31).

The more I learned about history, the less I actually knew. There were so many different theories and interpretations. I became more confused as I peeled off new layers of information. David Wyatt writes that “Ayutthaya had previously been the Lopburi region of the Angkorean Empire” (p 52). After the Angkor Empire had been weakened, around 1290, Sukhothai took control of the western edge of the Chao Phraya plain, and its former principality of Suphanburi soon dominated over the area. Lopburi continued to have a major influence on the eastern side. These two forces became power centers in the region, which led to many conflicts over the following decades and alterations in architectural styles. Many small towns sought political and economic opportunities through inter-marriage, other independents were forced into alliance by military imbalances. King Uthong’s (Ramathibodhi I) is widely credited with the foundation of Ayutthaya because he cemented his political base by marrying the daughter of a Suphanburi ruler, and he might have also married a woman with ties to a ruling Lopburi family. He later appointed his brother-in-law to govern Suphanburi and his eldest son to govern Lopburi. Thus, temporarily uniting the two major power centers in the region. King Uthong then had the political clout to start a new regional empire.

King Uthong’s personal background is described in a Thai Royal Chronicle. He was born in 1314 to a powerful Chinese merchant named Choduksethi. [whose family is strongly connected to Phetburi, a southern city of trade]. After an (unnamed?) king of “Kamphucha” died without leaving a male heir, Uthong was raised as his replacement. A severe outbreak of small pox broke out across Thailand, so King Uthong marched his troops for days to escape pestilence. Eventually, they came to a circular river and established themselves. They referred to this new location as “Dong Sano Island”. This account does place the early life of King Uthong into perspective, but it also has many flaws. For example, it makes no mention of any village ever existing on the island before, even though there is clear evidence that Wat Pananchoeng had been constructed only 26 years earlier (when Uthong was age ten). He must have noticed the large, gold-covered, Buddha image in the area. Secondly, “Dong Sano” was not an island back then. The eastern canal was dug afterward. Furthermore, where did they find such a large labor force and the wealth to built everything upon empty land?

A Dutch man called Jeremias Van Vliet recorded a much different version. Uthong was the son of a Chinese ruler who had to flee the country after violating the wives of important Mandarins. He wandered around Thailand for awhile, founding new cities, until he stumbled across an unknown island. King Uthong supposedly met an old hermit on the island, who told them that it was the location of a former city called “Ayodhya”. The hermit told the king that a dragon, called Nagaraja, lived in a marsh on the island. This dragon could blow enough poisonous saliva to cause epidemics, killing everyone within sight. The king would need to slay this dragon to make the island inhabitable. The hermit instructed him to do the following acts in order to kill the dragon: shoot an arrow into the air and catch it by the quiver, blow on a horn everyday like a Brahmin priest, and smear his body daily with cow dung. After successfully completing these acts (though some say rice meal was substituted for cow dung) the king sent for the hermit. Perhaps the king was not thrilled by this prankster hermit, who convinced him to rub himself with cow dung, but the king had a special surprise waiting. Without warning, the king promptly threw the hermit into the marsh and had it filled in. Since then the dragon has never returned and the land remained epidemic free.

Another mythological version is that Buddha flew from India to the Chao Phraya Basin, where he left a footprint to indicate the site of a future kingdom. Ayutthaya Island has a shape similar to a Buddha’s footprint, and past kings have used this geographic coincidence to draw a connection between their own divine rule and Gautama Buddha. One legend, recorded in a religious script known as a tamnan, links Gautama Buddha to both a Thai king named Phraya Kraek of “Ayodhya” and to Ramathibodhi (Uthong) of “Ayutthaya”. The name Ayutthaya, itself, refers to an Indian city ruled by Rama during the Hindi epic Ramayana. Building an empire on the location of Buddha’s own footprint was seen by some rulers as an act of merit and divinity.

So what is the truth? We don’t really know for sure. There are bits and pieces that seem reasonable. In all likelihood some community called “Ayothaya” had been established in this area prior to King Uthong’s arrival. These people constructed buildings on sites that have been used in later periods. There must have been some type of plague and warfare to cause most people to move away. The area had a strong connection to Chinese trading families who possibly established ties to the Sukhothai kingdom. The area would have been ideal for trade since a confluence for three rivers met at this location. The large amount of water would have been ideal for growing rice. But, all this history is fragile. All it would take is the discovery of new documents and old theories could change or unravel. For example, the discovery of a single silver coin in Nakhon Pathom stating “Lord of Dvaravati” provided the only local evidence of that state; and in the 1930s, a series of letters and certificates were discovered near Naha in the Okinawa Prefecture of Japan. They were written and preserved by the local Chinese community that served the Ryukyu kingdom. The nature of the trading relationship between Japan and Ryukyu was unknown until then. After these discoveries entirely new chapters could be added. I only hope that there are more ceramic jars buried someplace that could reveal all.

I stood in front of my class confessing my lack of knowledge. It was a humbling experience; a very non-Asian pedagogy. But, it was exactly what I wanted them to do: speak freely without losing face. I feared that they would be uncomfortable making mistakes. But, what could I do, European maps failed to document the places where we were scheduled to go. Nearly all of the maps completely omitted the temples on the northern and eastern sides. Textbooks seldom produced much more solid information about eastern temples than a basic brochure and almost nothing at all about the ones in the north. Stories contradicted each other and dates didn’t match. This is not the fault of historians. Victors dictate how history is written, dishonest leaders embellish their own accomplishments, traders and craftsmen might not keep records, simple folks who can’t read or write exaggerate by verbal myth, books are burnt, artifacts are stolen, and sometimes people just lie. The more I learned the less I actually knew. It was frustrating. Maybe that was what students were suffering through with English; the more they learnt, the more overwhelmed they were by how much more they needed to know. There is no easy solution. Basically, I spoke with students about the empty space that exists between skeletal ribs.

The Post-Lecture Marrow:

Students were having fun teasing me during the lecture. I was trying to pronounce the names of places where I planned to take them. “Oh teacher, very good,” they joked, “this time you said that name right”. Students even clapped in encouragement. They broke into gleeful seizures when I attempted the names of Thai kings (Borommatrailokanat, Phumintharacha, Athittayawong, Chao Fa Sri Saowaphak, Intharacha, Nakharinthrathirat). Their mirth was revenge for the difficulties of English. They had endured 12 verb tenses, third person singular, and countable/uncountable nouns. In return, they enjoyed listening to me suffer through the karma of five intonations and overextended Thai words. I had to speak without the availability of Thai punctuation marks.

I was having a taste of my own medicine, really. I always tell students to not be afraid of making mistakes. Errors are a major part of language practice. My students need to be comfortable using English with real life dialogue. They can always learn later by more research and repetition. Nobody wants to admit to the lack knowledge about a subject, because it would be considered a loss of face. However, I want to eliminate this type of self-consciousness. By tasting a small portion of humble pie, I was able to make students more willing to speak out loud in class, even if it took the form of them correcting my own mispronunciations of Thai names. At least, it initiated constructive dialogue.

Then I turned the tables. I would take them on a surprise tour the next week. They would have to explain places to me that they had never seen before. “You are tour guides,” I threatened, “You need to learn the words needed to articulate Ayutthaya to tourists”. Vocabulary can be stacked together like vertebrae. It was time for students to crack their spine into place. The class suddenly became silent. An unusual field trip was on the horizon. This time I would take them on a tour of the pre-1350 Ayothaya region to the east.

I also scared them with this:


Final Test (30 points) ♫ ♥ ☼

The following ten questions are worth 3 points each. Students are expected to answer each one with as many details as possible. Higher points will be saved for the nicer descriptions. Spelling and grammar will also be taken into consideration, but aren’t as important for grading. The goal is for students to explain the class tours this semester and to provide personal opinions about them. Use the chart below for assistance.








1) In your opinion, of all the tours mentioned above, which one was your favorite? Explain why?

2) In your opinion, what tour would be most successful with backpackers? Why?

3) In your opinion, what tour would be least successful? Explain why? What would need to be changed to improve this tour?

4) What did the class see during the Angthong tour? Describe the places we visited.

5) What did the class see during the Sena tour? Describe the places we visited.

6) What did the class see during the countryside tour of eastern temples and ruins?

Describe the places we visited.

7) What did the class see during the countryside tour of northern temples and ruins? Describe the places we visited.

8) Describe one of the originals tours that got cancelled. Why weren’t we able to organize an affordable tour of that destination? How could we improve that tour?

9) Describe some of the different kinds of tourists. How is a group tourist different from an individual backpacker? How do they behave differently while traveling? How are their tour needs different?

10) Provide and example of a three-stop itinerary, including lunch, for an original tour not mentioned above (must be three hours or less). Why is this the best schedule for your tour? How much would the tour cost and what price would tourists pay?


Countryside Ruins (East Ayothaya):

It started out as a wrong turn. My landlady persuaded me to make morning merit at a countryside ruin. Our vehicle was loaded with water, kitchen gear, and prepared food. On route, she pulled down a side street to buy extra offerings for monks. While meandering on a curvy dirt road we hit a dead end. The landlady let out a minor curse then spun off in a different direction. The new path passed Wat Kudi Dao, a rather large ruin of slightly mysterious origin. It is assumed to be built in the early Ayutthaya period, but might have been erected on the bases of even older buildings. I had never seen it before. There are at least seven ruins close to this street. My landlady later took us to another one, Wat Dusit Tharam, for the morning ceremony. The monks chanted for a solid hour, families ate afterward, and I began to wander around. Behind this active temple was a very large chedi. This site wasn’t manicured; large trees and bushes grew from cracks inside the chedi’s structure. This was probably how Ayutthaya temples looked on the island before the Fine Arts Department renovated them. I had just shown my class some pictures of Ayutthaya during the 1950s, so I could now offer something even more visual.

Our class orignially planned to visit this area as part of a jungle food tour. There is a new elephant camp nearby and a daily snake show. We also scheduled an optional stop at a jungle food restaurant where tourists could dine on cobra meat, monitor lizard, wild boar, various rodents, and snake blood. However, the jungle tour wasn’t cost-effective for our entire class to go on. After reviewing out budget we had to cancel it. The students weren’t exactly thrilled by the idea of drinking shots of cobra blood either. This new eastside temple tour could be added as a substitute. It was a reasonable alternative to our first plan. Before long, we were heading there in the Rajabhat mini-van.

For readers, if you want to find these sites: turn either left or right when you come to the large roundabout chedi in the middle of a Rochana Road (Chedi Wat Samplum, to be exact). You can go either direction and find cool things. These temples are highly concentrated on what some students call “Ayutthaya Bang Pa-in Road (#3058)”. Our class began by turning northward at the roundabout Chedi. I wanted to show them Wat Ayothaya first, since its main chedi was likely to have been built in the Sukhothai era. It appeared as if untouched for centuries. Then, we visited Wat Maheyong which was constructed by King Borom Rajathiraj II (Chao Sam Phraya) in 1483. This ruin has a large bell-shaped chedi. The chedi’s base is surrounded by elephant figures and its upper terrace is encircled with Buddha images. This is an unique style in Ayutthaya. There is only one like it. Nowadays, meditation retreats are held at this location, which has become very popular among Thai tourists. There are many other places on this tour that are worthy of a visit (Wat Kudi Dao, Wat Samana Kotharam, Wat Pradosang Than, Wat Prayad). However, I am not going to write about them. It’s better to keep them a mystery for now, so as to preserve some element of surprise.

I bombarded my students with questions at Wat Kudi Dao: When was the temple built? Who constructed it? What is the story? What style are these ruins? What is the difference between an ubosot and a wiharn? Are chedis and stupas the same thing? What did this temple look like before it was a ruin? Do you think tourists would pay for a tour to see this? This visit also opened up conversation about Ayutthaya roots prior to 1350. Much of this area was built on top of former dwellings. At first the students were reluctant to make independent guesses. They were shy until silences also became awkward. Then they spoke freely. Very few students had seen any of these ruins before, so they didn’t know much about them. But, they quickly caught on that I was simply trying to encourage them to talk. It was with this exercise that I learned the type of information that they had already acquired, and what data they were still lacking. I taught them a few things about these architectural skeletons. However, they could fit a few bones together on their own.

The next stops on our itinerary were Wat Phanon Choeng and Wat Yai Chaimongkhon. Both sites most likely preceded the founding of Ayutthaya. These two locations are already so popular that tourists are bussed in daily from Bangkok to see them. These temples can be difficult for tourist to get to by road, so they could be included as a draw for this countryside temple tour. However, my students and I had already visited them at least a dozen times already. We wanted to bite into something different since we already had access to the Rajabhat mini-van. Students suggested that we alter the itinerary, and I encouraged their spontaneity. Before I knew it we were on route to one of Ayutthaya’s largest standing buildings – Chedi Phu Khao Thong – a pyramid-like ruin constructed in Mon style on the opposite side of the city.

On route I saw something smaller that made me ask the driver to slam on his brakes to make a U-turn. Hundreds of spirit houses were stacked together next to a dried up canal. Students explained that people abandoned them at this site because they were broken, but too sacred to throw away. Other students suggested that people left them there to get rid of the bad ghosts that lived inside the spirit house. It was almost like a folk art museum. A large variety of spirit houses was showcased, from old wooden ones to modern plastic designs. This was a graveyard of spirit houses. Now, that is something they should point out to tourists.

At Chedi Phu Khao Thong we ran into a very drunk Japanese tourist. He had managed to bike all the way to this site and was sweating profusely. My students’ tour guide instincts kicked in. Most of them have studied Japanese as a minor language, so seven of them volunteered to show him around. All of a sudden, he had seven beautiful Thai women as his private tour guides. He was a very happy man. The other students joined me on a walk through the adjacent temple. There is a Buddha footprint inside. I wanted to demonstrate to students that a tiny room is hiding underneath the footprint. If you step through the mouth of a tiger gateway, you can walk downstairs to a little shrine. There is a ceramic jar full of blessed water that anyone can drink. It is the knowledge of little details like these that makes a truly skilled tour guide. In turn, the students pointed out to me a special type of rock that could reproduce itself. It was located in a glass jar on a shrine. If people show this stone good faith than smaller pebbles will grow out of it. We traded knowledge as well as questions.

Then came the test of the day. I promised students that there was a small hole at the top of the Chedi Phu Khao Thong, where tourists could crawl inside to find a small shrine at the end of a dark hallway. I wanted to see how many students would take me up on the invitation to see it. I raced up the staircase of the massive chedi, two steps at a time, wishing that a few students would instinctively follow me. The test was to see which tour guides would go the extra mile. I have only been on one group tour in Thailand, and at that time our guide seldom did anything more than point and say, “Go over there”. Our group had to wake up this sleeping tour guide whenever we returned to the van. Certainly, my students could be better than that. They need to actually go the full distance with tourists and surprise them with unique details about a place.

At the top of the chedi I waited for students to catch up. It was quiet and peaceful. A cool sunset breeze began to blow in. On the distance I could see at least two more remote ruins on the north side of the island. These temples lurked within a confusing maze of rice fields, dirt trails, and muddy canals. They were my final obstacle to understanding Ayutthaya ruins, because I could never find a pathway to visit them. Back in 2001, I set out several times to track them down, but I always had to turn back after getting stuck in a rice paddies. However, these obscure ruins would become our next learning session. I knew that my class would find a way to see them one day together. It was an entirely new layer of ruins to explore.

Unfortunately, only two students put in the extra effort to meet me on top of Chedi Phu Khao Thong. These are the students who will get top grades and reference letters. I showed them the hole at the top of the chedi that leads to a secret shrine. Afterward, one of the students was amazed. She told me, “You are farang. How can you teach me so much about Ayutthaya? I am Thai, but I never knew this shrine existed. I have never seen most of these temples before today”. These temples had become too commonplace for her. She sees temples everyday, so they have lost their novelty. If you look at something long enough you can no longer see it. The remote countryside temples were not important to her, so like the early western cartographers she omitted the outer temples as periphery knowledge. But, these obscure countryside temples could prove important one day as a source of revenue. Sometimes it takes a tourist to remind locals of what is so special about their city. I tried to introduce new information to students. Now, they had a new set of questions to chew on. But, so did I.

Adding Layers of Skin (Lecture Two):

Beth Fouser writes that there are three distinct architectural sub-periods in Ayutthaya history. The early period was from 1351 to the late 15th century, in which the Khmer-style prang tower was the prominent feature of these early temples. The middle sub-period, approximately 1488-1629, is signified by when the bell-shaped chedi became the most popular architectural style. This transition took place after King Trailok, annexed the Sukhothai kingdom as a vassal state, adopting the latter’s architectural style in the process. The third sub-period began in 1629 when King Prasat Thong constructed Wat Chaiwatthanaram, which included as its central point the first prang built in over 200 years. Khmer-style prangs were brought back to life in the late Ayutthaya period. This era would last until the fall of Ayutthaya to the Burmese in 1767 (p XIV).

Ayutthaya’s different architectural styles can be understood with the backdrop of an age-old rivalry between two powerful Thai families: one based in Lopburi and the other in Suphanburi. King Uthong (Ramathibodhi) had a peaceful attitude toward Sukhothai, since he had married a princess of the Sukhothai king and entered into an non-aggression agreement with his new father-in-law. King Uthong, however, had deep hostility for Angkor due to his family roots in Lopburi, which had been captured by the Khmer numerous times. King Uthong spent much of his reign trying to defeat the Angkor kingdom in return. In 1369, Angkor was temporarily taken and captive families were forcibly removed to Ayutthaya (much like the Burmese would eventually do to Thai families nearly four hundred years later in 1767).

After Uthong died his uncle, King Borommaracha, forced Uthong’s young son, Ramesuan, to abdicated the throne. King Borommaracha had family ties to Suphanburi, which was once a principality of the Sukhothai kingdom. Once in power, he put his energies into overthrowing Sukhothai in the north. After King Borommaracha died his son was executed by Ramesuan, who returned to Ayutthaya to seize the throne for a second time. Attention was reserved once again for battles in the east. This friction continued for over a century until King Borommatrailokanat (Trailok) finally defeated Sukhothai once and for all. As each enemy was overthrown by warfare, new architectural styles and forced laborers were brought back to Ayutthaya.

The construction of temples was a way for kings to make merit and establish legitimacy. The laborers who actually built the temples might have appreciated a better alternative though. Building the temples was very grueling and dangerous work. It was rarely done on a volunteer basis. Ji Ungpakorn writes that the system of forced labor can be divided into two types: Taht and Prai (p 38-40). The first type was in the form of slavery. War captives were obliged to work for the king as slaves for a set period of time. In order to build loyalty to their new leader, they were sometimes paid for their services and could also make a living as a peasant. Skilled artisans and engineer captives were naturally required to contribute to construction projects. Debt slavery was another type of forced labor. Debtors could be contracted out by their masters as an interest payment, and families could also supply members as collateral for loans. They had to supply labor until all debts were paid.

The population of male commoners (the Prai) was also forced to provide non-paid labor. In the 1680s, a westerner named Nicholas Gervaise described how all men were required to provide six months of service either to the King of Ayutthaya or a “Mandarin”. Corvee labor was mandatory to either the king, a noble, or the local ruling family. This general population is who mostly constructed Ayutthaya’s temples, palaces, and canals. These tasks were so brutal in Thailand’s hot climate that some males became debt slaves to rich patrons rather than to provide six months worth of voluntary service to the king. Sometimes the Prai were even tattooed on their wrist with their name, the location where they lived, and the name of their local boss. Male workers were settled in densely populated areas around the construction site. This close proximity was a way to politically control a large surplus labor force.

The construction of these temples, however, had a far wider significance in terms of religious belief. Beth Fouser writes that Thai temples are conceived as microcosms of the universe – stars, planets, heaven, and the directions of the compass. They are constructed to bring harmony between the universe and the world of humanity. In Buddhist cosmography, Mount Meru is the center of the universe. It is surrounded by seven mountain ranges, which are divided by seven seas. Beyond the last mountain range is the world ocean, in which four continents lie at each four points of the compass. In accordance with the path of the sun: east is the direction of birth, south is the direction of life, west is the direction of dying, and north is the direction of death.

It is interesting to note that the birth of the earliest Ayothaya colony began in the east. King Uthong started the life of the new Ayutthaya empire by building his first temple (Wat Phuthaisawan) in the south. Ayutthaya’s destruction came from the west in the form of the Burmese who fired cannons from a western base (Wat Kasatrathiraj), and the final blow to the Ayutthaya empire was dealt from the north (based from Wat Na Phra Meru). To be precise, after a year long siege, the Burmese finally breached the city walls to set fire to the arsenal tower of the Mahachai fortress, which was located near the front palace (now the Chan Kasem Museum). The Burmese continued to destroy and plunder Ayutthaya from this breached wall. Ironically, the rebirth of Ayutthaya took place at this exact spot in the form of Hua Ror market.

The natural geography of Ayutthaya, in itself, was viewed with the same principles of Buddhist cosmography. The island could be understood as a water-surrounded Mount Meru – a divine kingdom ruled by a supreme being directly liked to Buddha. Naturally, Buddhist cosmography is also reflected by many features of religious monuments in Ayutthaya. For example, most temples are built with an east-west axis or facing a body of water – the later could signifying the seven seas, the world ocean, or the fact that Buddha obtained enlightenment while sitting beneath a Bodhi tree by a river. A temple’s main prang or chedi could also represent Mount Meru.

The role of Buddhist cosmography in the construction of temples is too immense and complicated for one article, but some general attributes should be made known. Thai temples, known as “wats”, have several physical features: “Prangs” are Khmer-style sanctuary towers. “Chedis” are bell-shaped memorials. “Mondops” are small square halls housing a Buddha image, often with a pyramidal roof. “Wihans” are assembly halls for all visitors. “Ubosots” are rectangular, boat-shaped, ordination halls for monks. They are usually off-limits to the laity. The ubosot is usually surrounded by eight “Sema” stone slabs (territorial markers) and a ninth one which is buried beneath the building’s center. In additon, many temples have living quarters for monks, galleries, and libraries.

As you learn more about these features you can visualize how a ruin looked during its prime. You can read into some of the subtle symbolism in their construction. You can even identify common mythological figures such as the naga and garuda. However, all this knowledge only opens up doors to more questions. Some ruins don’t fit easily into the typical schema, they can be transitional or unique. Then a whole new series of hypothesis grow out of thin air. Knowledge bends flexibly in new directions. I have become older and educated, but still remain a naïve tourist.

Countryside Ruins (North Ayutthaya):

The countryside temples north of Ayutthaya have always been the most mysterious to me. European cartographers almost never acknowledged them and most historical records about them have been destroyed. No guidebook mentions these ruins and tourists never go there. Local maps don’t even display or label the roads. Even the local TAT office pretends that they don’t exist. To make matters worse, the ruins can be very difficult to access. Northern Ayutthaya hasn’t been developed much. There are still many dirt roads and the few paved ones tend to be very narrow. Streets tend to be so thin that only one car can go down them at a time, and if somebody is driving from the opposite direction your in trouble. The roadway design is very maze-like. There are plenty of curvy roads and dead ends. I was often frustrated between 2000-2002 when I walked or bicycled around the north trying to find ruins. However, I knew that there were many in that area. I got close enough to observe silhouettes pointing at the sky. Although I knew nothing about these skeletal ruins the idea of new exploration was very exciting.

The mystery of the northern ruins began to unravel only a few months ago. Two popular posters on and (Marmite and the Goddess of Whatever) recently visited me in Ayutthaya. I took them on a boat tour of small canals in Ayutthaya which are full of wildlife. The next day we hit the ruins. Little did I know at the time that this would soon become my most comprehensive tour of Ayutthaya ruins ever. The Goddess was well supplied with an air-conditioned car, and Marmite was well armed with import wine and a digital camera. We visited temples in all direction, including the “Ayothaya” tour mentioned earlier. Somehow both of them escaped temple burnout at the end of the day, so I leapt at the chance to see what we could find in the north.

We promptly got lost in the middle of a rice field. But, it was close enough to know that we were on the right track. We could see silhouettes of skeletons scraping the sky. We backtracked until we located an oracle of a family market where a few locals were drinking their afternoon alcohol – bottles of strong, locally fermented, rice wine. The Goddess was elected to ask for directions, since she speaks fluent Thai. Nearly all the men volunteered to take her there in person – after all, she is a goddess for a very good reason – but, the men were intimidated by the manly physiques of Marmite and myself. Our rippling muscles of manliness scared them away. But, the Goddess still scored us the divine information that we were seeking. Within minutes a new door of perception had been opened.

We stood in front of a large ruin called Wat Paya Man. The abandoned temple once had a moat encircling it, which still makes it difficult to drive to. Now, it has become a popular hangout for neighborhood teenagers. The main wiharn is covered with tiny niches along its alter and inner walls. Buddha images might have been placed inside them. This style is remarkably similar to Ayutthaya’s oldest temple, Wat Phanancheong. However, the complex chedis also have cubbyholes where larger images might have been placed. This style is not as common. While exploring this old abandoned temple the goddess found a yaba pipe. Teenagers have started to use this temple as a place to discretely smoke dope (I also found needles and syringes here at a later date). The remoteness of this ruin allows all kinds of mischief.

Afterward, we visited Wat Jongkrom. This ruin has a large hollow chedi that one can circle around while inside. It has niches built into its inner walls where Buddha images might have been. Next, we found Wat Chao Yaa. The original chedis were built in the middle Ayutthaya period, but outside the temple walls were two unique two-story towers. Buddhist monks used them for meditation. Only one person could fit on each floor, but there was probably an amazing view from its windows. We also stumbled onto Wat Phra Ngam where there was the remains of a two-story residential hall of King Borommakot (1732-1758). Its bell tower showcased a late period prang. The chedis in this area are unique: they are often tall and thin, rather than bell chaped, as if marking a transition between early and middle periods. Marmite, the Goddess, and I played around the ruins until sunset struck. Then it was time to go home. However, my experience with them felt like a conquest. After all these years I had finally explored the temples in the north. It was a victory. I had been taken to the unknown, but that is what always happens whenever the Goddess of Whatever is in charge.

The next week I took my students to the same locations. Not one of them had ever seen or heard of any of these ruins before. I hyped up this journey to students all week. When the time came, our Rajabhat mini-van was loaded once again with 12 of the most beautiful and accommodating female tour guides in Thailand’s future (life is tough as an English teacher). I took them to Wat Toom first. This active temple is located on the far outskirts of the north. The highlight is a crowned Buddha image that fills up with sacred water. Water magically gathers inside the Buddha’s head. Students told me there is no scientific explanation for it. Monks sometimes scrape the water out and visitors are allowed to drink it. I saw three of my students go for it. Who am I to turn down such an opportunity? I drank a glass of Buddha head juice while the students were watching. I imagined it as drinking the liquefied thoughts of Lord Buddha. That type of beverage had to be good for the soul. Actually, the water really had a kick to it. It made my head feel like it was elongating. I was a little self-conscious about this in front of my students. You can’t very well be leading students on a tour with an elongated head. What would their parents say? But, luckily, an expanding head usually makes me feel wiser. Therefore, I latched onto the role of a teacher once again.

Our class walked around Wat Toom for a while. There is a life-sized elephant on site, but it has the unfortunate disposition of having three heads. I thought that my vision was just blurred. My students called it “Chang Erawan”, but the monks still wouldn’t allow our class to touch it. We meandered over to a very surrealistic chedi that my students claimed was in “Indian” style. However, I have been all over India and have never seen anything like it. The chedi reminds me of a space ship. There is a large ring of lotus blossoms encircling it, but they have hollow centers like the portholes of a boat. Suddenly, I started getting prophetic revelations: I could have my students design brochures for the northern area They could create maps. They could start a webpage for countryside temples. Before I knew it, my students were coaxing me back into the mini-van. Their curiosity was peeking. They wanted to explore the other ruins. I was their guide for the day, so I wanted to set a nice example.

To my embarrassment I got immediately lost. We took a wrong turn and ended up in the middle or a rice field. The water from Buddha’s head must have kicked in. As we backtracked I distracted students from my mistake with a brief lecture about tour guiding – and the importance of memorizing maps and bringing mobile phones in case of emergency. They fell for the tactic and I saved face. I just didn’t want them to notice my elongated head. When we made our exit, however, we stumbled onto a ruin that I never knew existed before. Wat Khae is a major complex. It has four gigantic chedis, two of which were build in the early Ayutthaya period. One chedi was surrounded by a second layer, which has peeled away revealing the original intact. Another chedi is surrounded by the limited remains of Buddha images. There are hundreds of Brahmin cows grazing everywhere. Best of all, I discovered a way that this temple could be accessed with a long-tail boat ( a new tour in the making).

Our class continued to find ruins in the area that none of us had heard of before. One ruin, Wat Ta-Krai, stood out because it had a gateway of Bodhi trees that tourists could walk under. Some temples that we saw couldn’t even be identified by name. This area had once been the source for handicrafts, ceramics, and bricks; but little information is actually written about it beside that. The entire northern area continued to unfold before us. I took students to Wat Jongkrom next. Few students were willing to peek inside the hallow chedi because they claimed it smelled too strongly of bat shit, which gave me the opportunity to teach them the word “guano”. A handful of natural tour guides plugged their noses for a look inside. They had also caught the bug of curiosity.

Our final stop was at Wat Paya Man. To my horror, in only one week it had been vandalized. More yaba pipes, made out of aluminum foil, were scattered all over the main wihan. In the doorway was a thick layer of graffiti. On the staircase was a soiled pair of women’s underwear. It was the panties that disturbed my female students most. I insisted that students photograph this desecration of the temple. It was at this moment that I realized one common trait about the northern ruins. They were all thoroughly picked clean. There are no Buddha heads remaining. Any valuable stucco figures have been removed. The drawback of temples remaining remote is that they are easy to steal from. These ruins are vulnerable because they remain out of public view. Perhaps they can be better protected if they are made known to tourists in the future. For this reason alone I am letting the secret out.

Later that night I babbled incoherently about this tour to friends at Ong’s bar. One of the expatriates that overheard me was an engineer from South Africa. The curiosity about unknown ruins enticed him. He was a kindred spirit in the pursuit of knowledge – and he also owned a car. That weekend we made one more round of the temples in the north. I thought I had finally known this new layer of ruins, but they continued to unravel before me.

The two of us promptly got lost. But, in the process of finding our way out we stumbled on grander experiences. We visited Wat Sam Wihan where there is a 600-year old, 21 meter long reclining Buddha image. We accidentally crossed into Wat Mae Nang Pleum. This temple is noted for Khmer style lions that encircle an enormous main chedi, probably from the first Ayutthaya period (or maybe earlier). This chedi has the best preserved lion structures in the city. It’s wihan was built in a Chinese style during the beginning of Ayutthaya. The two of us even tracked down a very obscure ruin that was still under excavation. After asking around the neighborhood it was identified as Wat Po. Absolutely nothing is printed about it in English.

One of our final stops was at Wat Paya Man. By now this temple was heavily covered with graffiti. Teenage vandals had scribbled across the walls of the main wiharn. They covered the niches where Buddha images once stood with thick black ink. More yaba pipes cluttered the ground. Even the few historical plaques manufactured by the Fine Arts Department were missing. The vandalism had quickly grown out of hand. The locals youths no longer appreciate these temples as sacred. For this reason, above all, I thought I would stress the importance of the northern countryside temple tour to my students. Once they create a new area for tourists to visit more rigid measures will be made to crack down on abuse. With this knowledge steps can be made to culture something more positive.

Conclusion: Reading the Bones:

What do we know about Ayutthaya’s ruins, really? We have the bones of physical structures, the marrow of reflective thought, the flesh or maps and various documents, the skin of academic theories, and the viscera of raw experience – seeing and feeling these places with our own senses. We teachers are hunters and gatherers of knowledge. We collect and distribute data as we see fit. But, this body of knowledge remains fluid. Our perceptions and theories change as new information is found over time. All it takes is the discovery of a few scrolls buried in a ceramic jar, then new layers of questions unravel.

Students retain information about English by placing it in mental folders. They file data away every day in class (adverb folders, idiom folders, punctuation folders, vocabulary folders, things I have to do for a good grade folders, etc.). The more often that students open these dormant folders, the quicker they can access the contents inside. I learn about Ayutthaya ruins by placing information in folders for tours, maps, academic theories, local history, Thai cosmography, architectural structures, classroom activities, and personal experiences. Within these stacks is the body of tangible knowledge. But, there will always be empty spaces left for unanswered questions. These gaps are what fuels education. Meanwhile, we piece together skeletal remains.

Technology expedites the process of learning. The Internet is a quick way to locate information. Shortly after a tour, the South African engineer visited the Google Earth website. This sites uses satellite images to provide extremely detailed maps. My friend telescoped to Ayutthaya city. After studying the tour sites of northern temples he was able to detect even more structures that might be ruins. We could return to the area to peel off more layers. Shortly later, I caught one of my students doing the same thing. I was immensely pleased to see her take the incentive on her own. She showed me the map displayed on screen. The website has a function that allows viewers to tilt the screen at a different angle. When this student tilted the view I was shocked by how much that angle reflected the maps of early European cartographers. We could see Ayutthaya Island from the south at a slightly aerial viewpoint. Lightning does strike twice, but never with the same form.

Sometimes the most basic and primitive techniques can be the most effective. One day another student presented me with a map that showed the exact location of every temple in Ayutthaya. Our class could place names to the dots one day. We could put this data on a website one day as a future project. She also provided me with a list of over 100 ruins in Ayutthaya. She had translated it herself. The list was sectioned in the four directions and a fifth that focused on temples directly inside the island. For me, personally, this was like the discovery of the Rosetta stone. All of a sudden I had context and scale. I had direction for future research. My student found all this data by simply finding a proper resource. She visited the Fine Arts Department in Ayutthaya and picked up one of their books. It was written only in Thai, so I never knew it existed before. The true honor is that she hunted for this information on her own. Our tour made her curious, so she wanted to learn more.

The final tests were given back to me by students yesterday. I let them take the exams home, so they could work on them for one entire week. I wanted to know what they truly thought about the five tours that our class had developed. Surprisingly, their favorite tour was of Wat Muang. I thought that they didn’t enjoy it as much since many were frightened of the life-sized statues of hell. At that time many students vanished from sight. However, Wat Muang grew on them over time. Memories about the experience grew stronger. Many of them wanted to go back and see it again.

Students felt that the countryside ruin tour (eastside) would be the easiest one to manage. The temples were clustered close together and they were easy to get to by tuk-tuk. My students reasoned that this tour could be done at a reasonably low price. The tour that they thought would be least successful, to my disappointment, was the one of countryside ruins in the north. For me they are the most exciting ruins of all. However, students believed that it would be too difficult to convince tourists to see them. They are tricky to find and there is an astonishing lack of information available about them. Students wondered how they could create interest in this niche tour without enough information to promote them. The tour of the floating village in Sena was well loved. It was ranked a close second as their favorite tour. However, it is off the beaten track. Many students doubted that tourists could be convinced to go there. The few students who went on our riverboat eco-tour loved it. They were surprised that tourists would be interested in these small canals since they don’t have the largest or most exciting temples. It was commonplace Thai lifestyle. However, virtually every westerner and Japanese tourist who I took on this eco-tour liked it much more than the standard ring around the island by long-tail boat.

The final tests have been handed in and this class is officially over. There will be a lot of high grades issued. My students really impressed me with some of their work. For the final exam many of them included CDs of photographs and found special maps that can be used in the future. Others typed of the work on computer so that it would look very professional. They went the extra mile. I look forward to next semester when we can build on these tours with more depth. Some of the students even came up with new ideas for fresh tours in future classes. Who knows, maybe we will test them one day. Ultimately, this class helped students create something new in Ayutthaya. Time will tell if they actually put these tours into use to make money. However, the success of this class goes beyond the tours. The true success is that I made them curious. They wanted to learn more about the city they lived in. Curiosity is the key that opens the door of knowledge. So what do we know about Ayutthaya, really? A hell of a lot more then before the class started.

Ken May


Breazeale, Kennon (ed.). From Japan to Arabia: Ayutthaya’s Maritime Relations with Asia. Bangkok: Toyota Thailand Foundation, 1999.

Fouser, Beth. The Lord of the Golden Tower: King Prasat Thong and the Building of Wat Chaiwatthanaram. Bangkok: White Lotus, 1996.

Garnier, Derick. Ayutthaya: Venice of the East. Bangkok: River Books, 2004.

Mouhot, Henri. Travels in Siam, Cambodia, Laos, and Annam. Bangkok: White Lotus, 2000.

Phulsarp, Sunjai. Ayutthaya: The Portraits of the Living Legends. Bangkok: Plan Motif Publisher, 1996.

Tourism Authority of Thailand. Ayutthaya: A World Heritage. Bangkok: TAT, 2000.

Ungpakorn, Ji. The Struggle for Democracy and Social Justice in Thailand. Bangkok: Arom Pongpangan Foundation, 1997.

Van Vliet, Jeremias. The Short History of the Kings of Siam. Bangkok: The Siam Society, 1975 (Translated by David Wyatt).

Wyatt, David. A Short History of Thailand (2nd ed.). London: Yale University Press, 2003.


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