The kingdom of Ayutthaya lasted from 1351 to 1767. During its long and troubled history it experienced many vicissitudes, alternating between great prosperity and periods of vassalage under the Burmese empire.
One of the most powerful kingdoms in all of Southeast Asia, Ayutthaya managed to defeat the Khmer Empire and annex most of Thailand, greatly contributing to the flourishing of art and literature during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Its legacy is still visible throughout Thailand with innumerable wats (Buddhist temples). The Historical Park of Ayutthaya, which hosts the ruins of the prosperous capital of the kingdom, is a must-see for every traveler.
Historians think that the state of Ayutthaya rose from the earlier Lavo Kingdom, and it kept expanding southward led by its founder, Ramathibodi (1314-1369), who was known before ascending the throne as U Thong.
U Thong was a native of Chiang Saen (now part of the modern Chiang Rai province), and he claimed to be part of the royal lineage of Lao. Thanks to his position, secured by a political marriage and family ties, he unified the kingdom and declared Theravada Buddhism the official religion of the kingdom.
He also compiled a legal code which became the basis for royal legislation. By the end of the 14th century, Ayutthaya was considered the strongest power in all Indochina.
The hegemony of Ayutthaya began with the conquest of Sukhothai, once a powerful kingdom which then began to decline. Before the end of the 15th century, Ayutthaya attacked Angkor, and the influence of the Khmer kingdom began to fade.
Today, it is still possible to admire ruins from the time of Ayutthaya’s domination during the 14th century. Wat Phanan Choeng, now part of the Ayutthaya Historical Park, is a Buddhist temple built around the mid-14th century. Its tall structure houses a gigantic Buddha statue (19 meters tall), called Luang Pho Tho.
Other attractions, also in the Historical Park, include temples like Wat Mahathat, built in the center of old Ayutthaya; and Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the holiest temple in Thailand until the destruction of the city in 1767. This temple, one of the most beautiful, served as a model for Wat Phra Kareo in Bangkok.
Around the end of the 14th century, Ayutthaya was formed by many self-governing principalities and provinces. It lacked any succession law, so princely governors and powerful dignitaries led several coups, claiming power and moving to the capital.
In the 15th century, Ayutthaya wanted to conquer the Malay Peninsula, and launched many attacks against the Malacca Sultanate, which was claiming sovereignty and was protected by the Ming dynasty.
One of the finest temples in the city comes from this period. Wat Ratchaburana was started in 1424 by King Borommarachathirat II, who built it for the cremation of his two brothers. The temple presents stucco works depicting mythical creatures and lotus, and the crypt is home to faded frescos.
The First Burmese War began with a failed attempt by Burma to conquer Ayutthaya in 1547. A second, successful siege forced King Maha Chakkraphat to surrender in 1564.
The royal family was moved to Burma and the son of the Burmese king, Mahinthrathirat, became the vassal king. Mahinthrathirat revolted against his father, leading to a third, successful siege of Ayutthaya in 1569.
Ayutthaya became independent again in 1584, and the Thai repelled many Burmese invasions until 1593. Another war started when the Thai attacked Burma, and lasted until 1605. During this war, Ayutthaya re-conquered some regions like Lan Na and northern Tanintharyi.
Thanks to foreign trade, Ayutthaya acquired many luxury items and new weapons. During King Narai’s reign, in the mid-seventeenth century, Ayutthaya experienced a second period of prosperity. During the next century, however, it again began to lose power, while provincial governors became stronger and led rebellions against the capital.
In the Historical Park of Ayutthaya it is possible to visit Wat Chaiwatthanaram (“The Temple of Long Reign and Glorious Era”), built in 1630, one of the park’s most popular tourist attractions. It was built by King Prasat Thong, as a memorial for his mother, and its structure reflects the mandala, the Buddhist world view.
It is designed in the Khmer style and stands on a rectangular platform surrounded by eight chapels. Today, it is still possible to admire the outside wall with its 120 Buddha statues. The temple was deserted after the destruction of the city in 1767.
Ayutthaya experienced a period of peace and stability after a series of internal conflicts. During this period, art, literature, and science flourished. In 1715, however, Ayutthaya fought with the Vietnamese rulers of South Vietnam (the Nguyen Lords). An even greater threat came from Burma.
In 1765, the Burmese army came from the north and west to invade Ayutthaya. All major towns capitulated, and only the village of Bang Rajan resisted. The capital city capitulated after a siege that lasted 14 months, and it was completely destroyed in April 1767.
The Burmese were also fighting a war with China, and when China threatened their capital, they had to abandon Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya was now in chaos. One general, Taksin, began efforts to reunify the country. He started to fight against the Burmese and established a capital in Thonburi.
In the eighteenth century, the kingdom comprised cities like Ligor (or Nakhon Sri Thammarat); Junk Ceylon (or Phuket Island); and Singora, also called Songkhla.
Nakhon Sri Thammarat is 610 km south of Bangkok, and its main point of interest is Wat Phra Mahathat Woramahawinah, the most important temple in south Thailand.
The temple’s principal chapel is 78 meters tall, and it is surrounded by 173 smaller ones. At the base of the chapel there is a gallery (Viharn Tap Kaset), decorated with Buddha statues and elephant heads.
Phuket Province is one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Thailand. Among its many attractions are: the Two Heroines Monument, commemorating those who united people against the Burmese in 1785; the Thalang National Museum (close to the Two Heroines), with a permanent exhibition of life in Old Phuket; and Old Phuket town, with its Sino-Portuguese architecture.
Songkhla is 968 km from Bangkok, and its ancient port city, a few kilometers from the modern town, used to be one of the most important trading centers of the Tambralinga kingdom, a Malay power that dates back to the 7th century.
The Historical Park of Ayutthaya is a great witness to the faded power of that glorious kingdom, and visiting it is an amazing experience.
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