If you believe that after having seen the ruins of Angkor you can easily skip Ayutthaya, you are totally wrong. There is virtually nothing in common between the two cities of the great Kingdoms of the past. Where the abandoned ancient cities of Angkor, Sukhothai or Si Satchcnalai impress with their monumentality, Ayutthaya wins with harmonious coexistence of the ruined temples of the past and the bustling modern city. Cosy stylish guesthouses dot the island and even a foreign enclave of Naresuan Road does not feel too tourist-trapy. Admire the grandeur of Wat Phra Mahathat where a famous Buddha’s face is hidden between the roots of the trees; soak up the atmosphere of solitude in a mysterious Wat Kudi Dao; enjoy historical reconstructions while savouring the best of Central Thai cuisine at Ayutthaya floating market or cruise Chao Phraya to take in the city from the water. Elegant chedis, shady alleys, busy temples or rooster fights – be sure that your visit to Ayutthaya will produce long-lasting memories.
Getting to Ayutthaya from Chiang Mai
The distance from Chiang Mai to Ayutthaya is about 630 km. You can cover it by bus or by train. With buses you have more choices with departures throughout the day; travelling by train is normally much more convenient, especially if you opt for a night sleeper.
From Chiang Mai to Ayutthaya by bus
All Bangkok-bound buses departing from the Arcade Bus Station in Chiang Mai pass through Ayutthaya. The Arcade Bus Station is located in Thanon Kaew Nawarat, some three km northeast from the Old City. Buses are frequent, and you can buy tickets right on the spot. It takes from eight to 9 hours to get to Ayutthaya. Tickets cost from THB500 to THB900, depending on the type of the bus. Normally some snacks are served on board or a meal at a cafe is included into the bus ticket price. In Ayutthaya buses call to the Northern bus terminal, 5 km east of the Old City.
From Chiang Mai to Ayutthaya by train
Travelling by train is a great way to explore Thailand. A bit slower than buses, trains are definitely more comfortable if you choose a sleeper cart. Both lower and upper berths are wide enough and are equipped with curtains which pull together and ensure a decent level of privacy for passengers even in the second class sleepers. The only drawback of travelling from Chiang Mai to Ayutthaya by train – if we can put it like this – is that the night trains arrive to the destination too early in the morning. Well, but you can then witness the sun rising over centuries-old ruins; is it not a worthy compensation? Train #10 leaves Chiang Mai at 6pm and arrives to Ayutthaya at 4.58am. It has standard second class AC sleepers at THB 1,106 and the same class women only sleeper which is a great choice for women travellers, especially those who travel solo. There is a more expensive first class AC sleeper at THB 1,648 which accommodates two – as always, it is a great choice.
Train #14 leaves Chiang Mai an hour prior to the #10, at 5pm, and reaches Ayutthaya at 4.23am. There is also a second class AC sleeper (THB 1,106) and a luxury first class single occupancy at whooping THB 1,648
Then there is an afternoon #52, leaving at 3.30pm and arriving at 3.38am, which is also a second class AC sleeper at a more bargain price at THB 1,046. It helps somehow to put up with quite an inconvenient schedule.
A day train #8 at 8.50am is the cheapest (THB 866) and the fastest one and covers the distance between Chiang Mai and Ayutthaya in mere nine hours compared to 11-12 hours of the previously mentioned trains, but it has second class AC seats only so think twice before committing to this kind of journey.
Tip: There are food vendors constantly patrolling the carts, so snacks and refreshments are never in short supply, but it is illegal to sell any alcoholic beverages on the train.
The train station in Ayutthaya is located on the other side of the river, east of the island. To get to the main area of guesthouses in you need to cross Chao Phraya and walk westwards towards Naresuan Road.
Ayutthaya is best explored on two wheels – whether it is a bicycle or a motorbike. You can rent your iron steed from guesthouses in Naresuan Road. Expect to pay THB30-50 for a bicycle and THB200-250 for a scooter.
Important! New and more severe rules and punishments towards drivers without a valid driver’s licence are being imposed all over Thailand at the moment. If you do not have an international or Thai driver’s permit, refrain from renting a motorbike. If caught red-handed, you may face a fine of THB10,000 or a one-month prison term.
Note: Even if drivers in Ayutthaya are generally friendly and cautious, riding a bicycle is not a 100% safe and comfortable experience. Ayutthaya is a large modern city with relatively busy roads both on the island and on the other side of the river. There is no such thing as a historical centre free from cars which is the case in Sukhothai. Still many visitors choose to cycle around Ayutthaya, but if you are not too much of a cyclist, hiring a tuk-tuk may prove a better idea.
Tuk-tuks in Ayutthaya are ubiquitous and quintessentially Thai. Red, yellow, green or whatever other colour you fancy, they glitter with polished metal mouldings and the rides are delightfully affordable. Trips over the island should cost about THB 600 - 1,000. There are tailor-made tuk-tuk tours on offer – just ask in your guesthouse. If it is your first time in Ayutthaya, it is then not a bad idea to try one.
To get to the outlying districts from the island you do not necessarily need to go over a bridge. There are several ferries plying the waters of Chao Phraya, the most useful ones being the ferry close to the train station in the eastern part of the city and the one by a highly recommended Sai Thong restaurant in the northern part of the island. A ferry trip costs just a few baht and can make your way to some of the sights off the island considerably shorter (if nor quicker).
Where to stay
The main backpackers’ strip is Naresuan Road. There are plenty of cheap guesthouses and Western-type cafes and restaurants. Even if the area feels a bit too overpopulated with tourists, the vibe is friendly and the location is convenient as there is a night market on the riverfront some 10 minutes away; a bus station from where minibuses to Bangkok leave is just a couple of blocks away in the opposite direction; and some of the most famous temples, including Wat Mahathat and Wat Ratburana, are within a walking distance, too. You can rent bicycles and motorbikes right on the spot and all the operators speak English.
There are very atmospheric guesthouses which occupy old teak masons not far from Wat Phra Mahathat, but they are very popular with locals, so it is quite difficult to find a vacant room there during week-ends and Thai holidays.
There are plenty of things to keep you busy in Ayutthaya for at least three days; and if you prefer a slower pace, you will not get bored for more than a week of constant sightseeing. There are temples to every taste: large abandoned ruins; a combination of old stones and modern wiharns; bearing obvious Hindu influence prangs; cosy local wats bursting with bougainvillea blossom and bright colours of ceramic roosters. There are at least three floating markets, a water theatre, museums – including an unusual Million Toys museum, – a Foreigner Quarter or a Japanese Village. You can cruise the Chao Phraya river – or even get as far as Bangkok by boat – or cycle around the island or outskirts of the city exploring the less known temples which will be at your complete disposal with no other soul bothering your visit. Well, and you can ride an elephant, too.
Tip: In December, the city welcomes visitors of the annual Ayutthaya World Heritage Fair. It is a colourful, a weeklong festival held on the premises of Wat Phra Mahathat where a large-scale light and sound show takes place. Tickets cost THB200-THB500, but they are worth every satang of it. In the adjacent Wat Langka Khao a replica market of the Ayutthaya period is held with an abundance of stalls selling local delicacies and seashells used instead of coins. A smaller but similar Three Religions festival is held in September in Wat Chai Watthanaram with free of charge performances. If you do not manage to attend the bigger event, try not to miss at least the latter.