Ayuthaya was the Siamese royal capital from 1350 to 1767. Prior to the emergence of the Ayuthaya kingdom, the town was a Khmer outpost. The city was named after Ayodhya (Sanskrit for ‘unassailable’ or ‘undefeatable’), the home of Rama in the Indian epic Ramayana. Its full Thai name is Phra Nakhon Si Ayuthaya (Sacred City of Ayuthaya).
Although the Sukhothai period is often referred to as the ‘golden age’ of Thailand, in many ways the Ayuthaya era was the kingdom’s true historical apex – at least in terms of sovereignty (which extended well into present-day Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar), dynastic endurance (over 400 years) and world recognition. Thirty-three kings of various Siamese dynasties reigned in Ayuthaya until it was conquered by the Burmese. During its heyday, Thai culture and international commerce flourished in the kingdom, and Ayuthaya was courted by Dutch, Portuguese, French, English, Chinese and Japanese merchants. Ayuthaya’s population had reached one million by the end of the 17th century and virtually all foreign visitors claimed it to be the most illustrious city they had ever seen.
In 1767, after numerous conflicts with the Burmese, the city was sacked by the invading army, the golden treasures looted and the Ayuthaya royals were carted off as prisoners. The nervous system of the emerging Thai nation fractured into competing factions until General Taksin united the territories and established a new capital near Bangkok a mere three years later. The Burmese eventually abandoned their Thai conquest without establishing a satellite ruler. Ayuthaya then developed into a provincial trading town while its once magnificent monuments succumbed to gravity and looters. Concerted efforts to restore the old temples were undertaken by various Bangkok kings and then more formally by the Fine Arts Department starting in the 1950s. In 1991 the ancient city was designated a Unesco World Heritage site.
Today the city sees a steady supply of cultural tourists ranging from independent couples cycling between ruins to busloads of escorted package tourists. Despite these visitors, the city is surprisingly untouristy and still very rough around the edges. The surrounding area is transitioning from agricultural to manufacturing and new factories are replacing old rice paddies.