Ayutthaya: Beyond temple ruins

In my previous post on Ayutthaya, I talked about getting to and around the city. In this post, I will describe some more local attractions – that aren’t temple ruins.

Why? Because the Internet doesn’t need another blog post about wats in Ayutthaya, impressive as they are. Also, because Ayutthaya is more than crumbling chedis (stupas), prangs (spires) and that famous Buddha head statue wrapped in tree roots.

1. The Sheikh’s Tomb

In a well-maintained park within Rajabahat Institute stands the tomb of a Muslim sheikh – Sheikh Ahmad Qomi.

As the imperial capital of Siam, a lot of foreigners lived, worked and died in Ayutthaya in the 1600s. Among them were many Muslims from Malaysia, India and Western Asia, who were involved in trade. Sheikh Ahmad Qomi – a Shia Muslim possibly from Qom, in Iran – was a prominent member of the local government. According to the Ayutthaya History website, he was the Royal Advisor on Islamic Affairs, a position offered to him by King Songtham.

Tomb of Shiekh Ahmad Qomi
The striking tomb of Shiekh Ahamad Qomi in Rajabahat Institute

His tomb is a striking yellow tiled dome surrounded by campus buildings, adjacent to the Persian Studies Department. After staring at grey chedis all day, it’s nice to see a splash of colour. What I found interesting were the decorative calligraphy on the rim of the tomb: Thai and Arabic words side-by-side – something I’ve never seen before. The site is patronised by locals, who burn incense and leave flowers at the dome.

Getting there: Rajabahat Institute is at the centre of urban Ayutthaya. To get to the tomb, travel along the road leading towards the General Hospital, then take a left when you see the ruins of Wat Borom Puttharam.

2. The French Fort

There are many old forts in Ayutthaya, but by far the most impressive is right at the southern edge of the city island: Pom Phet.

The French-built fort is a short, squat hexagonal structure by the river. Some corridors are bricked up, and there’s rubbish in the shallows. But the fort commands the meeting of the Pa Sak and Chao Praya rivers, dominating the river crossings south of the city. You can imagine yourself standing by the water’s edge and peering out to see ships crawling up bearing gifts and trade for the king.

The view from Pom Phet
The view from Pom Phet: where the Pa Sak meets the Chao Praya

Getting there: Follow U Thong Road all the way down, past the railway station, under a highway embankment and you will see the fort on the left, by the river.

3. The Portuguese Settlement and Church

South of the main city island, across the Chao Praya River, lies a quieter, more rural Ayutthaya. Here, villages and scattered ruins follow the curve of the river.

One site of interest on the banks of the Chao Praya is the ‘Portuguese Settlement’. More accurately, the site is actually the burial grounds and ruins of the San Petro Church, a Dominican church on the site where Portuguese traders once settled. You can walk among the ruined church and enter a building where graves and their skeletons are still remaining in situ. The building opens to the river, with the Japanese settlement on the opposite bank.

We liked the settlement for two reasons: (1) It has a quirky altar with rooster figurines associated with King Naresuan and statues of the apostles. And, (2) it has the cleanest toilet south of the main island.

San Petro Church
The ruins of San Petro Church at the Portuguese Settlement
Altar at San Petro Church
Apostles, candles and roosters

Getting there: This route is better done either on bike or motorcycle. Follow Si Sanphet Road (as labelled on Google Maps) south from Ayutthaya Historical Park (where the elephant rides are). At the junction of Si Sanphet Road and U Thong Road is a ferry crossing across the river – Phraya Racha Wangsan Ferry Crossing. It costs 5 THB. The nearest landmark is Wat Phun Phrom, Follow the road due south from the ferry landing, turn left and follow the road. The settlement is a 15-minute bike ride down the road.

4. The fields and the mosque

The further south we went , the more obvious the presence of Thai Muslim villagers on both sides of the road. Eventually, beside a beautiful monastery called Wat Khok Jindaram, I came to a huge mosque with tall minarets, known as Masjid Yami Ul-Islam.

The Ayutthaya History website says that mosques with tall minarets are rare. But it is great to see the contrast between the two large religious buildings (the monastery and the mosque) side-by-side, something not too common in Southeast Asia.

Around the mosque are vast fields of rice. Biking through them made me feel I wasn’t in the city anymore.

Temple and Mosque
Wat Khok Jindaram (right) & the minarets of Masjid Yami Ul-Islam (left)
Fields outside Ayutthaya
Fields as far as the eye can see, somewhere south of Ayutthaya city

Getting there: Follow the road south of the Portuguese Settlement until you cross a small canal. After the crossing take the first right turn, recross the canal and make a left. The fields, Wat Khok Jindaram and the mosque will all come into view. Again, this is best done by bike.

5. St Joseph’s Church

On the north shore of the southern suburbs is Ayutthaya’s largest – and still functioning – Catholic church. While otherwise unremarkable, the church is a living historical site, having been in use since 1666. In the flat rice fields of Ayutthaya’s south, the tall steeple can be seen from miles around.

St Joseph's Church
The distinctive yellow basilica of St Joseph’s Church

The church once catered to Thai and Vietnamese converts and some stones in the graveyard are more than a hundred years old. There’s a seminary on the ground, a garden full of colourful representations of Bible stories and, best of all, a sheep farm. Pretty amazing to come out of a church and see live sheep feasting on grass.

Getting there: After completing the Phraya Racha Wangsan ferry crossing near Wat Phun Phrom, follow the road due south and turn right. The church is a 15-minute bike ride away. But you’ll see the steeple first. There are supposedly ferry crossings nearer to the church, but I didn’t take them.

Phraya Racha Wangsan Ferry Crossing
The Phraya Racha Wangsan ferry crossing, looking south. Just 5 baht with a bicycle.

These are the key landmarks. Other possibly interesting places that are not the ruins of Wats or temples include:

  • The Dutch Settlement – Southeast of the main Ayutthaya island, near Wat Phanan Choeng.
  • The Japanese Settlement – Same bank as the Dutch Settlement, across the river from the Portuguese Settlement
  • Chao Kun Khu Cham Cemetery – A Muslim cemetery halfway along the road from Phraya Racha Wangsan ferry crossing to St Joseph’s Church. It is known for the domed tomb of the 4th and last Royal Advisor on Islamic Affairs of Ayutthaya before the city was sacked by the Burmese in 1767. When I visited, the tomb was filled with elderly Muslim ladies praying.
  • U Thong Road – The villages on the banks of the Chao Praya appear mainly to be Thai Muslim. U Thong Road, which hugs the curve of the main island of Ayutthaya, is known for its Roti Sai Mai stalls (a halal, colourful cotton-candy, eaten rolled with a flour pancake).

If you are heading to Ayutthaya, the Ayutthaya History website is an excellent resource for bike routes and information behind historical sites. My trip wouldn’t have been so fun without it.

Let me know what you think of this guide in the comments!

(The featured image is of Masjid Yami Ul-Islam, possibly the largest mosque in Ayutthaya) 

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