Ayutthaya was once the world’s greatest city

“The train arrived at [Ayutthaya]. I was content to satisfy my curiosity about this historic place by a view of the railway station (after all, if a man of science can reconstruct a prehistoric animal from its thigh bone why cannot a writer get as many emotions as he wants from a railway station?…)”

—Somerset Maugham, “The Gentleman in the Parlour” (1930)

In 1767, the world’s greatest city was destroyed, and you probably haven’t even heard of it.

As you travel North on the Northern Line of Thailand, you follow path of the Chao Phraya river. You aren’t likely to see it much: You don’t cross it, and when the train gets close enough that you should see it, your views would be blocked by its natural levies — built up by the depositing of heavier sediments on the river banks — or by human development on its shoreline.

But the Chao Phraya translates to “the Chief”. So, clearly, it is important. Thats because, it was along this navigable river that trade first emerged between the Siamese peoples and the great civilisations of Asia. This maritime trade essentially enriched whoever controlled the Chao Phraya, and with this wealth a Kingdom could build canals to the neighbouring rivers — transporting their cultural, economic and military influence to become the dominant force in the entire river basin, and to control more trade and tribute from the neighbouring city-states and mandalas.

That is why the beating heart of Thailand is where Bangkok sits today. Although the estuary of a frequently flooding river on a monsoonal floodplain is a wretched place to build a city of millions of people, being where it is, Bangkok can be the ultimate gatekeeper of the Chao Phraya.

But before Bangkok was built (and before the old capital of Thonburi was built on the other side of the river), there was another gatekeeper a 70km upstream. Once, it was the biggest city on earth.

Ayutthaya 1665
Johannes Vingboons’ painting from 1665 shows the strategic qualities of the city’s site. It occupies an island at the meeting point of the Chao Phraya and Pra Sak rivers. It was sometimes referred to as “the Venice of the East”

Ayutthaya – once a city of global significance

George Modelski estimates that in the early 1700s, there were 1 million inhabitants in Ayutthaya, which at the time likely eclipsed Beijing, London and Constantinople. It was founded in 14th Century by a King U-Thong, who needed a new city because of a smallpox outbreak in Lop Buri (which I will talk about later). For a period of between 1351 and 1767, the city of Ayutthaya was not to be trifled with. At it’s height, merchants came from Arabia, China, India, and Japan. It was central and equipped for trade, like a Singapore. And it was big and culturally rich like a London or a Tokyo. It was sometimes referred to as “the Venice of the East” (but that title has been bestowed upon a few dozen other Asian cities, including Bangkok, and we never hear Venice referred to as the Osaka of the West, so lets put that cliché to bed).

The wealth the city generated went into grand building projects such as the canal systems that facilitated movement of powerful armies. It also had massive temple and palace complexes, replete with fine works of fine art, which projected Thai culture. The Ayutthaya period is to the Thai people what the Tang Dynasty is to the Chinese, the Gupta Period to the Indians, the Edo to the Japanese, the Elizabethan to the English, or the Renaissance to the Italians.

I’ve laboured that point a lot for two reasons: Firstly, it is with some shame and confusion that I must confess to had never heard of Ayutthaya until I first took the Northern Line. And secondly, if you hop off the train at Ayutthaya, its hard to appreciate how important this city once was.

Ayutthaya today

Ayutthaya railway station Northern Line Thailand
Ayutthaya railway station is a particularly nice one - well preserved original wooden building is painted bright yellow inside and has cool tiled floors.

Its station is a particularly nice one — well preserved original wooden building is painted bright yellow inside and has cool tiled floors. But outside just feels like a smallish satellite town of Bangkok. Its a schlep to the historical centre.

The old centre is worth schlepping to. Its the remains of a city painted as a grand and ornate golden fortress in early European maps — such as the one skirted by rivers in the middle of the cropped section of the Portuguese Fra Mauro World Map circa 1450.

Fra Mauro World Map 1450 portuguese southeast asia
Ayutthaya is the one skirted by rivers in the middle of the cropped section of the Portuguese Fra Mauro World Map circa 1450.

You can still find, for example, the Wat Phra Pi Sanphet — the largest temple complex, of many on the island, that once contained a 16m statue of buddha covered in 340kg of gold. Of course, the island also had defensive ramparts and palaces such as the Palace of Naresuan the Great (circa 1577), which is now the Chantharakesem National Museum. There are other museums on the Island worth a visit, such as the Ayutthaya Historical Study Centre, and Baan Hollanda — a museum of the history of the Dutch in the city, donated by Queen Beatrix of Holland (Note: Foreign traders weren’t allowed to build settlements on the island. So around the island you can find the remains of Dutch, Japanese, and Portuguese settlements).

Ayutthaya’s decline was a rapid one

Ayutthaya went from global prominence to its current insignificance in 1767.

Siam was competing with Burma’s mighty Konbuang Kingdom for influence over the Lower Burma — where the Tenasserim Coast on the Indian Ocean was a strategically important regional trade route. Siam threw its support behind Mon rebels in the area, which was seen as an act of aggression by Burma.

The war only lasted for about 2 years, which I feel is surprisingly short for a war fought over great distances of tropical floodplains and mountains. The monsoon was about to come, so the Siamese thought they had more time to arrange their defences against an attack from Burma.

But Burma, led by King Hsinbyushin, completely blitzed them.

King Hsinbyushin Burma warrior
King Hsinbyushin was the ruler of Upper Burman Konbuang Kingdom. A formidable warrior that blitzed Siam.

The curious storming and desertion of Ayutthaya

Somehow, Burma attacked with river war-boats coming down from the North. And they also stormed over the Tenasserim range with 200 Elephants and 2,000 horses. Ayutthaya was overrun, and sacked, ending its 4 centuries as the Siamese capital and hub of global trade. The 16m buddha in Wat Phra Pi Sanphet was set fire to melt off the 340kg of gold.

But Ayutthaya wasn’t the only Kingdom caught by surprise in 1767: While Burma was committing its armies into the Chao Phraya floodplain, Qing Dynasty China was opportunistically attempting an invasion of Burma over the mountainous Shan borderlands in Burma’s Northeast.

Burma’s soldiers got the message and their troops had to pack up and rush to defend their homeland. But it was too late for Siam. Ayutthaya was left burning, the King murdered. Local warlords were already clamouring to be the next Gatekeeper of the Chao Phraya.

But as it turns out, China also underestimated the Burmese. The Chinese sent only a modest 5,000 troops over the rugged Himalayan foothills to fight an away-game in 40+ degree dry-season heat. Sheer hubris!

China realised their blunder, and sent 25,000 soldiers to reinforce… Then another 50,000… Then another 60,000. The battle-hardened conquerers of Siam had returned to bolster Burma’s defences and China was making America’s Viet Nam mistake of being too proud to recognise a lost cause and accept defeat.

Eventually, the Qing Generals accepted an awkward truce, but the angry Qing Emperor kept troops at the border for another decade, just in case he saw another opportunity to strike. This forced Burma to keep it’s troops there too, so Siam caught a lucky break. 10 years to reunify and get their act together.

Reclaiming Siam

But it didn’t take that long. By the time the year was through, Taksin the Great, a military general that escaped the besieged Ayutthaya with 500 men, fled to the Rayong coast, and returned to the Chao Phraya with army to 5,000 men to establish Thonburi as the new capital, just across the river from modern day Bangkok — a position from which he could deny any would-be northern rivals from receiving shipments of arms. Taksin coronated himself as the new ruler of Thailand a few days before 1768. It took him until 1770 to reunify Thailand by crushing regional rivals.

Two of the main rivals to Taksin’s reunification had set up in two other towns up the river, which the Northern Line passes through: Phitsanulok, and Uttaradit, which I will talk about a bit down the line.

~ For the travellers ~