A few hours’ train ride north from Bangkok sees the traveller jump on to Ayutthaya station with an uncanny sense of deja vu. Thailand’s former capital imparts an unspoken grandeur, its Buddhist temples, monasteries and sculptures as evocative as any edifice in the region. At Wat Chaiwatthanaram 120 sit Buddha statues in an attitude of welcome serenity.
One day, it was the centre of the universe. The world’s traders descended on Ayutthaya, attracted by its golden palaces, fabulous opulence and strategic location. Act well in Ayutthaya and doors would open: the riches of China, India and the Malay Archipelago beckoned for canny merchants.
The city grew to a monstrous size. At its peak, over one million residents made their lives in Ayutthaya. Its symbolism as an island was undeniable: the world’s biggest city, coupled with the world’s largest population, stood alone, fierce and independent. Ayutthaya grew and grew and grew, as did its influence and splendour. And then suddenly it was nothing.
In 1767, Burmese invaders burnt Ayutthaya to the ground. Gone were the temples, lost were the palaces, destroyed was the majesty. It is this sense of loss the traveller feels in the city. The temples are beautiful, their essence divine, their architecture awe-inspiring. But they also play the role of husks, pointing to what once was. To walk around the city is to bear witness to the collapse of a titanic figurehead, rendered obsolete as the world recalibrated around it. The change of focus saw Ayutthaya’s magisterial flame splutter and then fade slowly, inexorably, to nothingness.
Visitors may hear a faint crackling sound, a glimmer of conversation, a snatch of ribaldry. They may even catch a sideways glimpse of spectral flames and sense a great dynasty coming to an end. When they come to their senses, nothing has changed. Such is the story of Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, the former centre of everything.