Ayuthaya

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Drawn by the prospect of ancient ruins, the majority of visitors to this former Thai capital do so from a big bus on a tight schedule. If you're willing to explore rather than be led, you'll find that not only does Ayuthaya offer a glimpse into the past, but it is also a great break from city life. Throw in excellent riverfront dining, cheap but comfortable accommodation and the chance to see the temples in the cool, quiet dawn, and you might even be persuaded to stay a night or two.

Built at the confluence of three rivers (Chao Phraya, Pa Sak and Lopburi), this island city was the seat of a powerful Siamese kingdom that dominated the region for 400 years. Both courted and aided by foreign interests, the empire eventually extended its control deep into present-day Laos, Cambodia and Myan-mar (Burma).

Ayuthaya remained one of the world's most splendid and cosmopolitan cities until 1767, when the Burmese, after several attempts, eventually conquered and destroyed it. The surviving Thai army fled south to re-establish control in Thonburi and, 15 years later, to the founding of the new capital, Bangkok.

The famed capital suffered greatly at the hands of the invading Burmese army. Many of the city's temples were levelled, and the sacred Buddha figures were decapitated as if they were enemy combatants. Although Thailand's Fine Arts Department has done extensive restoration work on the ancient capital, it is still rare to find an unscarred Buddha amid Ayuthaya's ruins.

Getting a handle on the religious and historical importance of the temples is difficult without some preliminary research. Ayuthaya Historical Study Centre (@ 0 3524 5124; Th Rotchana; adult/student 100/50B; S 9am-4.30pm Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm Sat & Sun) has informative, professional displays that paint a clear picture of the ancient city. Other museums in town include Chao Sam Phraya National Museum (fa) 0 3524 1587; cnrTh Rotchana & Th Si Sanphet; admission 30B; S 9am-4pm Wed-Sun), which features a basic roundup of Thai Buddhist sculpture with an emphasis on Ayuthaya pieces, and Chantharakasem National Museum (Ig 0 3525 1587; Th U Thong; admission 30B; S 9am-4pm Wed-Sun), a museum piece in itself, in the northeast corner of town.

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