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Ayutthaya on two wheels

See the subtler wonders of a bygone era without the expense, the crowds, the tour bus or even the elephants

Ayutthaya on two wheels

It's little wonder that the roads of Siam's old capital can actually get a little crowded when so many Bangkok residents head there for a cultural recharge.

Just an hour's drive away, it's a marvellous place to spend the weekend, with new things to discover on every visit.

Getting started

I've never taken the train to Ayutthaya, but many people do. The fare from Don Muang station is only Bt11, and from Hua Lamphong Bt20. Once there, a simple way to get around is to hire a bicycle for the day for Bt30 or a motorcycle for Bt200. Songtaew are also available at Bt300 per hour.

You can arrange your wheels at any of the rental booths around the railway station, but it might be better to wait until you've crossed the Pasak River to the Chao Prom Market. The price for the short ferry hop is Bt3 per passenger - but Bt2 extra if you're bringing your bike.

So far you've spent at most Bt55, you're in Ayutthaya's main market and you've got transportation. Just heed the warnings about keeping your belongings safe - not where they might be snatched - and we're on our way.

A circuit tour of the island

First-timers usually prefer to get straight to the heart of the historical park: the  impressive Phra Sri Sanphet, Mahathat and Rachaburana temples. All three charge entrance fees.

A more modest jaunt around the 12.5-kilometre U-Thong Road that rings the island historical park can be easily managed in a day, though the hot afternoon sun might tempt you to keep stopping for refreshments and other means of relief.

From the Chao Prom Market opposite the railway station, at the east end of the island, you can make your casual way to the Hua Ror Market and the Chandra Kasem Palace Museum opposite it.

The museum has its own historical importance as a former palace of the Ayutthaya kingdom and the residence of Crown Prince Naresuan. Abandoned in the sacking of the city by the Burmese in 1867, the palace was renovated during the reign of King Rama IV three decades later.

Nearby are Wat Sena Sanaram, a royal temple with "Rachaworaviharn" status and still home to monks, and the ruined Wat Khun Saen.

Further along are the mysterious ancient stones of Ratchapraditsathan Temple and, opposite, Wat Suwanndawas, with its stunning round chedi on an octagonal base.

Every corner of Ayutthaya has a story of its own to tell. This area was once a fort called Pratu Khao Pluak - "paddy gate" - next to a canal of the same name. Its chedis have been renovated by the government's Fine Arts Department.

Few people give Wat Thammikarat, still further down the road, the attention it deserves. It has a reclining Buddha image inside a spacious hall, and elsewhere on the grounds fascinating architectural features, including the remains of a large chedi with a crooked spire, guarded by beautiful stucco  lions, and the huge principle hall with a tree growing against one wall.

When visitors return to the former capital they like to see something new, and for me this time I opted to bypass the lovely Wat Na Phra Meru and have a look at Cheong Tha Temple.

Surprisingly it's quite photogenic, with the storied remnants of the principle hall and an ubosot tucked away behind small chedis. These are bedecked for an ordination with strands of colourful cloth.

Back across the bridge I stop at the Sri Suriyothai Pagoda, and then, finding myself halfway around the island, I picked up the pace and satisfied myself with brief glimpses at the rest of the sights.

Dining on the west side

The western part of the island has the lush Sri Sakharin Public Park, with loads of food stalls lining the road. Many motorists stop beneath the huge peacock flower trees and go for a stroll to buy some of the famous "Klong Sra Bua boat noodles". They're close enough to the genuine article, although Sra Bua canal and its waterborne vendors are actually some distance away.

A current favourite dish in Ayutthaya is shredded chicken noodles, and plenty of stalls keep up with the demand. Also increasingly popular is candyfloss roti - roti saimai - as is clear from the 20-odd stalls along U-Thong Road and in particularly in front of the hospital.

Riverside restaurants are abundant too in the area from Phet Fort to Wat Suwandaram, and all offer sunset dinner cruises.

Phet Fort at dusk is a pleasant place to laze by the riverbank. I just feel like resting here, not rushing back to return the bike. There's only a short distance left to go, but this is the perfect time for gazing into the twilight with the old fortress on the Chao Phya as a backdrop, and savouring some of the spicy local somtam, the tastiest vegetarian dish around.

The Nation

Vipasai Niyamabha

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