Ayutthaya, Thailand’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, has just spent four months under more than six feet of flood water. Now it’s draining, and tourists can go back. With some limitations
BANGKOK — Ayutthaya is one of my favorite destinations for a day trip from Bangkok, Thailand. Just an hour by train, Ayutthaya was once Thailand’s capital city. Nowadays it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most historically interesting places in the country. But, in the last four months, Ayutthaya was inaccessble by anyone who didn’t own a boat. That’s because it just spent four months under six to nine feet of flood water, making it impossible to visit. But now floods are receding and tourists going back, is everything back to normal in Ayutthaya? Not quite. No.
I took a quick trip to the city over the weekend. Not much more than five hours — there, a quick look around, and back to Bangkok — I went just to see for myself what a tourist in Ayutthaya would see and if it was worth visiting just yet. I was pleasantly surprised, but also somewhat shocked, as it became obvious quickly just how bad Ayutthaya’s floods had really been.
For any tourist planning on traveling to the city by train though, I say go for it. It’s a lovely ride, less than $1.50, and if your train travels as mine did on Sunday, bar for a few flooded fields, you’ll see no water at all. The train arrives at the same place it always did and it’s easy to get into the city from there.
Once in the city, my first stop was at Wat Mahathat as I wanted to see how flood waters had affected the famous Buddha head. It’s the one with the tree limbs wrapped around it and, the last I’d seen was a photograph online of flood water up to the Buddha’s chin. It had apparently risen even further since then.
Now, looking closely at the branches above the head, I could see a darkened-line, a good indication that floods had risen a good 12 inches above it but now, of course, they’ve drained away, and this iconic Buddhist image is flood-free once again.
Every UNESCO World Heritage temple in Ayutthaya also showed signs of flood damage. Darkened brick, unstable-looking foundations, and everywhere there was a still, slightly eerie quality about the place, particularly as there was nowhere near the number of tourists, or even Thais, as there normally is. But, most places I visited, the area was dry and clean and workmen were already beginnning what will obviiously have to be a massive historical renovation.
One temple you will not be able to visit at the moment though is the most important temple in Ayutthaya – Wat Chaiwatthanaram. It was still under some water when I was there and, even when dry, would likely take at least another week to 10 days before clean-up can be completed and the temple site safe enough for tourists as well as safe enough for temple structures not to be damaged more.
In the town itself which, other than a few muddy puddles, has now completely dried out, hotels, small shops and restaurants have reopened although my favorite guest house is still closed, and two restaurants I’ve frequented before were boarded up. I saw this repeated on street after street, as half the neighborhood had made their way back, while others had yet to return.
I ate a quick lunch at a street stall, and the woman cooking there told me some of her friends had not returned as they were helping family in northern areas of Bangkok that are still flooded. They may be stuck in these places until the end of the year.
But locals were busy bustling around, some working in their shops as normal, others repairing flood damage to their homes and businesses, and it was obvious in only a few more weeks Ayutthaya will be well on its way to ‘normal’.
At the train station on the way back, I spoke to a Thai man waiting for the train who told me he worked for the Ayutthaya Historic Park (the name for the entire UNESCO complex). He said the general consensus is it will be mid to late-December before every area of the park is water-free, cleaned, and checked for any structural problems. He hoped tourists who visit Ayutthaya in December would be patient and understand there may still be a few places they cannot see.
By January though, as long as the area didn’t receive any heavy rain, things should be as normal as can be expected — after nine feet of flood water, that is.