Ayutthaya and Buddha Heads

Buddha in Ayutthaya, Thailand

I love the overnight trains in Thailand.

There is just something romantically addictive about train travel in general. I sat silently watching rice paddies, mountains, and dreamy landscapes float by. The Thai trains are open-air; green smells of life and jungle drift in as the gentle swaying and rhythmic clickety-clack make eyelids heavy.

I always take one of the top bunks which resemble the luggage compartment in an airplane. Hardly designed for my 73 inches, the compartments are so small that I spend the night in fetal position, occasionally waking up from the clank of an additional car being added to our train at one of the stops.

After an overnight train and a quick train change in Bangkok, I was deposited just outside of Ayutthaya — a few hours north of Bangkok.

Ayutthaya was once Thailand’s old capital. From 1351 to 1767 the city was considered to be the most powerful in Southeast Asia; they ran the show. Elephants walked the wide streets, and life was generally good for the Kingdom of Siam. That is, until the Burmese — after hundreds of years and many attempts — finally managed to breach the city and burn it to the ground. Nothing ruins a good thing like having your women carried off, men slaughtered, and city sacked.

On the opposite side of the world, America was toying loosely with the idea of kicking out the British when all this happened.

Rather than pick up the pieces, the Siamese chose to start all over with a new capital in the south: Bangkok.

How the Burmese got inside, I will never understand. Ayutthaya is literally a perfect square, surrounded on all four sides by rivers. I’ve never seen a more formidable or defensible place to build a city. When the invaders took the city, a slaughter ensued, and even though both parties shared the same religion, temples and Buddha statues were either damaged or destroyed — a terrible loss for all of humanity.

I used my compass to figure out which direction the old city was, walked briskly out of the train station past all the offers from tuk-tuk drivers, and found myself on a tiny ferry crossing the muddy river.

Modern day Ayutthaya isn’t much to look at. I walked into what looked like a busy, traffic-infested, dirty city. After dropping my stuff at a budget hotel, it only took one stroll for me to start to appreciate the place. Unlike many ancient cities, the modern city is literally built directly on top of the old. Angkor Wat-style ruins are literally everywhere; an odd mix of ancient history and modern life coexists around the city.

Ayutthaya Ruins

Signs advertising mobile phones are bolted to 1,000-year-old brick walls. A Dairy Queen stands on one of the same streets that warriors once road elephants down.

After visiting a bland museum in town and seeing a model of the old capital, I realized that the streets were literally the same today as they were 700 years ago. I can only imagine the archaeological wonders — both discovered and destroyed — that turned up as a modern city was constructed. Everywhere you look there is some reminder that you are surrounded by history.

Riding Elephant Ayutthaya

Today, the elephants still walk the streets of Ayutthaya, but instead of warriors on their backs they carry camera-wielding tourists with silly grins on their faces. Now days, the only time someone should be on the back of an elephant is when it’s part of a responsible conservation effort. When Thailand stopped using elephants for logging a few decades back, hundreds were put down because of the upkeep; an adult elephant can eat up to 600 pounds of food a day!

There are so many ruined sites around Ayutthaya that you can easily find yourself alone at the lesser-known temples, surrounded by ancient walls and carvings. Without the distraction of tourists and touts selling things, getting lost inside your own thoughts is easy, as is feeling the old energy absorbed by the stones.

As I wandered the many temple ruins around Ayutthaya, one ubiquitous theme kept popping up. With very few exceptions, every single surviving Buddha statue — there were hundreds — was headless. The heads had been lopped off by looters and sold to private collectors from the U.S. and Europe.

Missing Buddha Head

Many of the heads have been discovered in popular museums in the U.S., and when Thailand asked for this important part of their heritage back, they were refused. Something to keep in mind the next time that you see impressive Buddha paraphernalia in Western museums.

It was both eerie and sad strolling through the crumbling ruins of an ancient civilization and seeing every single deity sat meditating in a decapitated silence. The equivalent would be chopping the head off of Christ the Redeemer in Brazil — not nearly as old — and selling the damn thing to a museum in Paris!

One Buddha head did miraculously survive. A tree sprouted near the statue which over years and years literally grew to engulf the Buddha. The sandstone body was crushed by roots into dust, but for some reason the tree did no damage whatsoever to the head. The head is now literally a living part of the tree — fascinating! Just seeing something like this with your own eyes rather than on television will make your head spin.

That is why we travel.

Buddha Head Tree Ayutthaya Thailand

I’m going to spend a few more days playing archaeologist then catch a train back to Chiang Mai. Unlike last year when my mission was to meet up with some new vagabonding friends met through this blog, this year I am on a proper reconnaissance…

I’m looking for a new place to live. πŸ™‚

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13 Responses to “Ayutthaya and Buddha Heads”

  1. He Greg,

    What a great blog. Really enjoyed the imagery, both visual and mental. Well done.


  2. Great post…makes me miss that place.

  3. I’ll NEVER agree with you about overnight trains πŸ˜‰ The ruins at Ayutthaya are beautiful, I wish I’d spent more than a day trip there.

  4. Some good pics in this one! Texting on an elephant gave me a chuckle, and the head in the tree is just awesome!. Ruins with no tourists sounds amazing. This is going on my list of things to do.

  5. Love the trains and I enjoyed Ayutthaya too πŸ™‚

  6. Jens in Copenhagen February 8, 2017 at 13:17 pm

    From a private collector I have a Buddha Head in bronze, chopped off from its corpus and damaged
    in the forehead, probably by rifle shot.
    Can someone enlighten me –
    Could it be an important artefact ?

  7. Hi Jens, Sounds like you have quite an interesting artifact! I wouldn’t have any idea how to trace its history.

  8. Hi Greg,

    I acquired the head from a Buddha statue from my father’s estate. He lived in Asia for many years and was an eclectic collector (much of it of Thai origin). The head I have is carved from Hedenbergite (looks very like jade), as confirmed by XRF technology by the Museum of Melbourne and weighs roughly 7kg.

    In your travels, by any chance have you visited anywhere where statues like this exist?

  9. Oh Friend,hope you aave not been back;old Ayuthhya is now a hub of tacky stalls selling fakes.All the Fig trees have gone;the military junta doesn’t care;very sad.

  10. Hi Greg, thanks for writing this article. The headless buddha phenomena is quite interesting. In my opinion, it goes back to human nature and our history. It represents how fragile life is and even though it’s a shame that it happens, it’s beautiful to see how the world has been shaped by different points of views. We’re all vulnerable.

  11. Great reading having just come back from cycling around the sites.
    What is fascinating to me is the conflicting views regarding the Buddha heads. 90% suggest the heads were plundered and destroyed during the city’s capture in the Burma / Siam war. A very nationalistic vibe among the Thai people has been stirred by this common rhetoric. However on closer research, as you state the heads were sold to / plundered by Western collectors. Would you please point me to where you have read up on this please?
    I am finding it very difficult to source reliable information on the subject.
    Kind regards,

  12. Hi Tyvian, I purchased a couple of books there in 2010 which sparked my initial interest. Did you visit the museum in town? Post-war looting rather than sacking seemed to be the more common culprit, although plenty of both occurred. I believe local opportunists did what they could to survive. I personally have encountered Buddha statue heads in museums (not yet in a private collection) around the world. Some Western museums refused to give up the relics they had purchased from collectors.

  13. I have an extremely old beYtuchl Buddha head from Europe. 15 or 16th century,,, how can I find out where it was from? Given by a woman who divorced her husband and found it in her attack. He was a buyer in Europe for museums.

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