To date, Ayutthaya has not scored well on the urban management front. The city of 82,000 people is mushrooming helter-skelter and has bid to host World Expo 2020. Four years ago, amid concern in Thailand that UNESCO might take the city off its list, one Bangkok newspaper wrote that the city was destroyed twice, “first by invading Burmese, and now by greedy and insensitive Thais.”
Adding to its watery woes, said Curtis, are problems common to heritage sites: the looting of artifacts, inadequate waste disposal, corrosive vehicle fumes, ugly and inappropriate new construction and mass tourism.
There’s also a running battle between heritage and municipal authorities, often allied with business interests.
The Fine Arts Department controls development in the core historic area of some 1.2 square miles (3 square kilometers), where no structures more than 26 feet (8 meters) are permitted. However, it exercises little power in outlying zones, which include numerous important monuments and where modern buildings have sprouted next to graceful relics of the past.
Most immediately, however, heritage authorities are focused on the floods.
With water up to 10 feet (3 meters) high flooding the area for weeks, there is concern that the foundations of larger structures may have been undermined, and bricks, plasterwork and murals damaged. Visitor facilities and once grassy areas emerging as a sea of mud will need to be restored at what is one of the country’s top tourist destinations.
Also worrisome is salt residue that seeps up with the groundwater, causing damage to monuments.
Park director Chaiyanand said the stupas, or Buddhist reliquary, in Ayutthaya were built with an outer core of brick. The hollow portions inside were filled with sand. When the floods came, the water was absorbed upward into this inner chamber of sand, which became heavier. He fears the weight could cause cracks of the outer brick shell.
Water that is hard to detect and remove may also remain within walls after the floodwaters recede. Chaiyanand said he was particularly concerned about the bricks that were the key building blocks of old Ayutthaya.
“They’re like crackers,” he said, noting the mossy, water-stained bricks at the base of a stupa at the 15th-century Phra Srisanphet monastery. “When soaked they become easy to break.”