To simply say that Thailand is unique would be a tremendous understatement if not an outright insult to the kind of surreal experience afforded by a place as rich with splendor and ripe for exploration. From hundreds of pristine islands and bustling modern cities to a wealth of ancient history and culture found in every corner of the landscape, Thailand is bursting with opportunity for adventure.
Topping the list of Thailand must-sees are the likes of Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, the spirited Sunday night bazaar of Chiang Mai’s Walking Street, the stunning wilderness of Khao Yai National Park and the seascapes of Phang Nga Bay. But amid all of this, Thailand’s long and storied history dwells in the ruins of temples and monasteries set against the peaceful backdrops of ancient capitals. So while you may justly brag of your visit to the monkey temples of Lopburi and the sandy beaches of Koh Lanta, a trip through Thailand would be wholly incomplete without some serious exploration of Sukhothai, Ayutthaya and Thonburi.
Such exploration begins in the lower northern region of Thailand where visitors will find the town of Sukhothai, the first political and administrative capital of Thailand from 1238 to 1438. It was here that many of Thailand’s identifying characteristics were developed including pioneering achievements in art and architecture, language and writing, and religion and law. And much of this history is realized just by touring the abandoned temples, monasteries and statues of Sukhothai Historical Park.
Buddha’s head entwined in tree roots at Wat Phra Mahathat in Ayutthaya Historical Park.
What’s left of the great capital now remains in the picturesque ruins of this 27-square-mile park five hours north of Bangkok. But what’s left is considerable and requires a full day to survey. The central zone of the park, for instance, is a square-mile section surrounded by a moat and encompassing 21 temples, each displaying the unique architecture of the early kingdom.
Sukhothai’s largest and most significant temple is Wat Mahathat, surrounded by more than 200 small chedis and set amidst a charming lotus pond, while one of the town’s oldest temples is Wat Phra Phai Luang with both Hindu and Buddhist elements found in its design. Meanwhile, Sukhothai’s Wat Sri Chum boasts the town’s largest Buddha image, which measures more than 36 feet wide and almost 50 feet tall.
Moving on in Thailand’s timeline, the city of Ayutthaya was the country’s second capital between 1350 and 1767. Surrounded by three rivers connecting the city to the sea, this island metropolis was one of Asia’s major trading ports and home to more than 1 million inhabitants. In fact, Ayutthaya once stood as one of the world’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan cities. But after falling to a Burmese army in the 18th century, this city of gilded temples and treasure-laden palaces was left in ruins until restorations began in 1969. Now, characterized by the ruins of tall reliquary towers called prang and enormous Buddhist monasteries, Ayutthaya Historical Park is one of Asia’s most impressive ruined cities.
The three large chedis along the terrace of Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the largest temple in the old capital of Ayutthaya, recall the first three kings of Ayutthaya. The first two chedis were built in 1492 and the third in 1540.
The most impressive and historically significant sites in Ayutthaya include the three large chedis of Wat Phra Si Sanphet, built to house the ashes of King Boromaraja IV and his family; the columns and walls of Wat Ratchaburana, built by King Boromaraja II at the place where his brothers died in a dual for the throne; and the extraordinary prang of Wat Mahathat, built in 1384 with a secret chamber and site of the highly photographed Buddha head embedded in tangled tree roots. Still, this would merely be scratching the surface as some argue that Ayutthaya’s many ruins and historic sites require two full days to truly appreciate.
After the sack of Ayutthaya in 1767, Thailand’s capital was moved to Thonburi for a short period of time before settling in Thailand’s modern day capital city of Bangkok in 1782. And while Thonburi does not boast the grand structures of the other ancient capitals, visitors can still find this a worthy venture amid the likes of Wat Arun, known as the Temple of Dawn, and a number of notable museums and monuments. Additionally, because Thonburi remained relatively isolated from Bangkok, the agricultural landscape of canals and fruit orchards is still very much intact here and offers a quiet escape from the busy streets of Bangkok.
So set out for a Thailand getaway knowing that no matter the direction, you are sure to find intense beauty of all kinds, but also be aware that there’s no such thing as a short trip to Thailand. And there’s no sense in mentioning your trip to Thailand if it didn’t include the country’s ancient capitals.