Before Bangkok: Thailand’s Old Capitals

March 12, 2014

Today, Bangkok is probably the most well known and largest city in Thailand. It also happens to be the current capital. It wasn’t always though! Since the formation of modern Thailand in the 1200’s, two other cities have held that seat of power. As the kingdoms changed rulers over time, the capital moved further and further south. What’s left today are mostly in ruins, Ayutthaya and Sukhothai.


Just over an hour outside of Bangkok, Ayutthaya is a popular day trip. This once flourishing metropolis was home to a golden age, with art, literature and learning prospered. The peace of the time was ended though, during the Burmese-Siamese War. In April of 1767, the Burmese army of over 40,000 soldiers completely ransacked the city, and ended this period of Thai history. Many of the Buddha statues are have had their heads chopped off, and the chedis left dismantled. Adding to it’s destruction, the structures here are in quite a bit of disrepair, with only the foundations remaining of some sections.

Adding to the disrepair, when the capital was then relocated, King Rama I ran out of building materials for his new Royal Palace. He ordered his men upstream to take the bricks from the crumbling facades to make his new home. He did, however, insist that nothing was removed from the temples in the area. This is what is left for you to see today.

The entire area is listed as a UNESCO Heritage site as Ayutthaya Historical park, and is fairly spread out throughout town. The best way to get around to all of the different wats is by renting a bicycle or for the braver, a motorbike. If you’d like to get someone to take you to all the hot spots instead, tuktuks are easily hired out for the day and will direct you where to go. Try to go early in the day (the park opens at 7:30am) before tour groups arrive, and to beat the heat. Make sure to carry lots of water with you because it’s sure to get hot.

Though it’s hard not to want to let out your inner Lara Croft, it’d be impossible to see everything all in one or two days. If you’re in a time crunch, Ayutthaya’s star attractions include Wat Phra Mahathat, Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Wat Thammikarat, and Wat Phanan Choeng. There is also a lovely floating market nearby, that twice a day performs reenactments of the battles that occurred here.

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Though the older of the two, it’s ruins are in significantly better shape. This kingdom’s secession from Khmer reign is what started what would eventually become Thailand today. At the time, it was almost in the perfect middle of the country. Today, it’s a great stopping point between Bangkok and the northern city of Chiang Mai; it’s about five hours in each direction. It was here that the Thai written language was created. Though influential in the history and founding of the country, the Sukhothai reign was short. Only two hundred years after it’s founding, they were dominated by the Ayutthaya.

The remnants of Sukhothai are significantly more condensed. The modern town is divided by the park, into Old and New. The Old covers 70kkm, and is then split into the Northern, Western, and Central sections, with the latter containing the most significant ruins. Most hostels and bike shops will also provide you with an easy map of where to go to. Be aware that because it is split into zones, each close at a different time, as well as requiring a separate ticket. In total, it costs 300 baht (under $10), and could easily be conquered by bicycle in half a day. The Central zone is the most intricate, with moats, flower beds and manicured lawns surrounding the Wat Mahathat, Wat Sra Sri and the other nine ruins. Wat Taphan Hin requires a short uphill trek to this standing Buddha figure, but the views of the surrounding national park are stunning.

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The two cities are very similar in many ways. It’s easy to pick one and skip the other, but don’t. The history is fascinating, and the wats stunning. The new towns themselves are also fun, offering unique food (be sure to try Sukhothai noodles, they’re delicious!) and warm, kind people. If you’re exploring Thailand, take the time to explore it’s ancient capitals. Start planning your way to the ruins today with Trekeffect!

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Amanda Reffsin
Working for wanderlust, Amanda just completed a year teaching abroad in South Korea. She's currently back packing her way through Southeast Asia, with no intentions to ever stop traveling.
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