A visit to historic central Thailand

After finding our feet in Bangkok, we moved into central Thailand, and spent a fascinating week visiting key historic sites that bring alive the country’s precursor, the mighty kingdom of Siam. We were back to our intrepid best, catching transport local-style, but made easy by Thailand’s well-developed infrastructure and super helpful locals.

Our first stop was Ayutthaya, which is only about 80kms north of the capital; many people, if they bother, visit as a day trip. I’m glad we decided to spend longer in this small, laid-back city; it was a great introduction to Thailand outside of the usual beaches and Bangkok, and maybe Chiang Mai.

Some street art captured in Thai city of Lop Buri, famously known as home of the monkeys.
Some street art captured in Thai city of Lop Buri, famously known as home of the monkeys.

Ayutthaya is hugely important in the story of Thailand, as the prosperous capital of the kingdom of Siam for 400 years from 1350 (it sits at equal distance between India and China). Its end came in 1767, when the Burmese invaded and essentially burnt it to the ground. It was never rebuilt, and the capital moved to Bangkok soon after.

The city is, in fact, an island created by the confluence of three rivers. The island was Thai-only, so on the banks around it lie remains of embassies and other buildings that demonstrate its international importance. We stayed on the river, opposite the eastern edge of the island, and spent a glorious first afternoon relaxing on our guesthouse patio, watching the river traffic peacefully glide by.

The next day, we jumped across the river on the longboat ferry (<5 mins; 10 baht each) and, within minutes, had hired bikes (30 baht a piece) and were ready to go. The eastern shore houses a decent-sized town, but the further away you ride, the less urban it becomes. The whole island is literally littered with ruins. Most are singularly unimpressive, though, and many no more than a pile of what would otherwise appear as rubble; a square temple base or a single temple spire. There is more than you can possibly see up close.

For anyone who has been to the awe-inspiring Angkor, or otherwise done a fair bit of templing, I can’t pretend Ayutthaya will leave you mesmerised; these are, after all, remains of a particularly vicious sacking. However, cycling about its peaceful expanse is a wonderfully satisfying way to spend a day, and there is clearly a well-worn path.

The most impressive sites are marked on free maps that come with bike hire, and it’s up to you what, if anything, you see in between. We visited eight in detail: five old wat (temple) complexes, two gorgeously renovated wats, and the famous reclining buddha (racing to soak it up before a bus load of tourists, who arrived not long after us, descended).

The renovated wats were particularly significant. The first was built around a giant old (possibly iron) Buddha figure, with photos showing how it looked a hundred or so years ago. It’s been given a gorgeous golden facelift, and the building that surrounds it is likewise a stunning example of modern Thai wat aesthetics. The second was where the the Thai and Burmese kings signed a peace treaty, post-invasion, so is historically important.

The in-between ambling simply adds to the overall experience. You don’t stop at every site, obviously, but cycling through such a dotted landscape gives you an idea of how important Ayutthaya was. It allows you the freedom to stop, wherever intrigued, and muse on this fascinating history.

We decided to forgo a second day exploring some of the international ruins and surrounding countryside, and do a day trip to nearby Lopburi instead. Getting there and back was a breeze; more on that below.

Lopburi was also an important historical centre. It used to be called Lavo (6th-11th centuries), was part of the Khmer kingdom (although during periods of independence it sent embassies to China), before becoming part of the Sukhothai and later Ayutthaya kingdoms (during the Ayutthaya period it was at-times a second kingdom residence, so there are strong ties between the two). There are some wonderful wats and historic buildings to discover in and around the old town, and all are completely walkable within a gentle half-day wander.

Despite this, it is actually monkeys that the town is most known for. Illustrating the strong historical connections between India, Khmer and thus parts of Thailand, the mythical King Rama gifted Lopburi to Hanuman, the monkey warrior god, as a token of appreciation for his wartime support. Rama shot his arrow, and it landed here. Thus, the monkeys are said to descend from this Godly line, and are an important part of the town’s fabric.

The monkeys quite possibly outnumber humans in fact (certainly the day we were there), and they really do appear to run the joint; at one Khmer-styled wat in particular. Even if you’ve spent time in places where they are present, this is quite different. They’re far more brash and confident in their numerical superiority, and you’re likely to find a monkey or two jumping on you to say hi (a.k.a looking for something to snatch; hint: make sure nothing is grabbable by errant hands).

It was a fun trip, even if the temples and ruins are not dramatically different than Ayutthaya. It’s a pleasant amble about monuments that are scattered throughout a very laid-back town. There’s also a great museum contained within the impressive palace complex that helps to make sense of the different periods and kingdoms; the waxing and waning of different influences. A quick stroll to the riverfront, to see some frenetic fish feeding action, was a nice way to kill half an hour before the return train.

Our final stop in this historic trio was undoubtedly the highlight. Sukhothai rose as a kingdom from the 12th century as the Khmer kingdom (Cambodia), of which is was a distant part, declined in power. Although its reign was relatively short – replaced by the rise of Ayutthaya – and it came later than other kingdoms, Sukhothai quickly expanded its realm across most of current-day Thailand, and parts of Laos too.

It also oversaw the creation of a standardised alphabet, as well as distinctive cultural practices, identity markers and art-forms that we recognise today as ‘Thai’. Thus it is usually cited as the ‘first’ Thai kingdom, and a precursor to the truly national kingdom of Siam.

We stayed in the new city, a vibrant but still pretty cruisy town 12kms east of the archeological park/old city. There is a bit of a village around the old city, but, given the low season nature of our visit, we didn’t want to chance a ghost town vibe.

The new city was a good choice, coming alive at night with stalls lining streets in and around the centre, selling all the usual array of foods and so on, and serving a mixture of people wandering, catching up in groups, or doing drive-by pick-ups. A couple of great people-watching bars come with the necessary cool beers to offset the sultry evening heat, still nicely in the early-30s (celsius) post-8pm.

Sukhothai’s old city was a real trip highlight. A benefit of low-season travel is that there really is not a lot of people around. The archeological park is also vast, spread out, and split into four groups*. Both of these elements combined to make us feel like the ruins were ours and ours alone to explore, for most of the day.

And only crazy, freestyle tourists like us would bother to spend a whole day exploring the outer reaches of a ruin Mecca anyway. Most tourists, it appeared, were on limited-time, bus in bus out, whistle-stop tours of the central, most impressive wats. We did these too, of course, but also found many other moments of quiet pleasure.

Cycling around deserted dirt tracks, discovering remains of wats in what felt like the middle of nowhere, was one. So was finding Buddha images hidden from the road, up small hills that, in 38 degree heat, felt like intrepid trekking. Generally though, it was that well-worn cliche of riding through the countryside, hot breeze against your face and enjoying the peace and solitude, where the loudest (only) noises came from birds and cicadas.

For those that can relate, it reminded me of that truly glorious feeling you can experience driving in New Zealand, particularly around the South Island, where you can go for hours without seeing barely another soul. Just you and nature; you and the silent paths of the past. It’s one of my most favourite and treasured feelings.

We left the main central group until last, and this is really the only time we were in company. And indeed, the ruins here are impressive, and the park is very well maintained. It was a pleasurable way to end the day’s exploration, cycling around traffic-free roads lined with big leafy trees, surrounded by moats and canals and waterways, and imagining the splendour of kingdom pasts.

One other highlight is worth mentioning. Randomly, we turned up a street that was lined with 3D and pottery-influenced murals (there were a couple of pottery studios on the street, and one art-influenced guesthouse). In any other city, this would be an attraction in its own right; here it’s obviously overwhelmed by so much luminous wattage (see what I did there?). But what a serendipitous joy to see such an extensive display of local creativity and storytelling; something that is always worth checking out (it’s located around Pottery Street House).

Getting there, away and around

So far, getting around has been super easy, facilitated by great transport networks and helpful locals.

Bangkok to Ayutthaya was as easy as turning up to the main Hua Lamphong train station, purchasing a general class ticket from the helpful ticket windows (15 baht each), and hopping onboard the next train going (they leave regularly, but there are timetables online too). The roughly two-hour ride (yes, slow), with windows wide open, was more than pleasant, watching the comings and goings of local travellers (and some tourists too).

Ayutthaya to Lopburi was equally fun, and again less than $1 each way. The guesthouse owner gave us the times of trains, which we then reconfirmed on the day at the booking window (again, helpful). We didn’t take the one-hour ride until 11.24am, and returned aboard the 5.22pm (the last one was just after 6pm), so it really was only a half-day trip. I’m sure there are earlier trains, though, but it was nice to have a slow start to the morning. The return trip as the sun was setting over the rice fields was stunning, and again, people-watching locals moving about is always fun.

In Ayutthaya, our guesthouse – as I’m sure most do – provided a service of booking bus tickets and organising a tuk-tuk to take you to the station, as it’s not close. Thus our transfer to Sukhothai was seamless. The ride was pretty fancy pants too (first class), as we immersed ourselves in cooling aircon, with water and a little snack-box provided, as well as a coupon to exchange for lunch (we stopped at a purpose-built food court with a range of simple yet effective and tasty local fare options).

Finally, getting from the new city to the old city in Sukhothai was a breeze. Shared songtaew, which are like 4x4s with the trays converted into covered seating benches, leave from the main road (a generic map that seems to be handed out widely pinpoints the convenient spot exactly). In the old city, they handily drop you right opposite the bike hire places. To get back simply reverse the flow, making sure you do so before the last one leaves at 5pm.

* Inside the central group is a museum. Randomly, on the day we explored the park, everything was free, otherwise the museum alone would have been 150 baht per person. I wouldn’t bother paying 150 baht for what is a pretty average museum; the information provided and curation could frankly do with an overhaul thankyouverymuch.

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