Thailand – The Ancient Capitals of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai

Before Bangkok was the capital, Thailand had rulers in Sukhothai and Ayutthaya. Today these historical cities are UNESCO World Heritage Sites because of the large number of important historical wats and stupas in their Old Towns.

Ayutthaya

In the mid 1300s the capital of Siam (now called Thailand) was in Ayutthaya, 80 km north of Bangkok. Ayutthaya’s Old City is located on an island at the confluence of Chao Phraya and Pa Sak Rivers. Most of the ruins are on the island, but a few are scattered along the opposite side of the Chao Pharaya River. Since it was late afternoon when we arrived we decided to take an evening long-boat cruise to see the ruins along the river. They are not a part of the Ayutthaya Historical Park but are a great introduction to what Ayutthaya has to offer. We saw the pointy tops of quite a few old stupas as we travelled up the gentle river. The boat pulled up to a small dock in front of Wat Chaiwatthanaram so we could explore it on land. It was early evening and the sun was setting which gave the old brick towers and stupas a beautiful glow.

Our boat captain made sure we returned to our boat in time to see a gorgeous sunset from the river. She navigated the boat to the perfect spot so we could see the sun setting beside the wat.

The Old City is still a functioning part of Ayutthaya. Many of the ruins are in small parks that are located beside busy streets. Most of the archeological sites are close enough to walk between and we found it a fascinating neighbourhood to explore on foot. It was interesting to see locals going about their regular day around these amazing archeological buildings, barely noticing them.

Ayutthaya was conquered by the Burmese in the mid 1500s. It eventually regained its independence, but many of the buildings were destroyed in the takeover. As a result, the ruins in Ayutthaya are not in very good condition, missing walls and pillars. Even with this damage though it was incredible to walk between the old wats and stupas and imagine how they once were.

The first site that most people visit is Wat Mahathat. It is one of the oldest temples in Ayutthaya and must have been very grand in its day. Its distinguishable prang tower can be seen from many places in the park.

Beyond this wat there are still several more sites to visit in Ayutthaya. Each has its own unique character whether it has bell shaped stupas, lion statues or delicate carvings. You can easily spend a few days exploring.

Sukhothai

Before the capital was in Ayutthaya, Sukhothai was the capital of Siam. It’s located 300 km north of Ayutthaya and dates back to the late 1100s. When the capital was moved to Ayutthaya, Sukhothai was slowly abandoned. Since it wasn’t invaded the ruins, although older, are in much better condition than in Ayutthaya. There are no roofs as those would have been made of wood, but there are partial walls and pillars still in place. We found these features made it easier to imagine the size and shape of the buildings.

The Old City of Sukhothai has been preserved in a beautifully manicured park with flowers, shrubs and ponds. It was a relaxing setting to explore the numerous old wats, stupas, and prangs. The main temple, Wat Mahatat, is set in front of a small pond and is one of the prettiest buildings in the park.

Spread around the manicured park are numerous other ancient temples, stupas and prangs. There are many statues of Buddha in various poses and a temple with large elephants around its base. Many were still in good enough condition to see the details in the intricate carvings.

Si Satchanalai

50 km north of Sukhothai is another site called Si Satchanalai. It was a city before and during the Sukhothai period so many of the ruins are older than in Sukhothai but are still in fairly good condition. The site is very rural, set in a natural forest.

We rented bicycles from a shop near the bus stop and rode to the park as well as between ruins inside this large park. Three km before Si Satchanalai Historical Park is a small site called Chaliang. The main building, Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat isn’t large, but it is in good condition with pilllars and a central prang. The double seated Buddha statues at this wat were something we hadn’t seen before.

The buildings have different designs than in either Sukhothai or Ayutthaya. We loved the look of Wat Chang Lom where dozens of elephant statues guard the temple’s base. Above the elephants, 29 Buddha statues are set in protected niches. Many of the elephants and Buddha statues are in disrepair, but it’s still a fascinating looking temple. Other notable buildings include Wat Chedi Chet Thaeo that has the remains of a small stone wall and Wat Suam Kheo Utthayan Noi with its original roof.

On the top of a hill in the north end of the park are a few more ruins. It’s not as frequently visited, but we saw a few fabulous temples that made the tough bike ride up hill worthwhile.

Visiting The Sites

Ayutthaya Historical Park – Each temple, whether within the park or outside, has its own entrance fee (20 and 50 Baht). Passes are available from hotels that allow you access to the 6 main temples of the park for a reduced fee. Most of the ruins are spread throughout Old Town. To get between them you can walk, bicycle, motorbike or hire a tuk-tuk.

Sukhothai Historical Park – There are five zones in Sukhothai Histoical Park, each has a separate entrance fee (100 Baht). We visited the North and Central Zones. The park is quite large but is walkable or bicycles are available for rent.

Si Satchanalai Historical Park – Entrance fee to the park is 150 Baht. The ruins are spread over a very large area. In order to see the majority of them you need a bicyle, motor bike or car. Just outside of the park you can visit a few ruins in Chaliang, including Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat. Entrance fee to Chaliang is 20 Baht. For this price it is worth a visit.

Getting to Ayutthaya – There are hourly minibuses that leave from Morchit Bus Terminal in Bangkok. The minibus kiosks are outside of the terminal and away from the large buses. The fare is 70 Baht and it takes about an hour and a half. Note though that they may try to make you pay for an extra seat if you have large luggage. We argued and ended up keeping our bags on our feet. You can also take one of the many daily trains from Bangkok or Chiang Mai.

Getting to Sukhothai – There are frequent buses each day to Sukhothai from the south (Ayutthaya or Bangkok) or the north (Chiang Mai). The main bus terminal is north of the central area but buses can drop you off in Old Sukhothai on their way through. Tuk tuks cost 80 Baht to get from the bus terminal to most hotels in New Sukhothai. There are frequent Songthaews going between New and Old Sukhothai (12 km). They’ll drop you off at the park entrance. This is the same spot to catch buses returning to New Sukhothai.

Getting to Si Satchanalai – Buses bound for Chiang Rai leave three times a day from Sukhothai Bus Terminal and pass through Si Satchanalai. Ask to get let off at Wat Pra Sri. At the bus stop you’ll find a shop that rents bikes and will explain how to get to the main gate of the archeological park. They will also know the current schedule for buses returning to Sukhothai. All of the locals and bus drivers know the area well so it’s easier than it may sound. It can easily be done as a day trip from Sukhothai.

Dress Code

Although these sites are temples, a strict dress code is not enforced as some active temples. However, it is advised to wear clothes that cover your shoulders and knees.

Click here for Travel Tips in Thailand.

Coming next – Thailand’s Andaman Sea

To see more pictures from Thailand click here. For more pictures from other destinations go to Gallery.

To read other stories from our travels around the world go to Destinations.

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59 comments

  • Hi Maggie and Richard

    Happy New Year! Your adventures look amazing, thanks for sharing.
    Keep living your dream.

    Cheryl

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  • It is amazing what the hands of man can create. Do you know if this was devotional or conscripted labour? I was surprised to see that Sukhotai was a a Khmer outpost, before the local Tais rebelled. I guess there were imperialists everywhere in the world during those times. Beautiful architecture. So glad it is being preserved where possible. Thatnks for sharing. Allan

    Liked by 2 people

    • They were built by slaves I believe. There were a surprsing number of battles between Siam, Khmer, Burmese and other kingdoms in this area. It’s true, power hungry leaders were and are everywhere. I was surprised to learn that they have been preserved over and over as far back as the 1600s or maybe even earlier, ruling leaders were rebuilding the old artifacts. Funny that I never think of it like that. Thanks for reading Allan, Maggie

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  • Wow, these old ruins are just magnificent! I love that sunset photo’s at Wat Chaiwatthanaram (what a name 😉).
    Thanks for showing all these ancient structures and statues – a world we don’t know!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, yes they are very impressive. I had vaguely heard about Ayutthaya before going to Thailand, but didn’t realize how extensive these sites are. They are really impressive to see. Thanks for reading! Maggie

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  • Wonderful places to wander and photograph despite the heat and humidity. I love the temple at Sukhothai with elephant statues in the wall. The contrast between the smooth masonry of the statues and their whiteness to the red-brick facade of the building is quite arresting. And it’s interesting to see another structure with elephants supporting the upper parts of the temple. They seem much more rudimentary in depiction. My memories of Sukhothai are hazy and I’ve yet to write that trip up! Lovely post as always. Hope you are doing well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Leighton, I love the elepahnts and lion sculptures around the buildings. I think the one is Si Satchanalai is much older and the elephants didn’t do so well over time, but it’s still a beautiful building. Imagine what they were like hundreds of years ago. I think Sukhothai was one of our favourite archeoligical sites in Asia. Maggie

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    • You’d love it, there are quite a few different archeological sites in Thailand, but these three are probably the best. I think Sukhothai was our favourite. I hope you get thee someday 🙂 Maggie

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  • Great post and so many wonderful photos, Maggie. How do you even choose which temples to visit as there are hundreds of them and most of them are worth seeing! I have never been to Thailand or Bangkok, reading The Beach ten times over doesn’t count, but I have to say that it is one of the most interesting cities in Thailand and all of Asia. It doesn’t look like we are going to travel anywhere outside of Ireland this year, and that’s why I am so happy to read your posts that take me all over the world. Thanks for sharing and have a nice day. Aiva 🙂 xxx

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    • Thanks Aiva, It really was difficult to decide which ones to visit. Our hotels really helped us a lot with suggestions of where to go and at what time of day. These sites are probably our favourite archeological sites in Thailand and close to the top in Asia. I don’t think we’ll get out of Canada either this year. Maybe by the winter, but we’re planning to explore this country for now. Stay safe, Maggie

      Liked by 1 person

    • Oh that’s true, I hadn’t thought of that. We think we’re so stable, but who knows!! There were so many Buddha statues remaining and all very different. I hadn’t seen the double Buddhas or Buddha walking before. They’re great sites. Maggie

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  • What I love about your blog is the fact that when you travel, it seems like you always combine outdoor adventures with visiting ancient sites — if you haven’t noticed already, I have a penchant for anything centuries, or thousands years old. Thanks for writing about these impressive old cities in Thailand. I must admit that despite having been to the country three times, I never really venture out of Bangkok. So if I get the chance to go back, I’d love to visit Ayutthaya and Sukhothai — I’m particularly intrigued by your photos from the latter as for some reason I never really saw a great variety of images of Sukhothai. Then you also introduced us to Si Satchanalai, which looks equally fascinating.

    Liked by 3 people

  • We do love adventure, sports and history so those three are always a part of our destination choices and planning. I had heard a little about Ayutthaya before our trip but nothing of Sukhothai or Si Satchanalai. All three were much better than we thought. I think Sukhothai was our favourite because of the quality of ruins and the gorgeous settings. The difference in buildings and statues between these sites was remarkable. I know you would love them all. Maggie

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  • I’d never heard of Sukhothai, but it sure looks like a place you could spend a lot of time! Was it as crowded as the other sites being as it’s a bit farther away? It’s incredible the fantastic condition things are in considering the age of these monuments and the heat and humidity.

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    • Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai were much less busy than Auytthaya. But even there we only saw a lot of people at the main sites. It’s like they only hit the highlights. It was really remarkable what good condition some of the ‘ruins’ were in. It’s what made Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai so enjoyable. Thanks for reading Linda! Maggie

      Liked by 1 person

  • It is amazing that so many structures have lasted through so many ages. The architecture is fascinating. The animal “guards” or spirits, lions and elephants, speak so much to that part of the world. Sunset photos on the monuments are striking!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It really is amazing how well many structure have done. especiallyin Sukhothai and Si Satchanali where they were just abandoned for hundreds of years. I love the animal guards too, very typical of Thailand. Thanks for reading! Maggie

      Liked by 1 person

  • Beautiful, unique and historical. I imagine I will enjoy cycling while touring Si Satchanalai. Thank you for sharing. Something to look forward to when I get to travel to Thailand once again.

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  • The image of Buddha among Banyon tree roots is evocative, given the myths. A wonder of travel is are serendipitous moments, such as you describe arriving to Ayutthaya during sunset.

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  • I have fond memories of Sukothai and Ayutthaya from many years back. Your photos have me yearning for a return trip. Your evening boat tour looks particularly appealing (that glow on the ruins is gorgeous). I had not previously heard of Si Satchanalai. The rural, natural setting looks awesome. I always like the idea of renting bikes to visit sites like these, but often (like in Sri Lanka) we have trouble with the heat.

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    • The ruins’ alpen glow at sunset was really pretty, and unexpected. Si Satchanalai is definitely worth the trip. The ruins are different from the other two and the forest setting is really peaceful. It’s mostly treed so although it was hot, the shade helped a lot. You’d have to hire a tuk tuk if you didn’t bike because it’s too large to walk. We walked around the other sites because they were close enough together. Keep it in mind if you go back to Thailand.

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  • Ayutthaya is so fascinating, and Sukhothai looks equally so! I really wanted to try and get to Sukhothai but we ran out of time and also we were a bit templed out by that point. I think we ended our temple runs on a high with Ayutthaya though! Your photos make me want to go back with fresh eyes.

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    • I completely understand being templed out. Sukhothai is quite different from Auytthaya because it’s less visited and in a relaxing setting – next trip to Thailand 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  • During my years living in Bangkok, I visited all 3 sites. Sukhothai was my favorite and I can still smell the sweet fragrance of the forest as we rode bikes around the edges of the ruins. Your photos transported me back to those wonderful times. thanks!

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