Located in central Thailand are two small towns, Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, that were once powerful and influential Thai Kingdoms. Ayutthaya, only 2 hours North of Bangkok by train or 1.5 hours by minivan, was once the capital of Siam before the city was sacked by the Burmese and the capital had to be re-established near Bangkok. Sukhothai, nearly half way between Ayutthaya and Chiang Mai, emerged in the 13th century when it was established by a Khmer warrior and eventually became part of the powerful Ayutthaya Kingdom in 1438.
Both are best explored by bicycle, are inexpensive to visit, and can be seen in a day. Or you can take your time and extend it over multiple days if you have time and want to enjoy a small town!
This can be a nice day trip from Bangkok if you’re looking to get out of the city or an excellent stop on your way North towards Chiang Mai if you have a day to spare and are taking the train anyways.
Ayutthaya’s ruins are spread throughout the area with some of the major sites being right in the heart of the town. While you could walk between most that are located near town, a bicycle is the best option to see all of the main sites in one day. I was able to rent mine from my hostel (50BHT, lock included) but there were numerous rental places if your accommodations don’t have any or if you’re planning to make it a day trip. If you don’t feel comfortable on a bike or are allergic to physical activity you can also hire a tuk-tuk for the day to bring you around (I saw signs advertising for about 900BHT for a full day tour). There are a handful of ruins that are located outside of town that are still accessible by bicycle (though require a little more pedaling and street navigating) or you can opt for a river boat tour.
Once you have your bike and a map you are ready to be on your way! Remember to also bring your sunscreen, sunglasses, and hat (it gets HOT around mid-day), and of course your camera.
Tickets and Entry Costs: The more popular sites charge admission (50BHT), or you can opt for the combination pass (220BHT) which gives you admission to the 6 popular sites (Wat Mahathat, Wat Chai Wattanaram, Wat Phra Ram, Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Wat Ratchaburana, and Wat Maheyong).
Located in the center of town is Wat Mahathat which is most well-known for its highly photographed Buddha head wrapped in the roots of a tree. Don’t stop there though – the ruins themselves are beautiful too!
Wat Ratchaburana, located just steps away from Wat Mahathat, is a huge temple that you can climb up and also into! Once you have reached the top of the main prang you can head down the stairs and into the crypt (if you’re not afraid of tight spaces!)
With entrances nearly across from each other, Wat Phra Ram and Wat Phra Si Sanphet both offer exceptional views of the architecture of the period. Wat Phra Si Sanphet has three stupas that you can climb to the top of.
Located a short bike ride outside the city is Wat Chai Wattanaram – and don’t let the distance keep you from visiting! It’s large, impressive, and most likely one of the temples that you saw advertising Ayutthaya.
If you’re tired of seeing temples and ruins bike over to Wat Lokkayasutharam, a 42-meter long reclining Buddha.
Harder to get to than Ayutthaya, Sukhothai is located a 5-6 hour bus ride North of Ayutthaya, a 5 hour bus ride south of Chiang Mai, or a 4 hour train ride plus one hour bus ride from Ayutthaya. The journey may be long but the sites are worth it!
Sukhothai’s ruins are split into three regions, each with their own entrance fee. The largest and most popular is the central region. The North region only has two main attractions but I really enjoyed the feel of biking out of the city walls and exploring more of the area. I didn’t have time to visit the West region but it is supposed to offer excellent views of the city.
Tickets and Entry Costs: Each region has an entrance fee of 110BHT.
Wat Mahathat is the first temple you are likely to come across and is the temple that you are most likely to recognize. The temple’s main Buddha is located in front of a small pond. The pond, which has a number of beautiful pink flowers and lily pads, acts as a mirror and offers a great photo. There’s likely to be dozens of tourists in your photo, so snap a picture and continue walking around where to the right you will find a similar sitting Buddha with a pond in front that is likely to have no one around.
Across the way on a small island is the smaller Wat Sa Si. Be sure to bike around the moat to get beautiful views from all angles.
Finally be sure to stop by Wat Si Sawai for a view of the beautiful walled temple that has three intricate Cambodian inspired prangs.
If you venture to the North region the first temple that you will see is Wat Phra Phai Luang. While the other temples are mostly impressive due to their giant Buddha’s, these ruins are large and impressive in their own regard and reminded me more of Ayutthaya.
Finally be sure to check out Wat Si Chum which houses a gigantic Buddha. It is housed in a small area but can be seen peeking out from a small slit. Once inside its size is overwhelming and its golden hands are hard to take your eyes off of.
On the way to the Northern section be sure to stop at Wat Sorasak which requires no entry fee and has 24 elephants around the base of the chedi.
Transportation To and From:
Train, bus, and minivan all service Ayutthaya. Each has several classes with varying prices and times.
- Train Station: The Ayutthaya Train Station is conveniently located just outside of town and easily accessible. To get to the ruins (and most likely your accommodations) go straight out of the train station down to the river where you’ll see a small dock and a boat that will shuttle you across the river for only 5BHT. A woman will be sitting at the table to collect your money (when you’re on your way to the train station from town remember to stop and pay her!)
- Bus Station: The bus station is located about 2km outside of town and you will need to take a tuk-tuk or a taxi to/from town. A tuk-tuk should be about 120BHT. If you take a taxi make sure the driver is running the meter or you agree on a fair price before arriving at your destination. I met some fellow travelers that paid 300BHT total for 3 people since the driver demanded 100BHT each once they arrived at our hostel!
- Minivan Station: Located in the center of town on Tambon Hua Road is the hub for all of the minivans. The minivan for Bangkok is located at Naresuan Road. Depending on the location of your accommodations you will most likely be able to walk.
The train doesn’t access Sukhothai so you will need to take a bus or minivan which will arrive at the Sukhothai bus station in New Sukhothai.
- Bus Station: The bus station is located in New Sukhothai, about a 20 drive (7.5 miles) from historic Sukhothai. During the day between the hours of 6am and 6pm a shuttle bus runs between the bus station, new town, and old town for only 30BHT. Outside of these hours you will need to get a taxi or tuk-tuk driver which will be significantly more expensive.
Transfers to/from Ayutthaya:
- Bangkok: Trains leave regularly (about every hour) to/from Hualamphong Station. My train was 15BHT for 3rd class and took about 2 hours (no air conditioning but was pleasant with the windows down). More expensive/nicer trains are available. Minivans leave hourly and take about 1.5 hours and cost 60BHT. The last minivan departs Ayutthaya at 6pm.
- Chiang Mai: Trains leave a few times a day but should be booked in advance, especially on weekends, if you have a train that you definitely want to take. Sleeper trains are available. Different classes of buses are also available (Standard, Deluxe, Super Deluxe) with varying prices and amenities. A friend booked an overnight Super Deluxe bus that left at 11PM and was scheduled to get in at 7AM and she paid 1,085BHT (this included a 135° reclining seat, a blanket and pillow, and snacks).
- Sukhothai: There are no direct trains to Sukhothai but you can take a train to Phitsanulok and then transfer to a bus. The train runs numerous times a day with varying classes (original, express, super express). My train was a 4 hour super express train (455BHT) and had reclining seats (significantly more comfortable than my 3rd class seat), air conditioning (remember to pack a sweater), and also included a small meal, snack/dessert, and coffee/tea/soda. The buses from Phitsanulok to Sukhothai run every hour until 6pm so be sure to plan your train accordingly unless you want to spend the night. The bus was only an hour and was inexpensive (50BHT) and I was the only tourist – I had to keep my backpack in front of me! An easier option is to take a direct bus (400-500BHT) directly from Ayutthaya to Sukhothai. They leave every 2 hours and take about 6 hours, but book in advance because they can fill up.