Traces of history
Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, the capitals of the ancient kingdom of Siam, await you in Thailand to show you the splendour of a civilization that eventually dominated most of South-east Asia. Temples, palaces and hundreds of Buddha statues (many of them decapitated) are part of a fascinating tour through history. Explore the remains of the empire by bike, on foot or by tuk-tuk.
The seed of today's Thailand
Sukhothai, which means “Dawn of Happiness,” is a good way of starting to delve into the nation’s history. Established as the capital city of the kingdom of Siam between the 13th and 14th centuries, it adopted Buddhism as its official religion after decades of domination by the empire of Angkor (now Cambodia) and was the cradle of the Thai alphabet. Lying 400 kilometers to the north of Bangkok, the ruins of Sukhothai are now known as the Sukhothai Historical Park. It still preserves many of its palaces and temples, both inside and outside the original walls. Inside, the most popular is the Wat Mahathat, with 200 ‘chedis’ or stupas dominated by a colossal statue of the seated Buddha and a tower shaped like a lotus flower. The ideal way to get around the park is by bike, which you can hire right at the entrance gate.
A festival of light and colour
Not very far from here is the Wat Trapang Thong or ‘temple in the lake,’ surrounded by a lake with lotus flowers. This is one of the most popular spots where Thai people launch their floating (‘loi’) raft lanterns (‘krathong’) at the Loi Krathong festival, held across the whole country at the November full moon. People throw money, incense, candles and good wishes into their rafts, which are floated out onto the water as an offering, turning lakes and rivers into a spectacle of orange-hued lights.
The sacred city
Founded in 1350, the kingdom of Ayutthaya would take over from Sukhothai as the dominant power in Indochina, partly returning once again to the Khmer culture. The city of Ayutthaya (less than an hour and a half from Bangkok) once had a million inhabitants, more than London at that time. It was the capital for more than 400 years, until it was beseiged by the Burmese army. Located on an island surrounded by the Chao Phraya, Lopburi and Pa Sak rivers, it was fortified with a wall twelve kilometers long and five meters thick. Even today you can get there by boat from Bangkok. The city ruins make up the Ayutthaya Historical Park, a World Heritage Site. The remains of three palaces and more than 400 ancient temples still dazzle visitors.
A city of gold
Although it has all disappeared by now, many of these buildings were once covered with a layer of gold. Even without it, the monuments help to get an idea of the empire's majestic style. For example, Wat Lokayasutharam, the temple housing an enormous, 42-metre long reclining Buddha, the biggest in this ancient city. Nearby Wat Chaiwatthanaram is a fantastic example of Khmer (Cambodian) architecture with the sharp points rising out of the pagodas. And if, as well as admiring sanctuaries, you'd like to know how the Buddhist monks of Ayutthaya live, your best option is to go to Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon, where hundreds of Buddhist monks still live and meditate.
The centre of attention for photographers
In the ‘temple of the relic’ or Wat Phra Mahathat, you'll be surprised to find one of the most photographed spots in the whole of Thailand amongst the roots of a tree: the ‘trapped’ head of a Buddha. And it is not the only one, as when the Burmese plundered the city in 1767, they beheaded hundreds of statues of the wise man. These stone figures also witnessed how the city of Thonburi became the country's capital and how later, in 1782, the role was passed on to Bangkok. That doesn't stop people wanting to learn about Thailand's history from coming to Sukhothai and to Ayutthaya in search of its traces.