You may know Thailand best for its incredible beaches and vibrant cities, but you should also know that it’s an ancient nation with a vast number of historical sites worth exploring. From 1000-year-old temples to medieval capitals to a famous World War II railway, Thailand travel offers plenty of sites to delight both history buffs and culture vultures. Whether you’re visiting Thailand on a romantic getaway or on a deep-dive into the nation’s culture, know that Thailand has something to satisfy every kind of traveller.
The next time you head on a trip to Thailand, be sure to set aside some time to take in the country’s best historical sites and explore millennia of fascinating history and culture. In particular, focus on the following three destinations, as they’re the best historical sites on a Thailand vacation.
The Capital of the Ayutthaya Kingdom
The city of Ayutthaya sits only 76km north of Bangkok, making it the most easily-accessible historical site on this list. The city was founded in 1350 as the second capital of Thailand and was supposedly the largest city in the world until the 18th century when the Burmese ransacked it and burnt it to the ground. Ruins are all that remain from this time period, although it doesn’t take much to imagine how the city might’ve looked during its golden years.
When you visit Ayutthaya on Thailand travel, you’ll still find plenty to admire in addition to the crumbling ruins. In particular, there are several temples and palaces that have links to the past and remain fascinating attractions in their own right. You’ll find many of these temples grouped together in the Ayutthaya Historical Park.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet is the largest of the temples in the city and served as a model for Bangkok’s famous Wat Phra Kaeo, while Wat Mahathat is striking for its collection of headless Buddha statues. At Wat Chaiwatthanaram, you’ll find 120 sitting Buddha statues, while at Wat Lokaya Sutha you’ll find one of the largest reclining Buddha statues in the country.
If you want to see some of the artefacts that used to decorate the ruins, head to the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum, which is the largest museum in Ayutthaya. The museum contains all manner of gold crafts, jewelry, hand-carved friezes, and Buddha statues excavated from crypts and temples over the years. Some of the artefacts within the collection date as far back as the 7th century. At the Thai Boat Museum, you’ll also find 100-year-old wooden boats that have been preserved within the collection.
Aside from these temples and museums, you can also head to the Floating Market to browse for souvenirs at over 200 shops. Being so close to Bangkok, Ayutthaya is accessible for day trips or overnight stays. If you’re in Bangkok on a Thailand travel, there’s no excuse not to visit its many historical sites.
The Bridge on the River Kwai
If you’re a movie buff, you’ll probably familiar with David Lean’s Oscar-winning epic, The Bridge on the River Kwai, starring Alec Guinness and William Holden. What you might not know is that the bridge is real and that sections of the Burma Railway or “Railway of Death” remain in use to this day.
During World War II, Japan occupied Thailand and used it as a base of operations for attacking British forces in Myanmar, India, and Singapore. In the far west of the country near the Myanmar border, Japan constructed the Burma Railway, using Allied POWs and Asian forced labourers to construct two bridges and an extensive rail line that would fuel a future invasion of India. Today, these bridges remain as testaments to the brutality of war and the injustices committed against the POWs and labourers who constructed them.
If you visit Khwae Noi and Kanchanaburi on a Thailand vacation, you’ll be free to delve into the Thai history of World War II and learn about the construction of this significant railway. You can head north of Kanchanaburi to the Mae Klong River to see the two bridges for yourself and you can even ride one of the three trains that pass across these bridges each day. Afterwards, when you return to Kanchanaburi, you can pay respects at the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, where around 7,000 POWs are buried, and explore the Thailand Burma Railway Museum, which charts the construction of the bridges and the railway. As well, the JEATH War Museum gives even further insight into the war. If you’re a 20th-Century history buff or a war expert, there’s no better spot to head to on trips to Thailand.
The Cradle of Thai Civilization: Sukhothai
The ancient city of Sukhothai is the most important historical site in all of Thailand. Located in the country’s north and meaning “Dawn of Happiness” in the Thai language, Sukhothai is popularly known as the birthplace of Thai language, Thai art, and Thai architecture. If you’re in Northern Thailand, spend a few days exploring the many temples and ruins of Sukhothai. You won’t be disappointed.
Sukhothai was the capital of the Kingdom of Siam in the 13th century. During this period, a vast number of temples and monuments were constructed that remain intact to this day. If you head to Sukhothai Historical Park, you’ll be able to spend your days exploring these temples and ruins that lend insight into the country’s past.
Sukhothai Historical Park is divided into five zones with 21 historical sites and four large ponds spread throughout the zones. In total, the park covers 70 square kilometres. If you only have a few days to visit, focus on the Central Zone and the North Zone. The Central Zone has 11 ruins, the best of which is the temple Wat Mahathat, which was the spiritual heart of the Sukhothai Kingdom. The temple is best known for its massive seated Buddha statue, which is flanked by two standing Buddhas on either side. In the evening, the entire Central Zone lights up in a brilliant display of red, yellow, and green.
The North Zone is also home to several temples and ruins, the most impressive being Wat Sri Chum, which has a Buddha that stands 15m tall. The walls of the temple are also adorned with some of the oldest murals in the country, although due to being drawn on slate, they’ve mostly faded over time. If you’re the active sort, you should rent a bicycle to see the sites in Sukhothai Historical Park. It’s the best way to travel throughout the ruins at your own pace and see everything you want to, although trying to fit all the sites into one day of bicycling can be exhausting, so you best pace yourself.
While the temples and ruins of Sukhothai are the main highlight of the area, you can also find the Ramkhamhaeng National Museum in town, which contains artefacts and other archaeological finds from the ruins. Si Satchanalai Historical Park is also worth exploring. It was the second centre of the Sukhothai Kingdom and remains home to ancient Buddha statues, palaces, and temples. If you love exploring temples, deciphering ruins, and learning about the great moments of the past, there are few spots that will treat you better than Sukhothai.
Thailand travel offer the chance to explore the splendours of the past. Whether you’re a war buff, a lover of classical architecture, or simply an active explorer of the world, trips to Ayutthaya, Sukhothai, and the River Kwai will reward you with incredible historical monuments and great insight into the past of this wonderful country. No matter the reason you’re visiting Thailand, whether for romance or food or wellness, an exploration of the country’s historical treasures will add even more flavour to an already-vibrant vacation.