The best way to understand present Thailand is to take a look back at its past. Don’t miss visiting these ancient citiesby Dave Stamboulis
No visit to Thailand would be complete without a trip out to some of the ancient cities. The top choices would be Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, Thailand’s first and second capitals, which were built in the 13th and 14th centuries, respectively, and have great historic and cultural value to the kingdom. Most of the great temples and stupas one sees today throughout Thailand attribute their heritage and style to these places and their periods in Thai history. Also of significance during this ancient time were the fantastic temples and landmarks of the Khmer Kingdom, which include the monuments at Phimai, Phanom Rung, and Pra Wihan. Here’s a look at all of these sites, along with Muang Boran, also known as Ancient Siam, where one can practically have a look at all these holy spots without ever leaving Bangkok!
Sukhothai, which means “the dawn of happiness,” was Thailand’s first capital, founded in the latter part of the 13th century and by King Ramkamhaeng. While it lost its capital stardom to Ayutthaya less than 100 years after it was created, the city remains immortalized today with its Muang Kao “old city” awarded UNESCO World Heritage status, thus making Sukhothai one of Thailand’s premiere tourist attractions today.
The World Heritage Sukhothai Historical Park is the big draw here, and one should plan on spending at least half a day in it. The Central Zone of the park is the most visited and considered the most impressive section, with its centerpiece being the towering Wat Mahathat, which was the center of the ancient kingdom and which is in phenomenal condition considering its age. Other highlights of this part include the Khmer Wat Si Sawai and Wat Phra Phai Luang, and the beautiful Wat Sa Si, which sits on an island surrounded by a reservoir. The nearby Northern Zone is also a must see and contains the often photographed Wat Si Chum, home to a massive giant Buddha image that peeks out from between two walls.
Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, or the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, was established in 1350 and served as Thailand’s capital for 400 years until it was destroyed by raiding Burmese armies. Today it is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the Ayutthaya Historical Park comprises all the old ruins, which include gargantuan temples and stone towers, such as that of the majestic Wat Ratchaburana, which has a fully restored “prang” tower.
Sunsets are particularly atmospheric, and it’s quite popular to take boat tours to access all the sites, as they sit off the town’s various canals. There is also a re-creation of a traditional floating market, and the Thailand Balloon Festival has taken place in Ayutthaya as well, with hot air balloons soaring over the temples, much as they do in Myanmar’s ancient Bagan.
Pra Wihan and Phanom Rung
The most remote, stunning, and special Khmer monument in Thailand is Pra Wihan in the northeast, which unfortunately has been at the center of political squabbles for the past several years between Thailand and Cambodia over its UNESCO Heritage status— and who controls the land and access on the border—and thus has been off limits to public visits (from the Thai side, however, one can get to the temple complex known as Preah Vihear in Khmer quite easily from the Cambodian side).
A visit to this area is still worthwhile, however, as nearby Phanom Rung in Buriram is open to visitors and is spectacularly located on the summit of a 380-meter extinct volcano. The ruins of Phanom Rung look out at the Dong Rak mountains of Cambodia, and house an ornate temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. The temple and ruins complex are the largest in Thailand and visually stunning. Occurring each spring and fall, twice for sunrise and twice for sunset, the temple has a unique solar alignment during at which time the sun shines directly through all fifteen of the temple’s sanctuary doorways, which is considered a most auspicious time to visit the site.
Also near to Phanom Rung is the 11th-century temple of Prasat Hin Mueang Tam, a completely restored monument that is built with five towers, symbolizing Mount Meru, the Hindu abode of the gods.
Not too far from Phanom Rung in the city of Korat (Nakhon Ratchasima), is Prasat Hin Phimai, which predates Angkor Wat and possibly may have served as a model for its construction. Originally Phimai was an important Khmer administrative center and connected to Angkor by a road known as the Royal Way. Phimai has been painstakingly restored and is set in a beautiful green historical park, and the 28-meter temple is adorned with beautiful Hindu sandstone carvings.
Muang Boran, which means “Ancient City” in Thai, is an immense outdoor museum spread over 100 hectares on grounds that are sculpted to resemble Thailand. Muang Boran, which lies just east of Bangkok, is also known as “Ancient Siam,” and it’s supposedly the world’s largest outdoor museum. Muang Boran boasts over 100 miniature replicas of famous Thai buildings and sites, all of them placed on the grounds in geographic preciseness to their real counterparts.
The creator of Muang Boran—Lek Virayaphant, who also made the Sanctuary of Truth in Pattaya and the Erawan Museum—worked alongside experts from the National Museum to ensure that exact detail and accuracy were followed, and the result is astounding. Virayaphant believed that his creation might help make up for the decline of civilization (as he saw it, which resulted in the decay of all these ancient monuments), and he certainly has made good on preserving some of the past for future generations.
For those who don’t have the chance to travel the country and see the real thing, this attraction is a must-visit, and even if you’ve already been to some of the temples, this is a great way to get some insight into Thai history and culture. All of the above temples and monuments of Ayutthaya, Sukhothai, Phanom Rung, Phimai, and Pra Wihan are on display here, plus many more.