We departed Bangkok by train, something that was a pleasant novelty as we hadn’t had much chance to travel by train in South America, New Zealand or Australia. It’s a much more pleasant mode of transport than bus, which usually involves very bumpy and windy roads. The train wasn’t hugely comfortable, but it was spacious and there was space to wander around and big windows to look out of. We were told off by a monk at first for sitting in the wrong place, a special bit only reserved for monks and novices, but apart from that it was a pretty easy journey to Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya is a small city an hour and a half north of Bangkok, and it used to be Thailand’s capital before Bangkok. We would then continue North some more to Sukhothai, which was Thailand’s capital in the 13th century. The main draw of the two cities is the array of ancient temples, which were cracking and crumbling, in antithesis to Bangkok’s gleaming gold ones. A lot of people completely skip out central Thailand (and all the history that shaped Thailand into the country that it is today) and get the sleeper train directly to Chiang Mai, but that seems a bit of a shame. There’s plenty to see between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, and it’s a little less manic and touristy.
Ayutthaya is a city best explored by bicycle. It sits at the meeting point of three rivers, which form an island on which most of the city sits. It’s not particularly big, but the Wats (temples) are spread out all around the city. We rented bikes for the day and set out exploring. Ayutthaya was capital between 1350 and 1767, and the rivers formed convenient natural barriers to invaders and conduits for trade. After a two year war with the Burmese, however, the Thai’s relocated the capital and power down to Bangkok. The battle scars left by the Burmese are still very present. Within the temples many of the Buddha statues are missing heads, where they were demolished in attacks. This is quite a shocking image, as in all the temples in Bangkok the Buddhas are so perfectly maintained, and treated as holy by Thai’s and tourists alike. We cycled around for a day, visiting many of the temples, stopping for food and drinks along the way. It was a hot day of cycling, and just as we were about to leave the last temple the heavens opened and we cycled back in the rain, which was a bit muddy, but nice and refreshing.
Unfortunately the next day, Toby and I succumbed to our first bout of stomach bug in Asia. We decided to spend the day resting, and Matt and Grace ventured out into the city again, renting bikes to go and see Ayutthaya’s floating market. It was a shame to have missed it, and later in the day Matt and Grace arrived back, neither of them feeling well either. We had to stay another night in Ayutthaya to recover, so this has blighted our memories of Ayutthaya somewhat, as its associated with us all feeling very unwell!
However, once we were all recovered, we headed further north to Sukhothai, for a bit more history and culture. We caught the train to Pitsanulok, and then a bus from there to Sukhothai’s new city. ‘New Sukhothai’, which is 12km away from the old city and the ruins, is where all the tourist accommodation is, and is a bit bland. However, we caught a rickety old bus to the old city, and spent the day wandering around there. The history is a bit less interesting, as there isn’t the very clear evidence of war and battle like in Ayutthaya, but the ruins are much better preserved. It’s very easily laid out for tourists, as most of the main Wats are within the Historical Park. It’s a bit prettier than Ayutthaya as the temples are set apart from the day to day city life, separated from each other by expanses of green and lake, rather than tatty modern buildings.
Sukhothai was also definitely worth a visit, but after a week or so in the two old capitals, we were a bit templed-out, and we’re looking forward to some other non-historical tourist attractions! The next day we caught a bus up to the bustling city of Chiang Mai, in the north of the country.