Many people travel to Thailand and South East Asia to soak up the culture and see some of the most awe inspiring architecture in the world; ruins of lost civilisations and sites of religious devotion. But let’s face it, sometimes there are only so many temples you can get a bit apathetic towards the sights and sometimes, you just don’t have time to see everything.
Central Thailand has two popular UNESCO world heritages sites, both the homes of former ruling dynasties in the history of Thailand. Sukhothai, the ruling power in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and Ayutthaya, which succeeded it, but was itself invaded and overthrown in 1767 after over four hundred ruling years.
Both sites, on the face of it are pretty similar and both are close to the well-trodden train route between Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
If you have to pick one, which should you check out?
One way to decide is depending on how long you have to visit.
- Sukhothai can be seen in one full day.
- At Ayutthaya you can take many days to see everything this big site has to offer, two full days is probably ideal, but those with time to burn can be easily occupied for three or more days.
Sukhothai – compact, peaceful and cheap.
Some favour Sukhothai – whose name means ‘dawn of happiness’ and was the birthplace of the Thai alphabet, because of the layout. The park is compact, and a few kilometres outside of the modern city. The majority of the sites are set in a three square kilometre central zone, with one entrance fee.
Further afield in the northern zone, the imposing golden thirty-six foot Buddha at Wat Si Chum is well worth seeing. Entrance to each zone costs around 100 baht and bicycles can be rented from the main gates for less than 50 baht per day.
It’s quite peaceful because the site is contained, like an outdoor museum, compared to Ayutthaya where the city has grown around the ruins.
Ayutthaya – larger, more buzzing, more sights to see.
Ayutthaya on the other hand, is comparatively buzzing, a huge sprawling historical centre with the roads of the city intwined within it. Wats (temples) and ruins line most of the busier roads in and around the city. The best way to get around it is by bicycle.
Ayutthaya is home to a great many more sites than Sukhothai and showcases prangs, a type of carved tower-like architectural feature made famous by the Khmers at their historical sites such as Phanom Rung, Phimai and Angkor amongst others.
When Ayutthaya finally succumbed to the Burmese, the invading forces desecrated Wats and beheaded Buddha statues, many of the sites, still remain headless and Wat Mahathat is home to one of the more iconic images of Ayutthaya – A single Buddha’s head entwined in the roots of a bodhi tree.
There are many Wats and temples well worth your attention including Wat Sri Sanphet and the huge, golden lying Buddha. Expect to sweat out a little bit more at Ayutthaya as everything is a little further apart.
Another option is a hiring a tuk-tuk and driver, expect to pay around 300Baht per hour for the whole vehicle, which means you can get a good deal if there are a few of you (Ayutthaya have different tuk-tuks with bench seating in the back, like a Songtaew and can seat around six) Another option is renting a scooter, but a bicycle is the most economical option.
Location, location, location…
Another deciding factor could be their locations. Ayutthaya is only a two hour journey time from Bangkoks central Hua Lampong train station, at a cheap 30Baht fare which makes it really accessible for a day trip or overnighter from Bangkok.
Sukhothai however, is accessed by one hour bus ride from the town of Phitsanulok, seven (or more) hours from Bangkok and right in the middle of the Bangkok to Chiang Mai rail service. Ideal for a stopover to break up the long journey before exploring the northern sights.
If it’s possible, make time to check out both because they are cherished sites of Thai history.
Here’s our summary:
- Compact temple area
- Easy to fully explore in a single day
- Cheap entry price
- 60 kilometres bus ride from Phitsanulok
Must see temple: Wat Si Chum.
- Accessible from Bangkok as a day trip
- Directly on the Bangkok to Chiang Mai train line
- Many of the Wats are uplit in the evenings, providing different photo opportunities
- Excellent food market in the town every night.
- Individual entry prices for each site
- Wats can be far apart
Must see temples: Gold Lying Buddha & Buddhas head at Wat Mahathat.
About the author: Ben is a keen traveller who is currently eating and photographing his way around South East Asia and writing about his experiences both on his own website and for us as an ambassador. You can follow more of his writing on his personal blog.