Ayutthaya or Sukhothai: the ancient Siamese cities: which one is the best?
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If you don’t have time to visit both of the ancient Siamese cities of Sukhothai or Ayutthaya this article may help you to decide which one is the best or you could get a copy of the Lonely Planet Guidebook for Thailand (click here for the latest version). Both Ayutthaya and Sukhothai lie to the north of Bangkok, each was once the capital city and both are brimming with ruins.
Sukhothai is older than Ayutthaya and was once the original capital city of Siam (the original name of Thailand). The city was abandoned and the population were forcibly relocated south to Ayutthaya in 1583 after a battle, a Burmese invasion and an earthquake. I visited them in reverse order as I made my way north up through Thailand.
Ayutthaya – A UNESCO Listed Cultural Heritage Site
The city of Ayutthaya was the capital of Thailand for 417 years (after Sukhothai) and before the political power was transferred to Bangkok and it sprawls out, scattered with ancient ruins and temples. The modern buildings in the town have been built right up to the edges of the rusty red bricks and the collapsed spires of the ancient city and an enormous central area is given over to grassy parkland that is peppered with relics.
Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 when the Thais were forced south from their previous capital in Sukhothai and it lasted as the capital until 1767 when the Burmese invaded and destroyed much of it. In the 17th century it ranked in the Top 16 cities in the world (how have I never heard of it before now?) and it was renowned as a centre of commercial prosperity, international trade and harmony; however what I find astounding is that 1 million people lived there at the height of its power.
It is now quite rightly listed as a UNESCO Listed Cultural Heritage Site and, I repeat, how on earth had I never heard of it before? The old part of the city is bordered by 3 rivers which almost form an island and the monuments and the ruins lie a deceptively large distance apart. It’s a good idea to hire a bicycle or to tackle the sights over several days in a series of bite-sized chunks, but there’s plenty to see and to do here apart from the old temples.
Click here to compare the current grandeur of Bangkok, the capital city of Thailand to the ancient cities.
What did I see and do in Ayutthaya?
I hired a bike from my Ayutthaya hostel and my first port of call was to the very well laid out Ayutthaya Tourism Centre. Here I collected a decent map and where I read the informative display boards that explained about the history, the geography, the art and the culture of the city. I learnt about how and why Ayutthaya deserves its place as a UNESCO Listed Cultural Heritage Site and I also got information on some traditional homestays although sadly I didn’t have enough time to stay in any of them.
This was one of the largest complexes inside the park and I felt like Indiana Jones as I climbed up into one of the towers – and then clambered down inside narrow stone steps to the bottom. I held my breath as it fleetingly crossed my mind that if someone chose to close the hatch at the top I could be there forever until I had turned into nothing but dust – but seeing the ancient murals on a tiny patch of ceiling was worth the slight trauma, as was the special feeling of having the whole place to myself.
Among the ruins of this particular temple is the much photographed head that was caught up in the roots of tree a long time ago and is now bound there forever. I actually hunted around for ages until I gave in and I asked somebody who laughed and said ‘just find the crowd’. And I turned a corner and there was a huddle of people all jostling for the best picture of it. As a mark of respect you should try to avoid standing over a Buddha image so everybody was squatting to get their photos taken with the stone head.
There is a well trampled route – sadly along the side of the main highway – where weary looking elephants ferry tourists along in the dusty heat. I have to confess to once riding an elephant in India, although I would never do that now that I am aware of the damage that it can do to these huge animals. The training methods are usually based on cruelty and fear – but not withstanding that, it seems so wrong to walk animals along hard pavements with lorries and cars just inches from them and the pollution pumping out, not to mention the sharp hooks that get stuck into their heads by some of the mahoots.
You really shouldn’t buy into this depressing part of the tourist trade; but for now, until more tourists boycott them the elephants are a part of the Ayutthaya tourist scene.
Talking to Annika and Robin from the UK who were staying at my Ayutthaya hostel I learned about the river trip and this was something that I was really pleased to do. Early one evening a small group of us were ferried around the rivers and canal systems that circle the old city of Ayutthaya for a couple of hours. This trip included short stops at three very impressive sights.
- Wat Phananchoeng with the most massive golden Buddha ever
- Wat Phuttaisawan with its weird cockerel statues and
- Wat Chai Watthanaram where we wandered among the ruins as the setting sun showed off dark silhouettes of half broken spires and domes against the night sky
The Chao Sam Phraya National Museum
This museum had some interesting pieces in it with more Buddha images than you could shake a stick at – but the best bits were the gold and jewelled treasures in the special rooms upstairs. There was an impressively huge bronze Buddha head and many intricate wooden carvings as well as loads of other stuff, although disappointingly there wasn’t much information in any language other than Thai.
The Toy Museum
Now this museum was just bizarre. It had a huge collection of toys BUT some would be hard pressed to be called toys. They were grouped together in dusty clusters with, as far as I could see, no thought given to themes or historic relevance. There were cabinets full of plastic pieces such as you might get with a fast food burger meal, and just not one example of each, but hundreds. There was a definite robot theme going on and some very battered dolls, as well as knives (toys?) pictures and, well, just strange stuff. It was odd but for entertainment and giggle value alone it was well worth the admission price. You can still get something like these classic robots on Amazon – click here for some examples if you want to bring back some distant childhood memories!
The Japanese Village
Ayutthaya was a thriving port and back in the days when it was the capital city the people of Ayutthaya welcomed traders of all nationalities – although they were not permitted to settle inside the old town walls. Several villages were established outside the city perimeter – among them the Japanese, the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch and the French. I visited the Japanese Village which had a small information centre and a riverside garden but to be honest, not much else, although I was told that the garden is still trying to recover following devastating floods a couple of years ago.
Ayutthaya lies to the north of Bangkok and it was once one of the world’s most prosperous cities. It ranked in the Top 16 Cities of the World in the 17th century when it contained 3 palaces and many other royal buildings and important temples.
I travelled the five hours to Ayutthaya by bus from the western city of Kanchanaburi (read that article here): home to the famous bridge (over the River Kwai), the Erewan waterfalls and Hellfire Pass. Ayutthaya was the only city in Thailand where I was warned not to go out alone after dark – not because of robbers but because of the packs of feral dogs. Lying comatose during the heat of the day, these sleepy looking mongrels wake up and prowl the streets at night. Like something out of a futuristic movie they follow you, circle around you and generally freak you out. They have been known to attack people when the streets are deserted, and later lying in bed you hear the packs howl and call to each other like wolves. These dogs are no reason not to go to Ayutthaya though – all in all, it is a great city full of history and it gives you more than a glimpse into a past life.
I took the five hour bus from Ayutthaya to Sukhothai and I spent a couple of nights here so that I could visit the city and compare it to Ayutthaya. I stayed on the outskirts of the modern town in a tiny cell-like room in a little guesthouse which had nothing much going for it apart from having a real wood fired Italian pizza oven in the garden, where the Russian owner made excellent pizzas and his Thai wife made superb pasta dishes and coconut ice cream.
Sukhothai is older than Ayutthaya and unlike Ayutthaya which has the old and the modern side by side, in Sukhothai the older ruins stand totally separate and are a 20 minute songthaew ride (open sided truck with bench seats in the back) along the highway. It was perfectly safe to do this trio by myself and once at the gates to the heritage area I picked up my map, hired a bicycle and I paid my entrance fee into the main site.
There are 5 mains sites in the historical park – the central site, and areas ringing it to the north, south, east and the west where each commands its own entrance fee. The major ruins are clustered in the centre and were once palaces, temples, and administration centres when Sukhothai was at the hub of the country. The ruins bear a similarity but are different to those in the southern capital at Ayutthaya; these are from an older era, but it is the location which sets them apart. Huge grassy fields are dotted with copses of trees around lakes and streams.
You can see any number of stone elephants, gigantic Buddhas and chedis and stupas. The pace is unhurried as people cycle around the paths and wander among the ruins, scooters buzz around and the minivans ferry coach loads of day trippers, but there is space for everyone and as the temperature climbed and the insects zizzed and fizzed, more and more people chose to flop under one of the shady trees and rest awhile.
I visited three of the five sites at Sukhothai – the central, the north and the west and by then I was done – I was all ruined out. I collapsed under a parasol drinking an icy cold drink and watching an artist paint a Buddha onto canvas. I bought one of her pictures as a memento of the region and the ruins before wearily heading back to my hostel. It was extremely hot and dusty in Sukhothai and while there is plenty to keep you busy for a whole day or even longer in the historic area, I was done.
On my second day in Sukhothai I joined a bicycle tour of the surrounding countryside, where the air was slightly fresher and I learnt about rural life in central Thailand. Our tour, operated by Cycling Sukhothai link here which promotes eco-tourism was led by Mem who led took 8 of us first to a local market and then to:
- A mushroom farm
- A (rice) whisky farm
- A cock breeding/fighting home
- A fish smoking factory
- An ice cream maker
- A frog farm
- A furniture factory
- A basket weaver
We cycled from one rural enterprise to the next along dusty lanes and by canals and paddy fields where people were planting out the bright emerald green shoots. They were ankle deep in water and wore conical straw hats and indigo shirts and oxen and buffalo pulled their ploughs. We tasted the ice cream and the whisky and we watched a proud owner bathing and massaging his champion fighting cockerel.
We passed mums swinging their babies in cribs made from reeds that hung from the roofs of their porches and when I got into my tuktuk to go back to my hostel, the driver suddenly jumped off and ran into the bushes and then came back with a big honeycomb with some very angry bees buzzing around it. I nervously shared the tuktuk with his oozing gold treasure complete with the still angry insects before collecting my rucksack from my hostel and hot-footing it to the bus station for Chiang Mai and the north.
Ayutthaya vs Sukhothai
If you have time, I would certainly recommned that you factor in both cities on your trips especially if you are interested in history; although after a while you may suffer a little bit from ruin overload.
- Ayutthaya has a much livelier feeling and there is a lot more to see and to do apart from visiting the historical parks but wandering around the ancient Sukhothai city gives you a chance to recharge your batteries.
- Bus Ayutthaya to Sukhothai and enjoy the scenic countryside on the five hour journey
- The climate is similar in both cities and both have more than their fair share of temples and glittery gold.
- Ayutthaya has backpackers hostels and accommodation in dormitories (which I personally prefer) but when I visited Sukhothai only had guest houses (more expensive for the solo traveller and less opportunity to meet people)
Click below for the up to date prices and choices for the Ayutthaya hostels:
And finally – don’t forget to take out travel insurance. I use Alpha Travel Insurance which works for me. Check out their latest prices here