We flew from Siem Reap to Bangkok and immediately grabbed a taxi for the one hour drive to Ayutthaya, followed by Sukhothai. This circuit of the temples exposed us to temples old and new, plus lots of local culture and history.
Long before the days when Thailand was the country it is today, Ayutthaya was the Kingdom of Ayutthya from 14th century until the 18th century. As hard as it may be to believe, by the 18th century, the city of Ayutthaya, which most Westerners haven’t heard of, was a thriving city of a million people and was the largest trading center in all of Asia. The Ayutthaya of those days featured robust communities of Portuguese, Japanese, and Dutch, among others. This lasted until 1767 when an attack by the Burmese caused the fall of Ayutthaya. Its exquisite temples, art, and artifacts were badly damaged and over the years went to ruin. In 20th century, an effort began to restore the temples to their former glory, an endeavor which is still underway. These ancient terrorists destroyed as much as possible, beheading hundreds Buddha figures and other statuary in the temples. And yet, in an odd and wonderful twist, one of these Buddha heads has become embedded in the trunk of a Bodhi tree, creating one of the most striking and memorable images we saw in all of Thailand. In addition to the temple ruins, Ayutthaya is home to numerous new temples and Buddhist monasteries, together which make for a lovely temple town to visit.
We left Ayutthaya and went on to Sukhothai, another former kingdom from the 13th century until the 15th century. There’s not a whole lot to see in the town of Sukhothai, other than the Historical Park, which holds temple ruins to rival those in Angkor Wat, being both larger and more intact than those in Ayutthaya. A must-see in Sukhothai is the excellent Ramkhamhaeng National Museum which provides quite a bit of background on the sights in the Historical Park. One welcome aspect of Sukhothai is that a fraction of the number of tourists visit it compared to Angkor Wat, a great selling point in our opinion. There’s nothing that spoils a nice “Raiders of the Lost Ark” moment like hordes of tourists tromping around taking selfies. Since the park is much more compact than Angkor Wat, most people tour it on bicycle. We got up early one morning and took a tuk-tuk down to the historical park where we rented bikes and were in the park by 7:30 a.m. We took our time, enjoying the ride and checking out the temples. We completed our self-guided tour and left at around 9:45 — just in time to see multiple tour buses drive up and disgorge huge numbers of passengers who proceeded directly to the bike rental place. We were delighted to leave before the heat and hordes of tour groups! Since we were in Sukhothai over a weekend, we were there for the weekly Saturday evening, opening of the temples. Seeing these ruins at dusk and beautifully illuminated was a magical way to end our time in Sukhothai.