It wasn't too long ago that Thailand was known for its war strength, not its beaches. Ayutthaya and Sukhothai pay homage to the once great empire, though our favorite activity had nothing to do with ruins at all.
See and Do
Ayutthaya is a former capital on Thailand and used to control not just the country, but much of the SE Asian region. Because of its position at the merger of several rivers, Ayutthaya also had a thriving maritime trade business with countries as far away as Portugal. The capital and most of what it stood for was sacked by, of all people, the Burmese in the mid 18th century. All that remains now are the ruins, both on and off the island. Most of the "wats" are in stages of disarray and though the ruins are scenic, nothing blew us away. There are a few "musts," such as the Buddha head encircled by fig tree branches and a huge seated Buddha.
Expect to pay 50B per temple, or hand over 220B for a one day ticket. Sunset boat tours are supposedly nice and take in the temples the way architects designed them to be seen--from the water. We didn't have a chance to try one out, but they run about 150B a head.
Sukhothai has a similar story, but is spatially and visually quite different. While Ayutthaya's ruins are accessed by paved roads overrun with cars and motorbikes, the ruins in Sukhothai are contained in a beautiful park, full of lily ponds, picnicking families, and even the occasional jogger.
For 100B, you can access the main region (plus 10B for a bicycle). The other two areas will cost an additional 100B each. The ruins are much better preserved and easier to enjoy than those in Ayutthaya and some say the architectural styles are similar to those found in Angkor. (This is because Sukhothai came to power as the Khmer empire was falling, so they had something to follow in terms of architecture.)
Our favorite sights in Sukhothai were Wat Mahathat, the most impressive temple complex with several huge Buddhas amidst its chedis, and Wat Chang Lom, which is 1km to the east of the park and, while deserted by people, surrounded by 32 elephant statues.
Several other temples were very pretty, but nothing took our breath away. If you want to see something strange, cross the footbridge to Wat Trapang Thong (outside the park) and turn left. Take a look at the Buddha footprint, and then take a look at the water!
Our favorite experience in these ancient cities had nothing to do with ruins at all. In a bit of serendipitous luck, we decided to bike out to the restored elephant kraal north of the old city in Ayutthaya. We were templed out and figured it was worth the detour. With no idea what to expect (our guidebook said nothing about the place), we biked out of the city and were soon followed by screams of "hello" from the locals and eager waves from the schoolchildren making their way home. After a few kilometers, we arrived at a sign that said "Royal Elephant Kraal." We turned into the driveway and saw a lone elephant hanging out by the river.
Rob suggested seeing if there were more on the other side, so we made our way back onto the road and up the next driveway. What we found was completely unexpected and one of the highlights of our trip. In the place where royal elephants used to be kept for the king, a nonprofit organization had set up an elephant center that helped raise elephants, trained them for modern day work (mostly tourism), and took care of them once they were retired. You could do a multi day stay, but you could also just ride up on your bike and feed the elephants, get to see them bathe, watch them paint, and even get the "hottest" kiss of your life. For us, it was three hours well spent, and because our presence there was so random, we felt that we learned more about the animals than we would have on an organized tour.
In Ayutthaya, we stayed at Tony's Place, which was a short walk from the bus station. At 550B per night, we had a really clean and nicely furnished room, though the location right above the restaurant made it difficult to sleep.
There are many trains of thoughts when it comes to where to stay when visiting Sukhothai. The Old City is tiny, the new is a bit bland, and Phitsanulok (one hour away) has the Buddha and the food, though it is an hour away. Our friends from HoneyTrek recommended Old City Guesthouse in the Old City because of its proximity to the ruins. At 300B per night, our private room had a large bathroom but no AC (rooms with AC cost 100B more per night but weren't available). The major ruins were a 3 minute bike ride away, which meant we didn't need to deal with the ordeal of getting a bus from New Sukhothai. We think it was worth it.
Eat and Drink
The food in Ayutthaya was pretty standard, though we highly recommend the night market, which is easy to get to on bike. Make sure you try the roti stands. Made right in front of you, these piping hot sweets are delicious--and cheap!
Sukhothai is in the middle of the vegetable basket and some of the dishes I had in town really made that clear. For once, broccoli, cauliflower, and juicy corn made an appearance in my noodles, and for that I was grateful! That said, if you really want good food while visiting the ruins, you should probably stay in Phitsanulok. It requires some effort and time to get to Sukhothai from there, but we heard the food was worth it.
We got to Ayutthaya by public bus from Kanchanaburi. All together, the tuk tuk to the bus station and the two buses (switching at Saraburi) cost 150B each. The trip took about 4.5 hours. You can get a seat on a minivan and save yourself about 1.5 hours but it'll cost you at least 380B per person. In our opinion, public transit was completely worth it.
Getting to Sukhuthai from Pak Chong was an adventure. Leaving from the Old City was easy though, with a bus stop across the street for a 5-hour AC bus to Chiang Mai that actually ended up being more like 6 hours. It cost 300B each, but we overpaid but 60B for the ticket because we bought it from the "bus station."
The best way around both Ayutthaya and Sukhothai is by bicycle. Renting one is easy in both cities and should cost 30B per day. Our overnight rental in Ayutthaya cost 40B, which allowed us to take in a sunset the night before and use the bike the whole day after.
More Thailand Ruins
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