For the best historical day trip from Bangkok, head 55km (34 miles) north to Bang Sai, another 17km (11 miles) to the 19th-century Bang Pa-In summer palace, and 21km (13 miles) further to the ruined Siamese capital of Ayutthaya. Tours tend to engulf Bang Pa-in before lunching in Ayutthaya, and boating back, or breaking the return at Bang Sai. The reverse order is quieter, but start early.
Centred on an artificial island, Ayutthaya is a World Heritage Site. Not only are the former capital’s remains impressive, but its fall in 1767 is a historical hinge that still reverberates here. Most of its 400 temples razed and 90% of its people gone, the scorched red-brick ruins were abandoned (and much looted) until Prime Minister Phibun made it into a showpiece in the 1950s. He cleared the 20m-high, 5m-thick city walls for a ring road; during excavations treasures that weren’t looted were displayed in museums. A Historical Park
covers the main sights.
The conch-shape island – formed by the Lopburi, Pasak and Chao Phraya rivers and a canal – is ringed by Thanon U-thong and criss-crossed by avenues, with businesses, food and accommodation to the east side towards the modern city, beyond Pridi Thamrong Bridge.
Bang Sai Folk Arts & Crafts Centre
59 Moo 4, Bang Sai,Ayuthaya (0 35366 252-4, www.bangsaiarts.com). Open 8.30am-4.30pm Tue-Sun. Admission Thais B50; foreigners B100; reductions B30-B50. No credit cards.
Under Queen Sirikit’s patronage, resuscitated court crafts help diversify the incomes of farmers trained at this tranquil riverbank centre reachable on boat tours. Visitors tour the workshops; a vast shop sells the handiwork.
Bang Pa-In Palace
(0 3526 1044, www.palaces.thai.net). Open 8am-4pm daily. Admission Thais B30; foreigners B100. No credit cards.
This river island has since 1632 been a summer royal retreat. In 1872, Rama V turned it into an eclectic palace named after a drowned princess. Flanked by lawns and topiary – and surveyed from a candy-striped pagoda – it’s a collage of Baroque, Gothic and Chinese, with a copy of the Phra Thinang Aporn Phimok Prasat from the Grand Palace in a reflecting pool. The dazzling Chinese Wehat Chamrun Palace contrasts with the simple houseboat and English Gothic-style Wat Nivet Dhammaparvat.
Chao Sam Phraya Museum
108/16 Thanon Rotchana, Ayutthaya (0 3524 1587). Open 9am-4pm Wed- Sun. Admission Thais B50; foreigners B100; reductions B20-B50. No credit cards.
During excavations, royal regalia was stolen from the frescoed crypt of Wat Ratchaburana and the old ritual centre, Wat Mahathat. Remnants of the gilded cache – plus marvellous statuary – fill this lamentably labelled hoard.
Chandra Kasem Palace Museum
Thanon U-Thong, Ayutthaya (0 3525 1586). Open 9am-4pm Wed-Sun. Admission Thais B20; foreigners B100. No credit cards.
This ‘palace of the deputy king’ typifies Rama IV’s taste for European and Chinese design, and features his astronomical observatory tower and decaying photographs of Ayutthaya when entangled by jungle. Other treasures occupy the fretworked galleries.
Historical Study Centre
Thanon Rotchana, Ayutthaya (0 3524 5123-4). Open 9am-4pm daily. Admission Thais B20; foreigners B100; reductions B5-B50. No credit cards.
This Japanese-built centre looks empty, but does display dioramas and models of what Ayutthaya lost, amid hi-tech displays on its social, cultural, economic and diplomatic importance. It’s scanty but offers more perspective than the TAT tourist office, which is housed in an old city hall.
Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya Historical Park
Nestled around the old town (0 3524 2284). Open 8am-6pm daily. Admission Thais B10; foreigners B50 per site. All sites Thais B40; foreigners B220. No credit cards.
Only foundations – and the Trimuk Pavilion, built by Rama V for ceremonies – indicate the presence of the old Grand Palace, though the iconic triple chedi (built in 1492) of its temple, Wat Si Sanphet, remain. Engravings popularised the vast vine-clad, roofless Buddha image of Vihaan Phra Mongkhon Bophit next-door, and its 1975 ‘as-new’ revamp is most appreciated by Thais as a focus for offerings. Beyond a market and the exquisite teak 1894 Khun Phaen’s House, you can get elephant rides (08 1869 9520, B200 10mins, B400 20mins, B500 30mins). Opposite is Beung Phra Ram, a park of lily ponds and a lone prang. Behind it, Wat Mahathat draws photographers to its root-encased Buddha head.
Outer bank remains are easiest seen on separate detours, but we follow them anti-clockwise from the southeast access point. Built by a Ceylonese sect, Wat Yai Chaimongkhon boasts a 60-metre (197-foot) bell chedi, a reclining Buddha and a shrine to toys. East on Highway 3058, Wat Maheyong retains stucco elephants around a Sri Lankan-style chedi. To the north, the restored Kraal was where elephants were trained, and Wat Phramane (Thanon U-Thong) is the only surviving original temple. Contrast its regalia-adorned Ayutthayan Buddha with the serene white Mon Dvaravati image in a side vihaan. Dominating the west is the five-prang Wat Chaiwattanaram, which hosts boat races at Loy Krathong. To the south, King U-Thong stayed at Wat Phuttaisawan before making Ayutthaya the capital. En route you pass St Joseph’s Church in the old French settlement, which was one of many foreign quarters then housing, among others, Portuguese, Japanese, Dutch and Malays.
Most hotels and tour companies run one-way cruises to/from Bang Pa-in/Ayutthaya, with the other leg by road or train. Si Phraya Boat Trip & Travel (0 2235 3108) goes by bus to Bang Pa-in then by boat to Ayutthaya and cruises back to Bangkok on the Pearl of Siam (B2,000). River Sun Cruise (0 2266 9125-6) does similar with a smaller boat (B2,100). Both start and end at River City. Benjarong (0 2943 4047-9, www.thaicruises.com) runs overnight cruises aboard a converted teak barge.
From Bang Pa-In Palace, longtail boats ply the scenic 45-minute trip to Ayutthaya. In Ayutthaya you can hire longtail boats at piers by Chandra Kasem Museum or Wat Phanan Choeng (from B500/hr).
By road & rail
Most tours combine 90min minibus rides with train or boat (above) and call at Bang Pa-In. Otherwise, buses leave Bangkok’s Northern Bus Terminal every 20mins, 5.40am-8.40pm daily (B65), taking 90mins. Trains to Bang Pa-In and Ayutthaya leave 4.20am-11.40pm daily from Hualumphong station (B12-B54, 90mins).
In Bang Pa-In, pedal rickshaws and tuk-tuks ply the short, walkable road to the palace. In Ayutthaya, you can hire tuk-tuks (B200/hr), and bicycles from the tourist police (B50/day) or near the train station (B40/day).
TAT Old City Hall, 108/22 Thanon Si Sanphet, Ayutthaya (0 3524 6076-7). Open 8.30am-4.30pm daily.
Samut Prakarn Wrestle with crocodiles and bike round ancient ruins.
Floating markets Estuarine attractions and a vast Buddhist theme park.
Ko Samet Beach massages, snorkelling and a mellow party scene.
Hua Hin & Cha-am World-class resorts and 5km of beaches.