The most famous historic ruins in South East Asia are justifiably the magnificent and extensive ruins of more than three dozen often ornately decorated Temples found amidst the dense jungle at Angkor Wat, near Siem Reap in Cambodia. And as a result Angkor Wat is a heavily visited destination, attracting visitors from all around the world. Indeed when I first visited Angkor Wat in 2006, I was also fortunate enough to visit the Great Pyramids in Egypt and Machu Pichu in Peru, also both for the first time the same year, and it was Angkor Wat that for me was by far the most impressive.
What is less well known is the fact that extensive Khymer ancient ruins are also found in Cambodia’s neighbours Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Indeed whilst Thailand is usually often primarily associated with sun and sand vacations on idyllic islands, it contains a truly impressive range of historic monuments and temples spread throughout the country.
The most famous of these are perhaps the complexes found at Ayutthaya, easily accessible from Bangkok, and at Sukothai in the north of Thailand. In 2017 I had visited the Historical Parks at Phanom Rung and Prasat Muang Tam close to Buri Ram in the Isaan region, and thought they were almost as impressive as the temples at Angkor Wat.
As a result of the Covid – 19 pandemic I had stayed at my home in Pattaya in Thailand for 7 months, indeed I had not ventured more than 10 kilometers from my home and sleeping 7 months in the same bed was probably not something I had done for 20, 30 maybe 40 years or more. You can read an account of life under lockdown in Thailand here but by August life was very much back to normal in Thailand except for an absence of international tourists as the borders were closed. And when I decided not to return to either Switzerland or the UK, where it seemed a second wave of Covid – 19 and further restrictions and lockdowns were inevitable, I decided I should really take the opportunity to explore more of Thailand.
A September road trip was considered and then moved to early and then mid October and it was not until October 22, after hiring a late model rental car for £7 ($10) a day, that my friend Ampai and I finally set off, heading for Phitsanulok and the Historical Parks at Phimai, Sukothai, Si Satchanalai and Kampaeng Phet.
Our first night’s stop was at Nakhon Ratchasima (better known as the abbreviated Khorat) by which time Ampai had asked me on several occasions why we were not visiting Lopburi which she had spotted on several signposts during the day.
Given that I wanted to be back in Pattaya by November 4 to watch the US Presidential election results unfold (Good Luck with that Michael – it took weeks!) and the hoped for demise of Trump (Thank God) we were already under some time constraints and more so as I also wanted to visit Ampai’s home village to buy some furniture for the extension to her house before we planned another visit there with friends later in November.
I explained to Ampai that as a Geographer and experienced tour operator I had planned the itinerary in the most logical way to make the maximum use of the time available, but once in the hotel I checked the calendar, the maps and found that maybe it made sense to backtrack 40 miles or so, reverse our itinerary and head towards………………………Lopburi!
Ampai was indeed correct that it should have been included in our plans from the beginning as the guide books confirmed there were a number of interesting attractions to visit, as well as a gazillion of monkeys roaming around parts of the city!
For the next 8 days we dined on an unrelenting and never ending feast of interesting historic monuments and ruins by day and then often driving anything between 50 and 150 miles to our next destination during the late afternoon and early evening.
By the time we got to Ampai’s village for two days of furniture shopping and then a 300 mile drive back to Pattaya I was as tired as I have ever been from travelling, but that was my fault and mine alone for delaying our departure. In truth I would return to any of the destinations in a heartbeat and certainly all would benefit from more than the one day we spent at each, two days at Sukothai being the exception.
An added bonus for visiting any of the Thai monuments is that Thais have a great pride and awareness of their history and, as Thailand is one of the most developed of the Tiger economies of South East Asia, there has been significant government investment in the management and landscaping of all the historical parks that we visited with impressive signage and access.
I am already planning another trip to include some of the historic monuments we have yet to visit, a return to Ayutthaya which we did not include this time as we had spent a weekend there in 2013 and Yes a return to Lopburi!
Meanwhile I hope the images that follow will give you a taste of what Thailand offers to aficionados of ancient cities and civilizations.
Wat Phra Phuttabat
Wat Phra Phuttabat is one of just two royal temples located outside of Bangkok.
Wat Tham Krabok
Wat Tham Krabok is relatively modern, dating from 1957 and is characterised by many giant Buddha images. It has gained international notoriety formerly as a centre housing up to 35,000 Laotian refugees on its grounds and also for its heroin and opium drug rehabilitation programs, which have treated over 110,000 patients including several western celebrities.
Lopburi is a historic town dating back to the 6th century that easily justifies a two day stay, with historic ruins and temples spread over several sites, as well as an outstanding museum. It is however most famous today for what are quite possibly the world’s most aggressive monkeys that live amidst the ruins.
Phra Narai Ratchaniwet
The Phra Narai Ratchaniwet Palace dates from the 17th century and contains an outstanding National Museum. The Palace and grounds are the centrepiece of Lopburi.
Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat
The extensive grounds include renovated Khymer ruins from the 6th century and the Khymer style Prang towers are almost 30 metres high.
Prang Sam Yot
Prang Sam Yot faces the railway station and is the most famous attraction in Lopburi. The three linked towers date from the 12th century and are believed to be of Hindu origin representing Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma but were converted to a Buddhist monument in the Ayutthaya period and now contain ruined Buddha images as well as a few bats! The grounds and surrounding streets are the home for hundreds of sometimes aggressive monkeys as the following images will illustrate!
Wat Sao Thong Thong
The temple with several halls almost 500 years old remains active and contains a large monastery.
Kamphaeng Phet is located half way between Bangkok and Chiang Mai and, in comparison with Ayutthaya and Sukothai, receives far fewer visitors. Nevertheless it contains many impressive historic ruins encompassed in a Unesco World Heritage site and with the impact of Covid – 19 we virtually had the monuments to ourselves.
Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park Central Zone
Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park Northern Zone
There are over 40 restored Temple compounds ranging from little more than outline foundations to an extensive complex in the forested northern zone about a mile from the centre. These include a giant standing Buddha at Wat Phra Si Iriyabot and the elephant buttressed Wat Chang (Elephant) Rawp.
Wat Phra Borommathat
The large riverside Chedi dates from the late Sukothai period and is now crowned with a Burmese type umbrella added in the early 20th century.
Sukothai is without doubt, one of South East Asia’s top historical attractions and for almost 200 years from 1238 until it was taken over by Ayuthhaya, Sukothai was the seat of a new Thai kingdom and this period is often considered to be the ‘golden era’ of Thai civilization. The remains of the kingdom at and around Sukothai are one of Thailand’s most visited ancient sites and the World Heritage listed Historical Park is divided into three main zones: central, northern and western.
Sukothai Historical Park Central Zone
The Central zone is dominated by the graceful Chedi of Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat and the nearby 12 metre standing Buddha known as Phra Atharot. Wat Si Sawai with its Hindu origins and three prangs (towers) and the island situated Wat Sa Si with is graceful chedi are other notable temples in the Central zone.
Sukothai Historical Park Northern Zone
The northern zone of the Historical Park contains Wat Si Chum, which houses a massive seated Buddha known as Phra Atchana which fills the interior of a large roofless hall. This giant statue of Buddha is arguably the most impressive image of Buddha to be found anywhere in Thailand let alone in Sukothai!
Wat Chang Lom
Wat Chang Lom is located just outside Sukothai in a rural location close to the Mae Lam Phan canal. The base of the bell shaped chedi is adorned by 32 elephant sculptures.
Wat Trapang Thong
The ‘Temple of the Golden Lake’ is located close to the Historical Park’s Central Zone and is reached by one of two footbridges across the surrounding lotus filled pond which was also the original site for Thailand’s Loy Krathong Festival.
Loy Krathong in Sukothai
Other than Thai New Year, Loy Krathong is Thailand’s most important annual celebration. As the tradition of celebrating Loy Krathong originated in Sukothai there is no better place to watch the celebrations, which are considered to be the finest in Thailand. For five days every November the historic park makes a spectacular setting with fireworks, folk dance performances, sound and light productions, all set amidst the temples and of course with the magical floating lanterns on the ponds and canals. Thais believe that the light of the candle shows respect to Buddha and the floating away of the Krathong on water is symbolic of letting go of one’s hatred, anger, sins, worries and bad luck. We were fortunate to be in Sukothai for Loy Krathong and at night the park was transformed into a colourful circus of eating, shopping and entertainment with thousands of ornate krathongs made of flowers being purchased to float away on the water.
Si Satchanalai is set amidst hills and located about an hour’s drive (50km) north of Sukothai and attracts far fewer visitors, but has extensive Khmer ruins dating from the 11th century onwards, as well as temples from the later Sukothai period. In normal times with fewer visitors it is a more peaceful and quieter setting than Sukothai but whilst the Covid–19 pandemic persists there were few visitors at either location at the time of our visits. The ruins are found in two locations: Chaliang was one of the distant outposts of the Angkor empire based in present day Cambodia and offers Khmer ruins with later additions in the Sukothai style, whilst extensive Sukothai ruins dating from the 13th to 15th centuries are found just a few kilometers away in the Si Satchanalai Historical Park. The archeological excavations at Wat Chom Chuen have confirmed that settlement in this area was established in the 4th century at the beginning of the Dvaravati era.
Chaliang – Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat
The temple which shares a name with a temple in Sukothai is perhaps the most impressive site in Si Satchanalai with Khmer origins and many Buddha images added in the 14th century.
Chaliang – Wat Chao Chan
This 12th century Khmer temple is draped by trees and is of a similar architectural style to the temple of Angkor Thom at Angkor Wat.
Chaliang – Wat Chom Chuen Archeological site
Excavations adjacent to the temple have revealed 15 human skeletons dating from the 4th to 11th centuries which confirm there was a Dvaravati settlement here which predated the 11th century arrival of the Khmer empire.
Si Satchanalai Historical Park
A two kilometer walk, rental bikes or a tourist tram are the options for exploring this extensive park with several separate temples sites spread over the wooded area.
Wat Nang Phaya
Wat Nang Phaya dates from the 16th century Ayutthaya period and displays some beautiful stucco reliefs reflecting Chinese and Lanna influences.
Wat Chedi Ched Thaeo
This important former monastery is the centrepiece of the historical park and contains 33 stupas and was possibly a royal graveyard in the Sukothai period.
Wat Chang Lom
This graceful temple is notable for its distinctive bell shaped chedi and the remains of 39 elephant statues around its base. There are also many sitting Buddha images in the niches around the base of the chedi which was built between 1285 and 1291.
After 4 days exploring Kamphaeng Phet, Sukothai and Si Satchanalai we drove 300 miles south east to the Isaan area and our destination was Phimai, which has one of Thailand’s finest Khmer temple complexes in the very centre of the town. Many visitors make comparisons with Angkor Wat which is perhaps not surprising given that Phimai was located on the trade route linking the Khmer capital of Angkor with the northern outposts of the Khmer empire. The construction dates from the 10th and 11th centuries.
Ban Prasat Archeological site
On our drive from Sukothai to Phimai we visited the Ban Prasat Archeological site just 15km outside of Phimai, where three burial sites and a small museum are left open and unattended in this sleepy village. The skeletons and artifacts testify that a rice growing and cattle raising community was living in the area 2,500 years ago.
Our nine day mini road trip had introduced us to an almost unparalleled collection of historic remains and we saw a very different Thailand to the one experienced by tourists who come to Thailand for idyllic beach vacations or to explore the markets and colourful temples of more recent origin found in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. The excellently presented Historical Parks and associate Museum were an illuminating introduction to Thailand’s history and past civilisations.
If you have an interest in history, architecture or design and, when the memories of the current pandemic hopefully fade, you could do a lot worse than book a ticket to Thailand, rent a car and explore some of the great historic sites that Thailand has to offer.
© Michael Bromfield