OYOP: The Journey to Chiang Mai- Ayuthaya & Sukhothai.
The two most popular cities to visit on the mainland of Thailand are the physical capital of Bangkok in the south and the cultural capital of Chiang Mai in the north. Many travelers we met recommended that to travel from south to north, we take the overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. This sounded like a pleasant new experience to me, a slow journey chugging along the Thai countryside in a sleeper cabin. But in an effort to get out of the big cities and into the less populated areas that we so adore, we decided to break up the trip instead and make two stops along the way to the small towns of Ayuthaya and Sukhothai.
In the eastern world, it is possible to get lost in history that dates back hundreds, even thousands of years, when life was nothing like we know it today. The first modern-day Thai people migrated from China into Southeast Asia in the 10th century. Much of the early Thai history can still be explored today in the present-day cities of Ayuthaya and Sukhothai. They are small towns now, but they were each once major Thai kingdoms dazzling with temples and palaces.
The Ayuthaya kingdom was the capital of the Siam empire from the mid-14th through mid-18th centuries and was considered one of the most important kingdoms in Southeast Asia. For a period of 416 years, Ayuthaya was ruled by 33 kings who lived in royal homes and had 400 extravagant temples built, each featuring countless statues of Buddha. When the Ayuthaya kingdom succumbed to the Burmese empire in 1767, the entire kingdom collapsed. The immaculate temples that were built were abandoned. Over the next 200 years, the once glorious capital was left to ruins. It wasn’t until 1991 that preservation and restoration came into play when the ruins became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We took the 2 hour train from Bangkok to Ayuthaya, and wasted no time checking into our guest house, putting our bags down and hitting the road. We rented bicycles and spent hours biking around town, visiting the crumbling brick walls that were once temple walls, and trying to imagine the city as the kingdom it was in the 13th century.
The next day, we hopped on a 6 hour bus ride to Sukhothai for another chance to immerse ourselves in the ancient history of Thailand. The bus trip offered everything that our bus trips in South America lacked. The bus had a bathroom and air conditioning, tickets included snacks, water, and a hot plate lunch at a rest stop. The bus was on time and the trip took the 6 hours that were scheduled. Still, it was a full travel day, so after arriving to Sukhothai, we had just enough energy to chat with a few other travelers from the bus, grab some dinner and crash before another full day of exploring ruins.
The ruins in Sukhothai were even more impressive and plentiful than those we saw in Ayuthaya. The Sukhothai kingdom, established in the 13th century, is considered by Thai people to be the first true Thai kingdom because of its cultural significance to Thailand. It was a king of Sukhothai who established the modern day writing system (the Thai language has its own script) and made Theravada-Buddhism the official religion.
Today, Sukhothai has wide, newly paved roads and the infrastructure to support a booming tourism industry. We read that it was one of the most visited towns in Thailand, but our experience didn’t mirror this information. Except for largest temple with the most in-tact ruins, the sites were completely empty, as in it was me, James, and a few dozen crumbling Buddhas at each site. The streets were empty too. We bicycled with little to no concern of cars, tuk-tuks, or motorcyclists. The roads became even less populated as we biked further away from the city center and into the northern and western squares, where temples were built high on hills in the middle of forests that are still dense today. The streets were empty but for a few modest countryside homes and small shops in between the temples hidden in the jungle.
Today, about 95% of the Thai population practices Buddhism, and visiting major temples across Thailand is an important ritual. Still, I’m not sure if ruins don’t count or if it was just low-season for visiting (it is the rainy season here, after all, and dreadfully humid and hot 100% of the time), but our time in Sukhothai was certainly quiet and a nice refresh before re-entering the highly visited northern city of Chiang Mai.