Thailand is home to some of the most stunning sites of cultural and historical import in the world.
Whether you’re here for two weeks or ten years, the nation’s abundance of temples, ruins, shrines and historic architecture should be near the top of your must-see list.
The fascinating movement of the Thai kingdom’s borders through the centuries, and the evolution of the Thai people from a slew of different nations and cultures have ensured that these sites show an equally diverse array of influences and styles – most notably Buddhist, Hindu and Khmer.
Expand your horizons; it’s time to go back in time. Here are some of our favourite historical sites…
1. Rattanakosin Island
Bangkok; 18th Century
Rattanakosin Island is the historic centre of Bangkok and in many ways, is the antithesis of the Sukhumvit neighbourhood (save for similarly pesky levels of traffic). With the Chao Phraya river framing its western side, small artificial moats separate the rest of Rattanakosin from the city that were intended upon their construction in the 18th century to fortify the royal residence: the Grand Palace.
In addition to the Grand Palace complex, Rattanakosin Island is also home to Wat Pho and the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, Wat Saket, The Golden Mount and Wat Suthat – important sites of Buddhist worship. Also in situ is the Giant Swing; a literal giant red swing that was used in the past for young men to swing from in a ceremony every year where they would try and reach an elevated pot of gold.
2. Chiang Saen
Chiang Rai; 14th Century
Chiang Saen is one of Thailand’s oldest cities, thought to have been built in 545 AD by Tai migrants from China, and one of the most important settlements of the Lanna Kingdom, founded in 1325 or 1328. It was sacked by King Rama 1 in the early 19th century and was nought but a ghost town until the 20th. Chiang Saen sits on the banks of the Mekong River, looking over to Laos and Myanmar, and forms part of the legendary Golden Triangle.
Within the city walls are plenty of historical temples, including Wat Phra That Chedi Luang, a site built by King Saen Phu in the early 13th century and incorporating an 88-metre high Chedi, and Wat Phra Chao Lan Thong, a 1,200kg Buddha statue. Plenty of ancient sites exist outside of the city walls to explore as well.
Ayutthaya; 14th Century
Just marginally north of Bangkok is the magnificent city of Ayutthaya, a former Siamese kingdom and once the largest city in the world. Established in the mid-14th Century, Ayutthaya was sacked by the Burmese in 1767, and it was almost wholly razed to the ground. Although now the historical city is just ruins, its grandeur has hardly paled and it’s one of the most important and impressive places to visit in Thailand. The main historical sites can be found on the island of the old city, formed at the confluence of three rivers: the Chao Phraya, Lop Buri and Pa Sak.
There’s plenty to see in Ayutthaya; some of the main places to look out for are Wat Phra Si Sanphet, abundant in chedis, Wat Phra Mahatha, home to the Buddha head encased within the roots of a tree, and the Phet Fortress.
Nakhon Ratchasima; mostly 11th and 12th Century
Phimai Historical Park is another treasure trove of Khmer architecture – some of which is even older than the world famous Angkor Wat in Cambodia – and its most important temple marks the end of the Ancient Khmer Highway. Although the structures were constructed for Buddhist worship, evidence of Hinduism and Animism can also be spotted. The complex as a whole bears a striking resemblance to Angkor Wat, if on a smaller scale.
Inside the park is the Phimai Sanctuary – Thailand’s most important Khmer site – which is home to a pagoda, Naga bridge and Gopura, and you can also find the city gate and walls, and Men Brahmadat – thought to be where a past king was cremated. Just 2 kilometres away is Sai Ngam – the largest Banyan tree in the world – and the Thung Samrit Memorial – a field commemorating a battleground between the Khorat people and the Laotians.