Do you enjoy exploring ancient ruins? There is something beautiful in what has been left behind by former civilizations. There is always something incredible in a place that seems almost too complex to fathom. During our nearly two months of backpacking in Thailand, we explored two of its best sets of ancient ruins — Ayutthaya and Sukhothai. These historical parks possess some of the most incredible displays of ancient temples and palaces in Thailand.
Not everyone has the time to visit both archaeological sites, so the usual question is should you visit Ayutthaya or Sukhothai? Here are a few details to help with your choice. Of course, I have my own preference at the end of this post, so keep reading.
Ayutthaya Historical Park
Founded in 1350, Ayutthaya was the second Siamese capital after Sukhothai. Set on an island surrounded by three rivers (Chao Phraya River, Pa Sak River and Lopburi River), Ayutthaya used to be one of the largest and most prosperous cities in the world until it was destroyed by the Burmese in the 18th century.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991, Ayutthaya is a significant archaeological site in Thailand containing temples, monasteries and statues. Ayutthaya Historical Park, while immersed in a modern city, continues to give its visitors an idea of the splendour of the former capital. If you like a mix of old and new, you will find it easy to believe that Ayutthaya historical park has the best ancient ruins in Thailand.
The Best Ruins in Ayutthaya:
Hundreds of ruins are scattered throughout the city of Ayutthaya. Most of its best ruins are located near the royal palace grounds on the island itself while others a along the banks of the rivers surrounding the island. Here are some of the best ruins in Ayutthaya:
Wat Phra Mahathat
Famous for the Buddha head entangled in the overground roots of a tree, Wat Phra Mahathat is one of the great temples around the grand palace. Most of the Buddhas in this site were beheaded by the invading Burmese. Along with the statues, the various prangs (towers) similar to the Khmer-style in Angkor Wat are prominent features in this set of ruins. Entrance Fee: 50 Baht.
Located next to the the Wat Phra Mahathat, Wat Ratchaburana is well known for its centrepiece — a Khmer-style prang with intricate carvings at the top. It was under restoration when we visited but we did see some the artistic details. Entrance Fee: 50 Baht.
Wat Phra Ram
One of the quieter Khmer-style temples we visited was Wat Phra Ram, a small complex similar to Wat Ratchaburana. The best part of this complex is the main tower, which you can climb most of the way to the top. It was actually closed when we were there but we managed to ask permission from the guard on duty to see it. Entrance Fee: 50 Baht.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet
Wat Phra Si Sanphet, characterized by its three chedis, is considered one of the most significant temples situated within the royal palace grounds. It gets pretty busy here but the incredible size of the chedis are well worth the visit. There is also a nearby Buddhist temple, Vihara Phra Mongkhon Bophit, where you can see a seated bronze Buddha statue. Entrance Fee: 50 Baht.
Wat Lokayasutharam is a temple where you can find the largest reclining Buddha in Ayutthaya, which measures 32 meters long and 8 meters high. No entrance fee.
Wat Phu Khao Thong
Located a few kilometers off the main island, Wat Phu Khao Thong is the one of the most impressive structures that we saw in Ayutthaya. Also known as the Golden Mountain Temple, the actual temple’s name refers to the high chedi which stands 50 meters tall. No entrance fee.
Probably the most impressive set of ruins in Ayutthaya, Wat Chaiwatthanaram is best explored just before sunset when its magnificent prangs and Buddha images glow in the late afternoon light. Stick around for sunset if you love silhoutte photos, this place is the best spot to take them . Entrance Fee: 50 Baht.
Another active Buddhist monastery, Wat Thammikarat is an interesting find with its main stupa surrounded by lion statues. Another intriguing sight are the hundreds of cock figurines surrounding an image of King Naresuan. Apparently, the King Naresuan was a huge fan of cock fighting. No entrance fee.
Wat Yai Chai Mongkon
Another active monastery located near the river banks of Ayutthaya is Wat Yai Chai Mongkon. This temple complex holds many well restored Buddha images. No entrance fee.
Map of the Best Ancient Ruins in Ayutthaya:
How to Visit the Ancient Ruins in Ayutthaya:
Most people only visit Ayutthaya on a day trip and don’t get the chance to see everything. You need at least a full day (we spent two days) to see the best parts of Ayutthaya.
Cycling between the ancient ruins is the best way to explore Ayutthaya. Bike rental is at 50 Baht for 12 Hours (7am – 7pm).
An alternative to cycling is hiring a tuk tuk for about 80 – 100 Baht per way to each temple. We did this for our visit to Wat Chai Wattanaram when we went to watch the sunset since we didn’t want to cycle back in the dark.
You can also hire a private tuk tuk for a 3 hour tour for 150 Baht/ person, minimum of 4 persons (however, they only have a limited list of ruins that they include in this tuk tuk tour).
How to Get to Ayutthaya Historical Park from Bangkok:
Ayutthaya is located about 80km north of Bangkok. You can arrange a day trip from Bangkok if you don’t have enough time but the best way is to really spend at least a night or two to see this ancient city properly.
From Bangkok, we took a train for 15 Baht each. It took 2 hours to reach Ayutthaya. From the train station, we then took a tuk tuk to the tourist area (close to Chao Phrom Market) for 60 Baht and stayed in a decent double room for 300 Baht.
Sukhothai Historical Park
Sukhothai was the original capital of the first Siamese Kingdom and was founded in the 13th century. Sukhothai, which means “the dawn of happiness”, is home to a number of well restored monuments, temples and statues. Many people consider Sukhothai as the best ancient ruins in Thailand because of its incredible Buddha statues.
Together with nearby historic towns, Kamphaeng Phet and Si Satchanalai, Sukhothai was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.
The Best Ancient Ruins in Sukhothai:
There are hundreds of temple ruins in Sukhothai. They are divided into three major zones: Central, Northern and Western. The best ruins are located in the fenced Central Zone and an incredible Buddha statue in the Northern Zone. Unlike Ayutthaya, the entrance fee in Sukhothai is not per temple but per zone. Entrance Fee in Sukhothai is 100 Baht for each zone.
The most popular set of ruins in Sukhothai is Wat Mahathat. Unlike the headless images in Ayutthaya, nearly all the statues in Sukhothai have been restored to their former splendour. Impressive statues of Buddha and well decorated chedis can be found within the great complex, Wat Mahathat.
Wat Si Sawai
Another important temple in the central zone is Wat Si Sawai, a Khmer temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.
Other interesting ruins around the central zone include Wat Trapang Ngoen and Wat Sra Si, which both feature “walking” Buddha statues. Another fascinating site, just outside of the fenced central zone is Wat Sorasak, a small temple with beautiful elephant statues.
Wat Si Chum
The most remarkable Buddha statue in Sukhothai is found in Wat Si Chum. From outside its high walls, only a fraction of the Buddha is visible. As you sat foot inside the enclosure, you witness the immense structure — a huge seated Buddha with fingers tapered in gold. It is definitely one of the most captivating Buddha statues I have ever seen.
Wat Phra Lai Luang
Wat Phra Lai Luang is one to be the oldest set of ruins in Sukhothai. Wat Phra Lai Luang has a unique mix of Hindu and Buddhist details in the temples which exemplifies the transition in religious belief in Sukhothai.
Wat Saphan Hin
Located on top of a hill overlooking Sukhothai, Wat Saphan Hin is known for its 12m high standing Buddha statue. It takes a bit of a walk up, but apparently the views are good from the top.
Map of the Best Ancient Ruins in Sukhothai:
How to Visit the Ancient Ruins in Sukhothai:
Cycling between the ancient ruins is the best way to explore Sukhothai. The distances are small and the roads are flat (it does get hot though). You can rent bikes just outside of the Central Zone for 30 baht. Note that bikes in Sukhothai don’t have baskets in the front (they say it’s for safety), so pack light. Tuk tuks are not allowed inside the Central Zone.
How to Get to Sukhothai Historical Park from Bangkok:
Located 427 kilometres north of Bangkok, the cheapest way to visit Sukhothai is by taking a bus from Bangkok’s Mo Chit Bus Terminal. The first class bus ticket set us back 310 baht per person and the trip took 7 hours.
From the bus station in Sukhothai, you can take a tuk tuk to either the old town, where the historical park is located or the new town, where there are more guesthouses and restaurants.
If you choose to stay in the new town, like we did, you can get a cheap songthaew to the ruins for 30 baht, which runs from 7 am until 5.30 pm. If you choose to stay for the sunset, a tuk tuk will set you back 100 baht.
So, Should You Visit Ayutthaya or Sukhothai? Where are the Best Ancient Ruins in Thailand?
The Ayutthaya and Sukhothai historical parks are both impressive sights and definitely worth seeing if you have time (especially if you like archaeological ruins like us). However, if you really have to choose or you just want to see at least one set of temple ruins in Thailand, choose Ayutthaya. The ruins here are grander albeit they are in a more ruined state (you’ll notice a lot of headless buddha statues), which I think makes it rather fascinating. It’s easy to see beauty in something that has been restored but to see beauty in something in disorder — one that has been through a state of destruction, I think that is really something special. Ayutthaya is also closer to Bangkok, which makes doing a day trip or a 2 day visit easy and more convenient.
Do you have plans to visit the ancient ruins in Thailand? Which do you think is the best one — Ayutthaya or Sukhothai? Let us know.
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