Exploring the History of Siam in Ayutthaya and Sukhothai

Wat Phra Mahathat in Ayuthaya

Looking back through history, the origins of the country we now know of as Thailand are a debatable topic, as various other cultures (The Mon, Khmer, and Malays, for example) already existed in the region centuries before the arrival of the Southern Chinese immigrant known as the “Tai” — who are largely credited as being the original “Thais” — settled here near the end of the first millennium.   Further, various city-states held influence for the next few hundred years — the Dvaravati in the North and the Srivijaya in the South being the most significant — before the Khmer empire expanded its influence westward into the region, leaving many of its cultural and religious characteristics behind amongst the people of “Siam,” the term the Khmer people used for what would eventually become the Thai Kingdom.  Additionally, in the first few centuries of the second millennium, several kingdom’s were formed within modern-day Thailand, such as the Chiang Saen, Lanna of Chiang Mai, and Phayao, though the influence of these is often eclipsed by the subsequent kingdoms of Sukhothai and Ayuthaya.

All of the events listed above predated the founding of the Sukhothai kingdom in the mid-13th century, however, it is still largely because of the artistic, architectural, cultural, and religious influences from the Sukhothai period that this is commonly known as the first capital of Siam (and the period known as Thailand’s Golden Age).  Sukhothai remained the region’s capital for roughly 200 years before being absorbed into the now-more powerful kingdom of Ayuthaya, and the cultural legacy that would become today’s Thailand was cemented.

Sukhothai, Thailand:

From a geographical perspective, Ayuthaya is located only a few hours drive outside of Bangkok and was the next sight that I visited, but to maintain the proper chronology of history, I’ll address my visit to Sukhothai first (which is another 4-5 hour drive North).  The primary remains of the the Kingdom of Sukhothai encompass a 45 sq km area that is now designated the Sukhothai Historical Park, which includes 21 separate historical sites, though another 70 historical sites lay within a few miles of this central region.  The ruins are spread out over a large enough area that on one hand, to properly see the sights, it is recommended to hire a bicycle or motorbike.  On the other hand, however, this means that viewing the remains of this once great architectural city will happily be a largely solitary experience, with very few crowds or other visitors to deal with:

The expansive Wat Mahathat from across the water

Another view of Wat Mahathat

The 15m tall Buddha of Wat Si Chum

The hand of the seated Buddha at Wat Si Chum

Wat Si Sawai

Various images and offerings placed in the roots of a tree near Wat Si Sawai

Elephants adorning the Chedi of Wat Sorasak

If you don’t mind a bit of a climb, you’ll be treated to a nice view back over the surrounding countryside from Wat Saphan Hin

Cairns often claim every available surface here around the Wats. It’s been a while since I’ve run into any, but I guess I’m back on the correct path again

The pond surrounding Wat Phra Phai Luang

The bridge leading to Wat Sra Sri

Another bonus of visiting Sukhothai is being abl to sample the Sukhothai style noodles, a noodle soup characterized by a sweet broth with Phad Thai-like seasonings, pork, sliced green beans, and peanuts.

Sukhothai Style Noodles

Though not native to only Sukhothai, the fried river fish was also excellent

Ayuthaya, Thailand:

During the period that Sukhothai was the cultural and religious leader of the region, the powerhouse that was known as Ayuthaya was beginning to take hold.  Eventually, around 1350, Ayuthaya absorbed Sukhothai and became the capital of Siam, a reign that lasted over 400 years and was only ended by the invasion of the Burmese army in the late 1700’s.  Though much of its treasures were plundered, the grandeur of this marvelous city — which had developed connections with much of the Western world during its time at the helm — can still be seen today by strolling around the remaining Wats and Chedis.  Much smaller in size than Sukhothai, Ayuthaya can be easily explored on foot, though it is a bit more crowded with day-trippers, given its proximity to Bangkok.

Wat Phra Mahathat (the same site the holds the famous Buddha head in the tree roots, which was my opening picture)

Another Buddha image at Wat Phra Mahathat

Through the archway at Wat Ratburana

The 17-meter tall Bronze Buddha of Wat Wihaan Mongkhon Bophit

The sleepy, rural atmosphere of Ayuthaya

The Reclining Buddha of Wat Lokaya Sutha

Wat Chai Wattanaram, with its Khmer-style Prang

Ayuthaya also hosts a bustling night market, which attracts the likes of both tourists and locals looking for a quick bite to eat.

Beautiful piles of fruit available for sale

I was particularly fond of the Crispy Fried Catfish that many of the riverside restaurants offered (though admittedly, I didn’t know that it was going to be similar to Pork Floss in texture – being shredded, that is)

After stops in both Ayuthaya and Sukhothai, I’m continuing my journey north and am aiming to spend a few weeks resting and relaxing in Thailand’s second city of Chiang Mai.  Until then, cheers from Siam’s past!

Postscript: The history of any country, let alone Thailand, is virtually impossible to sum up in a few short paragraphs, so I apologize to any historians out there if I glossed over any significant portions or over-generalized any events.

About andrewamiet

I'm a 29 (now 31) year-old former desk jockey who is now making my way around the world, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and culture that the world has to offer.

7 Responses to “Exploring the History of Siam in Ayutthaya and Sukhothai”

  1. Great stuff. I take it people are primarily Buddhist there? Does that come across in the way people act, or their nature? I’m sure in many regions in the USA, travelers feel the Christianity vibe. Is there a strong Buddhist vibe there?

    • Definitely. Something like 95% of the population of Thailand is Theravada Buddhist – a branch of Buddhism that migrated from Sri Lanka during (coincidentally enough) the Suhkothai period of the country’s history and is practiced in India and Southeast Asia (as opposed to Mahayana Buddhism that is practiced mainly in Eastern Asia) I’ll whole-heartedly admit, however, that I didn’t know that stat until I arrived here.

      But yes to your other question as well: you can definitely see the influence of Buddhism in everyday life. Whether you’re passing orange-clad monks on the sidewalk, bouncing from the thousands of wats that adorn the country, or simply going about your daily business, it is virtually impossible to miss. There is also a native expression that I like: “Tam dee, dai dee, tam chooa, dai chooa,”, meaning “Good action bring good results, bad actions bring bad results.” It is rooted in the concept of karma that everyone here believes in, and it is illustrated clearly in most interactions you have with the Thai people. Now if we can only get the folks in the US to start acting in the same manner…

  2. Love that elephant detail on that temple.

  3. I like the contrast between the flowers and buildings. Fascinating photo display!


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