With lush hilly forests, seemingly untouched beaches and fertile rice fields, Thailand – once known as Siam – offers a rich landscape full of even richer historic sites to discover. Thailand’s long history includes the early period of the Mon Khmer who first adopted Buddhism, the 400-year-long kingdom of Ayutthaya and the reign of the great Taksin.
This legacy has left behind a host of top historic sites to visit. Among the best are the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, the Grand Palace in Bangkok and Phanom Rum.
From a huge number of incredible sites, here’s our selection of the must-see locations to visit on your travels around Thailand.
Ayutthaya was an ancient city in Thailand whose beautiful ruins stand as a testament to this once thriving port settlement. Visitors can still view Ayutthaya’s many Buddha statues, its giant complex of temples which once numbered an estimated four hundred and three palaces.
Perhaps the best way to get around in Ayutthaya is by bicycle, with its many cycling routes providing a natural itinerary. Ayutthaya is usually an entire day’s trip, particularly for those coming from Bangkok and tours are available.
2. The Grand Palace - Bangkok
The Grand Palace in Bangkok has been a royal residence of the Chakri Dynasty since the reign of that house’s first monarch, King Rama I. With its beautiful Thai-style architecture and spanning over 200,000 square metres, the Grand Palace is one of the foremost tourist attractions in Thailand.
The Grand Palace is actually made up of a series of buildings, including government offices, monasteries and a museum and a visit can last three or four hours. The rest of the complex is divided into two sections called the inner and outer courts, most of which are out of bounds to the public. It can help to hire a guide beforehand if you want to learn about the Grand Palace history and make absolutely sure you abide by the strict dress code (no shorts, mini skirts, short sleeves, sandals or tight trousers).
3. Ancient Siam
Ancient Siam is a privately owned museum and reportedly the world’s largest outdoor museum. Shaped like Thailand, Ancient Siam is almost an entire recreation of the country with miniature replicas and reconstructions of most of its important sites in the correct locations.
Whilst Ancient Siam does contain some original artifacts, the appeal of this little known attraction lies not in its authenticity, but in the overview it provides of Thai history and the attention to detail in recreating national treasures. Amongst its recreations, visitors can see The Tiger King’s Palace of Phetchaburi, The Ancient Theatrical Pavilion, The Royal Stand and many more.
4. Temple of the Reclining Buddha
The Temple of the Reclining Buddha is one of the oldest sacred temples in Bangkok in Thailand and is a first grade royal monastery. Located next to the Grand Palace, the current Temple of the Reclining Buddha was built in 1788 by King Rama I of the Chakri Dynasty, whose ashes are kept in the temple.
The Temple of the Reclining Buddha is endowed with over a thousand images of Buddha, but is probably most famous for housing the Reclining Buddha which, with its gold-plated body measuring 46 metres long and 15 metres high, is the largest portrayal of Buddha in Thailand.
5. Kanchanaburi War Cemetary
The Kanchanaburi War Cemetary – known locally as the Don-Rak cemetery – is located on the main road in the town of Kanchanaburi.
There lies close to 7,000 former POWs prisoners of war, mostly British, Australian and Dutch but other Commonwhealth servicemen as well, who sacrificed their lives building the Death Railway during World War Two. This was the notorious 258 mile long Burma-Siam railway, which the Japanese forced POWs to construct during the war.
6. Temple of the Emerald Buddha
The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is a sacred monastery in the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Made up of a series of incredible gold buildings, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha contains a legendary 2 foot tall statue of Buddha in its assembly hall or ‘Ubosoth’.
The Emerald Buddha, which is actually made of jade, is thought to date back as far the 14th century and was said to have been kept in plaster casing in a Chiang Rai monument until it was uncovered when the monument was struck by lightning. It was discovered in 1464 and has since been the subject of many disputes and even wars.
As with the Grand Palace generally, it can be beneficial to have a guide with you which you can book in advance. Note the strict dress code in the Grand Palace.
7. Kwai River Bridge
The Kwai River Bridge was part of the meter-gauge railway constructed by the Japanese during World War Two. It is famously known as the setting for the a 1957 World War Two epic film Bridge over the River Kwai. The railway ran for 250 miles from Ban Pong, Thailand to Thanbyuzayat, Burma and is now known as the Death Railway. It was built using POWs and Asian slave labourers, who were kept in awful conditions.
Nowadays, the bridge can be crossed on foot or with a small tourist train that runs back and forth. A light and sound show takes place each year on November 28, to commemorate the bombing. The remains of some 7,000 POW labourers who sacrificed their lives in the railway construction lie in the nearby Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. Another 2,000 are laid to rest at the Chungkai Cemetery.
8. Wat Pratat Doi Suthep
Wat Pratat Doi Suthep is a Buddhist Theravada temple and sacred site in Thailand. The exact origins of this ornate temple are uncertain, although several legends testify to its beginnings.
Otherwise, it is generally believed to date back to 1383 when the first stupa was built there, and has since been expanded over time.
Today, Wat Pratat Doi Suthep is a sumptuously decorated temple reached by a climb up 309 steps. Don’t worry if you are not keen on the climb, as a tram will also take you up to the pagodas. Standing at the site is also a large white elephant statue commemorating the founding myth.
9. Phra Pathom Chedi
Phra Pathom Chedi, meaning the first or principal holy stupa, is the tallest stupa in Thailand with a spire reaching 124 metres into the sky. Although the stupa has no historical origins on record, there has been a scared site at Phra Pathom Chedi since the reign of the emperor Ashoka on the Indian subcontinent between 269 and 232 BC.
Today you can visit the incredible complex which, when viewed from above, takes the form of a giant Buddhist mandala and represents the Buddhist cosmology with Phra Pathom Chedi in the middle.
10. Phanom Rum
Over 1,000 years old and built on the edge of an extinct volcano at 402 metres about sea-level, Phanom Rung is the best preserved and most impressive Khmer Hindu temple complex in Thailand.
Today, you enter the site along a 160 metre-long processional walkway leading to the temple, with incredible views of the main tower. A pavilion on the right hand side of the walkway was built for the King to prepare himself for ceremonies in the temple. At the end of the walkway you reach the Naga Bridge, symbolising your passing from the earthly world into the world of the Gods…