Thailand isn’t just about beaches, partying and relaxation. In fact, you’ll be surprised how much more there is to this South East Asian destination that has a surprising level of sophistication and historical charm. Whether you’re renting a house in Thailand overlooking the sea or are on a budget, you’ll find plenty of cultural activities and opportunities to learn more about the rich backstory. Here’s a guide for history-buffs who want to get the most out of their trip to Thailand.
Thailand’s history dates back to the 13th-century. Formerly Siam until 1948, the nation was once home to the most beautiful city in the world according to European traders in the 1700s and several UNESCO World Heritage Sites in today’s Thailand. Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, the first and second capitals, are favourite sites for fans of history. If you’re interested in World War 2, you’ll want to visit Thailand’s Death Railway and Bridge over the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi.
Bangkok has a lot of history lurking below the surface that few tourists take the time to appreciate fully. The most famous attraction is the Grand Palace, which has been the official residence of the King since the 18th-century. King Rama I in 1782 moved the capital of Siam from Thonburi to present-day Bangkok. He immediately ordered the construction of the Grand Palace. Successive Kings added to the building making it bigger and more lavish over the last two and a half centuries.
Bangkok’s historical centre is clustered on the intra-city Rattanakosin Island. The Chao Phraya River surrounds it, and a series of canals connect the island to other parts of the city. You’ll find the main historical sites including the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Phra Keo in one of the only areas that hasn’t changed much over the last century. The best way to get around Rattanakosin Island is on foot.
Wat Pho is probably Bangkok’s most historic site. The Wat dates back to the 16th-century and has stood on the same spot for over a century before King Rama I moved the capital to Bangkok. In 1788, six years after the new city was founded, the King order the Wat to be rebuilt on a much grander scale. Today it’s the oldest and largest temple in the city. The most prized possession is the 46 metres (151 feet) Reclining Buddha whose exterior has a covering of gold. You can see more than 1000 images of Buddha inside the temple and various religious relics too.
Kanchanaburi and the Death Railway
During World War 2, the Japanese tried to build a railway from Thailand and Myanmar to India. The workforce consisted of mostly British and Australian prisoners of war (POWs) who lived and worked in appalling conditions. Some of you may have heard of the film called ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’ where thousands of POWs laboured to build the bridge. Well, you can visit it within a few hours from Bangkok in Kanchanaburi.
The train journey from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi is inexpensive and passes over the actual railway. It’s said one person died for each laid sleeper. The train journey passes through some of Thailand’s most beautiful scenery. Inside Kanchanaburi town, you can pay your respects in the POW cemetery, learn about the conditions under the Japanese in the museum and walk over the Bridge over the River Kwai.
If you want to visit the more infamous site, head to the end of the railway line and go to the Hellfire Pass. The Hellfire Pass is a notorious section of the rock that mostly Australian POWs had to break through. Many lost their lives. Australians today tend to come to pay their respects.
And while you’re in the region, be sure to check out the natural beauty in and around Kanchanaburi including waterfalls, national parks and stunning views of the valley from the train.
Ayutthaya, a favourite day trip from Bangkok, was once one of Asia’s most prosperous cities in the 1700s. Established in 1350, Siam’s second capital grew to a population of more than one million residents in the early 18th-century making it the largest city at the time. Being at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, European merchants regularly visited for trade and claimed it was the most beautiful city they had ever seen.
Palaces, temples and monasteries dominated the skyline until the Burmese invaded and razed Ayutthaya in 1767. Today, the ruins remain inside the Nakhon Si Ayutthaya Historical Park and cemented in history by its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Siam’s first capital, Sukhothai, is one of the most important historical sites in Thailand. King Ramkhamhaeng established the city in the northern part of the modern nation 400 kilometres from Bangkok in the 13th-century. The King also founded the Thai Alphabet and developed a political and religious system. Ancient Sukhothai, or the’ Dawn of Happiness’ in English, was the centre of Siam for 120 years.
Today, tourists can visit the UNESCO-listed Historical Park and walk around temple ruins, the Royal Palace and Wat Mahathat. You should also take the time to visit the Ramkhamhaeng Museum to learn more about the importance of Thailand’s former king.
After reading this article, hopefully you can now appreciate the historical importance of Thailand from the formation of Siam in Sukhothai to the more recent events of World War 2. Be sure to check out the centuries-old pagodas, museums and to make your trip to Thailand educational. If you read up and learn about what you’re visiting and seeing, it makes the whole experience more meaningful.