Uncovering Thailand’s History
With a history as rich as Thailand's there is plenty to keep even the most hardcore historian enthralled, and with landscapes and culture to boot, there isn't much this wonderful country can't offer. This 14-day itinerary takes in the best bits.
Itinerary at a Glance:
- Stay in a floating hotel and experience life on the River Kwai while learning about the work of the WWII prisoners of war
- Discover the history and rituals of some of the traditional villages around Chiang Rai
- Visit the many beautiful temples and traditional markets in Chiang Mai
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Day 1: Arrive and Head to Ayutthaya
Once you have landed into Bangkok, you will be collected from the airport and whisked just over an hour north in a private vehicle to Ayutthaya, where the vacation can really get under way.
Ayutthaya is a fascinating city, full of temples and monasteries and surrounded by the colourful floating markets and bustling life on the Chao Phraya and Pa Sak Rivers which run around the city. Once you have checked in to your hotel, head out for a wander along these rivers, experiencing local Thai life for the first time as you do. With your legs stretched it's then back to the hotel where you take spend the rest of the day taking it easy as you settle into your new time zone.
Day 2: Ayutthaya Historical Park
This morning get up for a guided tour of the ruins of the old city of Ayutthaya, which was the royal capital in the 14th century, and is now recognised as a UNESCO Protected Historical Park.
Although much of the city was destroyed in 1767 when the Burmese army invaded, there is still enough evidence of its former grandeur and with your guide to fill you in on the history and navigate the impressive network of canals, the city will really come to life. During the tour you'll visit the main sites, admiring their unique architectural styles. Start with Wat Phra Sri Sanphet, a classic example of Ayutthaya architecture and the former home to a 50ft high gold Buddha, which was sadly melted down by the Burmese. Continue to Wat Yai Chaimongkol, which has an impressive collection of seated Buddha images, and then to Wat Mahathat, where you'll find the famous stone Buddha face which, over the years, has been encircled by tree roots.
Day 3: To the River Kwai
Get up early this morning to head west to Kanchanaburi and the River Kwai. The drive is around two-and-a-half-hours and will lead you to the infamous Bridge on the River Kwai which was built by allied prisoners of war during World War II.
Stop for lunch in a local restaurant here and then wander across the bridge before visiting the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre Museum to get a better understanding of the brutal history behind the bridge and the so-called 'death railway' that it served. Afterwards you'll also be able to stroll through the charming and historic lanes of the Pak Preak community before heading to your hotel for the night.
Rather than your average hotel transfer, this afternoon's is via a traditional longtail boat to your equally untraditional hotel, which is floating along the banks of the river. Without compromising on the luxury levels you'll here be able to enjoy the completely unique experience of sleeping in a floating room, dining in the floating restaurant and stargazing from your floating terrace.
Day 4: Hellfire Pass
After waking up to the sounds of the birds in the surrounding jungle and a hearty breakfast on the water, hop in the boat and make the journey to dry land before transferring on to the Hellfire Pass Museum.
From there you'll be able to take a walk through the nearby canyon and along the Memorial Walking Trail which overlooks the hills of Myanmar. A free audio guide narrated by former prisoners of war will be provided to help you fully appreciate the conditions endured by those working on the line during World War II.
After what has been a sombre but educational morning, it's time to lighten the mood with a leisurely lunch and then the transfer back to your floating hotel for an afternoon of relaxation. With kayaks and traditional bamboo rafting boats available for guests to use you can get out on the water or get in it with a swim. Or, for those wanting to stay dry, relax on your sun lounger with a good book and simply enjoy the tranquillity.
Day 5: To Bangkok
Wave goodbye to the peace and quiet of the water as you are transferred by boat and private car to the hubbub of the capital. With its bustling streets, lively atmosphere and rich culture Bangkok is a must visit for any Thailand trip and we'll make sure you get to see all the very best of it.
Once you've checked in to your hotel, relax for a few hours before you are picked up for your evening adventure. Passing the floodlit Grand Palace and Wat Pho on your way, you'll be driven to the Chao Phraya riverside, where you'll go to a small boutique hotel for a cocktail overlooking the river. Afterwards make the short walk to your dinner spot for tonight, also on the banks of the river, but with Wat Arun as the backdrop.
Having eaten you'll then be able to explore the grounds of Wat Pho after hours, making sure to stop at the chedi (Buddhist stupa) which will be lit up and looking especially magical, and visit the famous backpacker's haunt and lively market street, Khao San Road.
Day 6: Bangkok Architectural Tour
A city famous for its eclectic buildings, Bangkok is an architectural mix of ancient pagodas, fantastical palaces, traditional wooden houses and towering skyscrapers. Learn how this mixture of buildings came to be and how it reflects Thailand's history on a morning boat tour along the river.
After boarding a private luxury boat, set sail and cruise across the river to Chee Chin Khor temple. Although not very old, this 20th century pagoda is Bangkok's best example of traditional Chinese pagoda design, influenced by the Chinese Buddhism movement here. Then, continue by boat to Wat Prayun Wongsawat for some more traditional Thai architecture. Stop to admire the central chedi, which is over 260ft tall and surrounded by 18 smaller towers, creating a remarkable visual effect.
Next up is Wat Prayoon, where you'll find various spirit houses, and then Wat Arun, an iconic riverside monument which was designed to represent Mount Meru, the spiritual centre of Buddhist cosmology. Admire Wat Arun from the river and take particular notice of the ceramic inlays on the chedis, which have been lovingly restored over several years.
With the tour almost finished travel into Bangkok Noi canal, a residential area filled with shops, houses and local temples, to see the old aristocratic homes. Then, on the way back to town, make one last stop at Wat Cha Lo, a hidden temple that is designed like a boat, with an incredible mythical swan sculpture emerging from the front of it.
Day 7: Grand Palace and More
During another guided tour today you'll visit the Grand Palace, perhaps Bangkok's most famous site.
To make sure you don't miss out on some of the lesser known highlight of the city you'll also make several stops along the way too. Start with a cruise through the Thonburi Klongs, the network of canals on the western banks of the central Chao Phraya River. Life here is much more rural than in the city and provides opportunity to see how the locals live away from the busy tourist areas; you'll also stop at Wat Arun temple. Next up is, as promised, the Grand Palace, where you will visit the majestic throne halls and mysterious Emerald Buddha. Though these sights will be busy, your guide will know the best routes around the site and can guide you away from the other tourists.
After you've finished exploring, head for lunch at Supatra River House, which overlooks the Chao Phraya River. Then, in the afternoon visit Vimanmek Palace, the world's largest teak building, and finish the day with a stop at the marble temple of Wat Benjamabophit.
Day 8: To Chiang Rai
With a few days in the city under your belt we wouldn't be surprised if you're itching to get back out exploring the countryside by now. You will be collected from your hotel and driven to the airport to take a short flight north to Chiang Rai, and then collected and dropped off at your new hotel in the heart of the lush north.
This afternoon you'll explore the historic streets of Chiang Rai on a guided rickshaw tour - the best way to see the sights. Start at the King Mengrai Monument, which pays tribute to the ruler who founded Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai and built the foundations of the Lanna Kingdom. From here, climb aboard your rickshaw and head to the local market, where you can browse the stalls piled high with fresh produce, joining the locals as they chat with stall owners and bargain for the best prices.
Then, continue to the Wat Phra Kaew Temple, home to a beautiful brass and copper Buddha, before visiting the Hilltribe Museum, where you'll learn more about the tribes who live in the rural areas north of the city. Finally, journey on to the stunning white temple of Wat Rong Khun with its unusual and controversial kanok architecture. The tour then finishes with a leisurely lunch of traditional Thai dishes, eaten at Chivit Thammada with views of the Kok River.
Day 9: Chiang Rai
Departing from Chiang Rai after breakfast this Golden Triangle tour begins with a drive north, through spectacular landscapes toward the northern border with Myanmar.
Not long after leaving the city, you'll arrive in Mae Chan where you can visit the Yao and Akha hilltribes, getting a close look at the unique cultures and traditions practised by these friendly and fascinating people. Then, after venturing further into the hills, stop to take a stroll through a bustling marketplace and have lunch in a local restaurant.
This afternoon the adventure continues, as you drive further north to the area where the Mekong River joins the Ruak River. It's here that the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos converge and form a triangle, giving the area its iconic name. Cruising in a traditional boat you'll explore the waterways, enjoying the passing scenery, learning which blocks of land belong to each country and how the opium trade once thrived here.
Before returning to Chiang Rai you'll make one last stop at the old city of Chiang Saen, where you can explore the ancient ruins and temples which date back to the 16th century.
Day 10: To Chiang Mai
Head towards your final destination of the vacation today as you are picked up from your hotel and transferred to Chiang Mai. The journey takes you around three hours south west and will pass some beautiful scenery on the way so keep your eyes peeled.
When you arrive, the afternoon is yours to enjoy settling in to your new hotel and relaxing by the pool or in the hotel gardens.
Day 11: Elephants
Visiting an elephant camp is a must do on any Thailand vacation, and visiting the Elephant Nature Park in the Mae Taeng Valley is a really special experience.
After driving from Chiang Mai you'll arrive and be met by one of the volunteers from the park to learn about the work done here. Established more than 20 years ago, the park provides a sanctuary for mistreated elephants. Hearing the tales of some of the park's residents, you'll gain a better understanding of the threats to the Thai elephant population and their natural habitat.
Then, wander through the park to meet the elephants themselves. They are allowed to roam completely free in the park but have become accustomed to the daily feeding routines so are likely to be around. Join the staff to feed and bathe the elephants, getting up close and personal with one of the world's most beautiful creatures. Take plenty of photographs to remember the day by and then say farewell before you return to Chiang Mai.
Day 12: Temples
Focusing on the theme of the itinerary, today you are back to discovering the historical side of Chiang Mai, with a guided temple tour this morning.
Start with a visit to the town centre, admiring Tapae Gate and the crumbling city walls as your guide gives you the lowdown on the city's past. Then hop on a pedal-powered trishaw to explore the old town where you'll stop at the Three Kings Monument on the way to Wat Phra Singh, one of the city's most revered temples. See the various buildings in the compound, admire its ancient Buddha image and hear about its seven century history. Then continue foot to Wat Chedi Luang, another impressive monument that once housed the country's famed Emerald Buddha.
Finally, pass through Chiang Mai's silver district and see the skilled silversmiths at work, and visit Wat Sri Suphan, a unique temple made from ornate silver. The afternoon is then yours to relax and ponder your newly acquired knowledge.
Day 13: Chiang Mai
To prepare you for your return home tomorrow we have arranged a guided tour into the highlands around Doi Suthep, where you can enjoy a traditional-style English afternoon tea.
Though your mid walk nibbles might be decidedly English - think scones, sandwiches and cakes - the scenery is far from it. Keep an eye out for the locals wandering with their traditional colourful Lanna umbrellas and breathe in some fresh air as you take in the panoramic views.
Come evening we suggest visiting the night market for some last minute shopping and the chance to get a real feel for the buzz of Chiang Mai at night. Wander through the labyrinth of stalls selling everything from local crafts to smooth silk and silver jewellery. Then sit down for one last leisurely Thai dinner - we can recommend the perfect place for your last night.
Day 14: Home Time
Unfortunately it's time to head home this morning with a short flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and then on to the connecting flight home from there.
Miranda and Frances are our experts for this itinerary and as seasoned travellers they have the inside track on the most memorable adventures.