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Going north from Bangkok, travelers who trace the route of the Chao Phraya River will feel as if they are traveling back in time. Starting with the ruins of Ayutthaya, as you go north, you will discover a series of former capitals: first Ayutthaya, then Lopburi. Farther north, the nation's most famous architectural wonder, Sukhothai, is traditionally considered the seat of the first Thai kingdom, from 1238. Beyond Sukhothai, to the north, is the land once called Lanna, or the Land of a Million Rice Fields. This distinct ancient kingdom meandered between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, and brought totally different customs and architecture.

Central Thailand is also the country's "Great Rice Bowl," known for its agricultural abundance. Winding rivers cut through a mosaic of rice fields, and smaller villages and towns provide a window into the heart of Thailand's rural culture. If you have the time, the most atmospheric way to travel from Bangkok to Ayutthaya is by boat. It's also a short ride by train, and many make the hop to Lopburi before going on to Phitsanulok, the commercial and transportation hub of the Central Plains. Farther west, bordering Myanmar (Burma), the town of Mae Sot is surrounded by refugee camps, which, for years, have been offering humanitarian aid to the Burmese. Travelers can also choose to continue north to Chiang Mai by road or rail from Phitsanulok.