1-Week Ancient Capitals Tour

This 1-week itinerary, heading north from Bangkok, traces the nation’s legacy back to its ancient seats of power. First, you’ll head north to Ayutthaya—the capital of Siam until the late 18th century—and then you’ll carry on via Phitsanulok to Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai, the birthplace of the Kingdom of Siam (it was here that Thai language, art, and architecture as we know it today began). Final stop is the the ancient Lanna capital of Chiang Mai, which became a part of Siam/Thailand only in the early 20th century. The journey can be made by a combination of bus and train, though I'd recommend hiring a driver, which offers more comfort and flexibility.

Day 1: Bangkok to Ayutthaya -- You can make the short trip to Ayutthaya in about an hour and a half, leaving most of the day for sightseeing. The best way to see the sights and appreciate the expansiveness of the temples is to rent a bike, though driving is possible. Start pedaling for Wat Phra Mahathat, in the city center, which is the most striking of the Ayutthaya ruins, and Wat Phra Si Sanphet, with its three slender stupas. If you have time, take a late-afternoon tour by longtail boat around the city island to see the more far-flung ruins. In the evening, dine at a floating restaurant on the riverside. The ruins are illuminated in the evening, so a night tour is another option. Return to your Ayutthaya hotel.

Day 2: Bang Pa-In, Lopburi & Ayutthaya -- Arrange a car and driver from the hotel to take you to these two destinations near Ayutthaya, allowing half a day for each site. Bang Pa-In is not an ancient Siamese capital, but it is a royal retreat that was particularly popular in the reign of King Chulalongkorn (r. 1868-1910); the curious mix of Thai and Western colonial architecture makes a striking contrast with the ruins at Ayutthaya.

Grab a bowl of rice or noodles for a roadside lunch as you head north to Lopburi, another favorite royal retreat in the era of King Narai. Visit King Narai's Palace and the museum on the grounds. Take a look at Ban Vichayen, once home of King Narai's Western advisor, Constantine Phaulkon; and visit the town's mischievous macaques at Phra Prang Sam Yot before heading back to Ayutthaya.

In the evening, take a stroll along Naresuan Road Soi 2, where you'll find several places serving Western food, and some providing free Internet access and live music.

Day 3: Ayutthaya to Phitsanulok -- Check out early and catch a northbound train to Phitsanulok. Most of the day will be spent looking out over endless rice paddies from the train during the 300km (186-mile) journey. Check in at your hotel, and then cross the river and stroll upstream to Wat Yai, the town’s only must-see attraction. In the evening, take a stroll back downstream beside the Nan River to the Night Market; order some flying vegetables (a type of water spinach popular in Thai cooking) and have your camera ready to catch them being thrown some distance by the chef onto plates.

Day 4: Phitsanulok to Sukhothai -- Drive to Sukhothai, check into your hotel and spend the rest of the day exploring Sukhothai Historical Park. As in Ayutthaya, it’s fun to see the central area by rented bicycle, though for the furthest temples you’ll need car or taxi. Start at the Ramkhamhaeng National Museum to get clued up on this remarkable site, and then head for the most important ruins at Wat Phra Mahathat, Wat Traphang Tong, and Wat Si Chum

Ask at the hotel if there is any light and sound show presentation at the historical park in the evening. If there is, it's a sight to remember; if not, settle for a satisfying dinner and drinks at Jayhea.

Day 5: Sukhothai to Si Satchanalai and Chiang Mai -- Most of this day is spent wending your way north from the central plains into the northern hills, with a welcome break at the ruined temples of Si Satchanalai. It's easiest to hire a car and driver, as the site at Si Satchanalai can be tricky to find. The main temples to see here are Wat Chang Lom and Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat. On leaving the site, look out for another roadside lunch stop, and then sit back and watch the landscape become more dramatic as you make your way to Chiang Mai, capital of the north. This ancient but hip city has a great range of accommodations, so check out the listings to find somewhere to stay that suits your budget.

You'll want to stretch your legs after a day in the car, so make for the Night Bazaar, and be prepared for some furious bargaining as you shop for souvenirs. If hunger pangs overtake you while shopping, pop into Anusarn Market, and follow the most appealing aroma. If you can wait, take a tuk-tuk over the river to Riverside, where you can eat, drink, and dance to live music till late.

Day 6: Chiang Mai -- For the last full day of this trip, you get to make a choice. If you'd like to get a sense of the city's long history, take a walk from the northeast corner to the southwest corner of Chiang Mai's Old City, winding through the back streets and taking in the principal temples (Wat Chiang Man, Wat Chedi Luang, and Wat Phra Singh). Stop off for lunch at either Ruen Tamarind or Huen Phen along the way, and sit for a while in Buak Had Park at the end.

If, on the other hand, you've had enough history for one trip, you might like to spend the day learning how to prepare several Thai dishes at the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School. Other options include boat trips on the river, a (brief) visit to a hill-tribe village, or a gentle round of golf on a nearby course.

In the evening, book tickets for the cultural show at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center, where you can dine on northern specialties and watch traditional dancing. The show finishes at 9:30pm, allowing time for any last-minute shopping at the Night Bazaar, more drinking and dancing at the riverside bars, or packing your bags and getting an early night.

Day 7: Chiang Mai to Bangkok -- If you have time before your flight leaves, try to do some last-minute shopping in Chiang Mai. If there's no time, then bon voyage.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.