1-Week Ancient Capitals Tour
This 1-week itinerary, heading north from Bangkok, enables you to trace 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 very origins of the Kingdom of Siam, before finally ending up in the ancient Lanna capital of Chiang Mai, which became a part of Siam/Thailand only in the early 20th century. Pack light for this journey, as you'll be carrying your own luggage some of the way.
Day 1: Bangkok to Ayutthaya -- You can make the short trip to Ayutthaya by boat or minibus, or even by local train from Bangkok's Hua Lamphong train station (easily accessed by subway).
In Ayutthaya, check into Krungsri River Hotel, one of the best accommodations options; though it's basic, it's convenient to the train station. From there, cross by rickety local ferry to the center of the old city and see the highlights. The city museums include the Ayutthaya Historical Study Center and the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum; both contain good historical info and artifacts. To tour the main temples, hire either an elephant or a bicycle. Don't miss Wat Phra Mahathat, in the city center, 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, catch a meal at the colorful Chao Phrom Night Market or at one of the city's little floating restaurants. The ruins are illuminated in the evening, so a night tour is another option.
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 Topland Hotel, and then walk around the corner to Wat Yai, the town's only must-see attraction. In the evening, take a stroll downstream beside the Nan River to the Night Market; order some flying vegetables (morning glory) and have your camera ready to catch them in flight.
Day 4: Phitsanulok to Sukhothai -- Call ahead to Ruean Thai Hotel, in Sukhothai, to book a room and arrange a pickup from the bus station, and then hop on a bus for the hour-long journey from Phitsanulok. Once you've checked in, rent a motorbike or bicycle, and spend the rest of the day exploring Sukhothai Historical Park. Start at the Ramkhamhaeng National Museum to get clued in 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 the uniquely eccentric Dream Café.
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 visit to an elephant camp, 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.