North and west of the capital, the unwieldy urban mass of Greater Bangkok peters out into the vast, well-watered central plains, a region that for centuries has grown the bulk of the nation’s food and been a tantalizing temptation for neighbouring power-mongers. The most densely populated region of Thailand, with sizeable towns sprinkled among patchworks of paddy, orchards and sugar-cane fields, the plains are fundamental to Thailand’s agricultural economy. Its rivers are the key to this area’s fecundity, especially the Nan and the Ping, whose waters irrigate the northern plains before merging to form the Chao Phraya, which meanders slowly south through Bangkok and out into the Gulf of Thailand. Further west, the Mae Khlong River sustains the many market gardens and fills the canals that dominate the hinterlands of the estuary at Samut Songkhram, a centre for some of the most authentic floating markets in the country.
Sited at the confluence of the Kwai Yai and Kwai Noi rivers, the town of Kanchanaburi has long attracted visitors to the notorious Bridge over the River Kwai and is now well established as a travellers’ hangout, with everything from floating raft-house accommodation to waterside boutique hotels. Few tourists venture much further upriver, except as passengers on the remaining stretch of the Death Railway – the most tangible wartime reminder of all – but the remote little hilltop town of Sangkhlaburi holds enough understated allure to make the extra kilometres worthwhile.
On the plains north of Bangkok, the historic heartland of the country, the major sites are the ruined ancient cities, most of which are conserved as historical parks, covering the spectrum of Thailand’s art and architecture. Closest to Bangkok, Ayutthaya served as the country’s capital for the four hundred years prior to the 1782 foundation of Bangkok, and its ruins evoke an era of courtly sophistication. A short hop to the north, the remnants of Lopburi hark back to an earlier time, when the predominantly Hindu Khmers held sway over this region.
A separate nucleus of sites in the northern neck of the plains centres on Sukhothai, birthplace of the Thai kingdom in the thirteenth century. The buildings and sculpture produced during the Sukhothai era are the acme of Thai art, and the restored ruins of the country’s first official capital are the best place to appreciate them, though two satellite cities – Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet – provide further incentives to linger in the area, and the city of Phitsanulok also serves as a good base. West of Sukhothai, on the Burmese border, the town of Mae Sot makes a refreshing change from ancient history and is the departure point for the rivers and waterfalls of Umphang, a remote border region that’s becoming increasingly popular for trekking and rafting.
Chiang Mai makes an obvious next stop after exploring the sights north of Bangkok, chiefly because the Northern Rail Line makes connections painless. Or you could branch east into Isaan, by train or bus. It’s also possible to fly out of Sukhothai, Phitsanulok and Mae Sot.