So, you're taking the overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and want to visit Ayuthaya and Lopburi on the way, but your schedule is too tight to spare two days? Conventional wisdom says you need to choose one or the other because there's not enough time for both. But while you certainly should give two days to these two interesting towns – you don't need to.
If you're willing to rush a little, you can have an interesting and enjoyable – if tiring – day. Here's how.
Get an early start
Although there are some early morning trains, the quickest (one-and-a-half hours) and most reliable way up to Ayuthaya from Bangkok is by minivan from the Victory Monument in Ratchathewi. They park to the northeast of the monument, by the silver and green Fashion Mall, and the first vans depart at dawn.
Both the vans and the trains deposit you in central Ayuthaya near shops and guesthouses where you can stash your backpack and hire a bicycle (40-50B), scooter (250-300B), or túk-túk (200B for one hour; the price is reduced for additional hours). And, since this is the backpacker zone, local and international breakfast options abound.
Ayuthaya, the Siamese capital from 1350 to 1767, was one of the world’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan cities until it was sacked by the Burmese. Over the centuries, kings sponsored the construction of more than 400 temples; some were bedecked in gold. Even in their current tumbledown state, the semi-restored ruins leave no doubt about how grand and powerful this kingdom once was.
You have roughly half a day to explore the historic park, which is enough time to fit in its four most essential sites. The first place you'll pass is Wat Ratchaburana, which is both beautiful and intriguing since you can climb up and then down into the main prang's colourful crypt. Across the road, Wat Mahathat is home to the city's most photographed scene: a Buddha head entwined deep in the roots of a Bodhi tree. Ayuthaya's iconic triple stupas are found at Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the former royal temple. Right next door, the restored Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit, one of the few former temples still used for religious purposes, hosts a stunning 12.5m-tall bronze Buddha image.
The market next to Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit has many food stalls serving up fast and cheap meals making it a convenient lunch stop. Epicureans may prefer to detour from the ruins to a riverside restaurant such as Pae Krung Gao or Bann Kun Pra (bannkunpra.com). Both serve various versions of Ayuthaya's famous river prawns, though the latter is the winner in the atmosphere department. Regardless of whether your lunch is fast food or gourmet, pick up a bag of roh-đee săi măi ('silk thread roti') for dessert. This Thai snack of sweet candy floss wrapped in a ‘pancake’ was invented in Ayuthaya.
After lunch, consider spending your remaining time visiting either the Ayutthaya Tourist Center museum, which provides the best overview of the historical site, or the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum, home to the best collection of art and artefacts. Or, if your transport is motorised, you should have enough time to step off the island to visit Angkor Wat-inspired Wat Chai Wattanaram.
The train to Lopburi leaves Ayuthaya at 3.19pm; check the State Railways of Thailand website (railway.co.th/checktime/checktime.asp) in case the schedule changes. If you want to stay longer in Ayuthaya, the next train leaves 40 minutes later. You'll arrive in an hour and can drop your bags at the station's 24-hour left luggage office.
Walk north from the station, and you'll soon meet the urban monkeys that have made this city famous. Most live at Prang Sam Yot, an impressive three-pronged Khmer ruin, and San Phra Kan, a modern spirit shrine. But they also roam freely over many city blocks, running over rooftops, climbing on cars and making noisy nuisances of themselves. The monkeys, specifically rhesus and crab-eating macaques, also like to steal food and hats from people: you've been warned! Despite the hassles of having simian neighbours, locals never harm them because they're believed to be disciples of the Hindu god Hanuman, who Thai legend says founded the city.
Once you've had sufficient monkey time, there are several nearby (all easily walkable) ruins in Lopburi, though none are as impressive as those in Ayuthaya. Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat is the largest and Ban Wichayen, the residence for the king's foreign visitors and advisors, is also worth a look-in. At this time of day, however, you'll have to make do with admiring them from outside the fences.
For dinner, Na Phra Kan Road, between the monkey shrines and the train station, hosts the night market and several good Thai restaurants. If you prefer the backpacker scene, Noom Guesthouse and Matini serve both Thai and international food just a block over. After your meal, take another stroll through the city to see some of the historic sites lit up.
If you’re not keen to stay the night, the train to Chiang Mai is scheduled for 8.42pm, but don't expect to tuck into your bunk at that moment – it's usually late. The station offers a shower service (10B) so you can do yourself (and your fellow passengers) a favour while you're waiting for the train to roll in and take you on to your next adventure.