An archaeological examination of the ruins and ancient cities claiming to be the first historical city in Thailand — and the information you’ll need to visit them.
What Is the Oldest City in Thailand?
For millennia, Thailand has been the crossroads of Southeast Asia, bearing witness to the rise, fall, and conquest of numerous kingdoms. This region wedged between India and China has a long history of overlapping migrations which have all built atop one another. Among the modern borders now inhabiting these lands, perhaps none has seen more waves of peoples, religions, and empires in the last 2000 years than Thailand.
These have included the Dvaravati, Khmer, Lawa, Srivijaya, Lao and Thai all claiming, combating, and coalescing with each other until the modern nation emerged as it stands today. Many of these factions and cities are held up as the first — but in reality;
What is “Thailand’s First City”?
The ruins in Nakhon Pathom are the first and oldest city settled in mainland Thailand by the Indianized and Buddhist Dvaravati culture, which would give direct influence and rise to the Theravada kingdom of the ethnic Thai people, forming the foundations of modern Thailand.
However, Thailand is unique in Southeast Asia as it is a patchwork of millennia of overlapping cultures and empires, each leaving their own imprint on the landscape, including their own claims to being the first ancient city of Thailand.
Nakhon Pathom (Nakhon Chai Si)
Era: c. 500-1000 CE
GPS Coordinates: 13.81526, 100.09705
A Brief History of Nakhon Pathom
The modern name of “Nakhon Pathom” translates directly as “first city” and lies only a half-hour due west of modern Bangkok. This ancient city served as the entry point and first settlement of the Dvaravati, a Mon people migrating from Burma who were the first to introduce Theravada Buddhism to Thailand, many centuries before the would-be Thais arrived from southern China.
From Nakhon Pathom, the Dvaravati spread their sphere of influence through the majority of modern Thailand, coming into contact with the indigenous Lawa people in the north, the Khmer Empire in the east. Their settlements and influence on the landscape would lay the foundations for modern Thailand as they were gradually absorbed into the encroaching Khmer and Thai kingdoms.
What Is There to See in Nakhon Pathom?
- The most famous monument in Nakhon Pathom is the Phra Pathom Chedi, a massive golden stupa that competes for the title of largest in the world. It is built over an ancient Dvaravati stupa rediscovered by the Thai King Mongkut in the 1800s.
- The Phra Pathom Chedi National Museum is located within the stupa’s complex and hosts many displays on the Dvaravati culture.
- Several other Dvaravati-era ruins exist around the city, such as the Phra Pathon Chedi, Wat Phra Men, and Wat Dhammasala.
How to Get to Nakhon Pathom
Nakhon Pathom city is the capital of Nakhon Pathom province and sits about 50 km west of modern Bangkok. Regular buses and trains are running to the city and take about 30-60 minutes, depending on where in Bangkok you are leaving from.
Ban Chiang (ancient name unknown)
Era: c. 1500-900 BCE
GPS Coordinates: 17.4076, 103.23636
A Brief History of Ban Chiang
Main article: Ban Chiang: Isaan’s Forgotten Past
Ban Chiang was a wholly unexpected discovery in Thailand’s northeastern region, known collectively as Isaan. Around 3500 years ago, at a time when both Indian and Chinese civilizations were in their relative infancies and beginning their respective Bronze Ages, Southeast Asia was mostly considered a remote and undeveloped land.
This perception changed in 1966, when archaeological discoveries in Udon Thani province uncovered a settlement possessing not only sophisticated pottery and bronze-working but also that the entire village had been built on an artificially elevated mound.
However, despite the importance of the find, a small, modern village now inhabits that same mound. This understandably complicated attempts at excavation. However, a handful of residents and local temples allowed excavations at their properties which yielded impressive finds.
As a result, Ban Chiang became one of Thailand’s first UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is home to a museum showcasing the finds. A walk around the town will bring you to some of the excavation sites that are still open to the public.
What Is There to See in Ban Chiang?
The UNESCO World Heritage Museum is the main attraction, featuring very good informational displays, artifacts found from the ancient city, and representations of the excavations
Around Ban Chiang town are covered excavation pits open for visitors.
How to Get to Ban Chiang
Ban Chiang is a rural village about 60km east of Udon Thani city. It’s possible and easy to do by private transportation — but would be a long, hot roundtrip if you’re renting a motorbike.
Alternatively, the Udon Thani bus station is located in the middle of the city and has regular buses heading out of the city in that direction. There are roadside signs, but to make sure you don’t miss the stop, alert the bus driver or conductor that is where you’re headed.
Once off the bus, motorcycle taxis can take you the remaining 3 km into the village and archaeological site.
Wiang Chet Lin (Wiang Misankorn)
Era: c. 500-1200 CE
GPS Coordinates: 18.81288, 98.95267
A Brief History of Wiang Chet Lin
The Lawa people are considered by historians and the Thai people themselves as the original inhabitants of their country. That said, their native-born cities which once surrounded the modern city of Chiang Mai brought them into conflict, subjugation, and alliance with several generations of migrants.
The pinnacle of this was their tenuous relationship with the Dvaravati kingdom of Hariphunchai. This city was based in modern-day Lamphun and their records contain many stories of their relationship with the Lawa, who are represented as antagonists (from the Hariphunchai point of view).
However, the legendary Lawa founder of Wiang Misankorn is also the founder of Hariphunchai. The two cultures collaborated on Buddhist temples such as Wat Ku Din Khao and San Ku, which sits atop Doi Pui.
By the time that settlers from Chiang Saen established the Lanna Kingdom in the Chiang Mai-Lamphun Basin, the majority of the valley’s Lawa inhabitants had abandoned their cities, leaving their walled ruins for the Thais to rebuild into Wiang Chet Lin, Wiang Suan Dok, and Chiang Mai.
What Is There to See in Wiang Chet Lin?
Very little remains of any of the Lawa cities, as they were built over by the Thai newcomers when they founded Chiang Mai.
- The circular Wiang Chet Lin city wall runs through the Huay Kaew Arboretum.
- Wat Ku Din Khao is a Lawa-Hariphunchai-era temple in the Chiang Mai Zoo.
- San Ku is a Lawa-Hariphunchai-era temple at the peak of Doi Pui mountain.
How to Get to Wiang Chet Lin
Wiang Chet Lin sits at the northwestern edge of Chiang Mai city, at the base of Doi Suthep mountain. It is easily accessible by any city transport heading that way, including tuk-tuks, red trucks, and the city buses. Get off on the Huay Kaew Road outside the Chiang Mai zoo, and you’ll be in the heart of Wiang Chet Lin.
Nakhon Si Thammarat (Tambralinga)
Era: c. 500-1300
GPS Coordinates: 8.42766, 99.96377
A Brief History of Nakhon Si Thammarat
Long before Indian culture penetrated into the Southeast Asian mainland, the maritime trade routes between China and India had resulted in several Indianized kingdoms emerging throughout the coastal areas. Tambralinga was one such kingdom, emerging as early as the 5th Century CE, and eventually fell within the mandala of the Srivijaya Empire.
Unlike the many Buddhist cities that would emerge in the Thai mainland, Tambralinga was a Hindu kingdom and the overwhelming amount of relics found from this area was to the Shaivite sect. The remains of more than 40 Hindu shrines dating from the 600-900 CE have been found in the area, with the religion maintaining a strong influence in the city well into the 18th Century CE. Brahmins (Hindu priestly caste) from Nakhon Si Thammarat were even employed by the king of Siam when the capital was moved to Bangkok in the 1800s.
The city was an important seaport. According to records of the ancient city from the Tang Dynasty, Tambralinga was surrounded by a wooden fence for protection. Homes of the higher class were built of wood and common citizens’ homes built of bamboo.
However, as mainland kingdoms such as Lavo, Sukhothai, and Ayutthaya began to grow in their influence, Tambralinga soon fell under their dominion, eventually settling under the Ayutthaya flag and becoming the Thai city of Nakhon Si Thammarat.
What Is There to See in Nakhon Si Thammarat?
- The Nakhon Si Thammarat National Museum holds a vast selection of artifacts from the Hindu Kingdom of Tambralinga.
- The Ayutthaya-era Nakhon Si Thammarat city wall is in the central city
- Several ancient Buddhist and Hindu shrines still exist within the city limits.
How to Get to Nakhon Si Thammarat
All of the major sites from the era of Tambralinga and its later periods within the modern city of Nakhon Si Thammarat. While the city is not a major destination for foreign tourists, it is still a lively provincial capital providing easy access and accommodations.
Era: 1238-1438 CE
GPS Coordinates: 17.02092, 99.70247
A Brief History of Sukhothai
Main article: Sukhothai: Dawn of Happiness, Dawn of Thailand
Sukhothai’s name translates as “Dawn of Happiness” and it is officially recorded as the first Thai kingdom. However, the caveat of this is that the city had already been in existence under the control of the Lavo and Khmer Empires.
During an era when the Khmer Empire was experiencing inner turmoil, the Thai locals seized the opportunity to break away, Upon its overthrow of the Khmer rulers in 1236 CE, Sukhothai became the first Thai kingdom in the Central Plains, the heartland of what would eventually become the modern Thai nation-state.
Sukhothai prospered for a little under a century, gaming tributary kingdoms spanning the majority of modern Thailand. However, this short-lived golden age ended with the death of their legendary King Ramkhamhaeng. Following this, most of the tributary kingdoms broke away or were seized by other powers.
Finally, in 1349 Sukhothai succumbed to the growing power of Ayutthaya, becoming a part of their growing empire. Sukhothai would retain some level of autonomy under Ayutthaya, rather than being dominated outright, but eventually, it did fade from even the memory of Siam until its rediscovery by King Mongkut in the 1800s.
What Is There to See in Sukhothai?
Because Sukhothai was abandoned, much of the ancient city was left intact and fell into ruin.
- The main attractions are in the Wat Mahathat temple ground in the middle of the ancient city.
- Khmer ruins exist both in the city wall as well as in a moated temple outside the city wall.
- Dozens of other ruined temples exist outside the Sukhothai city wall ready to be explored.
How to Get to Sukhothai
Sukhothai Historical Park is located about 10km east of the modern provincial capital of Sukhothai. There is transportation available from the city bus station. Additionally, many hotels and hostels can rent bicycles, motorbikes, or arrange private transportation to the ruins.
Chiang Saen (Hiran Nakhon Ngoenyang)
Era: c. 600-1300 CE
GPS Coordinates: 17.02092, 99.70247
A Brief History of Chiang Saen
Chiang Saen, and its Ngoenyang Kingdom, was the first of the ethnically Tai kingdoms to be located in modern Thailand. Settled by the Tai Yong ethnic group stemming from southern China, this city is located at the modern Golden Triangle, where Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand all converge at the Mekong River.
Such a location put it at a strategic position for transit and trade with other contemporaneous kingdoms. However, this era came to an end as the ongoing Mongol-led campaigns farther north prompted King Mangrai to move south into what is now Thailand.
The Ngoenyang Kingdom was among the earliest and longest-lived Tai kingdoms, enduring until its descendants established the subsequent Lanna Kingdom at Chiang Mai in 1292 CE. After the founding of Lanna, Chiang Saen remained an important outpost of the kingdom.
What Is There to See in Chiang Saen?
Most of what remains at Chiang Saen today is from its era under Lanna rule rather than its Ngoenyang period.
- The ancient city is surrounded by a conch-shaped city wall and populated with dozens of ruined temples.
- Chiang Saen Noi to the south holds another set of ruined temples.
- The area outside the city wall has many ruined temples.
- Wat Phra That Phu Khao overlooks the Golden Triangle (meeting point of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand) and holds an ancient mountain temple from the Ngoenyang Period.
How to Get to Chiang Saen
Chiang Saen is in the far north of Chiang Rai Province. From the provincial capital, Chiang Rai city, there are regular buses leaving for Chiang Saen and the Golden Triangle, which is a major tourist attraction. The bus ride takes between 2-3 hours.
Era: c. 450-1100 CE
GPS Coordinates: 14.79917, 100.61435
A Brief History of Lopburi
Main article: Ancient Lopburi: Lost Cities Travel Guide
Signs of human habitation at Lopburi stem back much further than the arrival of Indianized culture. However, stemming out of the Mon-Dvaravati’s cultural center at Nakhon Pathom, Lavo (located at modern-day Lopburi) became the center of perhaps the most influential Dvaravati polity, the Lavo Kingdom.
While it’s unlikely that Lavo directly controlled the entirety of the Dvaravati realm, which is instead thought to have been culturally-similar, disparate city-states, Lavo nonetheless was the major power broker among them, even factoring into the legendary founding of the Hariphunchai Kingdom, which ruled Northern Thailand until eclipsed by Chiang Mai.
Whatever level of direct rule, at its height, the Lavo Kingdom’s influence over much of Thailand was significant enough to gain the attention of the Khmer Empire based in Angkor. After subjugating Lavo, the entire Lavo Kingdom (which included the majority of Central Thailand) became a tributary kingdom of the Khmer Empire.
As the Khmers were eventually pushed out of Thailand by the Thais in Ayutthaya, Lopburi’s significance decreased. However, being only 50km from Ayutthaya, it remained an important cultural location. It was also the preferred residence of some Thai kings, such as Narai.
What is there to see in Lopburi?
Due to Lopburi hosting the Dvaravati, Khmer, and Thai cultures, many of the older ruins were either built over or incorporated into later temples.
- Wat Nakhon Kosa is the only remaining Dvaravati ruin in the city.
- Prang Sam Yat and Prang Khaek are two signature 3-tower Khmer monuments dating from the 12th Century CE and 9th Century CE, respectively.
- The Phra Narai Palace and Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat are the best examples of ancient Thai architecture in the city.
How to Get to Lopburi
Lopburi city is the capital of Lopburi province and sits about 130 km north of modern Bangkok. There are regular buses and trains running to the city and take about 2-3 hours, depending on where in Bangkok you are leaving from.
Ayutthaya (Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya)
GPS Coordinates: 14.35703, 100.55314
A Brief History of Ayutthaya
As the Khmer Empire’s dominion over Southeast Asia began to falter, the Ayutthaya Kingdom rose up to fill the power vacuum. In time, they allied with, conquered, and absorbed all competing states in the area, such as Sukhothai, Lavo, and Lanna. Ayutthaya even ruled over the fallen Khmer Empire for several centuries.
In this essence, Ayutthaya created the first unified Thai state of Siam, much as Angkor had done with the Khmer Empire several centuries before. After devastating wars with the Burmese and decades of diplomatic maneuvers with European colonial powers, the Siamese capital was moved to modern Bangkok as the Rattanakosin Kingdom, which evolved into the modern nation-state of Thailand.
What Is There to See in Ayutthaya?
Ayutthaya is an interesting blend of a modern Thai town built around its ancestors’ ruins.
- Dozens of ancient and ruined temples fill the spaces between commercial buildings.
- The largest and most important temples are in dedicated parks, some of which have admission fees to enter.
- Many other lesser-explored ruins exist off the main island citadel of Ayutthaya.
How to Get to Ayutthaya
Ayutthaya city is the capital of Ayutthaya province and sits about 50 km north of modern Bangkok. There are regular buses and trains running to the city and take about 1-1.5 hours, depending on where in Bangkok you are leaving from.
I would personally cite Nakhon Pathom as the first city of Thailand, as it is the first settlement of the Dvaravati, who would introduce the cultural traditions that would be absorbed and mixed with all the incoming populations and dominate the country for centuries to come.
However, the title of “Thailand’s First City” would really depend on what you consider to be “Thailand”;
- Ban Chiang was the first advanced culture in the region, mastering bronze working, rice cultivation, and elaborate pottery.
- Nakhon Pathom is the first city in Thailand to adopt the Indianized, Buddhist Dvaravati culture, laying the foundations of what would become the modern Thai nation.
- Wiang Chet Lin is said to be the first of the walled cities by the original Lawa inhabitants of Thailand.
- Lopburi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the region, hosting the powerful Dvaravati Lavo Kingdom, as well as the Khmer and Thai empires.
- Nakhon Si Thammarat was a part of the Srivijaya’s maritime sphere of influence and adopted Indianized culture long before the rest of mainland Thailand.
- Chiang Saen was the first Thai kingdom within the modern borders of Thailand.
- Sukhothai was the first Thai kingdom that would become part of the future unified Thai state.
- Ayutthaya was the first capital of Siam, the unified nation-state that would become modern Thailand.
City in central Thailand and historic capital of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, which was succeeded by the Thonburi Kingdom in 1767.
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Lanna Kingdom founded by King Mengrai in 1293.
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Ngoenyang Kingdom until the establishment of its successor, the Lanna Kingdom, in 1293 CE.
Mon-Burmese ethnic group based in modern Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. Responsible for the introduction of Buddhism (Theravada sect) to Thailand.
Dvaravati kingdom in northern Thailand centered in the modern town of Lamphun. Eventually conquered by the Lanna Kingdom.
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. It stems from Vedic teachings and one of the oldest extant religions in the world.
A culture adopting Indian culture, religion, and social structures.
Hindu-Buddhist kingdom which ruled much of Southeast Asia from their capital at Angkor.
Thai kingdom based in northern Thailand and northwestern Laos. Its capitals included Chiang Rai, Wiang Kum Kam, and Chiang Mai.
Dvaravati kingdom in central Thailand centered in the modern town of Lopburi. Eventually conquered by the Khmer Empire.
Ethnic minority group who constructed three walled cities in the Chiang Mai valley: Wiang Nopburi, Wiang Ched Lin, and Wiang Suan Dok. They are also referenced in historic writings as Lua, Milukku, Tamilla, and La.
City in central Thailand and historic capital of the Lavo Kingdom.
Political system found in historic Southeast Asia in which tributary states surrounded a central power without being directly administered by them.
Ethnic group originating in Myanmar who established the first civilizations in modern Thailand. The Mon kingdoms in Thailand are collectively referred to at Dvaravati.
The first settlement of the Mon-Dvaravati culture which existed from c. 500-1000 CE. Also known as Nakhon Chai Si.
Nakhon Si Thammarat
City in southern Thailand and the historic capital of Tambralinga.
Tai kingdom based in Chiang Saen, which was succeeded by the Lanna Kingdom after the establishment of Chiang Mai
Legendary king of Sukhothai who is popularly credited with creating the Thai writing system.
The unified Thai state that began in the Ayutthaya Kingdom and continued through the Rattanakosin Kingdom into modern Thailand.
Empire based in Sumatra which controlled or influenced Buch of the Malay archipelago circa 600-1200 CE.
City in central-northern Thailand and abandoned the capital of the Sukhothai Kingdom.
Wiang Chet Lin
Fortification built by Lanna King Sam Fangkaen over the ruins of Wiang Misankorn.
Lawa city at the base of Doi Suthep founded before the Hariphunchai Period.