Thailand's tourists tend to dip into Bangkok and see the city sites, before catching an internal flight to an island, or travelling north to Chiang Mai. But when I visited last year, I spent a few extra days in the capital and used it as a base to explore Central Thailand.
With everything from Unesco-listed ruins to floating markets and national parks within easy reach, I found it was a great way to experience more of Thailand and discover lesser-known sites before escaping to the beach.
Five fantastic daytrips to escape from Bangkok
If you fancy doing a similar thing on your next trip to Thailand, here are five fantastic daytrips to choose from:
More authentic than many other markets near to Bangkok, Amphawa's floating shops and street-side stalls come to life on weekends. Around an hour and a half's drive from the capital, or longer by bus and train, Bangkok locals often flock here to buy fresh groceries.
The stalls set up on and around the waterways, where you can buy everything from fish and vegetable, to clothes, sweets and Thai massages. The food stalls are fantastic too, and you can tuck into seafood curries and Tom Yam soup while watching the boats drift by.
While you're in the area, you should also visit the Maeklong Railway Market. A ten-minute taxi ride from Amphawa, this unique market sets up shop on the local train tracks. When a train arrives, shoppers and vendors clear the tracks to let it pass, then it's back to work once the train has rattled by.
Khao Yai National Park
Opened in 1962, Khao Yai was Thailand's very first national park and, at more than 2,000 km square, is the third largest in the country. A two and a half hour journey from Bangkok by car or private tour, you can have a full day of exploring here if you make an early start.
Once in the park, you're in with a chance of seeing bears, guars and wild elephants, as well as gibbons, macaques and barking deer. Pythons, lizards and rat snakes are common too, and the park has one of Thailand's largest populations of hornbills. Even Asian tigers have been spotted nearby.
Hundreds of trails weave through the forest, and you can explore them independently on foot, go with a guide, or join a safari drive. The park's diverse landscapes range from lush forest and grasslands, to mountains and waterfalls that include Nerok Waterfall – one of Thailand's tallest – and Haew Suwat Waterfall – the setting for "the jump scene" in Leonardo Dicaprio movie, The Beach (2000).
Capital of Siam from 1350 to 1767, Ayutthaya was once a global trading hub and the world's wealthiest city. Famous across the world, the European and Asian merchants who visited were in awe of its grand buildings, golden palaces, magnificent temples and enormous monasteries.
The city fell in 1767, when it was looted and burnt to ground by the Burmese. Today, the remaining ruins are truly incredible and, just an hour from Bangkok by car or taxi, are ideal for an easy daytrip. You can also travel here by bus or train, or take a boat trip along the Chao Phraya River.
When I was in Bangkok last year, I visited toured Ayutthaya's ruins on a guided bicycle tour. The city is spread across a huge area, so exploring by bike means you can travel easily between the best sites and get off to walk around each one. You can also cycle around the villages, rice paddies and rural landscapes that surround the ancient city.
During the daytrip, my favourite Ayutthaya sites included the three chedis at Wat Phra Si Sanphet, and the 42-metre-long reclining Buddha known as Phra Buddha Sai Yat, as well as the city's most photographed attraction: a beautiful Buddha head entangled in a bodhi tree at the monastery of Wat Mahathat.
Often overlooked by British travellers, Phetchaburi is another easy escape from Bangkok. It'll take you around two hours to get here by hire car or private tour, or longer if you take the train.
Throughout its history, this provincial town served as a strategic royal fort, and was once a major a 17th-century trading post. Sometimes described as a "Living Ayutthaya" Phetchaburi's intact relics include gilded temples and ancient buildings, as well as 11th-century Khmer remains.
The temple of Wat Mahathat is a highlight, with its five-tiered Khmer style pagoda looming above the town. The wooden temple of Wat Yai is another favourite, with its red façade and ancient frescoes. And to reach the Phra Nakhon Khiri Historical Park – a 19th-century palace complex that was the setting of the 1951 film, The King and I – you need to take the funicular railway up the hill.
More attractions sit just outside the city, including Khao Luang Cave, a former royal meditation site with more than 170 Buddhist statues; and 30-minutes' drive from the city, the teak palace of Maruekhathaiyawan sits serenely on the beach – a summer retreat built by King Rama VI, it faces directly faces directly out to sea.
The Death Railway, Kanchanaburi
Built by allied prisoners of war and Asian labourers, the Thailand to Burma "Death Railway" was created as a WWII cargo route for the Japanese army. During its construction around 60,000 men died due to the harsh and dangerous conditions they endured.
Today, you can ride along a restored section of the track and visit some of the railway's most famous sites, including the "Hell Fire Pass" and the "Bridge over the River Kwai." Located in the province of Kanchanaburi, you'll also experience the region's beautiful mountains, lush forests and rural tranquillity.
I visited last year on a daytrip from Bangkok, travelling there by car (roughly two hours) with a private tour guide. Setting off at 8am, we started with a visit to the excellent JEATH War Museum, which is housed in simple bamboo huts. Next, we stopped at Kanchanaburi Cemetery, where around half of the 6,981 soldiers buried here were British.
Continuing to the Bridge over the River Kwai, I boarded a train and travelled along the restored section of the line, passing jaw-dropping forest scenery and stunning mountain backdrops. My final site of the day was the "Hell Fire Pass," where the workers suffered some of the worst treatment from the Japanese guards.
After a truly moving day, I returned to Bangkok by car, arriving in the early evening with enough time for a drink at my hotel bar before I headed out to a street market for dinner.
Bangkok, an ideal touring base
With excellent transport links and top attractions within easy reach, Bangkok makes a surprisingly good touring base. Spending longer in the capital also means you can make more of its night markets, sky bars and world-class restaurants when you return to your hotel each evening. And seeing as most visitors fly in and out of Bangkok International Airport (BKK), adding a spell in the city and a day-trip or two in Central Thailand is an easy way to start of finish your holiday.