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Thailand UNESCO Sites

An update on UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Thailand

Since we first published our Thailand World Heritage post there have been additions to the Thailand UNESCO sites list so here’s a brief rundown on existing sites and the new listings.

As of 2024, Thailand lays claim to three entries on the Natural World Heritage list and four on the Cultural list with a further six tentative sites in the latter category and one more proposed natural listing. So, in no particular order…

Ayutthaya (Historic City of Ayutthaya)

Ayutthaya replaced Sukhothai as the country’s capital city from the mid-14th century up until its destruction by Burmese invaders in 1767. After liberation, the capital was moved to the site of Thonburi, on the opposite bank of the Chao Phraya River to present-day Bangkok and what was once one of the largest and richest cities of Southeast Asia was abandoned and left to the encroaching jungle. (It’s said that the subsequent kings of Thonburi caused more destruction than the Burmese as Ayutthaya’s temples and palaces were extensively demolished to provide materials for the new capital.)

Thailand UNESCO sites
One of Ayutthaya’s myriad temples

The ancient city is today a conveniently short drive from Bangkok and its myriad ruined temples a popular destination for both local and foreign visitors. A tour of some of the sites by boat and on foot is included in our Thailand World Heritage and Emerald Triangle tours, as well as on extensions from Bangkok.

Khao Yai (Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex)

This conveniently leads us on to the second of the Thailand UNESCO Sites as it follows our Ayutthaya visit on the above-mentioned tours. The huge natural reserve, of which Khao Yai National Park is just a part, covers over 6,000 square kms while the small town of Pak Chong – the base for our visit – lies approximately two hours east of Ayutthaya or two and a half if one is arriving directly from Bangkok.

The park includes a mixture of forested hills and upland savannah and is particularly rich in tropical flora and fauna. While no specific species can be guaranteed on any given visit, our most recent day tour included sightings of; elephants, white-handed gibbons, stump-tailed macaques, sambur deer, barking deer, giant squirrels and water monitors while bird species included great hornbills, wreathed hornbills, Asian pied hornbills, two species of elusive trogons and spectacular green-tailed broadbills.

Khao Yai National Park
Khao Yai National Park

Our Khao Yai day tour includes a mix of on-trail and off-trail hiking and expertly guided 4WD safaris.

Sukhothai (Historic Town of Sukhothai and Associated Historic Towns)

Sukhothai ancient city was the first capital of Thailand, for a brief period following liberation from Angkor in the early part of the 13th century up until the establishment of Ayutthaya in the mid part of the century. Nonetheless, a huge number of spectacular temples were constructed during this era – many of which incorporated elements of earlier Khmer-Angkorian sanctuaries. The site lies over 400 kilometres north of Bangkok and consequently features on our off-the-beaten-track North Thailand tour, Hidden Thailand.

North Thailand tour
Just some of Sukhtoai’s majestic temple ruins

The picturesque Sukhothai Historical Park extends across a wide area and comprises ruined temples, lotus ponds, forest and grassland and is far less frequented than the more easily accessed Ayutthaya. Our Sukhothai day tour includes a cycling tour and an atmospheric sunset visit.

Note that the listing also includes the nearby ancient cities of Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet.

Si Thep (The Ancient Town of Si Thep and its Associated Dvaravati Monuments)

The most recent addition to the Thailand UNESCO sites list in 2023 is situated slightly further east, approximately halfway between Ayutthaya and Sukhothai. The important early city was a key settlement of the little-known Mon-Dvaravati civilisation before falling under the control of the Khmer-Angkor empire and remaining temple sites consequently reflect both periods of history and architecture. While the forested ruins are impressive and atmospheric – and the well-restored Mon sites unique – Si Thep is remote and at present still lacks much of a transport and tourist infrastructure. Furthermore, in line with our intention of including a variety of sites and destinations, the site is skipped on our North Thailand tour in favour of Sukhothai.

Ban Chiang (Ban Chiang Archaeological Site)

The final cultural site on the Thailand UNESCO list is even more far-flung, situated in the northeastern, Isan, province of Udon Thani. While, to quote UNESCO, ‘Ban Chiang is considered the most important prehistoric settlement so far discovered in Southeast Asia”, little or no in situ vestiges remain and the site today consists primarily of a museum. Artefacts dating to at least three millennia ago are certainly impressive although this is a long way to travel. Our Thailand Isan tour concentrates on sites in the southern reaches of the region – Buriram, Surin and Ubon Ractathani provinces – and while we’ve included Ban Chiang on tailor-made tours, we’ve no plans at present to incorporate the site into our regular, scheduled Thai tours.

Ban Chiang, Udon Thani Province
3,000 year-old pots in the Ban Chiang Museum, Udon Thani Province
Kaeng Krachan (Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex)

The second of Thailand’s natural World Heritage sites features over four thousand square kilometres of forested hills along the Burmese border in Phetchaburi and Prachuap Kiri Khan provinces in the upper region of the Peninsula. Numerous endangered species are found there including elephants, banteng, several gibbon species, Siamese crocodiles and no less than eight cat species including tigers, leopards and cloud leopards as well as myriad bird species.

Kaeng Krachan National Park is extensive, the terrain often difficult and any visit ideally requires overnight camping in the forest. For now, our South Thailand tour includes the better-known Khao Sok National Park which, in addition to bountiful wildlife, also features spectacular limestone, karst scenery. Hiking and camping in Kaeng Krachan has however been incorporated into various tailor-made, wildlife and nature tour itineraries.

Huai Kha Khaeng (Thungyai-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries)

Last but not least of the Thailand UNESCO sites are the over six thousand square kilometres of forest and mountains situated in the western part of the country – primarily in Kanchanaburi and Uthai Thani provinces. Described by UNESCO as “the largest conservation area in Mainland Southeast Asia and one of Thailand’s least accessible and least disturbed forest areas”, the area includes many endemic species and myriad mammal species including Thailand’s largest tiger population.

North Thailand Family Tour, a trek through the National Park
Hiking in Thung Yai Wildlife Sanctuary

As noted, Huai Kha Khaeng is one of Thailand’s least accessible areas and is afforded a high degree of protection so is unsuitable for casual visits along the lines of those in Khao Yai or Khao Sok National Parks. We’ve hiked, camped and rafted in Thung Yai – the region’s southernmost, and most easily accessed parts but we’ve never visited Huai Kha Khaeng – probably never will – and we’ll leave these priceless forest and mountains as they are – just happy to know they’re there.