There's so much to discover in Thailand's historic central heartland that day trips from Bangkok simply won't scratch the surface. This is a region that deserves dedicated time to explore, and to pay your respects at some of South-East Asia's most significant WWII sites in Kanchanaburi. You can go even further back in time among the ruins of the ancient kingdom of old Siam, where the vast archaeological parks of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai remain refreshingly uncrowded. The tropical forests and waterfalls of Khao Yai National Park offer history of a natural kind, with walks to waterfalls and hikes through rainforests inviting all manner of animal encounters.
Obviously there's a lot more, this is just to get you started...
Kanchanaburi is best described as being ‘of historical importance’. It's where thousands of captive soldiers were forced to dig out the Thai-Burma railway, often using just their hands. One such section, Hellfire Pass, was infamously harsh. Following the route through the giant rock face is incredibly evocative, and certainly so when combined with the JEATH Museum and Chong Kai Allies Cemetery. The bridge over the River Kwai is synonymous with WWII and taking the train to Nam Tok offers a unique vantage point. There are opportunities for proper rest and relaxation too, at a couple of fabulous riverside properties, where infinity pools and manicured gardens provide a luxurious base for hiking or biking through paddy fields and shaded forest trails.
Although the typical Thai town of Sukhothai is well worth a visit, it's the archaeological park on its outskirts that's the main draw. This was once the ancient kingdom of central Thailand, and it's absolutely vast and rarely crowded. Hop on a tuk tuk and you can spend hours inspecting largely intact temples, weather worn stupas, and crumbling carved elephant statues. It's possible to stay at a luxury spa resort that's practically within the park's grounds; borrow a bike and pedal between a few Buddhist temples before heading back to base for cocktails by the infinity pool.
This was once the capital of old Siam and occupies a commanding island setting, surrounded by canals and rice paddies. Clamber amongst the towering stone spires, shrines and stupas that stretch above the earth like sea-splashed sand castles, or climb aboard a converted rice barge and glide by like King Rama IV. While you're in the area, why not discover more about Ayutthaya's natural history? The mountains and monsoon forests of Khao Yai National Park are home to all manner of monkeys, gibbons and hundreds of hornbills. Here, you can choose your own adventure as you hike to waterfalls, look out from observation towers and generally lose yourself amongst the undergrowth in the company of knowledgeable local guides.