No trip to Thailand would be complete without a visit to the birthplace of the Thai nation and the country’s first capital, the ancient North Central Plains kingdom of Sukhothai. Meaning ‘dawn of happiness’, this pastoral located stretch of ruins spreads across 70 sq. km. and boasts 100 historical sites, including royal palaces, Buddhist temples, the city gates, walls, moats, dams, ditches, ponds, and canals. Established in 1238, Sukhothai had previously been a far-flung outpost of the Khmer empire in Angkor. Rebellious Thai chiefs overthrew the Khmer army and installed the newly appointed King Si Indraditya as the now independent municipality’s first ruler. The Sukhothai Dynasty saw nine kings at the helm, with a rule that lasted over two centuries before eventually coming under the control of the younger Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya.
Sukhothai reached its pinnacle under King Ramkhamhaeng the Great (c.1279-98), who through an enlightened policy of political friendship and forging foreign relations; was responsible for extending the kingdom as far south as the Malay Peninsula and west into Myanmar. He is also credited with introducing Theravada Buddhism to Thailand, as well as inventing the Thai alphabet, evidence of which can be viewed in the Ramkhamhaeng stone inscription. The art and architecture that blossomed under the Sukhothai School is among Thailand’s most attractive and finest. The architectural style of the period began as a fusion of Asian influences, from Khmer to Sri Lanka, though gradually unique elements emerged to define Sukhothai’s individual stamp of creativity. Artisans excelled particularly in the stucco work and sculpture that adorned temple structures, especially the fluid bronze casts that are best seen in the sensual flowing ‘walking’ Buddha style.
Unlike Ayutthaya, foreign invaders never destroyed Sukhothai and much of the city was abandoned in tact. Preserved yet forgotten, Sukhothai lay abandoned and buried in jungle until the 18th and 19th centuries when the Chakri kings from the new capital of Bangkok began retrieving its lost treasures and displaying them in the newly built palaces and temples. Located some 450 km. north of Bangkok, the immaculately restored park is set among leafy hills and peaceful lotus ponds, lying some 12 km. from present day Sukhothai town. A visual feast and a joy to discover, images of panoramic scenes of complex brick and laterite towers, columns and pagodas with immense Buddha images reflected in still water, strike awe in even the most seasoned of travellers. Sukhothai is one of the most ambient spots to soak up the magical candlelit floats that glisten in the moonlit water during the annual Loi Krathong Festival each November full moon. Modern Sukhothai town provides an excellent base camp for daily sorties to the ruins, with clean, affordable guesthouses, and intimate cafés and restaurants to get to know friendly locals and fellow travellers. A visit to Sukhothai should be first top of the list on any tourist itinerary; it reveals astounding insights as to how this ancient city left a long and lasting legacy upon the Thai identity.
The Royal Palace & Wat Mahathat
The spiritual and political heart of Sukhothai, this was Thailand’s first regal palace and is adjoined by the royal sanctuary Wat Mahathat, or Temple of the Great Relic. Sadly little remains of the palace, or Noen Prasat, the site where King Mongkut (Rama IV) uncovered the famous Ramkhamhaeng Inscription tablet and the royal throne Manangkhasila Asana in 1833. These priceless relics have since been moved to Bangkok; the throne is in the Grand Palace, and the stone inscription is on view at the National Museum. Sukhothai’s most expansive temple, Wat Mahathat was founded by the kingdom’s first ruler Si Indraditya in the 13th century, and later improved upon by the fourth king Lo Thai. Surrounded by a wall, there are almost 200 pagodas and the remnants of several chapels dotted around the temple complex, all-spreading outward from the epicentre lotus-bud shaped monument tower, known as a chedi or stupa. The chedi is where sacred relics are interred, in this case hair and neck bone relics of Lord Buddha brought back from Sri Lanka. There is an interesting and unusual frieze of walking monks around the base of the chedi. Set among several lily filled pools are some fine-seated Buddha statues, and flanking the central chedi are giant standing Buddha images, known as Phra Attharot. This noble sanctuary brims with historic landmarks and is a joy to unravel before moving onto to explore Sukhothai’s other main sites.
Ramkhamhaeng National Museum
Named after Sukhothai’s most illustrious ruler; this museum is an excellent place to get an introduction to the ancient city before physically heading out to explore the sites. On display in the outstanding collection are early 20th century photographs of Sukhothai taken well before any restoration, as well as a fine bronze walking Buddha that is considered the best example of its kind in the country. Other artefacts include dozens of fine Buddha statues of various styles and periods, as well as a replica of the famed Ramkhamhaeng stone pillar (the original is now in Bangkok’s National Museum). The 1293 stone is inscribed with early Thai text that unfurls with rich detail the history of Sukhothai.
King Ramkhamhaeng the Great Monument
Just north of Wat Mahathat sits an esteemed statue to Sukhothai’s greatest king, Ramkhamhaeng (c.1278-1318). Credited for bringing peace, political stability, and religious freedom to the kingdom, King Ramkhamhaeng the Great is also attributed for having invented the Thai alphabet. The bronze statue is seen sitting on a replica of the Manangkhasila Asana throne, the original of which was discovered in the ruins of Sukhothai’s royal palace, and is now kept in Bangkok’s Grand Palace.
Wat Si Sawai
Southwest of Wat Mahathat, this Khmer influenced temple has three dominant central prang adorned in Hindu imagery. Started by a king of Angkor in the 12th century, the temple was later converted to a Buddhist temple. Surrounded by a laterite wall, the three powerful looking towers are embellished in mythical naga serpents and half-bird, half-human garuda.
Wat Traphang Thong
Located on an island in the middle of a lovely symmetrical flower-filled pool known as the Golden Lake, this temple has a restored Sri Lankan-style chedi and a pavilion containing an important 14th century stone footprint of Lord Buddha. The picturesque locale is where Loi Krathong Festival was originally celebrated.
Wat Sa Si
Surely one of Sukhothai’s most beautiful temple settings, Wat Sa Si, or Sacred Pond Temple, sits in the middle of a pretty lotus-filled lake. Reached by a narrow wooden footbridge, the exquisite site centres round a Sri-Lankan style bell-shaped chedi accompanied by statues of a large seated Buddha as well as a dark looking walking Buddha. A photographer’s dream, the reflective lake is the ideal spot to celebrate the annual Loi Krathong Festival in November.
Wat Phra Phai Luang
Surrounded by a moat, this site is second in importance to Wat Mahathat, and originally existed as a Hindu temple for the Khmer community that settled here before the Thais in the early 13th century. Meaning Temple of the Great Wind, the large temple has three central laterite prang, though only one has been restored to reveal its fine stucco work. Later converted to a Buddhist shrine, there is also a crumbling mondop with Buddha images in varying postures.
Wat Si Chum
Outside the northwest gate of the old city, this mondop enshrines Sukhothai’s most impressive Buddha statue. The 14th century giant 15 m. brick and stucco seated image dramatically peers out through a narrow opening in the sanctuary with rows of pillars standing guard out front.
Wat Saphan Hin
Standing a couple of kilometres west of the old city atop a 200 m. high hill, the remote Temple of the Stone Bridge gets its name from the exhausting climb of a steep slate slab pathway that leads up to the summit. The hilltop offers commanding views of Sukhothai and the mountains beyond, but the hike is also rewarded by the mesmerising sight of a 12.5 m. tall stucco standing Buddha with his hand raised in an attitude of forgiveness. Posed among the remaining pillars of the temple chapel, the image appears to be keeping watch over the city below.
Thai Airways flies regularly from Bangkok to Phitsanulok province. The flight takes around 55 minutes, and you can then travel by car to Sukhothai. Bangkok Airways also flies daily from Bangkok to Sukhothai as well as Sukhothai to Chiang Mai, and even Luang Prabang in neighbouring Lao P.D.R.. Tel. 0 2535 4843
The nearest railway station is at Phitsanulok, from where there are frequent bus services to Sukhothai, some 50 km. away. Trains depart Hua Lamphong Railway Station in Bangkok daily. Tel. 0 2220 4334, Hotline: 1699 Website: www.railway.co.th
Buses from Bangkok Bus Terminal on Kamphaeng Phet II Road leave for Sukhothai daily. Tel. 0 2936 2852-6
From Bangkok, take Highway No.1 then No. 32 north to Nakhon Sawan. Highway 32 becomes Highway No.1 again, follow all the way to Kamphaeng Phet, then take Highway 101 to Sukhothai.Sukhothai where to stay?