A wander through the Sukhothai Historical Park offers visitors a glimpse into birthplace of Siamese culture
The ruins of the ancient Siamese capital city of Sukhothai—a word that translates as “the dawn of happiness”—are preserved and on display for all at the stunningly beautiful Sukhothai Historical Park. In 2003 the park was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and as a tourist attraction it is exceptionally well-maintained, very clean, and there’s plenty of signage in English. The site covers an area of approximately 70 sq.km, and for many the best way to see everything in the park is by bicycle, which can be rented from the shops opposite the main park entrance (B30 per day). There is also a guided tour by electric tram available (B60), or you can attempt to do it all on foot. The park has an admission fee of B100 (B20 for Thai nationals), and visitors are charged 10 baht for each bicycle brought into the park.
Wat Mahathat is one of the most spectacular ruin sites, with a large seated Buddha figure set amongst the pillars of a now ruined sala, and a central chedi flanked by two standing Buddha figures. Nearby is Wat Si Sawai, one of the oldest temples in Sukhothai, which consists of three large Khmer style prangs (towers) and two viharns (assembly halls). The central tower measures about 15 metres tall and all three towers are adorned with carvings of mythological creatures, such as multi headed Naga serpents, Makaras (a sea creature), and Kala, a mythological monster often found depicted on Angkor temples.
Several sites face the small lake, located in the middle of the park, including Wat Tra Phang Ngoen, which features a viharn—of which only the base and columns that once supported the roof remain—facing a serene seated Buddha image. The principal chedi here is topped with a lotus bud finial, characteristic for the Sukhothai style, and there are two niches (one on each side) that contain standing and walking images of the Buddha. Another temple with a lake view is Wat Sa Si. In fact, it’s actually on an island in the lake, and visitors need to cross a small bridge to access it. The seated Buddha here sits before a well preserved, bell-shaped, Singhalese-style chedi set on a square base. According to a stone inscription, the chedi was built to enshrine the ashes of King Li Thai of Sukhothai. Other park attractions include the many bell-shaped chedis dotting the park (in-between the main temples), and a memorial statue of the great King Ramkhamhaeng.
The park is open from 7am till 7:30pm each evening, and the ruins are dramatically lit once the sun goes down. In addition, on the 1st, 2nd, and 4th Friday and Saturday of each month the park stays open till 9pm and the Pasan Market—a small ‘Walking Street’ area set up near the King Ramkhamhaeng statue—becomes a gathering place where visitors can buy food, drinks, and handicrafts, and enjoy some traditional cultural entertainment. This is also the spot to watch the free Sukhothai Mini Light & Sound show, which is held on the first Friday of each month, starting at 7pm. The performance illustrates the history and prosperity of the Sukhothai Kingdom, and the ancient temple known as Wat Sa Si forms the backdrop of the visually impressive display.
Outside the main park area one of the must-see sites is Wat Sri Chum, a 13th century temple enshrining the largest Buddha image in Sukhothai. Located in the North Zone, the temple is known for its roofless mondop enclosure, from which the Buddha statue is partly visible from outside through a triangular opening. The huge Buddha image within measures 15 metres high and 11 metres wide, and the right hand of the image is covered with gold leaf, applied by Buddhist devotees who come to pay their respects.
Also located in the North Zone is Wat Phra Phai Luang, which contains the remains of a number of dilapidated structures, plus a large Khmer-style prang with stucco reliefs. Visiting this largely untouched set of ruins gives one an idea of how much restoration work has been done on the neighbouring temples.
There are several other historic sites to visit, some located quite far from the Central Zone, but if you only have time for one more make it Wat Chang Lom, a 14th century temple where the main chedi has an army of 39 elephants carved into its square pedestal base. In Buddhism, elephants are considered a symbol of mental strength, and these auspicious animals are often seen guarding temples.
If time permits, a visit to the Si Satchanalai Historical Park, situated on the bank of the Yom River, offers visitors another opportunity to roam amongst the ruins of the grand monuments of ancient Siam. The park is located in Tambon Mueang Kao, which is about 50 km north of Sukhothai City. Set among hills, the 13th- to 15th-century temple ruins here are stylistically similar to those that lie in the more routinely visited Sukhothai Historical Park, but the setting here is much more rural and peaceful. The park itself measures well over 7 sq.km in area and is surrounded by a 12-metre-wide moat. It’s open daily from 6am till 9pm, and admission is B150.
RAMKHAMHAENG NATIONAL MUSEUM: Located on Charodwitheethong Road (right near the main park entrance), the Ramkhamhaeng National Museum houses a collection of ancient remnants, artefacts, art objects, and antiques that were excavated from the ruins of both the Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai Historical Parks. The exhibits present a vivid display of lifestyle, customs, traditions, cultural habits, beliefs, and artistic styles of the inhabitants during the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya periods. It’s open daily from 9am till 4pm, and admission is B150 (B30 for Thai nationals). Tel: 05 569 7367
SAWANKHAWORANAYOK NATIONAL MUSEUM: Open in 1984, and located on Wang Phinphat (Sawankhalok), the Sawankhaworanayok National Museum features sculptural art from various periods, the most interesting being Sangkhalok crockery from the Sukhothai era, and Sangkhlalok items retrieved from sunken vessels found in the Gulf of Thailand. The museum is open every day, from 9am till 4pm. Tel: 05 564 1571.
The sacred Phra Mae Ya Shrine, which is situated in front of the City Hall, is highly respected by Sukhothai residents. It houses and idol of Phra Mae Ya, a stone figure with a long face, tapered chin, and long halo, who is dressed as an ancient queen. The idol is about 1-metre-high and is said to have been built during the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng the Great as a dedication to his late mother Nang Sueang. Every year—sometime in late February—the Phra Mae Ya Fair is held here.
Words by Bruce Scott Photos courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand