Exploring the birthplace of Siamese culture at the Sukhothai Historical Park
The modern day metropolis of Sukhothai is small—the population is just over 35,000—but the number of tourists making pilgrimages to this region of Thailand is quite sizeable, thanks to ruins of the ancient city which are preserved and on display for all at the stunningly beautiful Sukhothai Historical Park.
The term Sukhothai translates as “the dawn of happiness”, and this area was the first capital of ancient Siam (founded sometime between 1238 and 1257). It was ruled by many kings, the most dynamic monarch being King Ramkhamhaeng the Great, who created the Thai alphabet, laid the foundation for politics, monarchy, and religion, and expanded the nation’s boundary of influence. Several centuries later the Siamese capital moved to Ayutthaya—and later to Bangkok—during which time the ruins and relics of ancient Sukhothai sat abandoned. What wasn’t pilfered by thieves was ravaged by the elements and/or overtaken by the encroaching jungle.
Since the 1960s the ruins have seen a great deal of restoration—some say “too much”—and in 2003 the Sukhothai Historical Park was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 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 all visitors are charged 10 baht each for bicycles brought into the park.
The highest concentration of ruins is in what is known as the Central Zone, with 11 ruins in its 3 sq.km area. This is the most “park-like” section, and the grounds are interspersed with moats, lakes, paved pathways, and bridges leading to some island-bound ruins. 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 of 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 King Ramkhamhaeng.
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.
NOTE: 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 a small Walking Street market is set up near the King Ramkhamhaeng statue, where visitors can buy food, drinks, and handicrafts, and the park stays open till 9pm.
Ramkhamhaeng National Museum
This museum, located on Charodwitheethong Rd. (right near the main park entrance), 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, 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
Although self-guided bicycle tours in and around the Sukhothai Historical Park are dead easy, Cycling Sukhothai offers a range of organized tours if you prefer a group dynamic and also want a bit of informative running commentary. The company also provides riders with 24-speed mountain bikes—a huge step up from what the local rental shops offer—and apart from tours of the ruins and the Old City they also offer an Evening Sunset Tour, and full-day and half-day Countryside Tours, which visit everything from local rice farms to a rice whisky distillery.
Words and photos by Bruce Scott