Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Sukhothai Historical Park

Sukhotahi—"Dawn of Happiness"

Sukhothai ("suk-hot-thai") is a province in northern Thailand, approximately 400kms distant from Bangkok. The principal attraction of the province is the 'old town' of Sukhothai, as it is referred to locally. This old town is now an archaeological site, however, between the early 13th to the early 15th centuries it was the capital of the Sukhothai Kingdom. At its height this Kingdom stretched southwards down the long Malay Peninsular. The principal ruler of Sukhothai was King Ramkamhaeng (c. 1280-1318), who is revered in the popular culture of the province. This Kingdom was the first Siamese (Thai) state, and oversaw the developement of Thai culture, including its language and alphabet.

At its beginnings the new Sukhothai state was on the western edge of the dominant Cambodian Empire, from which it had earlier secured independence, however, as the centuries past the Cambodian Empire declined, and the Thai people achieved greater political and cultural autonomy. Yet, now, the once great Sukhothai Kingdom consists of three restored archaeological sites, which are also tourist attractions—the fate of empires. However, its influence lives on in a series of successor states. Sukhothai gave way to the Ayutthaya Kingdom, which was the dominant Thai state for three centuries, and then gave way to the modern Kingdom of Thailand.

Archaeological research of Sukhothai begain in earnest in the mid-20th century. In 1991 the ancient city of Sukhothai, along with its two subordinate, nearby towns; Kamphang Phet (in the province of the same name, to the south of Sukhothai) and Si Satchanalai (to the north of the Sukhothai province), were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site: "Historic Town of Sukhothai and Associated Historic Towns". These three sites form the main tourist drawcards of the region. (

All this having been said, there is not a great deal of hard, independent evidence concerning the Kingdom, What there is comes from royal inscriptions and an abundance of stone ruins.

The modern city of Sukhothai ('new town', as it is known) is the starting point for an exploration of the old city. To reach the new city you have the option of bus, car or plane. Buses run frequently on the six hour or so journey from the Bangkok Morchit Bus Station to Suk and the north. The new city is a standard Thai town, located on the banks of the Yom River, with a population of ~40,000. It consists largely of middle-aged and slightly worn buildings, and a few busy streets along the river. Outside the new city, the province consists of villages, rice fields, and light industry. It is a quiet area of the Kingdom of Thailand.

In the new town there is no shortages of tourist amenities. Hotels and guesthouses are in good supply. In the centre of town there are at least a dozen, small, locally owned guesthouses, where for the princely sum of 400-500 baht ($12-$15) you can have a private, aircon, room with facilities all to yourself, or a 'fan' room, no aircon, for maybe $8 a night. There are also a range of hotels, the more expensive being found outside the city. Near, and on the route to the old city, there are several classy resorts.

To serve the inner man, the town has several cafes and restaurants, which serve good coffee, and western (and Thai) food, plus an abundance of local 'street' restaurants, which provide hot and tasty local food. There is also an adequate range of businesses to take care of your various needs. Several nights a week there is a night market on the Yom river, where a wide range of goods, and also lots of local gossip and chit chat, can be had.

The old city, the Sukhothai Historical Park is found 12kms to the west of the new city, easily reached via road. A bus one way is 30 baht ($1), a tuk tuk to the ruins one way is 150 baht, while a tuk tuk for a day is 600 baht, where a driver takes you to the ruins and then conveys you from one to the next (if your driver did a good job, then a 100 baht tip is not unwarrented).

If you chose the bus, you will be dropped off near the park centre. Here is the ticket office where for 100 baht you will be granted a one day pass (08.30-16.30). It is a bit of a hike around, so I suggest you hire a bicycle. Bikes can be hired for 30 baht a day from several renters near the ticket office. Alternative means of transportation include your tuk tuk, a horse driven cart (for tourists), motor bikes (I don't like in these parks), or automobiles (ditto). From this point on, wander throught he park examining each of the ruins. The Park is wide and spacious, and well maintained.

Most of the ruins are Buddhist temples, but there are also palaces, moats, dams, canals, and fortifications. The earliest constructs are Hindu themed, with Naga reliefs and Vishnu images, demonstrating their original religious affiliation, however, during the Sukhothai period the Thai people converted to Buddhism. As such Buddha images were added to these earlier constructions. Also, the earlier buildings show a clear Cambodian influence, while the later a more 'Thai' style.

What you will see are the stone remnants of these buildings. The wood, and other organic material, are long lost. The stone foundations, pillars, and decorations are what remain. Also, many of the temples have chedi ("Jed-e")—these are cone shaped constructions, large and small, which house the ashes of prominent people.

As with most kingdoms, each King felt compelled to build temples to the gods. These temples indicated his religious devotion, kept his subjects busy, and reinforced his control and influence over the commoners and aristocrats. Between these stone buildings were the ordinary buildings where ordinary people, who did most of the work of the city, lived and spent their lives. While the old city now seems quiet and restful, five centuries ago it would have been ablaze with a jumble of active and busy people.

The largest building is the Wat (temple) Mahathat, near the park centre. This consists of a number of smaller structure clustered around a large central hall. It also contains a 8m high Buddha image—an image often seen on Thai tv and movies.

There are several offices of the Fine Arts Department in or near the Park. This organisation is charged with historical and archaeological research in the Kingdom. They also oversee the museums of the Kingdom. At the park is the excellent Ramkhamhaeng National Museum, which houses and exhibits material of the Kingdom.

During my visit there were two or three hundred other people wandering through the park. I was a little surprised that there were not more folk who made the trek from the confines of Bangkok.

To see all, allow a day. This will give you time to peddle around at your leisure, enjoy a coffee inside the park at Amazon Cafe, and a light lunch at one of the small restuarants just outside the gate entrance. I suggest bringing lots of water, a hat, sunscreen, and your camera. Some of the ruins are impressive and wonderous.

A few days in Sukhothai is a must if you plan to spend some time in Thailand. It is an interesting spot.

The Sukhothai province.

New town bus terminus for the trip to the old town.
If you are feeling energetic.

Your fellow passengers.
Young people from everywhere.

UNESCO sign.
Bikes are always fun.

shops and restaurants near park entrance.

Your ticket, 100 baht, and an included map.

Bike girls. Great fun.

King Ramkamhaeng.
This modern statue of the King is
found just inside the park entrance.
Reproduction of royal inscription, at the statue.

This bell is adjacent to the statue of the King. By ringing the bell
you give yourself a blessing. What more could anyone ask for?

Entrance to Wat Mahathat.

Tourist sign.


Locals frequently come by to pay their respects.
Here a group of Buddhist nuns, on a sight seeing trip.


Buddha before a chedi.

Side view of the Wat,
across the moat.

Tourists snapping away,
and making their way to the Wat.


Wat Traphang Ngoen.
One of the small wats in the Park.

Looking over one of the moats.

lazy tourists, on a tuk tuk.

The city wall, and one of four gates.

The Park museum.

A few snaps from around the new town.
This is the Provincial Hall. The admin of the province.

This style of construction has been
referred to as 'egg carton'.

A feature of every Thai town, city and village.
People buying and selling amulets, for good luck.

A local cafe.

Fruit market.

Road archway on a main street.
This reflects the recent Chinese New Year.

One of the 'western' cafes in the new town.

The TR Guesthouse.
A nice place to stay for a few days.

1 comment:

Andreas Hörstemeier said...

I fully agree that Sukhothai is a must-visit, I even liked it much more than Ayutthaya historical park, less busy and not intermixed with a modern city. And while you are in the area, you should try to go to Si Satchanalai as well - the ruins are similar, but you'd be almost alone there as it is not on the normal tourist agendas.