There’s really only one reason people visit Sukhothai – to wander the crumbling ruins of what was once Thailand’s very first capital city. Spread out over 45 square-kilometers, the impressive remains of temples, chedis and stupas testify to the grandeur this town possessed from the 13th to 15th century, viewed as the Golden Age of Thai civilisation. The new parts of Sukhothai are pleasant enough, but pale in comparison to the remnants from its heyday.
Sukhothai Historical Park
The ruins of the Sukhothai Kingdom are one of Thailand’s most popular and impressive historical sites. UNESCO agrees, placing the grounds on its prestigious list of World Heritage sites. Within the walled park, which lies 12kms from the new city of Sukhothai, are the remains of 21 ancient buildings divided into five zones.
Each zone has a modest entry fee and contains its own highlights, but some of ancient Sukhothai’s most stunning ruins are located outside the Historical Park. Rent a bicycle or motorbike to escape the crowds and get a deeper insight into the foundation of modern Thailand.
The Temples of Sukhothai Historical Park
Wat Mahathat, completed in the 13th century, is Sukhothai’s largest temple, and home to the much-photographed enormous Buddha figures sitting among its ruined columns.
It’s located away from the main complex. Wat Si Chum, with its famous spired mondop and 15m seated Buddha, is another top draw at the park. Wat Saphan Hin sits atop a hill in the west zone offering incredible views over the entire complex.
Even Hinduism had a role in the ancient kingdom, as evidenced by the Khmer-style towers of Wat Si Sawai. To see the living face of Buddhism in Sukhothai, check out Wat Trapong Thong, where monks still devote themselves to the Middle Path.
Ramkhamhaeng National Museum
Before you begin exploring Sukhothai’s old city, stop by this impressive museum dedicated to the Sukhothai Kingdom for an educational background. Exhibits include the finest artefacts unearthed from the ruins as well as important Buddhist relics and religious imagery. Your all-access pass to the old city includes a visit to this museum.
Si Satchanalai-Chaliang Historical Park
Located around 50kms north of Sukhothai is an even more atmospheric section of the Sukhothai World Heritage site. Less crowded and more rustic, this massive 720-hectare park seems untouched compared to the more popular old city section in Sukhothai. Surrounded by a moat which is 12m wide, this ancient collection of temples and stupas is well worth the effort to get there. Bicycles can be rented at the entrance to make explorations easier, and the information center will give you maps and a decent history lesson. Open: 08:00-17:00 (daily).
The only modern attraction in this city of any cultural interest is Sukhothai’s wonderful municipal market which bustles with life every day from morning to night. Located right in the heart of the new city, this is the place to get a taste (literally) of central Thai culture in action.
The Sukhothai region was once famous all over Asia for its beautiful pottery, much of which was exported to China. At its height of production, more than 200 giant kilns were located along the Yom River north of Sukhothai. Several of them have been carefully excavated and are open to the public along with some educational exhibits at the Si Satchanalai Center. People are still finding pottery shards in the fields around the river which can be bought at local shops. Open: daily 08:00-16:00.
Pottery and ceramics fans will want to check out this small but comprehensive museum dedicated to Sukhothai’s golden age of pottery-making. Apart from Thai exhibits dating back 700 years, the museum has a collection of pieces from other Asian countries. Open: 08:00-17:00.
There are only two museums in Sukhothai, but they’re both very interesting. The Ramkhamhaeng National Museum will provide an excellent introduction to the ancient heritage of the Sukhothai Kingdom, while the Sangkhalok Museum (above) provides a deeper look at Sukhothai’s prominent role as a pottery center during the kingdom’s Golden Age.
Activities in Sukhothai
Bicycle tours: bicycles can be rented all over town and at the entrance to the Historical Parks, providing an excellent way to see the sights at a leisurely pace without walking for hours. Guided bike tours are another popular excursion in Sukhothai, and can be arranged at most guesthouses including Ban Thai, where the owner is a biking enthusiast and runs sunset tours every day.
River cruising: the local Yom River is ideal for taking a cruise at sunrise or sunset to get a unique perspective on life in this central Thai region. Although not as hyped as bike tours, a handful of guesthouses can arrange a leisurely boat ride in a longtail.
Swimming: if you feel the need for a bit of exercise during your travels, stop by Suan Nam Premsuk just outside the city along Route 101. The small but clean sports complex has an excellent swimming pool, tennis courts and even a couple of ping pong tables.