Sukhothai – The Old City

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sukhothai - The Old City
Image by ยุทธกร รังศรี from Pixabay

Thailand is a country with a lot of history, as well as a great deal of pride in it. There are plenty of beautifully preserved historical attractions to visit, and we’d like to tell you about one of the largest and most well-maintained – the Sukhothai Historical Park.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site preserves the ancient capital city of the Kingdom of Sukhothai, which today lends its name to both the nearby modern-day city and the province it’s located in. From the 13th to 14th centuries, the Sukhothai Kingdom is often regarded as the first kingdom of Thailand, which makes it apt that its name means “dawn of happiness” in Sanskrit. Its founder, Pho Khun Si Intrathit, established the kingdom as a rebellion against the older and more powerful Khmer Empire at the time, creating a dynasty that would last over a hundred years.

Under the reign of its third king, known as Ram Khamhaeng the Great, the Sukhothai kingdom achieved its most prosperous period. Ram Khamhaeng created the first version of the Thai alphabet and established Theravada Buddhism as the state religion. In the latter half of the 14th century, it fell under the control of the ascendant Ayutthaya kingdom, but much of its traditions and practices influenced the Ayutthayans, helping to contribute to what Thais today consider their national heritage. The capital city was abandoned in 1793, but in 1988 the historical park was opened to allow Thais and foreigners alike to discover the glory and splendor of Old Sukhothai.

Sukhothai Historical Park

The entire park covers 70 square kilometers and numerous temples and sites. Maintained by the Fine Arts Department of the Thai Ministry of Culture, the park is clean and well-maintained with numerous food and drinks vendors for your convenience. It is divided into 5 zones, although most of the main attractions are located in the central and north zones. Below are some of the must-see sites on your visit here:

Wat Mahathat

The largest and most famous site in the park, Wat Mahathat is also one of the most beautiful. It was founded by Pho Khun Si Intrathit himself as the central temple of both the city and the kingdom. The design was based on the geometric principles of a mandala, with a central stupa or chedi surrounded by over 200 smaller stupas in eight directions throughout the site. Pay close attention to the central stupa and its 168 stucco sculptings around its base. It’s a pretty big site too with lots to explore, including several sitting Buddha statues, two huge standing Buddha statues, an assembly hall, a ritual pavilion, and an ordination hall. You’ll find Thais still praying and making offerings at the Buddha statues, so bear in mind that this is a holy place and be appropriately respectful.

Wat Phra Phai Luang

This is one of the oldest ruins in the park, dating back to when the city was still under the control of the Khmer kingdom before Sukhothai was founded – it used to be the city’s main temple until Wat Mahathat took over that role. Its name means “temple of the great wind,” and its main feature is its laterite prang, or tower-like spire common in Khmer architecture, featuring intricate and elaborate stucco decorations. This prang was one of three, but it is the only one still standing, the other two have fallen into ruin. The rest of the temple complex also consists mostly of ruins, but many large Buddha images still remain on some of the walls.

Wat Si Chum

Just a short walk from Wat Phra Phai Luang is Wat Si Chum. Approaching this site, you will be treated to a spectacular view of its giant buddha statue peering through the narrow opening of its wall. Enter the opening and you will be in the mandapa, or ritual hall, in the presence of the 15-meter-high Phra Achana statue, whose elongated gold-plated fingers you might recognize from dozens of Thai postcards. This temple houses a mystery in the form of a secret stairway that leads to the top of the temple. No one knows what this stairway was for – although there is a legend in which a king ordered a soldier to climb the staircase and deliver a speech to his troops, making his voice sound as if the Buddha statue itself was speaking. It must have been a great motivational tool!

Wat Si Sawai

This is another older, pre-Sukhothai-kingdom temple of Khmer design, similar to Wat Phra Phai Luang. Unlike its more ruined counterpart, Wat Si Sawai features three largely intact prangs, with its central one stretching over 15 meters high. These prangs feature some of the most beautiful stucco work in the park, with carvings of mythological creatures and half-human, half-animal figures. These carvings indicate that it was once a Hindu temple before being converted to a Buddhist one. The area around it is shady and picturesque, with a large moat and several trees, so it makes for a great place to stop and chill for a bit.

Wat Sa Si

Not far from Wat Mahathat is one of the smaller, but also one of the most beautiful, sites in the park. Wat Sa Si is located on an island in the middle of a man-made pond, and the lotus-filled waters around it make for a picturesque setting. Its main feature is the Singhalese-style chedi with its tall spire, built to enshrine the ashes of King Li Thai, the fourth king of Sukhothai.

Ramkhamhaeng National Museum

Before it was open to the public, the Sukhothai Historical Park was an archaeological site. Hence, a visit to the park isn’t complete without seeing the artifacts and objects recovered from this site, as well as other Sukhothai-era relics from Si Satchanalai, Kamphaeng Phet, and Phetchabun. This museum is a branch of the National Museum of Thailand and was opened in 1964 by King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Although the Sukhothai Historical Park isn’t as accessible from Bangkok as the Ayutthaya Historical Park, is located over 400 kilometers to the north, we definitely recommend a visit for enthusiasts of history and culture. So make it a stop on your journey up north from the capital city to Chiang Mai, perhaps – we promise it’ll be worth your while!