Thailand is a country known for beautiful beaches and vibrant nightlife of its capital, but it has a lot to offer in terms of history as well. Lying outside of the usual tourist routes, the peaceful ancient capital of Thailand Sukhothai has everything a lover of history could wish for.
Hello my dear readers, this time, I am sending you a postcard from Sukhothai – the ancient capital of Thailand.
After visiting the magnificent historical cities of Angkor in Cambodia and Bagan in Myanmar, I felt like there was not much left for us in terms of ancient ruins in South East Asia. However, if there is still one country that has something to say into this, it is Thailand, with its ancient capitals of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya.
➯ Read more: Discover the 10 best temples of Angkor in Cambodia
The capitals of the old kings
Sukhothai was the first capital of Thailand, or Siam as it was called back then. It was founded around the year 1238 and served as the center of the kingdom for another 120 years until it gradually faded away due to the rise of Ayutthaya, Burmese invaders, and destruction by earthquakes. The expression “Sukhothai” literally means “Dawn of Happiness”, as the city was a symbol of the nation’s new found freedom from foreign rulers – the Khmers of Angkor.
Traveling to Sukhothai
We have decided to visit both Siam’s ancient capitals – Sukhothai and Ayutthaya – on our journey from Chiang Rai to Bangkok. And while you can easily reach Ayutthaya via train or a van in an hour from the capital, getting to Sukhothai is a bit of a headache. The route takes 6 hours by bus from Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai and if you are coming from Bangkok, prepare for a ride taking at least 5.5 hours. The town actually has its own airport, but the only flights are from Bangkok and cost around 120 USD for a return ticket. So if you are really interested to see the ruins, you can use this option to make a quick return journey from the capital or continue via other means of transport elsewhere. The remote location is also the reason why Sukhothai it is not on the usual tourist maps, which makes it a calm and quiet, yet unique place like no other in Thailand.
➯ Read more: Discover the 10 best Bagan temples in Myanmar
Finding your base
The first option is staying in Old Sukhothai, which is located just next to the Sukhothai Historical Park. The proximity is an advantage, but other than that, there is just a very limited selection of hotels or restaurants. The other alternative is then the Sukhothai town, aka the New Sukhothai. Honestly, the place is pretty quiet as well and the selection of living and eating facilities is nothing extraordinary neither. But it has a marketplace where you can shop and we managed to find a reasonable place to sleep just 50m from the bus station. New Sukhothai lies about 10 minutes drive from the Old Sukhothai and you can reach it either with tuk-tuk or taking the Songthaew bus.
➯ Read more: Top 10 most instagrammable places in Bangkok
Let’s go cycling
The best way to explore the Sukhothai Historical Park is definitely from the seat of your bicycle. There are other options like walking, getting a golf cart or hopping on a guided tour tram. But the area is just too big to be handled on foot and you’ll have enough time for golf carts and tour trams when you are 80. A bicycle will give you just the right amount of independence and it perfectly fits the character of the area. You can rent one in a shop in front of the entrance to the Historical Park. It shouldn’t cost more than 100 Baht.
Sukhothai and Ayutthaya
What I really loved about Sukhothai compared to for example Ayutthaya or the temples of Angkor is the total and mesmerizing peace. Due to its location far from major tourist destinations or cities, it attracts only a fraction of the crowds you would find in the above mentioned or even in Bagan in Myanmar. This is even enhanced by the fact that while the ruins of Ayutthaya are surrounded by a city, the ones in Sukhothai are spread around a beautiful, green and well-maintained park.
When visiting Sukhothai, you need to remember one thing – Sukhothai is the predecessor of Ayutthaya as the capital of Thailand and a much older place. As such, the ruins in Sukhothai are much less preserved and much less impressive in their size. Their real beauty, however, is in their archaicness and their historical heritage which breaths heavily from its every stone.
Sukhothai Historical Park
The Sukhothai Historical Park composes of 193 ruins on 70 sqm of land. The Park is divided into 5 zones – the Central, the Northern, the Southern, the Western and the Eastern. However, to be completely frank with you, basically, almost all the interesting things to see are located in the Central and the Northern zones. The Central, the Northern and the Western zone each charge an entrance fee of 100 Baht. Given the big differences between what to see in each zone, this is a pretty unequal deal and no wonder the Western zone is often being neglected by most tourists.
The Central zone
The Central zone is the one where you will find the biggest historical treasures of Sukhothai and where you will spend the biggest chunk of your time. It has the largest amount of well-preserved temples, as it used to be the inner city of the original Sukhothai metropole. Being it the magnificent Wat Mahathat or the Wat Si Sawai, reminding me of a smaller version of Angkor Wat, the Central zone is where you find most of Sukhothai’s beauty.
The Eastern zone
It is easy to join the visit of the Eastern zone and the Northern zone together, as you basically pass through the Eastern one in order to get to the Northern one. The Eastern zone composes of several small temples, like Wat Chang Lom with its well-preserved elephant statues, or my favorite small temple with a smiling Buddha whose name I don’t know captured on the photo below.
The Northern zone
The Northern zone is again a paid one and compared to the Central one, it is a bit disappointing that there are basically just two temples to see – Wat Si Chum and Wat Phra Pai Luang. Visiting the Northern zone is still worth the money though, as Wat Si Chum is without doubts the most impressive temple from whole Archeological Park . It hides a large 15 meters tall Buddha statue called Phra Achana. It is so massive that the building has to have a hole in the ceiling, so the Buddha’s head is actually sticking through it.
The Southern and the Western zones
Given the fact that you still need to pay 100 Baht to enter the Western zone and the amount of really maintained temples in both the Western and the Southern zones is really limited, you won’t miss much by passing them. However, if you have enough time and still want to explore the area, the Wat Chetupon in the Southern zone and Wat Saphan Hin in the Western zone should be your main targets.
➯ Katie’s tip: If you still feal like you didn’t have enough temples, there are other temple areas within an hour reach from Sukhothai – the Si Satchanalai Historical Park and the Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park.
Let me hear from you
I have really enjoyed our one day in Sukhothai. It felt like a time well spent, even though it does not offer as impressive temple complexes at Angkor or Bagan. Due to its remote location, there are no crowds to spoil your day and cycling through the ancient capital of Thailand spread around a beautiful calm park was exactly the type of relax I needed. What is your impression of Sukhothai and how do you cope with hordes of other tourists? Let me know in the comments section.