Sukhothai Historical Park is an enchanting place well deserved of its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Covering an area of about 70 square kilometres, it contains more than 190 historical ruins and is where most visitors to the area spend their time, learning about the distinct architecture, history of Sukhothai and deep-seated Buddhist philosophies.
Inside the city walls, Wat Mahathat as the spiritual centre of the Kingdom stands at its heart, with the now collapsed Royal Palace to its northwest. There is a contained area that houses Wat Phra Pai Luang that is believed to be the original foundation site of the Sukhothai Kingdom.
As you explore the park, you will note at least three architectural styles. Early Sukhothai people followed the beliefs of the Khmer and the temples are laid out with the central prang or tall tower-like spires, being the tallest and most significant of the structures.
After Theravada Buddhism entered the kingdom, the bell-shaped chedis replaced the cone-shaped prangs. Sukhothai craftsmen also developed their own style, which is known as the ‘lotus-bud’ chedi. Much of what constitutes modern Thailand today can be traced back to the Sukhothai Kingdom and was formulated among these structures.
The History of Sukhothai
Before the rise of Sukhothai, Siam was made up of small territories that had been defined by the ancient Khmer Empire’s rule. Sukhothai’s creation of a monarch brought a consolidation of power that went on to follow the Khmer as the ruler of newfound Siam.
The Sukhothai Kingdom marked a golden period for art, architecture and education. They established Theravada Buddhism as the state religion, set up an administrative system and documented Thai alphabets from ancient Khmer scripts. Ceylonese style, bell-shaped stupas soon became a common sight as Buddhist temples were built across the kingdom.
Sukhothai craftsmen constructed their ‘lotus-bud’ chedis and temples, while Buddha images took on a distinctly graceful form. After King Ramkhamhaeng influential rule, Sukhothai entered a period of decline that by the mid-fifteenth century saw it annexed by the Ayutthaya Kingdom.
Highlights to look out for
Wat Mahathat is the spiritual centre of the Sukhothai Kingdom, following the ancient Khmer’s concept of the centre of the universe. The temple is decisively Sukhothai, with a principal lotus-bud chedi. It is the most photographed temple in the Park.
Wat Phra Pai Luang is on the original site where the Sukhothai Kingdom was founded and showcases a combination of Khmer and Lopburi architecture. Dating back to the early 13th century it is elaborately decorated. All three prangs are still standing, although some of the details have been damaged over the years.
Perhaps the second most photographed temple after Wat Mahathat is Wat Sri Chum, which holds intrigue behind its 15 metre tall, seated Buddha image known as Phra Atjana, or immovable Buddha. The lingering mystery about the temple is the double-layer walls, which contain a passage that leads up to the Buddha’s head. No one knows what this secret passage was used for.
While not much is left standing, Wat Chetupon is still impressive with it’s large square-based pillars showcasing stucco-over-brick Buddha images in sitting, standing, walking, and reclining postures.
The Ramkhamhaeng National Museum opened in 1964 and houses archaeological finds from the Sukhothai Historical Park, Si Satchanalai, Kamphaeng Phet and Petchabun. The collection includes relief images, Buddha images, Hindu bronze deities and ceramics.
The best time to visit the park is early morning as it can be very hot at midday, although photographers opt to go just before sunset to capture images against the orange skyline. As with all outdoor parks and attractions, drink lots of water, wear light clothing, comfy shoes, sunblock and a hat.
This is a large area to cover and is best explored by rented motorbike or bicycle. You can book a bike with Cycling Sukhothai, a small business promoting eco-tourism who offer bicycle tours in the Park and surrounds. http://www.cycling-sukhothai.com/
For a small fee, you can also use the guided tram tour that stops at all the major sites in the park. They operate in five different zones and if you plan to visit all of them, it would be better to buy a combination ticket.
The Sukhothai Historical Park is located about 12km from the new city and you can get there by tuk-tuk or on a songtaew, which is a passenger-carrying truck. Bangkok Airways operates two direct flights from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, to Sukhothai daily.
The Sukhothai Historical Park’s sister city Si Satchanalai is about 60km away and was once the prosperous centre for trade with China. If you have time do visit it to get a more complete picture of the Sukhothai Kingdom.