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Like Ayutthaya (which is just an hour outside of Bangkok and a good day trip option from the Big Mango), Sukhothai is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Thailand’s major ancient kingdoms and capitals. In fact, coming to power in the 13th century, it was the first Siamese kingdom that controlled much of present-day Thailand and is credited for creating many aspects of Thai art, architecture and culture. Not only did the kingdom’s most famous king, King Ramkampaeng, support the arts but he also installed Theravada Buddhism as the ‘national’ religion (hence all the temples, chedis and Buddha figures) and helped create the Thai writing system. NO big deal. Though there were other kingdoms and evidence of Thai history before Sukhothai, not much was known about them and many consider the kingdom as the birthplace of Thailand. The golden age of culture, trade and prosperity lasted until the 15th century when, after years of decline, the rising city of Ayutthaya conquered Sukhothai and became Siam’s second capital.
Today, what’s left of the original city of Sukhothai is found mainly within a 70 square kilometer area in north central Thailand. While it certainly can’t compete with the sprawl and grandeur of Angkor, visiting the Sukhothai Historical Park still makes you feel like you’re walking through history and has several postcard-worthy sites. (Check out my recent post with some of my favorite photos of the area here.)
The Sukhothai Historical Park is divided into five zones, with the largest area being the central zone within the old city. The central zone is also where you’ll find some the most ruins clumped together, as well as some of the largest, and is easily explored by bicycle. Outside of this area, a short driving distance away (or bike ride if you’re feeling energetic and not too hot) are the north, south, east and west zones that each have one or two noteworthy sites, like the gigantic sitting Buddha at Wat Si Chum in the north zone. Some areas you can access for free while others charge an entrance fee (see more information on costs below).
After visiting Ayutthaya, I expected Sukhothai to be similar – chedis and temples spread throughout the modern city – and was surprised of how contained everything was, particularly in the central zone which really feels like a park complete with pathways, snack shops and plenty of trees (locals were even jogging through in the evening). The close proximity makes it easy to explore on your own and cycling through seems like a much more manageable option than it does at Ayutthaya or Angkor. Some of the temples that particularly stood out include:
The entrance signs for the central zone said 6:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m., however people were going in well past 4:00 to walk around, exercise and watch the sunset.
Entrance fees are a little confusing because there are various entrances you need to pay at, different prices for foreigners and Thais, and vehicle fees.
There are regular buses from both Bangkok and Chiang Mai (running about 5 hours) to Sukhothai’s ‘New City’. From there, the ruins of the old city are 12 km away and reachable by songthaew (shared taxi), rickshaw (kind of a flipped around tuk tuk) or motorbike taxis. Regardless of whether you’re staying in the old or new part of town, I’d rent a motorbike near the bus station to get you to your accommodation, the various ruins and then back to the bus station at the end of your stay since it will be more convenient, flexible and probably cheaper (at around 250 baht per day) than continually paying for transportation. The road between the new and old city is a fairly busy highway, but easy to navigate, and the roads around the park are smaller and calmer.
Before visiting Sukhothai, I had read several times that there were better food and accommodation options in the New City and many people tended to stay there then go into the old city for the park. I’m not really sure why that’s the case because there were several guesthouses (with a range of price right near the central zone of the park – like, 2-3 minutes walking) an plenty of food, including an excellent evening market with both produce and made to order dishes. Considering you’re going there solely for the park and historical ruins, and probably won’t stay that long, why not stay in the old city? I stayed at the Old City Guest House in a clean, fan room with private bathroom for 200 baht ($6) that included towels, soap, water and glasses. Bargain.
Have you been to Sukhothai before? What did you think, or how did it compare to other ancient ruins you’ve seen?