The history of what is now modern Thailand is a sequence of wars, droughts, floods, cities burnt down, kings, scandals and more wars.
The capital of the first Kingdom of Siam (the former name of Thailand) between the 13th and the 14th century, was the city-state of Sukhothai, which luckily is still standing in its magnificence and earned the UNESCO World Heritage status.
The official name of the property is Historic Town of Sukhothai and Associated Historic Towns. It comprises Sukhothai Historical Park (the political capital), a few kilometers west of the modern city of Sukhothai; Si Satchanalai Historical Park (the spiritual centre), about 50 km north of Sukhothai; and Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park (a military outpost at the frontier of the kingdom), in the centre of Kamphaeng Phet city, about 80 km south-west of Sukhothai.
How to get to and visit the World Heritage Sites.
The best way to visit the sites is to use Sukhothai city as a base and start exploring from there. Sukhothai can be reached quite easily from anywhere in Thailand. From Bangkok there are buses, minivans, the possibility of buying a combined train + minivan ticket to the nearby Phitsanulok, where to catch the minivan, or even fly to Phitsanulok and transfer by minivan to Sukhothai. Si Satchanalai Historical Park is easily reached from Sukhothai, while Kamphaeng Phet, being a bigger city, can be reached from anywhere. I didn’t visit Kamphaeng Phet but that site is considerably smaller than the other two, although I believe as much interesting.
Once in Sukhothai there are several ways to reach the sites. I personally love to ride motorbikes so I rented one and used it to reach both Sukhothai Historical Park and Si Satchanalai Historical Park. Motorbikes can be rented anywhere in town and they are cheap. Most of the guesthouses have even their own for the guests. Alternatively, as always in Thailand, there are other ways to explore the area. Tuk tuks, minivans, songthaews (pick-up trucks adapted to transport passengers in the back) and private cars are always available to take you wherever you need.
Sukhothai Historical Park
Once at the Historical Parks the best way to roam around the ruins is either on foot, although the areas are big (especially Sukhothai Historical Park ), or by bicycle. Bicycles can be rented at the entrance, are incredibly cheap and it’s great fun. I went with a bunch of friends and we had a great time riding them through the ruins.
Many cities of that time present a particular feature: they are shaped as a nearly perfect square, with the four sides following an accurate north-south and east-west orientation. Sukhothai is no different. The Historical Park is still surrounded by the remains of walls and a moat in the shape of a square which contains hundreds of ruins, buildings and temples. Just north of the main ancient city there is another smaller square, containing a few more temples, recognizable because the moat surrounding it is still filled with water. More ruins are scattered all around the area of the Historical park. Particularly notable is Wat Si Chum, that shouldn’t absolutely be missed.
Si Satchanalai Historical Park
Si Satchanalai Historical Park differs from Sukhothai Historical park in one detail. While the latter is integrated in the urban fabric of the suburbs of the modern city, the first is isolated and it’s surrounded by forest.
The feeling is therefore completely different. It retains some testimonies of a glorious ancient past. What I really enjoyed about Si Satchanalai Historical Park is that you can just walk around the temples, go inside, even climb some of them and at times you might be completely alone and let your imagination free to picture how it would have been to be there during the Golden Age of the Sukhothai Kingdom.
Si Satchanalai Historical Park is a big area, the core of the site can be covered on foot but, to explore it completely, at least a bicycle would be needed.
Something worth noting is that both Historic Parks have an entrance fee. In Si Satchanalai Historical Park the fee has to be paid only once, at the entrance of the area, while at Sukhothai Historical park there is an entrance fee at almost any major sight. That means that by the end of the day, even though the single fees are very small (about 3$ or 2.5€ in 2014), the accumulated fee can get pretty high.
How long is long enough?
Sukhothai is one of my favourite places in Thailand. It’s rich in history and very charming. I’m a bit of an old temples freak and Sukhothai was definitely a place where I could go crazy and spend hours at each temple. But, being more realistic, any normal human being would have had enough of old ruins after a while.
I believe that, depending on the individual speed and endurance, 2 or 3 days would be enough to appreciate the site. Si Satchanalai Historical Park can be covered in one day while another one, or maybe two if you want to see also minor temples and sights outside the main area, are needed for Sukhothai Historical Park. Including Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park in the visit would cost at least one more full day.
Sukhothai city offers a wide range of accommodation and it’s a quiet city, so don’t expect crazy nightlife. It’s worth to try the local markets and taste the local Sukhothai noodle soup, a culinary specialty or the area.
Reason for being inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List
I suppose the pictures already give an idea of the reason why Sukhothai is in the World Heritage List. What they don’t tell is that Sukhothai deserves it also for a few other reasons.
The first is that the monuments of Sukhothai are what can be considered the beginning of Thai architecture. The Kingdom of Sukhothai was also the first example of the typical cultural Siamese, therefore Thai, characteristics. King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai is considered the Founding Father of the Thai Nation but not only. He’s the one who encouraged the propagation of Theravada Buddhism in the region and he is credited with the invention of the Thai script. Some pretty important achievements.
Moreover, the cities of the Sukhothai Kingdom presented some remarkable examples of innovative engineering, especially in regards to hydraulics. Innovations that are still visible now in the numerous canals, moats and ponds that are spread around the Historical Parks.
Sukhothai is an impressive place. It emanates history and it’s immersed in the green of the forest. It is also a peaceful place where to get a break from the bustle of the big cities, particularly Bangkok. It’s well worth a visit while in Thailand. If you are on the way from Bangkok to Chiang Mai or you don’t know how to spend a couple of days between visiting different Thai islands, you should consider Sukhothai and take a time machine to that time know in Thai history as The Dawn of Happiness.