It really should be a jewel in Thailand’s tourism crown, yet Sukhothai’s beguiling ruins see relatively few visitors – providing excellent opportunities for hassle-free temple forays
Text and photography by Ronan O’Connell
A fiery sunset transforms Wat Sa Si’s bell-shaped chedi into a spiked silhouette. Reflected in the surrounding reservoir’s surface, the timeworn temple cuts a dramatic figure. By the water’s edge, a Thai family sits quietly, observing this demonstration of the marvels of nature and humanity. This is Sukhothai, one of the most important historical sites in the Kingdom of Thailand but – considering its significance – one of the country’s most overlooked major attractions.
While parts of Thailand are believed to have been inhabited more than 10,000 years ago, the nation is considered to have formed in 13th-Century Sukhothai. The enchanting Sukhothai Historical Park, a Unesco World Heritage site, showcases the remains of the first independent Thai Kingdom. More than 190 structures have been excavated in the city – indicative of the power and scope of this ancient realm.
In its heyday in the 13th and 14th centuries, Sukhothai was a thriving metropolis. It was under its third ruler, King Ramkhamhaeng, that Sukhothai flourished and many of the iconic elements of Thai culture were solidified. Ramkhamhaeng, who inherited the Kingdom in about 1279, invented the Thai alphabet and introduced Theravada Buddhism. Within 20 years he had spread the Kingdom’s power up into what is now Laos, west to the coast of Myanmar and down into the Malay Peninsula.
The architecture of this period, which borrowed from Khmer and Sinhalese styles, is the highlight of the historical park. Yet, despite its enormous historical relevance and majestic ruins, Sukhothai is not on the modern tourist trail. Many of the more than 20 million tourists who visit Thailand each year fly directly over the ruins en route from Bangkok to the country’s northern tourist mecca, Chiang Mai. This neglect benefits those who include Sukhothai on their itinerary. Unlike the crowded Angkor temples in neighbouring Cambodia, peace and solitude can be found in Sukhothai.
In the low seasons for Thai tourism – April to May, and September to October – it is possible to explore many of its outlying ruins alone. The main park is flanked by a warren of local stores, guesthouses and restaurants, ensuring a constant smattering of local and Western tourists. But spread throughout the surrounding area are dozens of rarely visited ancient sites.
The more remote remains are particularly peaceful, nestled amid lush farmland. Atop a hill, about three kilometres west of the historical park, Wat Saphan Hin enjoys a commanding location. A 200-metre ascent up stone steps earns visitors expansive views of the countryside and the alluring ruins it conceals.
Cloaked by the jungle are dozens more sites ranging in size from minute to massive. Some of the less remarkable structures have barely been tended to and find themselves clasped in nature’s grip. Those of greater significance have undergone careful restorative efforts and are surrounded by manicured gardens.
Bound on three sides by a moat speckled with water lilies, Wat Chetuphon is perhaps the most fascinating of these scattered sites. After crossing one of three small bridges, visitors inspect the remains of its large central pavilion. This mandapa – the Sanskrit word used by Thais to describe Sukhothai’s many pillared halls – enshrines four images of Buddha in distinctive poses.
Small details, such as the subtle artistic embellishments in the stonework, can easily be overlooked amid the most imposing ruins, such as the giant structure just outside the city walls at Wat Si Chum. The hulking building enshrines a 16-metre-tall seated Buddha better known as Phra Achana. One of the most significant sites outside of the historical park, the moated wat was built during Sukhothai’s glory era in the 13th Century. The scale of Phra Achana, its enclosure and the remains of the adjoining ordination hall hint at the lost grandeur of the Sukhothai kingdom.
A short walk from Wat Si Chum, the historical park is far more kempt than the jungle ruins. Visitors can ride tuk tuks or motorbikes, pedal bicycles or wander on foot along the park’s wide paved avenues. At the park’s core lies the magnificent Wat Mahathat, the most important temple of the Sukhothai kingdom, constructed some time between 1292 and 1347, under the authority of King Sri Indraditya.
A striking representation of the Sukhothai architectural style, its lotus bud-shaped main stupa is adorned with intricate stucco reliefs. Around it sit two large Buddha statues and more than 100 smaller stupas. Navigating this maze of ruins, running a hand along its jagged edges, it is possible to imagine the stately events that once took place here. As the religious centre of the town, it was the setting for grand ordination proceedings and mass prayer ceremonies. Even now it remains an inspiring location, particularly in the warm glow of sunrise and sunset, when its forest of stupas and pillars cast a cobweb of shadows.
Wat Sa Si, which flanks Wat Mahathat, inhabits the park’s handsomest location, surrounded by a dense fog of trees and enclosed by what was the largest reservoir in the capital, an indication of how Thais mastered irrigation during this prosperous period.
A road ran through the temple grounds until just 36 years ago when Thai authorities stepped up long overdue conservation efforts. Fortunately, Wat Sa Si retains its impressive central tower, which was designed in the Sinhalese style that has its roots in Sri Lanka. Alongside the nearby Khmer-inspired monuments, this architectural amalgam highlights the eclectic design of the former capital.
Here, in the 13th and 14th centuries, Thai kings borrowed concepts from other cultures, birthed new ideas and forged a nation. The fruit of their labour is just begging to be explored.
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