Located in a beautiful setting of lawns, lakes and trees in north-central Thailand, Old Sukhothai Historical Park was the capital of the Sukhothai kingdom beginning in 1238. The central area alone contains 21 temples enclosed by a moat, the greatest of which has 200 pagodas.
History of Old Sukhothai Historical Park
Founded in 1238, Sukhothai was the first unified Kingdom of Siam. Prior to this, modern-day Thailand was governed by local rulers loyal to the Khmer empire of Angkor. As the power of the Khmers began to wane, two Thai generals banded together to expel the Khmers from the central plains, founding the new kingdom of Sukhothai ("Dawn of Happiness" in Pali) with one of the generals, Intradit, as the first ruler.
The kingdom flourished for 200 years, during which its capital at Old Sukothai was a highly influential political and religious center. Eight kings would rule from the royal capital, the most important of whom was King Ramkhamhaeng (c.1278–99), the youngest son of the founding king. Among other accomplishments, he established Theraveda Buddhism as the national religion (replacing Khmer Hinduism) and introduced an early form of the Thai alphabet.
Sukhothai began to decline in the 14th century, as Ayutthaya's power was on the rise. By the late 1300s Sukothai had beomce a vassal state of Ayutthaya; in 1438 it relinquished all independence.
What to See at Old Sukhothai Historical Park
The medieval capital of Sukhothai now lies in picturesque ruins as Old Sukhothai Historical Park. Its many temples showcase the unique Sukhothai style of decoration, which incorporates Khmer (Cambodian) and Sri Lankan influences.
The park covers about 27 square miles (70 sq km) and is divided into five zones, each of which charge a separate admission (see Quick Facts below). The central zone was the royal part of the city and is the first priority.
The four outer zones - north, east, west and south - are less crowded and touristy than the central zone. They all cover large areas, so a bicycle or other vehicle is essential to get around efficiently. The north zone is the best (and closest), followed by the east zone towards New Sukhothai. The west zone is more remote and hilly and the south zone is not worth most visitors' time.
Protected by a square moat, the central zone contains 21 temples interspersed among lotus-covered pools, canals, trees and other greenery. It covers over a square mile (3 sq km), so a bicycle is a convenient (but not essential) way to cover all the ground. The city was much more crowded in the 13th century than it looks today - the houses and other secular buildings packed between the temples were made of perishable wood.
The greatest temple in the Central Zone is without question Wat Mahathat, the spiritual focus of the city and the king. (The grassy area across the street is the site of the royal palace.) Founded by the first king, the royal temple was given its large central chedi by King Lö Thai in 1345. It was regularly expanded by successive rulers before being abandoned in the 16th century. Picturesquely surrounded by a lotus pond, Wat Mahathat now consists of ten viharns, one bot, eight mondops, one large chedi and 200 small chedis.
The central chedi was built in 1345 to house two relics of the Buddha brought from Sri Lanka by the monk Sisatta. The chedi's lotus-bud shape became the hallmark of Sukhothai architecture, imitated throughout the kingdom. Surrounded by eight smaller spires, it stands on a square platform decorated with stucco reliefs of 111 monks in prayer. The remaining chedis each contain the ashes of a nobleman. The most impressive among the other structures are the ruined viharns, with pillars leading the eye to serene Buddhas seated at the back.
About 500m north of the city walls in the north zone is Wat Phra Phai Luang, one of the oldest temples in Sukhothai, predating the foundation of the kingdom in 1238. Thus the temple was originally built by the Khmers and has both Hindu and Buddhist elements. It is thought that this area was the center of the Khmer city and Wat Phra Phai Luang played a similar role as Wat Mahathat did in the Thai kingdom.
There were originally three prangs, but only one is still intact. Its stucco reliefs (some of which are displayed in the Ramkhamhaeng National Museum) show Hindu and Buddhist figures. When the Khmer temple was converted into a Thai Buddhist wat, several structures were built east of the prangs: a viharn; a chedi with seated Buddha reliefs; a reclining Buddha; and a mondop with four large standing Buddhas.
Another 500m west is Wat Sri Chum, famed for its enormous Buddha image that is the largest in Sukhothai. Made of brick and stucco, the seated Buddha measures more than 36 ft (11m) wide and almost 49 ft (15m) high. Draped over one leg is the Buddha's giant right hand, with elegantly tapered fingers and gold nail polish.
A passageway, unfortunately rarely open, leads up the side of the Buddha's custom-built mondop to the roof, providing an aerial view over the great sculpture. In the days of Old Sukhothai, this Buddha was said to occasionally speak to devotees - the staircase would have allowed tricky humans to speak on his behalf.
The primary temple of interest in the east zone is Wat Chang Lom ("Temple Surrounded by Elephants"), located canalside behind Thai Village Hotel along the road to New Sukhothai. As indicated by its name, the temple's distinguishing feature is a Sri-Lankan-style chedi decorated with sculptures of elephants.
The west zone is a vast forested area in the hills. One notable sight is Wat Saphan Hin ("Temple of the Stone Bridge"), a hilltop temple along the western edge of the walled city about 3 miles (5km) west of the main entrance. The temple is named for the means of access: a steep 650-foot (200m) long pathway of stone slabs. At the top is a large standing Buddha and some nice views - but the Old City is a bit too far away to be appreciated with the naked eye.
Festivals and Events
Sukhothai Historical Park is the best place in Thailand to celebrate Loy Krathong, a festival of light held over nine nights around the full moon of the 12th lunar month (October or November). During the festival, Sukhothai's ponds sparkle with floating candles and the ruins are covered in lights. There is a nightly sound and light show at Wat Mahathat and fireworks at Wat Trapang Ngoen, in addition to numerous parades and concerts throughout the city. Book accommodation early during this period.
Comfortable trains run from Bangkok and Chiang Mai to Phitsanulok, where buses connect to New Sukhothai (1 hr journey; departures every half hour). Long-distance buses also connect New Sukhothai with all major cities. The bus station is located about 3km west of the city center.
It is also possible to fly to Sukhothai from Bangkok or Chiang Mai on Bangkok Airways. The Sukhothai airport is about 25km north of town; shuttle buses transfer passengers to hotels and guest houses for B120 per person.
The Old Sukhothai Historical Park is about 12km from New Sukhothai. Bicycles are available for rent in both places and there are frequent songthaews connecting the cities.
Quick Facts on Old Sukhothai Historical Park
|Names:||Muang Kao Sukhothai · Old Sukhothai · Old Sukhothai Historical Park|
|Categories:||temples; city ruins; ruins; World Heritage Sites|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||17.018912° N, 99.703760° E|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Old Sukhothai Historical Park|
- National Geographic Sacred Places of a Lifetime, 115.
- Sukhothai - Rough Guide to Thailand (accessed 2009)
- Sukhothai and Environs - Fodor's Thailand (accessed 2009)
- Photos of Old Sukhothai Historical Park - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Old Sukhothai Historical Park
Below is a location map and aerial view of Old Sukhothai Historical Park. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.