A mini guide to Thailand’s first capital and current UNESCO World Heritage Site.
By Dave Stamboulis
Sukhothai, which means “the dawn of happiness,” was Thailand’s first capital, founded in the late 13th century by King Ramkamhaeng. While it lost its capital stardom to Ayutthaya less than 100 years after, it remains immortalized after being awarded its Muang Kao “Old City” UNESCO World Heritage status, thus making Sukhothai one of Thailand’s premiere tourist attractions today.
The old ruins are a bit far from Bangkok to do justice to in one day, but Sukhothai does have attractions that make it worth the overnight trip: comfortable inexpensive lodging for well under THB 1,000, good local noodles and even some Italian food, a very laid-back vibe, and easy access by train or bus. The city and ruins make for a great blend of historical outdoor museum and present-day small town life, and it is a must-see on any visitor’s itinerary in Thailand.
Visit Sukhothai to get an understanding of Thai history, and to see atmospheric and well-preserved ancient ruins. The historical park is spread out and can provide hours of fascinating exploration by bicycle or tram.
Sukhothai is also one of the best spots in the country to take in Loy Krathong, the full moon lights celebration which takes place at the end of the rainy season (in November each year), when Thais throw “krathong” (floating offerings) in rivers, lakes, and ponds beneath the ruins. The Sukhothai celebration features muay thai demonstrations, traditional dances and music, parades, and a massive fireworks display over the Historical Park.
What to see
The World Heritage Sukhothai Historical Park is the big draw here, and one should plan on spending at least half a day in it. The central zone of the park (each zone requires separate admission of approximately THB 100 each) is the most visited one, and it’s considered the most impressive section. This is largely because of the towering Wat Mahathat, which used to be the center of the ancient kingdom and is still preserved in phenomenal condition despite of its age.
Other highlights of this part include the Khmer Wat Si Sawai and Wat Phra Phai Luang, and the Sri Lankan chedi styled Wat Sa Si, which sits on an island surrounded by a reservoir. The nearby Northern Zone is also a must see and contains the often photographed Wat Si Chum, home to a massive giant Buddha image that peeks out from between two walls. The West Zone is less impressive as it doesn’t have as many towering temple ruins, but at the same time it’s less visited and a peaceful escape, as it sits on a hillside and has a standing Buddha image overlooking the plains below.
It is also well worth calling in at the Ramkamhaeng National Museum to take a look at its preserved carvings and inscriptions, and to learn a bit more about the history of the old city.
What to do
Sukhothai was made for bicycling, and it is the perfect way to get around the spread out ruins and to go farther afield. Most guesthouses rent out bicycles for THB 50 a day or less, as do many shops in the old and new towns. For something a bit more comprehensive, Cycling Sukhothai does countryside and sunset tours in addition to trips around the historical park. (www.cycling-sukhothai.com)
The ruins at Si Satchanalai are also worth a detour, located some 60 kilometers from Sukhothai. The temple ruins here have also received UNESCO status, they are far quieter than those of the Old City. They have the added bonus of being located in a lovely forested setting on the Yom River.
There might not be too much to look at New Sukhothai, but its bustling fresh market is worth a stopover. It’s at its apex early in the morning, when one can find specialties like spicy pork wrapped in banana leaves alongside mountains of colorful fresh fruit and produce that vendors hawk until they are gone.
Eating and drinking
Sukhothai may be the countryside, but it has plenty of delectable eating spots. The local claim to fame is kuay tiaow Sukhothai (Sukhothai noodles), which combine roast chicken, fatty pork shoulder, peanuts, string beans, and rice noodles in a sweet and sour lime sauce, and are sold on virtually every street corner in town.
•Kru Eew (203/25 Vichien Chamnong Road), in the new town, is a good spot to try kuay tiaow Sukhothai.
•For something a bit fancier, the Dream Café (86/1 Singhawat Rd, tel: 055 612 801) serves up excellent Thai fare in an atmospheric old Thai house full of antiques and cute knickknacks.
•If you’re in need of a farang fix, Felice (39 Vichien Chamnong Rd, tel: 089 960 9660) does praiseworthy fettuccine and plenty of other Italian standouts.
•For drinking, most visitors head for the Chopper Bar (Prawet Nakhon Road), a Wild West saloon-type spot with bull skulls on the wall. Thai food is also available here, along with mixed cocktails and your standard Thai beers.
Sukhothai offers great value for money when it comes to resting one’s head.
•The Lotus Village (www.lotus-village.com, tel: 055 621 484) is the nicest spot in town, offering artistic boutique accommodation in cozy teak bungalows surrounded by lotus and fish ponds, with an in-house spa, too.
•The Orchid Hibiscus (www.orchidhibiscus-guesthouse.com, tel: 055 633 284) is an intimate resort with a swimming pool, landscaped tropical gardens, hammocks, and private Jacuzzis, and it is located less than a kilometer from the Historical Park.