When I told my friends that I was visiting Sukhothai Historical Park, an ancient city located in Northern Thailand during a short holiday, many had asked exactly what there was to see. To most, the idea of exploring ancient ruins in Southeast Asia has probably become synonymous to a visit to Angkor and only Angkor. Even other deserving places such as Bagan and Borobudur become relegated to an afterthought. But Sukhothai was stretching it – barely anyone recognized it.
water lilies in sukhothai
It was precisely for this reason that I could not find any references for the place. I wondered whether it was still worth visiting. The few photos that I found online piqued my interest. That more or less sealed the deal. During a trip to Chiang Mai and armed with no expectations, I went for an overnight stop in Sukhothai Historical Park.
The bus ride to Sukhothai gave me some hints as to why it wasn’t so popular with tourists. The nearest place with regular domestic and international flights, Chiang Mai, is about 5 hours away. I paid THB 239 to sit in a cramped bus with Thai movies blaring from the television set and speakers. I was to discover later that Sukhothai itself has its own domestic airport, but then again flights were few and far between when I was there.
the buddha is everywhere!
I knew that I had finally arrived when I started seeing Buddhist stupas in the distance. I asked the driver to drop me off shortly thereafter. I had pre-booked my accommodations in the older part of town and close to the ruins. Other than being close to the sights, there really wasn’t much activity this side of town but it’s a good option for those with very limited time like me.
Although it looked quite compact and concentrated in the map, Sukhothai Historical Park actually consists of a few zones with each requiring an admission fee. I started my day quite early on a misty morning by hiring a tuktuk for THB 600 to take me around the main sights across 3 zones. Armed with some recommendations from my guesthouse, I started by making the climb up to Wat Saphan Hin in the Western Zone. The name “Saphan Hin” means “stone bridge” due to the fact that one has to climb up through a pathway of slate stone to get to the temple. As I reached the summit, I could see a large Buddha statue and a few pillars. That is all that remains now of the temple, although the Buddha figure here is said to be one of the finest in Sukhothai.
very impressive seated buddha at wat si chum
The Western Zone has a few more minor sights which I did not explore due to lack of time. I paid my THB 100 admission and headed next for the Northern Zone. One of the temples here, Wat Si Chum, is probably the most photographed temple in Sukhothai. Housing a massive seated Buddha image that seemed to be peering out from a narrow entrance, it was definitely a sight to behold. According to legend, it was the sight of this same Buddha statue that drove the Burmese Army to flee during an attempt to invade Sukhothai. I’m not surprised. Seeing the Buddha statue for the first time from the outside was also a bit surreal personally.
Compared to the Western Zone, the Northern Zone definitely had more to see. My tuktuk driver led me to the other temples in this area before heading to the highlight – the Central Zone. Compared to the others, the main zone was indeed a park in every sense of the word. Manicured grass fields, plenty of trees, moats, lakes and even parking spaces for bikes – the facilities were almost similar to those in a theme park. Fortunately, all these actually enhance the ruins, adding what seemed to be an easy and convenient touch to those initially expecting an Indiana Jones level of exploration.
Three Must-Visit Temples in Sukhothai
There are many interesting temples within the 4-sided perimeter of the central zone. But for those with limited time, I would recommend three which any self-respecting visitor to Sukhothai definitely shouldn’t miss. First is Wat Mahathat which is also the most important and largest temple in Sukhothai. It is said to originate from the 13th – 14th centuries and contains around 200 chedis (stupas) and dozens of Buddha statues. Of all the places I visited in Sukhothai, this is probably the most crowded. However, during my visit, I did notice that the crowd mostly consisted of retirees from Europe. Where are the backpackers?
the imposing facade of wat si sawai
The second and my personal favorite among the temples in Sukhothai is Wat Si Sawai. Located at the southern portion of the central zone, this temple complex is a humble structure built in the Khmer style. At first glance, it did remind me of some of the temples in Angkor. Wat Si Sawai is said to date back from the period when Sukhothai was under Khmer rule and is cited as well for having been originally intended for Hindu worship.
wat sa si
footbridge to the artificial island
a closer look
Last but not the least is Wat Sa Si. Perhaps the most emblematic of Sukhothai’s temples (do an image search of Sukhothai and chances are, this temple comes up), it has all the elements of a classic souvenir photo – a lake, an artificial island and a large stupa with a seated Buddha just in front. This temple is said to be at its most photogenic either during sunrise or sunset. I was not able to verify this however, as it was too misty when I visited that morning and I didn’t manage to stay for the sunset.
How to get there:
From Chiang Mai, Sukhothai is a 5-hour bus ride away. Bus departures are from the Arcade Bus Terminal. Costs about THB 239 per way. If you need to be dropped off at Old Sukhothai, you need to let the driver know.
There are many ways to get around Sukhothai including by foot, bicycle, motorcycle or tuk-tuk hire. I opted for a 3-zone tour on the latter which set me back by THB 600.