With its stunning UNESCO-listed ruins steeped in Khmer-Thai history, central Thailand's Sukhothai is a must for historically and spiritually inclined travellers. The area is split into two distinct districts: old Sukhothai, which is home to the historical park, and the inviting if not charming riverside city of new Sukhothai some 12 kilometres east of the ruins. Great places to stay can be found in both old and new -- but which is right for you?
Hmm, new or old Sukhothai?
Both old and new have advantages and disadvantages, so it's truly a matter of which area suits you. To clarify, new Sukhothai is actually very old, evidenced by the many centuries-old wood houses and temples that line the streets. It's referred to as "new" because it was settled after the original Sukhothai capital, which is now a historical park. More accurate names would be "Ancient Sukhothai" for the old town and "Old Sukhothai" for the new.
The main benefit of staying in the old city is that you are within walking/bicycling distance of the historical park's front gates, and therefore don't need to rely on the dusty (although charming by some accounts) 12 kilometre shared songthaew ride to get there. A handful of resort-style options are also tucked down a picturesque road about one kilometre from the ruins, and these are some of the better choices around if seeking a more isolated and romantic experience. New Sukhothai also boasts some relaxing places to stay, however, and there's a lot more going on in the new part of town.
What about food?
While the road leading up to the historical park in old Sukhothai has plenty of places to eat, most of them are your typical touristy "Thai-European" restaurants with voluminous menus and pricey but mediocre food. On the other hand, new Sukhothai is a lively but intimate city with a particularly fantastic food scene, including some notably good traveller-oriented restaurants and several cheap but memorable local specialties. Here you'll find a plethora of street carts selling distinctive Thai sweets for take away and hole-in-the-wall eateries serving up cheap but delicious north-central Thai cuisine, including the not-to-be-missed kwit-tieau Sukhothai (Sukhothai noodles).
Sukhothai noodles can be found in Old Sukhothai as well, but New Sukhothai also boasts several markets, including a photogenic day market where you can glimpse mountains of dried chillies and sample the area's abundant fresh fruit. Other culinary draws of the new city include a few Thai-style bakeries and cafes worth seeking out, and even an outstanding Italian restaurant.
What if I want to catch a late night bus?
A handful of buses depart in the mornings and early afternoons for Chiang Mai, Phitsanulok and Bangkok from a small bus stop in old Sukhothai, but the main bus terminal is in new Sukhothai, making the new city slightly more convenient in terms of transport.
Although Sukhothai's signature motorised trishaws (they look like backwards tuk tuks) can be found in the old city, they're everywhere in new Sukhothai, and pink songthaews are also readily available in the new side of town. In brief, new Sukhothai is the provincial centre while old Sukhothai is somewhat out of the way.
So which will it be?
If you enjoy relaxing into a real Thai town while soaking up a colourful atmosphere and exploring the local food scene, then new Sukhothai is the way to go. If, on the other hand, you're happy with a strip of tourist-oriented restaurants and simply want to be close to the ruins, or perhaps are looking for a more isolated resort-style experience, old Sukhothai is probably for you.
Where to stay in new Sukhothai?
At the backpacker end of the spectrum, the ever-popular TR Guesthouse has developed a top-notch reputation thanks to its laidback yet accommodating owners and some of the best value rooms we've seen anywhere in the country. Just 250 baht for a single or 300 for a double will bag you an airy and comfortable room with powerful fan and hot water shower, or for just 400 baht (450 for a double) you can upgrade to one of the large and stylish wood bungalows hidden in the garden out back.
Tucked down an out-of-the-way lane just past TR, Hang Jeng Guesthouse oozes character with its spacious and unique rooms, all of which sport hardwood floors, woven bamboo walls and air-con for just 450 baht. The guesthouse's classic atmosphere reminded us of a re-furbished colonial era home turned museum, and the friendly staff along with a network of spacious verandas with mountain views landed Hang Jeng a spot near the top of our new city accommodation list. Did I mention the pro size table tennis spread downstairs?
Further away from the centre of town, but still within walking distance, the quirky No. 4 Guesthouse offers simple but cheerful bamboo bungalows with mosquito nets and partially open-air bathrooms for 250 baht. Loads of tropical plants and an army of carved wooden turtles left us wondering if Colonel Kurtz might be lurking somewhere in this rather exotic setting. No. 4 isn't the place for those who get freaked out at the sight of a gecko, but the young, spirited owners made us feel like sticking around, as did the notion of a cheap late afternoon Thai massage on the bungalow porch.
If seeking a little more space and an even quieter setting, the newer Phuaroon Resort offers outstanding value in the form of classy wooden bungalows at 400 baht or bright and airy villa style rooms at 600 baht, both of which come with air-con. For what's considered backpacker rates in most destinations, Phuaroon offers loads of comfort and plenty of in-room extras, including fridges, TVs, sitting areas with woven basket couches and big, fresh smelling bathrooms complete with tasteful ceramic bowl sinks. It also happens to be a three-minute walk from the bus station, although the Sukhothai songthaew operators don't want you to know that.
In search of a little more elegance? If you can afford it, the luscious Lotus Village remains new Sukhothai's overall standout choice with its irresistible dark wood bungalows in the 950 to 1,600 baht range, some of which sit on stilts over pools filled with water lilies and tropical fish. The polished hardwood floors are a joy to walk on with bare feet, and every last detail of the finely toned decor is ever so tasteful. After enjoying Lotus Village's exceptional spa, you might grab a seat by the tranquil lotus pond surrounded by lush gardens, or take a peek at the impressive on-site art boutique.
Where to stay in old Sukhothai?
Our top budget choice in the old city remains long-running Old City Guesthouse, which is set back from the main road a stone's throw from the historical park gates. If pinching your cash, settle into a basic 150 baht room in the 350 year-old Thai wood house that looks like it belongs in nearby Ramkamhaeng Museum. While these come with shared bathroom facilities, Old City also offers less inspiring but perfectly comfortable fan and air-con rooms with optional TVs and fridges for 400-600 baht.
Apart from Old City Guesthouse and nearby Vitoon Guesthouse, which offers far less compelling rooms at similar rates, the trend in Old Sukhothai is swiftly moving upmarket. A pleasant side road near the historical park is home to Thai Thai Guesthouse and neighbouring Orchid Hibiscus Guesthouse, both of which offer more of a resort feel along with similarly comfortable wood bungalows and polished concrete rooms in the 800 to 1,800 baht range.
The spotless rooms at Thai Thai feature fridges and TVs to go with carefully placed traditional Thai artwork while the older Orchid Hibiscus offers a little more character and a few higher end rooms with private outdoor jacuzzis. Orchid Hibiscus also boasts a medium size swimming pool, "relaxation zones" complete with enough woven basket hammocks for the whole family, and there's even an on-site aviary.
If Thai Thai and Orchid Hibiscus aren't quite up to your standards, one true high-end resort -- Tharaburi -- boasts a ritzy atmosphere and decadent facilities nearby. The room we were shown came stacked with every last amenity you can imagine to go with a deep maroon and gold "contemporary Asian" theme that we found slightly over the top. A well-groomed garden, swimming pool, full service spa and fine dining Thai restaurant may all be enjoyed here. Rates start in the 3,000 baht neighbourhood, but it's unlikely to disappoint for those looking to splurge.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 25th May, 2015.