Oct 10 2012

Thailand’s Si Satchanalai in a day

Published by at 1:03 am under Sukhothai


Once an important satellite city of the ancient Sukhothai kingdom in north-central Thailand, the ruins of Si Satchanalai lie some 60 kilometres up the Yom River from modern “new” Sukhothai, and a day trip to Si Satch (as it’s known to locals) offers a more low-key atmosphere for exploring the ruins in your own way. Here’s how to do Si Satch in a day out of Sukhothai.

Those guardian statues may look old, but still best to show them respect.

Those guardian statues may be faceless, but it’s still best to show them some respect.

We set out in the early morning on a motorbike rented from a new Sukhothai guesthouse (250 baht if returned before 19:00), choosing to take Route 1195 which runs due west of the river as it snakes from north to south. Also running parallel to the eye-stinging dust and truck exhaust of Route 101 just east of the river, Route 1195 is a flat, well-maintained road with little traffic and no shortage of picturesque countryside.

Signs for Si Satchanalai are well marked, although you do need to keep your eyes peeled through Sawankhalok town, where Route 1195 turns into Route 1201. It’s a scenic ride from start to finish; don’t be surprised if you find yourself pulling off regularly to snap photos of country villages, paddy and wildflowers.

Motorbiking paradise.

Motorbiking paradise.

If coming from the south on 1195/1201, the road leading to the historical park will be on your right (be careful not to miss the sign) some 20 kilometres past Sawankhalok. After making this turn you’ll hit the information centre about 500 metres further on, where friendly English-speaking park officials provide visitors with maps and brochures in English. Before moving on, we took a moment to enjoy the gorgeous water lily ponds nearby.

One of the best parts of Si Satch are its lovely natural surrounds.

One of the best parts of Si Satch are its lovely natural surrounds.

A few hundred metres past the info centre at the end of the road, a left will take you straight to the main historical park, but we first rode east to where an oxbow in the river wraps around what is arguably Si Satchanalai’s most impressive site, Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat Chaliang (“Wat Phra Si” for short). First constructed by Khmers in the 13th century, Wat Phra Si is an expansive riverside complex that features a soaring Khmer style spire to go with several large and well preserved Sukhothai-style Buddha images, including two being “protected” by the hoods of mythical naga serpents.

Wat Phra Si -- don't be afraid to walk inside that inner chamber.

Wat Phra Si — don’t be afraid to walk inside that inner chamber.

While the Buddha images are stunning, Wat Phra Si’s highlight is a well-preserved tower with detailed carvings that include Khmer depictions of the Mahayana Buddhist bodhisattva, Avolokitesvara, which are strikingly similar to those found at Angkor Thom in Cambodia.

Wat Phra Si is still a working Theravada Buddhist temple with a more modern wihaan near the ruins where you can light incense and offer a flower to a very jovial looking Buddha image. The entire site is separate from the rest of the historical park and requires a fee of 20 baht per person, although that doesn’t include a donation to the mood-setting musicians playing traditional Thai instruments.

Those talented Khmer artists seemed to make it everywhere back in the day.

Those talented Khmer artists seemed to make it everywhere back in the day.

The narrow west to east running road that connects Wat Phra Si to the historical park is home to a handful of local villagers, many of whom run quaint cafes and antique shops. Sangsak Beer Garden is also worth a stop for a relaxing Thai lunch on the restaurant’s huge patios over the river, or there are a few local-style noodle and som tam stalls along the road if you prefer to keep it quick and cheap.

Two modest homestays are also found in this area in case the laid-back village air makes you want to stick around — not a bad idea for travellers without too much of a time restraint. The small but interesting archaeological site at Wat Chom Chuen is also worth a quick stop to see excavated remains of villagers from as far back as the third century CE, although this site costs an extra 100 baht and could be given a pass if pinching your baht.

The resting place of ancient people.

The resting place of ancient people.

Roll on westwards past the road that leads to nearby Route 101 (this is where buses pick up and drop off passengers), and before long you’ll see an open-air bicycle rental/restaurant/souvenir shopping area near the historical park’s main gates. If coming by bus, you would need to walk the two kilometres here to rent a bicycle.

After purchasing the 100 baht ticket at the park’s main entrance, head straight to Si Satchanalai’s two largest monuments — Wat Chedi Ched Thaeo and Wat Chang Lom — which are directly across from one another in the centre of the park. Wat Chedi Ched Thaeo features a huge lotus shaped chedi, a stunning white stone Buddha image and 33 lesser chedis, which collectively display Sri Lankan, Pagan and Sukhothai artistic styles.

Approaching the Wat Chedi Ched Thaeo complex.

Approaching the Wat Chedi Ched Thaeo complex.

Just across the road, Wat Chang Lom is a favourite of local Thais due to its 39 statues of elephants surrounding a massive Sri Lankan-style chedi. Although only the legs and parts of the bodies of many elephant statues are all that remain, a few still retain faces with eyes.

These beasts of burden have been holding up tons of stone for 700 years!

These beasts of burden have been holding up tons of stone for 700 years.

Next, head into the nearby western hills to check out Wat Khao Suwan Khiri and Wat Khao Phanom Phloeng, two impressive temple complexes that each occupy hills connected by forest paths and steep laterite staircases built many moons ago. Don’t forget to bring some water — you’ll want it after reaching the top.

What, no escelators? That's it I'm leaving.

What, no escalators? That’s it I’m leaving.

The atmosphere atop each hill is breezy and quiet with plenty of trees, and each of the monuments are nothing short of stunning. Go ahead, stride right up to the platform of Wat Khao Suwan Khiri and do your best Indiana Jones impression while perusing the stones for signs of hidden passageways. In any case, check out the eerie enclosed sanctuaries where locals still offer the occasional phuong malai garland.

Your reward for climbing those stairs -- Wat Khao Suwan Khiri.

Your reward for climbing those stairs — Wat Khao Suwan Khiri.

This entire hilltop area has been largely reclaimed by jungle, and a staggering number of white cranes now occupy the area, and we mean occupy. So many of these tall and slender birds call these hills home that locals can often be seen using umbrellas to shield themselves from the inevitable streaks of “white rain” that often showers down from above. While the bird poo isn’t exactly pleasant, the cranes do add to the overall exotic feel of the park.

The new rulers of Si Satchanalai.

The new rulers of Si Satchanalai.

You could either call it a day at this point knowing all of the major sites had been covered, but there are many smaller ruins scattered throughout the area and some still have surprisingly well-preserved Buddha images. Others haven’t fared as well, but the quiet, forested surrounds of most make them excellent places for reflecting on how a once bustling village can be reduced to nothing but a few old stones under some trees.

Hundreds of years later, it still retains some character.

Hundreds of years later, it still retains some character.

Si Satchanalai is smaller and not quite as elaborate as its better known sibling at Sukhothai, but we found it worth the trip not only for its impressive ruins but perhaps even more so for its tranquil atmosphere. Don’t be surprised if you’re the only one here if coming on a weekday, and even on weekends you’ll likely be sharing the park only with a handful of Thai pilgrims and the odd local couple out for a romantic walk.

A handful of the only other Saturday visitors.

A handful of the only other Saturday visitors.

If coming the same way we did on motorbike, be careful to re-trace your path back to Route 1195 rather than switching to Route 101 when passing through Sawankhalok on the way back to new Sukhothai. If wanting to go to/from old Sukhothai, we’ve heard Route 1113 also makes for a lovely and easy ride. If not up for such a long day of motorbiking, Chiang Rai-bound buses from the new Sukhothai bus terminal depart at 06:40, 09:00 and 11:30 and can drop travellers off on Route 101 about two kilometres from the park’s front gates. Buses pass back this way roughly every hour until 16:00 and can be flagged along the road. Alternately, taxis can be arranged through any Sukhothai guesthouse and cost around 2,000 baht for a return trip.

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