Photo: Tree shaded ruins at Kamphaeng Phet.

Introduction

Nestled along a wide stretch of the Ping river, near where the central plains meet the western Tanon Thong Chai mountains, the provincial capital of Kamphaeng Phet is home to 30,000 relaxed people and an underrated historical park. While few travellers squeeze the area into their itineraries, it rightly rewards those who do.


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Kamphaeng Phet, which means "diamond wall" in Thai, first appeared in chronicles that date from 1004 CE, when King Chaisiri fled his enemies and settled here. This mention makes the city older than its better-known neighbour, Sukhothai, though Kamphaeng Phet eventually became an important satellite of the Sukhothai kingdom.

As a western fortress of Sukhothai from the 13th to 15th centuries, and later a key defensive outpost of the Ayutthaya kingdom, the diamond city lived up to its name -- at least for a while -- through several battles with Burmese invaders. Kamphaeng Phet's original earthen and brickwork walls continue to stand as testaments to its medieval military might.

Between battles, the city's ancient residents erected impressive stone temples, monuments and Buddha images that display a distinctive Kamphaeng Phet style. Because the city was important both to the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya kingdoms, artistic elements of both can be seen here.

Along with the ruins at Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai, Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park was declared part of the World Heritage listed Sukhothai and Associated Historic Towns in 1991. Unlike Sukhothai, Kamphaeng Phet offers a chance to explore the ruins with hardly anyone else around. While Kamphaeng Phet's northern ruins are surrounded by similarly tranquil forest, the area is far less remote than Si Satchanalai.

The modern city is a pleasant mix of picturesque old wooden homes, great local markets and a surprisingly pretty and well-maintained riverfront. With only a trickle of tourists passing through, foreigners are still something of a novelty in Kamphaeng Phet, making it an especially good choice for independent travellers who want to explore beyond the usual hotspots. Kamphaeng Phet province boasts sweeping rural landscapes and a few worthwhile attractions, including hot springs, hill tribe villages, the magnificent Khlong Lan waterfall and pristine Mae Wong National Park.

Many choose to visit Kamphaeng Phet as a day trip from Sukhothai, and while a half-day to a day is enough to experience the historical park and related museums, we recommend staying for an overnight or two. If you settle in to what's arguably Thailand's friendliest guesthouse -- Three J -- don't be surprised if you end up hanging around for longer than planned.

Orientation
Kamphaeng Phet town is loosely divided into two sections, both on the eastern side of the Ping river. To the south lies the modern "new city", while the sprawling historical park is located to the north, partly within the "old city" walls. The two main north-to-south thoroughfares that link the two areas are Tesa and Ratchadamnoen, both home to modest shops and restaurants often set in century-old wooden houses. While you can walk all the way across town in half an hour, it's best explored by bicycle.

The bus station is located two kilometres west of the river, not far from Highway 1, a major interprovincial road that links Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Head east over the bridge from here and you'll hit a large clocktower and fountain at a roundabout where Kamphaeng Phet Rd meets Tesa Rd. This roundabout serves as the central point between the old and new parts of town -- Tesa Rd is referred to as Tesa 2 from here northwards and Tesa 1 from here south. The front gates of the historical park's central zone are a short bike ride northeast of the roundabout, but the park's larger northern section begins about a kilometre further north.

Flanking the east bank of the river southwards from Kamphaeng Phet Rd, Sirijit Rd has lovely tree-lined steps and benches overlooking the river on one side, and a string of parks on the other. The night market is located towards the south of town, just south of Sirichit Utthayan Park, between Sirijit Rd and Tesa 1 and a stone's throw from both the Chakungrao and Navarat hotels. Much of the best food and nightlife can be found in this area.

The town's two main west-to-east throughfares, Charoensuk and Bumrungrat, shoot straight east from Sirichit Utthayan Park and could be considered Kamphaeng Phet's commercial centre. Bumrungrat Rd is home to several Thai-style pubs, a Tesco Lotus shopping centre and a huge day market where throngs of locals and songthaews converge each day.

Kamphaeng Phet Hospital is located to the south of town along Ratchadamnoen Rd, 1.5 km south of the night market. The police station is found a few hundred metres northwest of the roundabout on Tesa 2, across from Tesa 2 Soi 1 and directly south of the historical park's central zone. The post office is on Tesa 1, just southeast of the roundabout. Several banks and ATMs are scattered along the main roads of the new city.

A couple of internet cafes -- D Sport and Fasai Online -- are located just northeast of the roundabout on Tesa 2. Alternately, NET is situated on Kalothai Rd, around the corner from Three J Guesthouse. All of the hotels have WiFi, but Sugarcane Coffee offers a fast connection in a pleasant air-con cafe on Vijit 2.


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