An ancient centre of Thai culture and politics set along the Nan River, Phitsanulok (or P'Lok for short) today is a busy, dynamic city and one of the larger of Thailand's provincial capitals. While most travellers see it only through the window of a bus or train, those who hop off will find enough to do and eat for a solid break from the tourist trail.
Often cited as one of Thailand's oldest (if not the oldest) continuously occupied city, the area was first settled by Khmer people as early as the 10th century. In the mid 1300s, the capital of the Sukhothai kingdom was moved here, and the Ayutthaya kingdom temporarily made Phitsanulok its capital around a century later. As late as 1775, the city was a strategic defensive outpost during several military attacks from Burma.
One of the most revered kings of Thai history, Naresuan, was born in Phitsanulok in 1555. His much-romanticised story of being captured by the Burmese as a boy and later returning to Ayutthaya to defeat his former captors in battle is now the subject of a series of Thai film epics. You can visit his birthplace at Wang Chan Palace and view murals depicting key scenes from his life at Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat, which also houses an exquisite 700-year-old Buddha image.
Though a handful of other ancient features are scattered around the provincial capital (Phitsanulok city), today it's a modern urban centre with bustling streets lined by cement shophouses, some great markets and often not-so-great hotels. Several universities keep the atmosphere lively, especially on Ong Dam Road, and a long riverside promenade offers a breather from the action.
Home to some 85,000 people, Phitsanulok city is a major transport hub thanks to its location between the North, Central and Northeastern regions. Virtually anyone making the trip between Chiang Mai and Bangkok will stop here briefly. If you're arriving by train and transiting to nearby Sukhothai, it's a straightforward matter of catching a city bus or tuk tuk across town.
The wider Phitsanulok province consists mainly of rice fields in the west but gets mountainous on its way towards Loei and Phetchabun to the east. Here you'll find a pair of national parks -- Phu Hin Rong Khla with its distinct geological features, and the roaring waterfalls and windswept grasslands of the larger Thung Sal Salaeng Luang.
The remote and rugged landscapes in these areas sheltered the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) during its insurgency that threatened to engulf Thailand throughout the 1970s. In the early ‘80s, Phu Hin Rong Khla was the scene of decisive battles that ultimately saw Thai government forces drive out the Communists. Several of the CPT's key buildings have been preserved in this combined natural-historical park.
If time is on your side, we feel that Phitsanulok city is worth at least an overnight thanks to its handful of attractions and authentic urban Thai atmosphere. Nature-lovers with their own vehicle might consider a slow exploration through the national parks and into Loei. Though quite a few package tours stop in P'lok for a night, it draws few independent travellers.
Sprawling to the east of the Nan River, Phitsanulok is a fairly large city with several different sections. Train tracks slice through the centre from north to south, with the train station and an adjacent traffic circle acting as the heart of the city. From here, busy Naresuan Road cuts straight west to a bridge while Aka Thotsarot Road runs north and south. Many budget travellers choose to stay near the train station.
Just north of Highway 12 (aka Mittraphap Road), which is the main highway running west to east, in and out of town, the large Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat is located in the northwest of the city near the river and a handful of midrange to upscale hotels. It's about a 15-minute walk from here to the train station. A riverside promenade accompanies Kon Rak Sukhapap Road for over a km along the river's eastern bank, with a large night bazaar setting up at its southern reaches.
On the east side of the tracks, Phra Ong Dam Road swings further east to host countless small bars, restaurants and an excellent night market. From here, Soi Thip Saena is a narrow lane shooting 1.5 km further east to the bus station, which can also be reached by Highway 12.
If you need information and maps on the area, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has a very good office on Borom Trailokkanat Road, just east of the river and a couple of blocks south of Naresuan Road. ATMs and banks are widely available throughout town. There are also quite a few internet cafes, including K&G Internet on Soi Thip Saena and My Coffee (mainly a cafe but with a couple of computers) on the riverside road, just north of Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat.
Phitsanulok is home to half a dozen hospitals, the best of which is Bangkok Hospital off Phra Ong Dam Road near the night market. The provincial police station is located off Naresuan Road, just east of the river and a few blocks west of the train station.