A trip to the UNESCO World Heritage site at Si Satchanalai isn't for everyone. In fact, for most of us, a visit to the more accessible, quite similar, yet seriously fantastic ruins at Sukhothai is probably enough. But for those few with a particularly keen interest in architecture and history, Si Satchanalai, with its more intimate forested setting and fewer number of visitors, creates a better chance to discover these ancient temples at your own pace and in your own way.
Situated in a scenic spot near an oxbow in the Yom River, Si Satch (as it's known to locals) lies some 65 kilometres to the north of Sukhothai. During the Sukhothai era, Si Satchanalai was the kingdom's administrative centre and considered to be Sukhothai's twin city. During the 13th and 14th centuries, this lesser known sibling, along with Sukhothai and Kamphaeng Phet (the other other Sukhothai), formed the beginnings of the Thai state and the first period of Thai-style art.
A UNESCO world heritage site since 1991, Si Satch's isolation adds to its splendour. Although it attracts a fair number of foreign tour groups and Thai pilgrims, it's not crowded, and the compact, generally flat location makes it easily accessible by bicycle or on foot. There are no hawkers on the grounds and no hassles. Although there were a handful of Thai tourists about when we last visited on a Saturday, the atmosphere was still very quiet and we didn't encounter anyone else while at the hillside temple sites. On a weekday, don't be surprised if you have the entire park all to yourself.
Si Satchanalai historical park and related sights are tucked between the north to south running route 1201 to the west and the Yom River to the east, with the busier north to south running route 101 highway a short distance further east on the other side of the river. The actual village of Si Satchanalai lies some 5 kilometres further south, although it's so small that you won't even notice it while passing through.
A small and charming road runs east to west from Wat Phra Si to the historical park before cutting north towards the ancient kiln sites. A couple of homestays, restaurants and several antique shops are found along this road. While the front ticket office, bicycle rental shop and outdoor restaurants are impossible to miss right on this road due north of the historical park, the information centre is halfway between this road and route 1201 just south of the park. It's a decent info centre that provides maps and English brochures covering the main sites. There's a bridge that shoots off this road between the historical park and Wat Phra Si that accesses route 101, which is where you'll be dropped if coming by bus. If coming on route 1201 from the south, you'll pass right by the info centre en route to the park.
Apart from the restaurants serving fried rice and other rice plates to tourists alongside the bicycle rental shop and a handful of souvenir stands, there's also a few local noodle and som tam shops on the way to Wat Phra Si. Kangsak Beer Garden, also between the historical park and Wat Si, offers a simple English menu in a large open-air setting with decks that afford pleasant views of the Yom River. We tried the cashew nut with chicken stir-fry, and although our request for spicy fell on deaf ears, the staff were quick to bring out fresh chillies in fish sauce at our request, and it was a tasty, well-balanced dish.
If looking to spend more than a day in the area, there are two homestay options near Kangsak Beer Garden and Wat Phra Si. The more inviting of the two looks to be Sillaleang Homestay (T:(084) 049 9595), which doubles as an art gallery. Closer to Wat Phra Si is the more rundown looking Papong Homestay (T:(087) 313 4782). Although no one was home at either when we passed through, both appear to offer similarly simple country living-style accommodation.
The general Si Satchanalai area is a quiet and pleasant place to enjoy the simpler side of Thailand for a while, but apart from these two homestays, the closest proper hotels and resorts are 15 kilometres south in Sawankhalok.