The ancient Thai capital of Sukhothai, a name meaning dawn of happiness, was founded in the 13th century and became the kingdom's first capital — existing between the years of 1238 and 1438. During that time, the Sukhothai Dynasty saw nine kings reign, the best known of whom was the third, King Ramkhamhaeng, who has been credited with both the creation of the modern-day Thai alphabet and the introduction of Theravada Buddhism to Thailand.
At its apex, the Sukhothai Kingdom stretched over much of modern-day Thailand (excepting the northeast, much of which remained under the control of the Khmers). The territory was gained both by military campaigns as well as diplomacy, the latter of which King Ramkhamhaeng was seen to be a master of. This period is seen as a Thai golden age where the Thai arts and culture prospered under the reign of a series of benevolent rulers. Trade flourished, and, in a step that had important ramifications in Thailand's future development, trading relations with China opened.
Gradual decline began following King Ramkhamhaeng's death — he was succeeded by his son, Lo Thai, a leader considered to have been ineffectual and who oversaw significant territorial losses. By the sixth reign, King Thammaracha I, Sukhothai was in a state of decline. In the year 1438, less than a century after King Ramkhamhaeng's death, the Sukhothai Empire was incorporated into the new rising star: Ayutthaya.
Further afield there are more ruins at Si Satchanalai and Chaliang. If you've got the time and are a serious history buff, these are certainly worth a visit, but otherwise you'll be fine to stick with just old Sukhothai.
Sukhothai was also famed for its export of Sawankhalok pottery to much of Asia during its heyday, with a museum these days providing a glimpse into its production, the precursor to the celadon pottery Thailand is known for today.
Today, the same-named provincial capital has two distinct centres: new Sukhothai is a small and bustling, if not charming Thai city on the banks of the Yom river that's home to some good local food (look for Sukhothai noodles!) and excellent guesthouses. Old Sukhothai lies 12 kilometres to the west and is where all the ruins of the original capital can be found. Most travellers opt to stay in New Sukhothai, though there is an increasingly ample supply of accommodation closer to the old city.
Set in an expansive UNESCO World Heritage-listed historical park, the ruins are spread out and best explored by (easily hired) bicycle. Be sure to set aside a full day to get the most out of the ruins — factor in an early morning visit to see the ruins in the best light, and again in the late afternoon. The ruins are divided into different zones, the best of which charge separate admission fees. The most interesting are by far the central, western and northern zones, and if wanting to explore all of these by bicycle, expect to be exhausted (but in a good way, we reckon) by the end of the day. The ruins can also be explored by motorbike, hired motorised rickshaw, tour group or on foot.
Most visitors will first arrive at the bus terminal in new Sukhothai, from where a shared songthaew or motorised trishaws can take you either to new or old Sukhothai. A system of pre-arranged commissions for songthaews and rickshaws (they look like backwards tuk tuks) from guesthouses is more pronounced here than many other destinations, so expect drivers to be nearly adamant about you going with their "best place in town".
We found that often their idea of the best is actually one of the best, but don't be pressured into staying somewhere that wasn't your first choice — we talked to a few operators of some excellent accommodation who refuse to play by the "songthaew mafia" rules and thus have trouble finding customers. The price of songthaew and rickshaw rides is also tightly controlled and is more expensive here than many destinations, but unfortunately, there's nothing you can do about that apart from exclusively relying on your own two legs.
In new Sukhothai, the majority of budget guesthouses — many offering some of the best value we've seen anywhere in Thailand — are found just west of the Yom river, which snakes north to south and is passable across the Phra Ruang bridge. There are also a few good places to stay on the east side of the river, including the outstanding Lotus Village.
While some solid street food and tourist-orientated cafes are found west of the river along Jarodvithi Thong Road (the main east-west thoroughfare through town), the colourful day market, a clutch of street food carts, and many notably good hole-in-the-wall restaurants, bakeries and a great Italian spot are located in the town's "downtown" area east of the river. If not looking to stroll too far into this more "local" town to the east, at least take a peek at the small night market that sets up around the imposing Wat Sathani just east of the river.
A growing number of tourist-oriented restaurants, small noodle joints, bicycle rental shops, guesthouses, resorts, a small local food market and even a bus stop to Chiang Mai and Bangkok are located along and just off Charodvithi Road as it leads up to the gates of the historical park in the old city. There's a tourist police booth in front of Ramkamhaeng museum, and an internet cafe can be found just past Old City Guesthouse if heading away from the ruins. There are also plenty of ATMs around here.
The main police station and post office are both located a little more than a kilometre down Nikorn Kasem road, which hugs the river just to the west of its banks in New Sukhothai.
The Sukhothai hospital is located midway between new Sukhothai and old Sukhothai, not far from the Big C supermarket.
We noticed only one internet cafe in new Sukhothai, which was closed at midday, but most guesthouses offer both free WiFi and computer terminals.
As in the old city, banks and ATMs are readily available throughout new Sukhothai.
There's also a TAT office on Jarodvithi Thong just west of the bridge in new Sukhothai, and a "tourist convenience and information centre" just to the east of the central historical park in the old city, just in case you need some help with your travel planning.