Walking the streets of modern Kamphaeng Phet, it’s hard to believe this low-key backwater was once a key stronghold of the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya kingdoms. Often overlooked by travellers, what remains of this once magnificent city can be explored at Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park.
The historical park’s central zone is home to Wat Phra Kaew, the area’s largest complex that once served as a royal temple. According to an ancient text, the Thai civilisation’s most treasured Buddha image — the Emerald Buddha now housed in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew — was once kept here.
While the Emerald Buddha has long since moved on, a handful of elephant statues carved in distinctive Sukhothai style remain in excellent condition at Wat Phra Kaew. Further to the rear of the complex, a trio of photogenic Buddha images — two seated and one reclining — are thought to have been added during the Ayutthaya period.
One of the most obvious differences between the ruins here and those at Sukhothai is the extensive use of laterite stone. Unique to Kamphaeng Phet on such a large scale, many of the laterite Buddha images have lost arms over the centuries, and the facial features on most have long since worn away. The result is a host of eerie images that look more like futuristic aliens than ancient humans. From a Buddhist perspective, the faceless images call to mind the Buddha’s teachings on impermanence and selflessness.
Although it’s not as well-known or widely visited as Sukhothai, the people of Kamphaeng Phet are rightly proud of the prominent role their town played in Thai history. A good place to learn specifically about Kamphaeng Phet is Ruan Thai Museum, which occupies a traditional stilted teak wood house. Each of the side rooms contain displays on the area’s long history and the various ethnic groups, including Lao Song, Lisu, Karen, Hmong and Yao, as well as Chinese and Thai, that make up the cultural fabric of this diverse area.
Those who were disappointed by Kamphaeng Phet’s relatively small central zone will be pleased to find a far more extensive collection of ruins in the northern zone. Many of the 40 sites have been reduced to little more than piles of stone that mingle with the surrounding jungle, but even these possess a certain mystique. While the central zone is bordered by busy roads (at least by Kamphaeng Phet standards), the entire northern zone is spread over an expansive area of lush forest.
Very few cars or motorbikes pass through the narrow roads that connect each set of ruins, and it’s a pleasure to cycle beneath the trees. Similar to Si Satchanalai, although not as remote or difficult to reach, Kamphaeng Phet’s northern zone is imbued with a peaceful atmosphere. In an entire day of exploring the ruins, the only other visitors we came across save a few napping dogs was a single white-robed Buddhist nun.
While the natural beauty and quiet of the northern zone elevates the experience, some striking ruins can also be seen here. A highlight is Wat Phra Si Ariyabot, a sprawling and overgrown complex with a towering mandapa that once displayed Buddha images on four sides, each in one of the four bodily postures of the Buddha — sitting, walking, standing and reclining. Only traces remain of three of the statues, but in relatively good condition is the Sukhothai-style standing Buddha that’s gazed into the forest for centuries.
Also in the northern zone, Wat Singh, Wat Phra Non and Wat Sa Kaeo are all worth a wander through, but don’t neglect to cycle into the park’s northern reaches to check out Wat Chang Rob. Surrounded by what remains of 68 elephant statues, the massive laterite base can be ascended via a steep stairwell. Peering down over the surrounding area from atop the base’s grassy plateau is a great way to finish off a day in Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park.
Both zones of the historical park are located towards the northern side of modern Kamphaeng Phet town, and each has its own entrances (see map). The price for one or the other is 100 baht, but it’s possible to buy a single ticket for 150 baht that gets you into both sections. Bicycles are available for rent at the gates of either section for 30 baht. While a handful of street carts sell food and drinks near the City Pillar shrine at the northern corner of the central zone, you’ll want to stock up on water before entering the sprawling northern zone. Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park is open daily, 08:00 to 18:00.
Many visit Kamphaeng Phet as a day trip from Sukhothai, but we recommend spending a night or two hanging around Kamphaeng Phet town and exploring the surrounding province.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 2nd December, 2014.