From imposing chedis and shrines, to stunning Buddha images and ancient art, to tranquil laterite ruins surrounded by forest, Sukhothai is most certainly on Thailand's shortlist of must-see destinations for historically inclined travellers.
Although a total of 193 ruins are found on 70 square kilometres of land, the most impressive monuments and temples are centrally located and can be explored by (easily hired) bicycle, motorbike, car or on foot.
The park has five sections: central, north, south, east and west, but only the central, north and west zones charge admission (100 baht each). If you only wanted to see one section, the central zone was the centre of the old city and thus is by far the most frequently visited. Massive Wat Mahathat (believed to house relics of the Buddha) is the best known monument here, but we took a particular liking to the older Khmer-built spires of Wat Si Sawai.
The far less crowded western section boasts Wat Saphan Hin, a unique hillside temple with a standing Buddha overlooking the fields below, which is reached by an ancient raised stone walkway. While this is the highlight of the west, there are several smaller and little visited hillside temples surrounded by forest, and while they lack the splendour of the larger monuments, these are good places to go if seeking a more solitary experience with the ruins. A visit to the western zone is almost worth it just for the bike ride along the quiet country road, which begins off the busy highway to Tak and winds past modest local homes and crumbling ruins that seem to float in the midst of paddy. After a little over two kilometres, the road emerges at the western side of the central zone.
Closer to the central zone, the northern section is home to two of the park's most impressive monuments, but not much else. Wat Si Chum — which features a massive sitting Buddha with gorgeous tapered fingertips in a stone hall where only the Buddha's face may be seen through a window from outside — is possibly the most impressive of all the Sukhothai monuments. The northern section also boasts the massive Khmer-influenced complex of Wat Phra Phai Luang, but unlike the leafy western zone, the smaller ruins of the northern zone are mostly in the middle of hot, barren fields and are not worth getting off your bike for.
The southern section has a handful of more "ordinary" ruins while the eastern section is mainly occupied today by restaurants, guesthouses and bicycle shops. However, Wat Traphang Thong, which occupies an island surrounded by moats made accessible by a foot bridge just east of Ramkamahaeng museum, is a good place to start your day.
The central section is very well maintained with neatly manicured flower hedges and some breathtaking old trees that reflect in the numerous bodies of water found throughout the park. Although just outside the gate you will likely encounter a local or two trying to push this or that bicycle hire shop, there are no hawkers or distractions once inside the gates of the park. English-Thai information signs are posted at virtually all sights, large or small, along with digital reconstructions of what some of the temples would have looked like in their heyday. A handful of vendors sell water and other drinks near most of the major sights, but be sure to bring water with you into the western zone as you'll hardly see any people here at all.
Although we found ourselves zigzagging around the central zone, a pretty standard route is to begin at Wat Mahathat, then continue to Wat Si Sawai, Wat Trapang Ngoen, Wat Sra Si, Wat Phra Phai Luang, Wat Si Chum, and then out to the western section if wanting to make it that far. Despite its hefty 150 baht ticket price, the Ramkhaemhaeng National Museum, which is just before the main central zone ticket office, is also worth a look primarily to see an ancient inscription that supposedly points to the origin of the Thai language, though some claim it's fake.
Last updated on 2nd September, 2012.