One of Thailand’s premier historical parks, UNESCO-listed Sukhothai is conveniently located between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, making it a relatively easy addition to trips with tight time-frames. Here’s how to cover all the highlights of Sukhothai Historical Park’s main central, northern and western zones — plus a little something extra — in a single day.
Whether you choose to stay in old Sukhothai or new Sukhothai, start early in the morning by renting a bicycle for 30 baht from one of the many shops near the front gates of the historical park’s central zone. The shared songthaew from new Sukhothai drops travellers off here, or you can cruise the 12 kilometres yourself if staying in the new city and preferring to explore the park by motorbike. Motorbikes can also be rented at old Sukhothai’s budget guesthouses, or you can hire a motorised trishaw (they look like backwards tuk tuks) with driver for the day.
If wanting to better understand the history and significance of the Sukhothai kingdom before hitting the ruins, take a stroll over to Ramkamhaeng National Museum, which is impossible to miss right across from the central zone’s front gates. The 150 baht price tag is a tad over-the-top, so feel free to skip the museum and instead check out the ancient chedi surrounded by a moat at nearby Wat Traphong Thong. Food and drink options are next to nil inside the park, so this area would also be the place to grab water and a bite to eat.
Primed and ready for the main event, purchase your tickets (100 baht per person) and head straight into the central zone. You’ll first see the King Ramkamhaeng monument on the right, which is probably only worth a passing glance en route to Wat Mahathat. The centrepiece of Sukhothai, Wat Mahathat remains the park’s largest and arguably most impressive single site.
After patiently waiting for visitors to move so you can snap those untainted photos of Wat Mahathat’s graceful lotus-shaped tower and ancient Buddha images still in pristine condition, head south to Wat Si Sawai. First constructed by ancient Khmers as a monument to Hindu gods, the three spires of Wat Si Sawai resemble other Khmer temples from roughly the same period like those of northeastern Thailand’s Phimai and Angkor in Cambodia. Go ahead, walk inside the musty sanctuaries and picture devotees leaving offerings to Siva and Vishnu centuries ago.
Next, peddle west and make stops at the smaller but still noteworthy sites of Wat Trapang Ngoen and Wat Sra Si. Along the way, don’t forget to stop at one of the many ponds where the meandering branches of old trees hauntingly reflect in the shimmering water.
With the central zone’s highlights under your belt, head north from Wat Sra Si, crossing the main road (route 12) which cuts through the old city from east to west. You’ll have to purchase another 100 baht ticket to enter the northern zone, but two fabulous monuments make it worth it. First up is another originally Khmer monument, Wat Phra Pai Luang, which is believed to be the oldest site in Sukhothai. Although not in perfect condition, ancient stucco reliefs on the one remaining Khmer-style spire are still mesmerizing.
After a slow but steady wander through the 33 chedis of Wat Phra Pai Luang, prepare for an almost kilometre-long bike ride west (but still officially part of the northern zone) to what we think is Sukhothai’s single most awe-inspiring monument: Wat Si Chum. Although not a sprawling complex like Wat Mahathat or Wat Phra Pai Luang, the massive Buddha image of Wat Si Chum sits enclosed in a hall with three-metre-thick walls that allow only for the Buddha’s deeply concentrated expression to be seen from outside through a narrow entrance-way.
The Buddha image at Wat Si Chum is in the “subduing Mara” pose, depicting the moment during the Buddha’s final meditative run to enlightenment when he is said to have reached down his hand to touch the earth. It’s considered by Buddhists to be a subtle yet powerful symbol of unwavering strength and stability in response to a barrage of seductive temptations and frightening demons unleashed by the evil lord Mara. Signifying this pivotal moment, the spectacular tapered fingers of the Buddha image span a height that towers above most full grown adults.
After Wat Si Chum, you’ll probably be ready to make a pit-stop at one of several Thai restaurants on nearby route 12 to rejuvenate. You could call it a day at this point knowing you hit all of the most notable sites, but we recommend stocking up on water and setting out on the two-kilometre ride to the more remote western zone, which (for another 100 baht ticket) offers a chance to explore quiet hilltop ruins surrounded by forest.
The most impressive and widely visited site of the western zone is Wat Saphan Hin, a hilltop temple that affords some decent eastern views of the central zone ruins and surrounding countryside. The temple features a large standing Buddha and is reachable only by an ancient raised stone walkway, which King Ramkamhaeng is believed to have traversed every rainy season on the back of a white elephant. The stones have been smoothed by the soles of countless feet over the centuries, so feel free to take off your shoes and walk the bridge in the same way that ancient pilgrims and monks would have.
Continuing south from here, the road passes by a series of smaller sites, many of which have largely been reclaimed by jungle. While not jaw-dropping like some of the more popular ruins, they possess an understated allure defined by leafy surrounds and a peaceful atmosphere. Perched on a separate hilltop south of Wat Saphan Hin, we found Wat Khao Phra Bat Noi to offer a particularly tranquil setting that seemed rarely visited by tourists or locals. It’s easy to see why the site was originally used as a forest meditation monastery — if wanting to sit in solitude among the ruins for a while, this is an excellent place to do it.
Rather than turning around and heading back to route 12, we highly recommend continuing south through the western zone on the country road that passes modest homes and forgotten ruins that seem to hover above vibrant green paddy. The road eventually cuts west before emerging onto the western side of the central zone.
Unless you speed race through all of the above, it will be late afternoon by this point, so you might stop once more at your favourite monuments of the central zone while they’re draped in photogenic late day sunlight. After that, only one “must-do” remains to make your day in Sukhothai complete: tuck into some kwit-tieau Sukhothai. Enjoy!
By David Luekens
Last updated on 17th September, 2014.