An ancient centre of Thai culture and politics set along the Nan River, Phitsanulok (or P'Lok for short) today is a busy, dynamic city and one of the larger of Thailand's provincial capitals. While most travellers see it only through the window of a bus or train, those who hop off will find enough to do and eat for a solid break from the tourist trail.
Often cited as one of Thailand's oldest (if not the oldest) continuously occupied city, the area was first settled by Khmer people as early as the 10th century. In the mid 1300s, the capital of the Sukhothai kingdom was moved here, and the Ayutthaya kingdom temporarily made Phitsanulok its capital around a century later. As late as 1775, the city was a strategic defensive outpost during several military attacks from Burma.
One of the most revered kings of Thai history, Naresuan, was born in Phitsanulok in 1555. His much-romanticised story of being captured by the Burmese as a boy and later returning to Ayutthaya to defeat his former captors in battle is now the subject of a series of Thai film epics. You can visit his birthplace at Wang Chan Palace and view murals depicting key scenes from his life at Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat, which also houses an exquisite 700-year-old Buddha image.
Though a handful of other ancient features are scattered around the provincial capital (Phitsanulok city), today it's a modern urban centre with bustling streets lined by cement shophouses, some great markets and often not-so-great hotels. Several universities keep the atmosphere lively, especially on Ong Dam Road, and a long riverside promenade offers a breather from the action.
Home to some 85,000 people, Phitsanulok city is a major transport hub thanks to its location between the North, Central and Northeastern regions. Virtually anyone making the trip between Chiang Mai and Bangkok will stop here briefly. If you're arriving by train and transiting to nearby Sukhothai, it's a straightforward matter of catching a city bus or tuk tuk across town.
The wider Phitsanulok province consists mainly of rice fields in the west but gets mountainous on its way towards Loei and Phetchabun to the east. Here you'll find a pair of national parks -- Phu Hin Rong Khla with its distinct geological features, and the roaring waterfalls and windswept grasslands of the larger Thung Sal Salaeng Luang.
The remote and rugged landscapes in these areas sheltered the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) during its insurgency that threatened to engulf Thailand throughout the 1970s. In the early ‘80s, Phu Hin Rong Khla was the scene of decisive battles that ultimately saw Thai government forces drive out the Communists. Several of the CPT's key buildings have been preserved in this combined natural-historical park.
If time is on your side, we feel that Phitsanulok city is worth at least an overnight thanks to its handful of attractions and authentic urban Thai atmosphere. Nature-lovers with their own vehicle might consider a slow exploration through the national parks and into Loei. Though quite a few package tours stop in P'lok for a night, it draws few independent travellers.