Photo: Seated Buddha at Si Satchanalai.

Introduction

Set amid forested hills and fields beside the Yom River, the ruins of Si Satchanalai and Chaliang include 11th-century Khmer sanctuaries, Sukhothai-period temples and kilns used to fire pottery as late as the 16th century. The rural setting draws far fewer visitors than Sukhothai, offering a better chance to explore the ruins at your own pace and in your own way.


Established at a narrow oxbow in the Yom, Chaliang was a far northern outpost of the Angkor empire, which predates the Sukhothai kingdom. A handful of 1,000-year-old Khmer-style monuments were later embellished with Sukhothai-style features, resulting in a layer of artistic styles. Excavations at Wat Chom Chuen revealed that humans lived here in the fourth century, the dawn of the Dvaravati civilisation.

Temple ceremony, Si Satchanalai.

Temple ceremony, Si Satchanalai. Photo: David Luekens

Just down the road from ancient Chaliang lie the 13th- to 15th-century ruins of Si Satchanalai, a branch of the Sukhothai kingdom that may have been even larger than the capital. It hosted dozens of monasteries, an industrial zone and a palace for the crown prince; the legendary Ramkamhaeng lived here before ascending the throne in 1279. Early Thai art blossomed, evidenced by exquisite lintels, Buddha images, elephant sculptures and a wide array of chedis.

Opened in 1988, UNESCO-listed Si Satchanalai Historical Park contains 204 sites spread over a vast area, including a tree-lined central zone that -- unlike the related historical parks found in Sukhothai and Kamphaeng Phet -- is off limits to motorised vehicles. Top attractions like Wat Phra Si Rattanana Mahathat and Wat Chedi Chet Thaeo are nearly as impressive as any found in Sukhothai. Come on a weekday and you may well have them to yourself.

Souvenirs anyone?

Souvenirs anyone? Photo: David Luekens

“Si Satch” was a major production centre for Sangkhalok pottery, a commodity that fuelled the kingdom’s rapid expansion. The kilns kept firing even after Ayutthaya subjugated Sukhothai in the late 14th century, halting only when invasions from Lanna and Burma thrust the region into a period of warfare. Two ancient kiln sites have been preserved as museums to the west of the historical park, while several shops sell ancient ceramics and reproductions.

The few travellers who make it to Si Satch usually come on a day trip from Sukhothai, often as part of a package tour. For those looking to step off the well-trodden trail, a couple of riverside homestays offer a chance to be immersed in a tranquil village free of the tourism fatigue that hangs over Sukhothai. Most of the locals are friendly and kind -- just don’t expect banana pancakes and travel agents who cater to your every whim.

Take a wander.

Take a wander. Photo: David Luekens

For those who want to sink deeper into rural Thai life, the village of Ban Na Ton Chan offers a community-run homestay where you can learn weaving and basketry and visit a stray elephant care centre. It’s located around 20 kilometres north of Si Satchanalai town; call (055) 677 209 or (089) 885 1639 for more info but keep in mind that minimal English is spoken. Nature lovers could also check out the caves and waterfalls of Si Satchanalai National Park, located 60 kilometres northwest of the eponymous historical park.


Orientation
Si Satchanalai Historical Park is located 65 kilometres north of Sukhothai town in the northern reaches of Sukhothai province. It stretches along the west bank of the north-to-south flowing Yom River. Highway 101 runs along the east bank of the Yom and continues north to Phrae and Chiang Rai. Buses from Sukhothai drop off alongside 101, within two kilometres of all the key sites.

Within Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat.

Within Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat. Photo: David Luekens

Highway 1201 runs from south to north just west of the Yom and cuts west towards the historical park’s main gate. If coming from the south, keep straight rather than turning left here and you’ll be on a connector road that continues north for two more kilometres to the river, where a bridge connects up to 101. West of the historical park’s main gate, 1201 continues north past a number of minor outlying historical sites and up towards the ancient kilns.

Running for 1.5 kilometres east of the bridge and ending at the oxbow that hosts Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat, a riverside lane threads through the village of Ban Phra Phrang, which blends into the ruins of Chaliang. Two homestays and a few restaurants are found here; from the bus stop, walk south across the bridge, take the first left (east) and you’ll reach them in around 10 minutes.

Peak hour at Wat Nang Phaya.

Peak hour at Wat Nang Phaya. Photo: David Luekens

The riverside lane also runs west from the bridge. After a kilometre, a sign-posted left (south) turn leads another kilometre south to the historical park’s main gate. Alternately you can keep straight west alongside the river and enter the park through a second gate to the north. This vicinity has a scenic riverside area overlooking Kaeng Luang, a set of rapids that churns during the rainy season. Continue west along the riverside lane for five kilometres and you’ll reach the village of Ban Ko Noi, home to the ancient kilns. Bicycle rental is available at both of the historical park’s gates.

Police are found next to Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat in Ban Phra Phrang. One ATM is situated just south of the bridge at the crossroads where the connector road meets the riverside lane. WiFi is available at the homestays.

Located 13 kilometres north of the historical park along 101, the district centre, Si Satchanalai town, has little of interest from a travel standpoint. You might go here to seek medical attention at Si Satchanalai Hospital, to exchange currencies at one of several banks, or to catch a motorbike taxi to Ban Na Ton Chan. Only a handful of long-distance buses connect Si Satchanalai town to the historical park area.




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