From the 13th to 15th centuries, Thai artists of the Sukhothai kingdom added to religious sites that were first established centuries earlier by the Mon and Khmer of Dvaravati and Lavo, resulting in fascinating layers of religious art. Drawing steady streams of travellers all year round, the ruins are now featured as part of the UNESCO-listed Sukhothai Historical Park.
Opened to the public in 1988, the park contains 193 historical sites, including the remains of 26 monasteries, spread over 70 square kilometres altogether. While most of these consist of little more than a crumbling base or lopsided chedi, around a dozen key sites rank Sukhothai among Southeast Asia’s top historical destinations. Read on to get a lay of the land.
Zones of history
The park is divided into three main zones: central, northern and western. Each costs 100 baht per person for foreigners, plus 10 baht for a bicycle, 30 baht for a motorbike and 50 baht for a car. All visitors hit the central zone and most pop up to a couple of sites in the northern zone. Fewer make it to the more remote western zone, and only the most dedicated hit outlying sites in the east and south.
The central zone
Rimmed by the old city moats, the central zone is by far the largest and most popular of the three zones. At its heart sprawls Wat Mahathat, arguably the most impressive site in Sukhothai. You’ll find a handful of other worthwhile sites, such as Wat Si Sawai and Wat Sa Si, along with wide ponds, well-groomed hedges and the snaking branches of rain trees. This is the section of the historical park that actually feels like a park.
The central zone has three gates and ticket booths located in the east, north and south. The eastern gate is the most obvious, but you’ll need to go through the northern or southern gates if bringing in a motorised vehicle. Once inside you can take a break at any of several Thai-style pavilions or grab some drinks at a small cafe near Wat Traphang Ngoen. Vendors also sell water and souvenirs next to the centrally located King Ramkamhaeng Monument.
Also included in our coverage of the central zone, Ramkamhaeng National Museum is located just outside the eastern gate and fetches an additional 150 baht entrance fee. Rising from the centre of a large pond behind the museum, Wat Traphang Thong is free to enter; it's also an active temple.
The northern zone
The more loosely defined northern zone boasts two premier sites located within easy cycling distance of one another: Wat Si Chum and Wat Phra Phai Luang. Ticket booths front both sites but you only need to pay once, so keep your ticket handy. The northern zone also hosts an array of free sites like Wat Sorasak with its elephant sculptures and the lotus-shaped chedi of Wat Son Khao, but these are only worth a passing glance. Vendors sell cold drinks and souvenirs in front of Wat Si Chum, which is three kilometres northwest of the central zone.
The western zone
Some feel that the western zone is not worth another 100 baht, but we could spend hours wandering through the ancient meditation monasteries stretching along a forested hill beyond the zone’s only big-name attraction: Wat Saphan Hin. Most visitors come from the main road just north of Wat Saphan Hin, where the only ticket booth is located. (We won’t tell if you sneak in via a back lane from the south.) The western zone is located four kilometres west of the central zone.
Beyond the three main zones, a handful of free sites located within cycling distance to the east and south of the central zone are worth checking out if you want to avoid the tourist crowds or simply don’t want to miss anything. The most notable are Wat Chetuphon and Wat Chang Lom, but keep exploring and you’ll find plenty of other quiet spots with a few ancient bricks scattered in a field.
The photogenic Buddha images at Wat Mahathat, Wat Traphang Ngoen, Wat Sa Si, Wat Si Chum and Wat Saphan Hin all face east, grabbing the hard light on sunny days from morning to around 11:00. Wat Phra Phai Luang is best in the late afternoon, when the west-facing lintels soak up the rich late-day light. Afterwards you could return to Wat Mahathat to capture the sun sinking behind chedis framed by the Khao Luang mountains. Key sites in the central zone are also fog-lit after dark; Wat Sa Si looks especially beautiful when its slender chedi reflects on a large pond at night.
All three zones can be hit in a day by bicycle, which you can rent for 50 baht from most guesthouses or near the central zone’s eastern gate, where public songthaews from New Sukhothai drop off. Unless you’re a serious cyclist with a solid bike, we don’t recommend pedalling all the way here from New Sukhothai and then cycling through all three zones and back -- your legs and rump will not forgive you. A few bicycle tour outfits offer day trips to the historical site using good-quality mountain bikes.
For those who aren’t into bicycling, the key sites in the central zone can be fairly easily covered on foot in a few hours. You could also hire a tuk tuk or trishaw to motor you around the ruins; expect to pay around 800 baht for a full day if coming from New Sukhothai, or around 500 baht from Old Sukhothai. English-speaking drivers hang around in front of the central zone’s eastern gate so you can negotiate shorter trips on the fly.
Otherwise renting a motorbike is a good option if you plan to hit all three zones in a flexible timeframe. This way you can easily cruise to outlying sites in the east and south, even going as far afield as Wat Tham Phra Mae Ya, and return to the central zone in time for sunset. Do wear a helmet.
Ready to hit the ruins? Check out our suggested route for exploring Sukhothai in a day.
By David Luekens.
Last updated on 16th June, 2016.