For many people, Thailand is a tropical sun, sea and sand destination, or perhaps a place to do jungle trekking, or both. Mention historical sites, and most people will think of Angkor Wat in neighboring Cambodia. But Thailand has a rich store of historical attractions going back more than a thousand years. Many of them are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Among all the possible destinations, I think Sukhothai is probably my favorite. Not only are the ruins beautiful, with their graceful lines that gave birth to the ‘Sukhothai Style’ but you can also often have them all to yourself. The place is far enough away from the main tourist centers like Chiang Mai that few foreign travelers bother to come, and while it’s an important place for Thais, few of them visit except on weekends.
Rightly or wrongly – academics debate some of the interpretations put on archaeological finds here – most Thais see Sukhothai as the first ‘Thai’ kingdom, the dawn of a great age when Siam escaped the shadow of the Khmer empire based in Angkor and became a great empire of its own. Earlier great kingdoms such as Lavo (Lopburi) were founded by the Mon, and so are not really considered ‘Thai’. One of Sukhothai’s early kings, Ramkhamhaeng the Great, is credited with the creation of the Thai alphabet as well as uniting several small Thai kingdoms into one larger grouping. An oft-repeated inscription from the time states:
“In the time of King Ramkhamhaeng this land of Sukhothai is thriving. There is fish in the water and rice in the fields. The lord of the realm does not levy toll on his subjects for traveling the roads; they lead their cattle to trade or ride their horses to sell; whoever wants to trade in elephants, does so; whoever wants to trade in horses, does so; whoever wants to trade in silver or gold, does so. When any commoner or man of rank dies, his estate–his elephants, wives, children, granaries, rice, retainers, and groves of areca and betel–is left in its entirety to his children. When commoners or men of rank differ and disagree, [the King] examines the case to get at the truth and then settles it justly for them.”
Despite being a little off the tourist trail, Sukhothai has a good, if small, selection of local hotels and guest houses in and around the old city, as well as other tourist services such as bike rental. Bicycle is an excellent way to get around to see all of the sights, as it also gives you time to enjoy the countryside, and set a relaxed pace that goes well with this less frenetic Thai destination. Sukhothai is one of those places that you might well find yourself staying longer than planned.
You can see the main sights of the old city and its outlying temples in a couple of days. If you’re there during the cool dry season from November to March, you can probably catch a sound and light show in the evenings, especially if you’re there on a Friday or Saturday night. If you decide to linger, you may wander around and find some forgotten temples, like the one above.
There’s more to see in the area than the ruins of Sukhothai itself. There are other significant historical sites nearby, although you will need a car or motorcycle to get to them.
Si Satchanalai, about 70 kilometers to the north, was a city that flourished at the same time as Sukhothai. The two cities were bound together, as for much of the time that Sukhothai was the main power in the region, the king ruled in Sukhothai, while his designated successor governed Si Satchanalai.
Like Sukhothai, Si Satchanalai was a walled city, only in this case the wall enclosed a saddle-backed hill. There are several fine ruins to see within the walled city as well as outside of it, especially to the east, where Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat is one of the oldest temples in the area, dating from the late Khmer era. There are also several archaeological digs north of the city where great ceramic kilns have been unearthed.
About 80 kilometers southwest of Sukhothai is Kampaeng Phet. The name literally means ‘diamond walls’ and denotes one of the city’s most unique features: its wall is made of hard stone rather than the brick and earth of other cities of the time. Kampaeng Phet reached it’s height after Sukhothai’s star began to fade and the kingdom of Ayutthaya became the center of power of the Siamese empire. The walls as you see them today are the result of a early sixteenth century renovation performed with the help of Portuguese mercenaries.
While the walls are definitely interesting, and you’ll want to spend some time looking at the redoubts and bastions, the really interesting area of Kampaeng Phet is its ‘Aranyik’. Aranyik simply means ‘forest’ and in this case it refers to an area just north of the city walls covering a small hill. At the time of Sukhothai and Kampaeng Phet, there were two dominant schools of thought for the study of Buddhism, and one of these held that to find true enlightenment one had to escape the distractions of city life and find peace in the forest. All of the cities talked about here had Aranyik areas, but Kampaeng Phet’s is the most easily identified as a special area, and the most heavily forested. There’s something rather magical about this place, especially as there wasn’t another person around when I visited.
Both Si Satchanalai and Kampaeng Phet can be visited on day trips from Sukhothai, which has the best infrastructure. Kampaeng Phet, in particular, has a pretty slim selection of accommodations and virtually no tourist services.