Sukhothai wasn’t really originally on our Thailand “plan” - and I say that in inverted commas because we didn’t really have much of a plan at all. So when my brother took a rather impromptu trip to India with a week in Bangkok on his way home, we immediately began to scratch together a plan to meet somewhere in Thailand. Considering Alan and I were in Northern Thailand and my brother would be flying into Bangkok, what better place that bang smack in the middle: Sukhothai. Yeah, that would do the trick.
To be honest, I didn’t know much about Sukhothai other than it was the name of one of the Thai restaurants we frequented in my home town when I was growing up. I may be very partial to Pai and Koh Samui, but Sukhothai quickly joined their ranks and became one of my favourite places in Thailand to date.
Sukhothai is a city in two pieces: the New City, which is the modern city, and the Old City, which houses the ruins of the ancient Thai capital and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located 12 kilometres apart, you can stay in either the old or the new area, though we were pleased with our decision to stay in the new city where we were surrounded by locals, a pleasingly minimal tourist scene, and simply travelled by bus - or rather, a large songthaew - to the old city for a day of exploring.
Translated as "Dawn of Happiness", Sukhothai was the political and administrative hub of the Kingdom of Siam back in the 13th and 15th centuries (1238-1438 to be exact). The city had an enormous influence on the culture and art of what we now know as Thailand, and created what is referred to as "Sukhothai style" in terms of the design of its Buddha images. In the 1400's, Sukhothai was seen to its demise as it was conquered by Ayutthaya, another historical region of interesting ruins that can be explored by day trip from Bangkok. If you are interested in a detailed history of Sukhothai, you can read all about it on the UNESCO World Heritage Site here.
One of the best things about Sukhothai is that no-one seems to know about it! It is touristy enough that it is straightforward to find a meal, a great value guesthouse (we loved EZ House in the new city) and general amenities, however it definitely lacked the crowds of tourists and touts that can be a problem in so many other parts of Thailand. Sukhothai was so peaceful and felt almost empty, at least when we were there.
We arrived late at night after an exhausting series of busses from Pai via Chiang Mai - we departed Pai at 8am and arrived in Sukhothai at 9pm (travel isn’t always fun!) - and my brother arrived on a similarly tiresome journey from Bangkok shortly after. Following a quick meal at a restaurant called - are you ready for it - Poo Restaurant (please tell me I'm not the only one to giggle...), we tucked up for the night, ready for some exploring of the Sukhothai ruins the next day.
The next morning after adequate coffee and breakfast consumption we boarded a bus bound for the Old City (20 baht) where we were quick to hire some rather old-school bicycles that would become our mode of transport for the day (30 baht for a full day). We paid our entrance fee for the largest, central area (100 baht for foreigners plus an extra 10 baht for the bicycle), cycled through the gates into Sukhothai Historical Park and were free to roam and marvel at the ruins.
Marvel we did. Sukhothai is truly spectacular!
Consisting of various temples and ruins of which many are 800+ years old, the park is very well-maintained, if not overly restored in some parts. Regardless, the peaceful ambience you would expect from such a place was retained and we barely saw more than a few tourists at each sight. Some areas that we visited we were the only people there which was truly a breath of fresh air!
I love this photo - even monks can take ages to capture the perfect shot!
Before we knew it, we were beginning to run low on energy and needed some sustenance for lunch. We circled back around to the corner of the park dedicated to restaurants and souvenir shops, and quickly demolished a very average plate of pad thai, saved only by the fact that it was very reasonably priced compared to what you would usually pay in a tourist area.
As we ambled back to our bicycles ready to continue our day of exploring, we were stopped by a group of university students undertaking an English project where they wanted to ask us some questions. Naturally we were very hesitant (scam alert!) but over the course of a few minutes we became certain that this was in fact the truth and happily volunteered to be interviewed. Some of their English was really good, others you really had to listen hard to pick out keywords - but we managed with smiles all round. Usually we would avoid this kind of activity if approached in tourist areas (and always keep a close hand on your possessions!), but that was one of the beauties of Sukhothai for us - we felt like this was a safe and real environment, and it was!
Post-interviews, more cycling ensued. We continued to explore within the walls, before venturing out back onto the road and spotting a few more ruins dotted around.
You can pay extra to visit the North and West areas of Sukhothai Historical park, which I’m certain are just as impressive, but we all agreed that for us it was more about the atmosphere and feeling of the place than ticking off each specific temple. We cycled as much as we could without having to pay an additional fee, before circling back and calling it a day - and a surprisingly magnificent one at that.
Little did we know, the next day we would be marvelling even more at the ruins of outlying Si Satchanalai…stay tuned!