Sukhothai was the place where the "Thai" nation was first created, starting sometime between 1200 and 1300 A.D., mainly due to King Ramkhamhaeng. People put different dates on it, but when you look at the evolution of this period, you really can't just put any particular year as the time.
Previously, the Khmer kingdom had controlled east-southeastern with Sukhothai being at its northwestern fringe, with many city engineering masterpieces spread around Thailand, until the decline of Angkor Wat around the year 1000 A.D. and its subsequent general dissolution. Northwest of Sukhothai was the Lanna kingdom, and there were the Lao to the northeast. Pockets of Dvaravati civilizations intersperse the region between 1000 and 2000 years ago. As the Lao language is similar to Thai and spreads up into southern China, albeit all these dialects being significantly different from Khmer, it makes for an interesting analysis of the state of affairs in this period.
When you go see the old Sukhothai ruins, and realize that all of it was built in a span of only about 100 to 150 years, from practically nothing, then you realize that something very special happened in that age.
The old Sukhothai is located in a rural area about 15 km west of today's Sukhothai city, which I will call Old Sukhothai and New Sukhothai.
Old Sukhothai is demarcated by an old wall, but the area inside the wall is far too vast to walk. Bicycling around would take all day, and a motorcycle was my choice. The ruins also extend to about a kilometer outside of the city wall, but are more scattered out there.
However, even more impressive than Old Sukhothai, in my opinion, is a much lesser known city called Sri Satchanalai, which arose at the same time, and which is about 55 km east of New Sukhothai or a total of about 70 km from Old Sukhothai. All three are on the Yom River. Sri Satchanalai upstream is comparable to Sukhothai in its engineering and artistic splendor, and its oldest structure apparently predates Sukhothai a little bit, being a tiny Khmer style outpost.
Below, I first cover Sukhothai (and photos), followed by Sri Satchanalai (more photos).
Where did this engineering and construction technology come from? Probably in large part from the Khmers, whose empire had collapsed just a few hundred years before, and which extended to these frontiers. In fact, just a few kilometers from Sri Satchanalai are very slightly older ruins called Chaliang which have a more Khmer style (even though the Khmer kingdom collapsed on its own a few hundred years before). However, the Lanna kingdom to the north also built somewhat this way and had nothing to do with the Khmers.
The artistic styles are very similar, a mix of Khmer, Mon, and Thai, the latter being new at the time and dominating. The Thais were Buddhist, whereas the Khmers were Hindu and Brahman.
Getting settled in
The best places to stay, in my opinion, are in New Sukhothai city. It is a very small city, population 35,000 but it looks even smaller than that.
Accomodation is pretty basic no matter where you go in Sukhothai. There are no luxury hotels.
I found a place where 350 baht/day got me a clean air conditioned room with a decent blanket on top of the sheets, hot water shower and western toilet, plus free WiFi in my room! It is run by a young Thai couple who speak good English and are warm and friendly. I rented one of their motorcycles for 150 baht/day (or 200 baht for 24 hours). I liked the place so much that I created a quick website for them while staying there, at T.R. Guesthouse and Hotel in Sukhothai, aka www.SukhothaiBudgetGuesthouse.com . If you go there, mention that you heard of them from my website here, Mark, the website designer, and you are sure to get a pleasant greeting. We developed very friendly relations.
The bus station is just a few kilometers west of town, and there are normally tuk-tuks, samlors, and motorcycles waiting to take you into town. If you don't know where you're going, then they will suggest places (where they get a commission, but it does not include the abovementioned T.R.). You can also just rent a motorcycle from a shop right beside the bus station, for 250 baht per 24 hours, and that's what I suggest. Just turn left going out of the bus station, turn left again at the traffic light a kilometer down the road, and you will head into New Sukhothai town just another kilometer or so away. Old Sukhothai is a righthand turn at the light and then straight about 14 km. There are a few guesthouses down there, too, albeit rustic.
Rather than write up stuff on Old Sukhothai, I will just put up some photos and the story from the viewpoint of a traveller.
The photos of the ruins speak for themselves. However, I didn't take a photo of everything. Below are just some samples. It is awesome how much construction was done, suddenly, in such a short time.
Besides the giant ruins, so much of the smaller art pieces, and probably most of them, were taken away and put in museums. That is, what was not already looted.
It is clear from the ruins that most of the terra cotta covering didn't survive the tropical climate. You see mainly just the rock bricks that the cement and terra cotta was placed upon, and lots of weathered Buddhas, though some Buddhas withstood the weathering fairly well for being out in the open. Some roofs also survived all the centuries.
Be sure to go into the Ramkhamhaeng Museum near the entrance to Old Sukhothai. There you will find where good terra cotta art from the ruins has been moved to for protection and display. There's a whole lot more there, too!
[Photos of Sukhothai city here]
I had read that the ruins outside the city wall were pretty much untouched as regards their environment, so I went out exploring. Those to the west were supposed to be of some foreign sages, so off I went.
There's no good map or guide that I could find, except a rough one with one road and a bunch of names of wats along the way, but it's pretty much useless and that one road must be just symbolic to say to the west, because actually there is a network of small roads, both paved and unpaved, and they are scattered around there.
You can see little places surrounded by rice fields, or woods, or right next to houses in a little group of homes.
Many have a little plaque introducing them, but some have no such plaque, and one quite sizeable complex says it's not mentioned in any known script so nothing is known about it.
Some have a lot of vertical slates surrounding them, which at some time might have had inscriptions written on them. Most of the vertical slates are still there and standing in their original place, but all are heavily weathered and any script is long gone.
I'm surprised that any slates are still standing, given all the cows roaming around which could easily break and knock them over. There's even cow pies on the elevated floors of what were large rooms. I have no idea what a cow is doing up there where there's no grass, unless it's going up to meditate in front of the badly weathered little life-sized Buddha statue there.
One of them was the wat of a sage from Nakhon Sri Thammarat (original name of city DhammaRaja but now it's called Thammarat) which is way down the southern Thai peninsula, more than 1000 kilometers from Sukhothai. How did he travel here, and find his way, so far inland so long ago?
The Ramkhamhaeng Museum includes not just artifacts from Sukhothai but also from other parts of Thailand, including back to the 7th century which is of non-Khmer origin, such as Indian-derived and Lanna kingdom artifacts of significance, as well as from Lopburi (about halfway in-between Sukhothai and Bangkok/Ayuthaya) which predates the Sukhothai era by about 100 years.
I asked a Thai tourist whether they could read the Ramkhamhaeng era script. They could read some but not a lot. (This was a fairly highly educated Thai.) The script also lacks the sharp corners of some of modern Thai script, instead being very rounded like Lao. (Thai and Lao are very, very similar -- if you can read one, then you can read most of the other.)
When you buy a ticket to enter Old Sukhothai, you may want to buy the 150 baht ticket which lets you into everywhere, all-in-one 30-day pass, instead of the 30 baht or so as you go. Actually, you might save some money one-by-one, but I didn't hassle, I just took the full Montgomery. Each place adds a stamp on the ticket when you enter, but I think you can enter the Old Sukhothai park multiple times within the 30 days. At least, they let me.
Sri Satchanalai - the [Almost Forgotten] Great City
Some guide literature discusses another Sukhothai-like city from the exact same era about 70 km down the highway from Old Sukhothai, or 55 km from New Sukhothai. So I drove the motorcycle down that flat straight 2-lane highway for an hour (actually, less than an hour at my speed that day).
Wow, awesome! This place is just as huge and sophisticated in architecture!
Old Sukhothai is flat, and the terrain remains flat until you reach Sri Satchanalai, which is located at the base of small mountains and demarcates where the flatlands turn into mountains. In fact, a few of the temples are up on hills next to the main city, and are a nice hike.
The style is a lot like Sukhothai with its unique Thai artistic elements, but maybe with a little more Sri Lankan, Indian, Mon and Burmese influence.
Just a few kilometers away is a slightly older, small settlement but with a great, tall structure with heavy Khmer influence, which slightly predates Sri Satchanalai. I think this may shows where a lot of the building technology came from, though non-Khmer artistic elements dominate in Sri Satchanalai.
The park closes a short time before sunset, but I found a nice swing by the river, which is beautiful. It is shallow and may have a fraction the water it had before for some reason, as its banks imply a much higher water flow at some point in time. Now, it's more like a creek a few meters wide within a dried up riverbed. You can wade in it and you may not get higher than knee deep.
An elephant wandered down to eat some vegetation. I walked down near the elephant for a closer look at the water. He saw me and just kept on eating normally, didn't miss a beat.
There are almost no guest houses out there. Actually, there were a couple of them but someone said the government closed them down. They were not open when we went, despite one being exceptionally nice, especially its big restaurant along the river. It's just as well, because it's Sri Satchanalai's remoteness which gives its unique ambiance.
However, they do rent tents for 80 baht and soft pads for 20 baht. Not many people were there, and I didn't see anyone camping out. If I had known this before, then I would have planned to camp out and typed under the stars.
At night, the sky is so clear you can see so many stars ... I put my digital camera on the ground and did a 30-second exposure. (The stars streak slightly because the Earth is rotating.)
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