The Ancient Capital City Of Sukhothai, Thailand
Visiting The Ancient Capital City Of Sukhothai, Thailand
I have wanted to visit Sukhothai for years, but something always came up and our priorities and plans changed.
Sukhothai was the ancient capital of the first Kingdom of Siam in the 13th and 14th centuries.
A number of Buddhist temples still remain, demonstrating the beginnings of Thai architecture.
The great civilization of the Kingdom of Sukhothai was greatly influenced by neighboring ancient cultures, like Laos, Myanmar and the Malay states.
Thai history says that king Ramkhamhaeng the Great, the third ruler of the Phra Ruang dynasty, developed the capital at Sukhothai.
He is also known for inventing the Thai alphabet and for being a good monarch, keeping Buddhist principles in his politics.
To get to Sukhothai, we had to take a five hour bus ride from Chiang Mai.
Flying was not a good option, since we would have had to start very early in the day, change planes in Bangkok, and arrive fairly late.
The old part of Sukhothai looks pretty quiet and almost rural.
Compared to other parts of Thailand, Sukhothai has far fewer tourists, and therefore much less services for tourists.
Some of the tourists we met in Chiang Mai had never heard of Sukhothai, and some even asked me if it was located in Thailand.
Our hotel in Sukhothai was large and comfortable and a good base to spend the four days we allotted to explore Sukhothai and the other ancient kingdoms that are now UNESCO world heritage sites, like Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet.
We toured historic Sukhothai by using bicycles that we rented right in front of the Historical Park.
The bicycles were squeaky and rusty and had no bells and almost no brakes.
In front of the one steep hill leading to the ruins of a temple, we saw a sign asking people to please walk up and walk down with their bicycles.
We were happy to oblige because there was no way our bicycles could either climb or cruise down the hill, and come to a stop.
But still it was fun seeing the old ruins on a bicycle.
In fact, it was the best way because there is much more to see and explore than what is available inside the Historical Park of Sukhothai.
Sukhothai area is divided into four parts.
At the center is the historical park.
You pay a small fee to bring in your bicycles.
North of the Historical Park, there are major temples which you can explore on a bicycle.
The northern part requires a separate fee, and so does the western part.
The southern part has no entrance fee.
All the areas are dotted with amazing Wats (temples) which are important to visit if you really want to explore this ancient kingdom of Sukhothai.
To get to Si Satchanalai, you have to hire a car and driver or rent a car or a scooter for the day, because it is located about sixty kilometers north of Sukhothai.
In the same way, the ancient city of Kamphaeng Phet is located sixty kilometers southwest of Sukhothai.
We allotted a full day to exploring each kingdom, and got there by hiring a Grab taxi for the day.
It wasn’t very pricy, only about $50 for the whole day for both of us, and it was a blessing, because in Kamphaeng Phet, the driver helped us locate a small cafe and grocery store, where we could rent bicycles.
Sukhothai was the political and administrative capital of Siam, while Si Satchanalai was the spiritual center of the kingdom, and the site of numerous temples and Buddhist monasteries.
Si Satchanalai was also the centre of the all-important ceramic export industry.
Kamphaeng Phet was located at the kingdom’s southern frontier and had an important military function, in protecting the kingdom from foreign intruders.
Sukhothai, Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet all shared a common language and alphabet, a common administrative and legal system, and other features which leave no doubt as to their unity as a single political entity.
All three towns have many fine monuments and big sculptures, illustrating the Thai architecture and art that is known as the “Sukhothai style.”
Although archaeologists claim that all three ancient towns are more or less the same age, I did not feel that this could be true.
The temples and statues in Sukhothai are all made of red clay bricks that were fired in big kilns nearby.
The temples and statues of Si Satchanalai are all carved from a stone that is called Laterite.
Laterite is a sediment rock composed of iron and aluminum oxides.
Although Laterite starts as a relatively soft rock, with time and weathering it gradually gains strength to become a very hard rock.
The stones were mined and manually cut to build all the temples and massive statues in Si Satchanalai.
Not a single red clay brick was used in that kingdom.
Why would a kingdom of the same age, and located nearby, go through the effort and hardship of mining and cutting stones, if they had the knowledge to mold soft clay into bricks, and if bricks were the commonly used building material….
My guess is that some of the temples in the Si Satchanalai kingdom were already in existence, and that it was only expanded in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Under royal patronage, Buddhism had flourished and many impressive monasteries were constructed in Sukhothai.
The temples and the sculptures were made from red brick and were covered with a thick layer of stucco, that was then painted brightly.
Most of the stucco is now gone, along with the roofs, which were made of wood covered in clay tiles.
The kingdom had a sophisticated water plan.
They dammed water, creating reservoirs, ponds, moats and canals, in order to drain and flood the rice fields and to serve the water needs of the city and a variety of other agricultural needs.
Sukhothai was a unique state in Siam at the time, in terms of political and administrative systems.
The kingdom was also wealthy from agriculture and exporting high-quality ceramics.
Sukhothai knew prosperous and happy times, known in Thai history as a “Golden Age” and “The Dawn of Happiness.”
Cycling around the town, we saw that many of the bigger temples were built in a similar design that must have been popular at the time.
Each ancient temple has a large group of ancient monuments, and are enclosed by a moat.
The temples usually have a big bell-shaped Chedi or a lotus shaped stupa and many other smaller stupas, and some have as many as 200 smaller stupas.
Some temples have as many as 32 elephant sculptures, surrounding the base of the Chedi.
The elephant is a solid and powerful animal, and so it symbolizes being able to uphold and protect the foundations of Buddhist teachings.
There is usually an assembly hall called a Vihära, usually enshrining at least one large Buddha image which is now in varying states of ruin.
Sometimes there are two other Buddhas on each side, one walking and one sitting.
Each temple also has an ordination hall called a Ubosatha.
As mentioned before, the halls were usually enclosed by a tile roof that was laid on top of thick timber beams.
The roofs are now all gone, so the only indications that you are in a hall are the very large brick posts and whatever remains of the big Buddha.
We had great fun exploring Sukhothai.
Outside the city, we no longer saw many tourists, if any.
Some of the temples were located on top of steep hills, with only a narrow stone path to the top, which was exciting to walk on.
We found a good cafe and a Thai restaurant in which we ate almost every evening, before returning to our hotel.
From Sukhothai with love,
Photos by Jules Landsman