The Ancient Capital of Sukhothai



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Sukhothai Historical Park

Located in a beautiful setting of lawns, lakes and trees in north-central Thailand, Old Sukhothai Historical Park was the capital of the Sukhothai kingdom beginning in 1238. The central area alone contains 21 temples enclosed by a moat, the greatest of which has 200 pagodas.

For 140 years Sukhothai was the capital of an important empire. According to legend the town was founded around 500 ad, one of its rulers is supposed to have been King Chao Aluna Khmara (also called Phra Ruang, "son of the twilight"), the result of a liaison between a human and a mythical Naya princess. Phra Ruang therefore took the name of the dynasty of the eight kings, which ruled the great empire. The first regent of this dynasty was Si Indratitja (c. 1235-79), who was able to shake off Khmer rule in 1238.

His empire essentially only consisted of the two towns Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai. If Si Indratitja was instrumental in the founding of an independent Thai culture then his grandson Ramkhamhaeng (1279-99) was much more so. His empire stretched as far as Vientiane in the north-east, Pegu in the west in present day Myanmar and to Nakhon Si Thammarat in the south (almost two-thirds of the existing country today).

SukhothaiEvents of this lively period (including the first diplomatic contact between a Thai ruler and neighboring China) did not remain hidden from the world; an inscription in stone composed by Ramkhamhaeng, probably a form of inaugural speech, is preserved in the National Museum in Bangkok. The king invented the Thai alphabet and initiated porcelain and faience production based on a Chinese model.

Under Ramkhamhaeng's successor Loei Thai (1299-1347) most of the newly acquired territory was lost and his son Liu Thai (1347-68), who took the name Mahadharmaraya, did not succeed in restoring the former glory of the empire. The Ayutthaya king Boromaraja I conquered Sukhothai in 1378, in 1438 it finally became part of the Ayutthaya empire.

When the Burmese flattened Ayutthaya in 1767 the inhabitants of Sukhothai also left their town. However, just eleven years later Rama I, the first king of the Chakri dynasty which ruled Bangkok, founded the new town of Sukhothai on the left bank of the Menam Yom. It was largely destroyed by fire in 1968, all the houses in the town center were rebuilt.

In new Sukhothai the buildings of the Wat Khuha Sawan on the western edge of the town originating from 1870 are especially noteworthy. In the bot are the colossal figure of a seated Buddha and several smaller ones in Sukhothai style, U-Thong and Ayutthaya style. The large Buddha in front of the bot is a recent addition.

While there were other Thai Kingdoms (like Lanna, Phayao and Chiang Saen) at the same time, the establishment of the Kingdom of Sukhothai in 1238 is often considered the start of Thai history proper. Sukhothai gained independence from a declining Khmer Empire. Monuments in the city show influence from prior Khmer rule.

The history of Sukhothai as a kingdom lasted for about two centuries. Interestingly, there were only 9 Kings in that period, suggesting some stability.

Theravada Buddhism became the common religion. At the peak of its power, the Kingdom of Sukhothai exerted control and/or influence over an area that is actually greater than present day Thailand. Control supposedly stretched to Martaban (now in Myanmar), Luang Prabang (Laos) and down the Malay Peninsula.

Sukhothai's prosperity was greatest at the time of its third King, Ramkhamhaeng the Great. King Ramkhamhaeng is also credited with the design of the Thai alphabet, although there is continuing debate about this issue.

Thai people in general are somewhat nostalgic about this period in their history. Sukhothai is viewed as an era of prosperity and good governance. After the death of King Ramkhamhaeng the Great, the sphere of influence of Sukhothai decreased, and parts of the Kingdom gained autonomy.

Meanwhile, the Kingdom of Ayutthaya (1350-1767 A.D.) gained in influence. Already in 1378 King Thammaracha II had to submit to the power of Ayutthaya. After the death of the last King of Sukhothai (King Thammaracha IV who moved his capital to Phitsanulok) in 1438, Sukhothai became just a province of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya.

In economic terms, production of glazed ceramic wares, was very important. Numerous kilns dotted the landscape around Sukhothai and its sister city Sri Satchanalai. Ceramic wares, such as plates, bowls, jars were exported to various countries in South-East Asia. Even up to this date, new finds are common, especially from sunken trading vessels in the Gulf of Thailand.

What to See

The medieval capital of Sukhothai now lies in picturesque ruins as Old Sukhothai Historical Park. Its many temples showcase the unique Sukhothai style of decoration, which incorporates Khmer (Cambodian) and Sri Lankan influences.

The park covers about 27 square miles (70 sq km) and is divided into five zones, each of which charge a separate admission (see Quick Facts below). The central zone was the royal part of the city and is the first priority.

The four outer zones - north, east, west and south - are less crowded and touristy than the central zone. They all cover large areas, so a bicycle or other vehicle is essential to get around efficiently. The north zone is the best (and closest), followed by the east zone towards New Sukhothai. The west zone is more remote and hilly and the south zone is not worth most visitors' time.
Central Zone

Protected by a square moat, the central zone contains 21 temples interspersed among lotus-covered pools, canals, trees and other greenery. It covers over a square mile (3 sq km), so a bicycle is a convenient (but not essential) way to cover all the ground. The city was much more crowded in the 13th century than it looks today - the houses and other secular buildings packed between the temples were made of perishable wood.

The greatest temple in the Central Zone is without question Wat Mahathat, the spiritual focus of the city and the king. (The grassy area across the street is the site of the royal palace.) Founded by the first king, the royal temple was given its large central chedi by King L?Thai in 1345. It was regularly expanded by successive rulers before being abandoned in the 16th century. Picturesquely surrounded by a lotus pond, Wat Mahathat now consists of ten viharns, one bot, eight mondops, one large chedi and 200 small chedis.

The central chedi was built in 1345 to house two relics of the Buddha brought from Sri Lanka by the monk Sisatta. The chedi's lotus-bud shape became the hallmark of Sukhothai architecture, imitated throughout the kingdom. Surrounded by eight smaller spires, it stands on a square platform decorated with stucco reliefs of 111 monks in prayer. The remaining chedis each contain the ashes of a nobleman. The most impressive among the other structures are the ruined viharns, with pillars leading the eye to serene Buddhas seated at the back.

North Zone

About 500m north of the city walls in the north zone is Wat Phra Phai Luang, one of the oldest temples in Sukhothai, predating the foundation of the kingdom in 1238. Thus the temple was originally built by the Khmers and has both Hindu and Buddhist elements. It is thought that this area was the center of the Khmer city and Wat Phra Phai Luang played a similar role as Wat Mahathat did in the Thai kingdom.

There were originally three prangs, but only one is still intact. Its stucco reliefs (some of which are displayed in the Ramkhamhaeng National Museum) show Hindu and Buddhist figures. When the Khmer temple wasSukhothai converted into a Thai Buddhist wat, several structures were built east of the prangs: a viharn; a chedi with seated Buddha reliefs; a reclining Buddha; and a mondop with four large standing Buddhas.

Another 500m west is Wat Sri Chum, famed for its enormous Buddha image that is the largest in Sukhothai. Made of brick and stucco, the seated Buddha measures more than 36 ft (11m) wide and almost 49 ft (15m) high. Draped over one leg is the Buddha's giant right hand, with elegantly tapered fingers and gold nail polish.

A passageway, unfortunately rarely open, leads up the side of the Buddha's custom-built mondop to the roof, providing an aerial view over the great sculpture. In the days of Old Sukhothai, this Buddha was said to occasionally speak to devotees - the staircase would have allowed tricky humans to speak on his behalf.

East Zone

The primary temple of interest in the east zone is Wat Chang Lom ("Temple Surrounded by Elephants"), located canalside behind Thai Village Hotel along the road to New Sukhothai. As indicated by its name, the temple's distinguishing feature is a Sri-Lankan-style chedi decorated with sculptures of elephants.
West Zone

The west zone is a vast forested area in the hills. One notable sight is Wat Saphan Hin ("Temple of the Stone Bridge"), a hilltop temple along the western edge of the walled city about 3 miles (5km) west of the main entrance. The temple is named for the means of access: a steep 650-foot (200m) long pathway of stone slabs. At the top is a large standing Buddha and some nice views - but the Old City is a bit too far away to be appreciated with the naked eye.
Festivals and Events

Sukhothai Historical Park is the best place in Thailand to celebrate Loy Krathong, a festival of light held over nine nights around the full moon of the 12th lunar month (October or November). During the festival, Sukhothai's ponds sparkle with floating candles and the ruins are covered in lights. There is a nightly sound and light show at Wat Mahathat and fireworks at Wat Trapang Ngoen, in addition to numerous parades and concerts throughout the city. Book accommodation early during this period.

Getting There

Comfortable trains run from Bangkok and Chiang Mai to Phitsanulok, where buses connect to New Sukhothai (1 hr journey; departures every half hour). Long-distance buses also connect New Sukhothai with all major cities. The bus station is located about 3km west of the city center.

It is also possible to fly to Sukhothai from Bangkok or Chiang Mai on Bangkok Airways. The Sukhothai airport is about 25km north of town; shuttle buses transfer passengers to hotels and guest houses for B120 per person.

The Old Sukhothai Historical Park is about 12km from New Sukhothai. Bicycles are available for rent in both places and there are frequent songthaews connecting the cities.

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