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
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).
Events 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
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
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
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'
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.
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 was 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
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.
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.
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
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.