Sukhothai Historical Park covers an area of about 70sqkm and contains more than 190 historical ruins. Inside the city wall and moat, Wat Mahathat stands at its epicentre, as the spiritual centre of the kingdom, and the royal palace (now collapsed) lies to its northwest. To the city’s immediate north is a small contained area, housing Wat Phra Pai Luang, believed to be the original foundation site of the Sukhothai Kingdom. Strolling through the grounds of the historical park, you will encounter at least three architectural styles.
Early Sukhothai people shared the same beliefs in the system of the universe with the Khmer. Temples were laid out according to the Mount Meru concept with the central prang being the tallest and most significant structure. Only after Theravada Buddhism entered the kingdom did the Ceylonese bell-shaped chedis replace the corn-shaped prangs. Sukhothai craftsmen also developed their own style, known as the lotus-bud chedi. About 60km from Sukhothai Historical Park is its sister city Si Satchanalai, a flourishing centre for trade with China at the time. If you have time, definitely pay Si Satchanalai a visit in order to get a complete picture of the Sukhothai Kingdom.
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Much of what constitutes modern Thailand can be traced back to the Sukhothai Kingdom, although some history dating back to this ancient period remains pretty much unclear and debatable. Before the rise of Sukhothai, Siam was made up of small fiefdoms, subject to the ancient Khmer Empire’s rule. Sukhothai’s founding monarch was able to consolidate power and succeed the Khmer as the ruler of newfound Siam.
As well as in the realms of government and religion, the short-lived Sukhothai Kingdom marked a golden period for art and architecture. King Ramkhamhaeng the Great (1239 – 1317), the second ruling monarch of the Phra Ruang dynasty, established the Ceylonese school of Theravada Buddhism as the state religion, set up an administrative system and documented Thai alphabets from ancient Khmer scripts. Ceylonese style, bell-shaped stupas grew to become a common sight at Buddhist temples across the kingdom. Sukhothai temple craftsmen also developed their own style, known as the Sukhothai style, the most notable being the ‘lotus-bud’ chedis, brick-over-stucco construction technique and Buddha images with a signature graceful form.
After King Ramkhamhaeng, Sukhothai slowly entered a period of decline, beginning 1378 onwards. By the mid-fifteenth century, Sukhothai was fully annexed by the Ayutthaya Kingdom.
Highlights and Features
- Wat Mahathat: This is the epicentre – and spiritual centre – of the Sukhothai Kingdom, following the ancient Khmer’s concept of the centre of the universe. The temple architecture, however, is resolutely Sukhothai, with the lotus-bud principal chedi, instead of the Khmer corn-shaped prang, surrounded by smaller bell-shaped chedis built on square bases (Khmer style). Wat Mahathat is perhaps the most photographed temple in Sukhothai Historical Park, often depicted from its eastern front, with its giant seated Buddha image behind rows of half-collapsed columns.
- Wat Phra Pai Luang: Set on the original site where the Sukhothai Kingdom was founded, this temple showcases a combination of Khmer and Lopburi architecture, dating back to the early 13th century, when Sukhothai was undergoing transformations from ancient Khmer-Hinduism to Theravada Buddhism. All but one of the three centrepiece corn-shaped prangs have long collapsed. The prang showcases elaborate stucco decorations, an art unique to Sukhothai’s craftsmen. East of the prangs is the square-based chedi, believed to have served a highly significant spiritual role.
- Wat Sri Sawai: Built at about the same time as Wat Phra Pai Luang, Wat Sri Sawai was originally located outside the city wall until the city was moved slightly southwards from the site of Wat Phra Pai Luang. It features heavy Khmer architectural influences, with three corn-shaped prangs but decorative stuccos that are unique to Sukhothai’s craftsmen, e.g. apsaras donning Lopburi-style costumes, floral-designed stucco reliefs and elongated tiers for the prangs. All three prangs are still standing, although some of the details in the decorations may have fallen off.
- Wat Sri Chum: Perhaps the second most photographed temple after Wat Mahathat, Wat Sri Chum holds a mystery behind its giant seated Buddha image (15m tall, 11m wide) known as ‘Phra Atjana’, or immovable Buddha, housed inside the sole-standing mandapa. Upon approaching the structure, you see the Buddha’s massive chest and benevolent gaze from the vertical opening just wide enough to allow two persons to enter at a time. The lingering mystery about the temple is the double-layer mandapa walls, which contain a passage that leads up to the Buddha’s head. No one knows what this secret passage was used for. The walls feature the country’s oldest murals, drawn on slate and most of which are no longer visible.
- Wat Chetupon: While not much is left standing at this temple, the remains are very impressive. Notable is the gigantic square-based mandapa showcasing stucco-over-brick Buddha images in sitting, standing, walking, and reclining postures. The partially collapsed outer wall surrounding the mandapa, made of extra-thick slate, features pillar-balustrade windows, another architectural highlight unique to this temple.
- Wat Trapang Thonglang: This temple boasts three intricate stucco relief images of the Buddha performing three miracles. These reliefs can be found on each side of the outer mandapa wall, the only structure left standing in the temple grounds. Note that much of the relief images have eroded with time.
- Wat Saphan Hin: Situated atop a low hill west of the city wall, this temple has a slate-paved pathway that leads to the main temple structure. The 300-metre hike up serves the purpose of a pilgrimage. Much of the main pavilion has collapsed, leaving the 12.5-metre-tall Buddha image in a standing posture, exposed to the elements.
- Ramkhamhaeng National Museum: Opened in 1964, this two-storey museum houses archaeological finds from the Sukhothai Historical Park, Si Satchanalai, Kamphaeng Phet and Petchabun. The collection includes stucco relief images, Buddha images, inscribed stones, Hindu bronze deities and sangkhalok ceramics. Open: 09:00 – 16:00 (Wed – Sun)
- Turiang Kiln: Along the northern outer wall surrounding Wat Phra Pai Luang is the ancient production site of the sangkhalok ware. Fired inside the specially designed cross-draft kilns called ‘Turiang’, sangkhalok ceramic was Sukhothai’s major trade commodity with China. Remnants of the kiln can still be seen at the site.
Tips and What Not to Miss
- The best time to visit the park is early morning, as it can be very hot at midday
- For photographers, go just before the sunset hours to capture the image of the bright orange sun setting behind the giant seated Buddha at Wat Mahathat.
- Drink lots of water, apply sunscreen as well as wear light clothing and comfortable shoes
- Better to rent a motorcycle than a bicycle if you plan to cover the entire historical park
- Too lazy to walk? Try the guided tram tour that hits all major sites in the park. Hop on for a small fee.
Opening Hours: 06:00 – 18:00 daily
- There are five zones inside Sukhothai Historical Park, each requiring an admission ticket. If you plan to visit all zones, it’s better to buy combination tickets.
How to get there
- Sukhothai Historical Park is located about 12km from the new city. Hiring a tuk-tuk (motorised three-wheelers) or hopping on a songtaew (passenger-carrying trucks) is the best way to commute between the two sites.
- From Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok Airways operates two direct flights to Sukhothai daily. You can also take the Bangkok-Chiang Mai train from Hua Lamphong