Considered the first capital of Thailand, Sukhothai is a destination filled with history. The atmospheric temple ruins are the highlight of a trip to Sukhothai and this picturesque province offers up plenty of options for culture lovers. Shown here in no particular order are some suggestions for what to see and do when you visit Sukhothai.
1) Cycle around Sukhothai Historical Park
The historic ruins at Sukhothai Historical Park are spread out over a large area and are best explored by bicycle. The quiet rural roads in and around the park are a joy to cycle around with the Sukhothai countryside providing a scenic backdrop to the temples.
The park is divided up into different zones. While many of the best preserved historic sites are located in the central zone, hiring a bicycle is a wonderful way to explore the lesser known ruins which are dotted around the Sukhothai countryside. Cycle out to Wat Saphan Hin in the western zone of the park for elevated views over the countryside. Continue cycling around the rural roads and head to the southern zone. Close to Wat Chetuphon there are a couple of cute coffee shops where you can relax and rehydrate before continuing your journey around the southern zone and heading back to your accommodation.
2) Watch the sunset at Wat Mahathat
Even if you’ve visited Wat Mahathat during the day, it’s worth a return visit to watch the sunset. Although this is a popular location for sunset lovers, it never gets crowded even during high season. Pick a spot in front of the lake and admire the views across the water lilies as the sun slowly drops behind the large Buddha image at Wat Mahathat.
3) See the giant Buddha image at Wat Si Chum
Of all the countless Buddha images in Sukhothai, the giant figure at Wat Si Chum is perhaps the most famous. At around 50 feet high and over feet wide, the giant Buddha statue presents a magnificent sight as you approach the open-roofed building where the image is housed.
The sitting Buddha image is characterised by its elegant posture and the detail on the elegantly tapered fingernails in classic Sukhothai style. To make merit, Thai visitors place gold-leaf on the fingers of the statue and leave flower garlands.
4) Learn about King Ramkhamhaeng
King Ramkhamhaeng the Great is one of the most significant figures in Thai history and is often referred to as the ’Father of the Thai Language’. Ramkhamhaeng ruled the ancient Sukhothai kingdom from 1278-1298 and has been credited with the introduction of the Thai alphabet. He adapted this from the various forms of Khmer script that were previously used and it is mostly the same alphabet which is still used today. Once the new writing system was developed, the king ordered stone tablets to be inscribed with the story of the Sukhothai kingdom. Statues of Ramkhamhaeng, like the one inside the central zone of Sukhothai Historical Park, often depict him holding one of the stone tablets.
Ramkhamhaeng National Museum is located close to the entrance of the Central Zone with the exhibits providing some interesting nuance to the history of Sukhothai.
5) Explore Si Satchanalai Historical Park
History lovers should take time to visit not just the Sukhothai Historical Park, but also the ruins at Si Satchanalai Historical Park. This area is even quieter than Sukhothai Historical Park and is also best explored by bicycle. Si Satchanalai was a satellite town of Sukhothai and an important location for pottery and ceramics. Some of the ancient kilns can still be seen, but the real joy of Si Satchanalai is simply cycling around and stumbling across dozens of old ruins as you enjoy the tranquil setting. The nearby town of Sawankhalok is also an interesting destination with a museum, historic buildings, and colourful street art.
6) Experience local culture at Ban Na Ton Chan
A visit to Si Satchanalai can be combined with an overnight homestay in the village of Ban Na Ton Chan. Located 10 miles away from the town of Si Satchanalai, the village has won awards for their community based tourism initiatives which help to preserve old traditions while allowing tourists to experience local culture. Get away from it all in the Si Satchanalai countryside, make new friends and learn more about life in the village.
7) Wake up early for the morning alms round
Set your alarm and wake up early to witness the monks’ morning alms round. One of the best locations is at Wat Traphang Thong in Sukhothai Old City. There is a small lake in front of the temple with a wooden footbridge allowing access. In the early morning, devotees gather on the footbridge to offer alms to the monks.
You don’t have to be a Buddhist to take part, but do be respectful of local culture whether you are offering alms or just taking photographs. Follow the lead of Thai people if you aren’t sure on what to do.
8) Wander around the market
If you’re up early to see the morning alms round, visit the morning market in the Old City. Located adjacent to Wat Traphang Thong, the market is a great place to grab some coffee and pa tong go (tasty donut-like snacks) and soak up the atmosphere. Monks will also make their morning alms round through the market.
Before Covid, a Friday and Saturday evening market used to set up inside the central zone of the Historical Park. It’s expected that this will continue now that Covid restrictions have been eased. The small market sets up in the area close to the main entrance and the statue of King Ramkhamhaeng. The market opens in the early evening and visitors are not required to buy an entrance ticket when visiting the market at this time. If you’re staying in New Sukhothai, there are also morning and evening markets there which you can visit.
9) Admire the heart-shaped lake
The heart-shaped artificial lake at Thung Thalay Luang is part of a royal project initiated by King Bhumibol (Rama IX) to solve seasonal flooding and droughts in the area. Not only is the reservoir in the shape of a heart, but an island in the water has also been built in the shape of a heart. A roadway extends into the island where a temple is located. If you are flying via the photogenic Sukhothai airport you can get impressive aerial views of the lake (and the adjacent Sukhothai FC stadium) shortly after take-off and just before landing.
10) Watch Sukhothai FC
If you enjoy football, take a look at the fixture schedule to see if Sukhothai FC are playing at home. Taking in a game of football anywhere in Thailand and seeing the cultural differences compared to a match-day experience in the UK or Ireland is always fascinating. Local team Sukhothai FC play their matches at the Thalay Luang stadium located a 15-minute drive to the north of New Sukhothai. The team nicknamed the ‘Fire Bats’ won promotion in 2022 and are back playing in the top tier of Thai professional football for the 2022/23 season.
11) Celebrate Loy Krathong
One of the most anticipated festivals in the Thai calendar, Loy Krathong is also one of the most romantic. Although the precise origins of Loy Krathong remain uncertain, there is a version of events which says it originated in the ancient Sukhothai kingdom in the 14th century. According to local folklore a young woman called Nang Noppamas, a consort of the King of Sukhothai, made the first decorated krathong. As the daughter of a Brahmin priest, Noppamas adapted an existing Brahmin tradition to make a krathong from banana leaves before adding a candle and incense sticks and presenting it to the king as a gift. The king lit the candle and incense sticks and floated the krathong on one of the lakes in the city of Sukhothai.
Whether the story is true or not is unclear, but Sukhothai is still closely associated with Loy Krathong. Sukhothai Historical Park is one of the best locations in Thailand to enjoy the event with krathongs on the water and fireworks and sky lanterns in the sky. The role of Noppamas is acknowledged with Loy Krathong beauty queen contests held to find a lady to take on the honorary title of ‘Nang Noppamas’.
12) Eat Sukhothai noodles
Sukhothai noodles (kuay tiao Sukhothai) is one of the must-try local dishes. Although you can find this dish at locations around Thailand, this hearty bowl of noodles is a Sukhothai speciality.
Kuay tiao Sukhothai uses barbecued pork and thin rice noodles (sen lek) as the key ingredients. Added to this are a host of extra ingredients that typically include minced pork, green beans, toasted peanuts, crushed and toasted red chilli, and fresh lime.
13) Stay at Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary
Established in 2007, Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES) is located in an expanse of forested land to the north of Si Satchanalai Historical Park. Visitor numbers to this ethical elephant sanctuary are intentionally kept low for the benefit of the elephants and the guests.
The sanctuary cares for rescued and retired elephants allowing them to live in a natural environment. BLES also supports the local community and promotes education about elephant welfare and environmental issues.
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