The UNESCO World Heritage site of Old Sukhothai lies to the west of the modern town. It is a potent reminder of the ancient Sukhothai Kingdom, which arose in the early 13th century from what had been a distant outpost of the Khmer Empire. Under the leadership of the Tai warrior King Ramkamhaeng, the city came to dominate the Central Plains (see pp62–3). The abandoned city that can be seen today is the best preserved and most popular sight in Central Thailand. Ongoing restoration has revealed the amazing symmetry of its layout and offers the visitor a remarkable insight into a time when Thai art and culture reached its apex.
Exploring Sukhothai Historical Park
The site of Old Sukhothai has around 40 temple complexes spread over an area of about 28 sq miles (70 sq km). At its center is the walled Royal City, protected by moats and ramparts. Many of the most important ruins are within this inner compound. The layout of Old Sukhothai, as with many major Thai cities (muangs), follows fixed principles: a large, central wat complex surrounded concentrically by walls, river, rice fields, and, beyond, forested mountains. Another example of this, on a smaller scale, is Si Satchanalai.
One way to see the ruins of the Royal City is by bicycle: shops beside the old east gate rent them by the day for a small fee. A quick test ride is advised as some are in poor condition, and an early start is recommended to avoid the midday heat.
The Royal City
Entering from the east, the first wat within the city walls is Wat Traphang Thong, which is situated on an islet in a small lotus-filled lake. The Sri Lankanstyle chedi dates from the mid- 14th century, and a small mondop beside it enshrines a stone Footprint of the Buddha, still worshiped by resident monks.
The Ramkamhaeng National Museum houses photographs, taken around 1900–20, of Sukhothai’s ruins prior to renovation and a large collection of artifacts. At the heart of the moated city is Wat Mahathat the most important wat complex in Sukhothai.
Nearby, Wat Takuan has a restored, Sri Lankan bellshaped chedi. Several Buddha images found in the vault of the chedi are thought to date from the early Sukhothai period, though they remain something of a mystery.
To the southwest, at Wat Si Sawai, are three 12th– 14th-century Khmer-style prangs, thought to predate the Tai takeover of the city
The bot of Wat Traphang Ngoen, mentioned in Ramkamhaeng’s famous Inscription No. 1, lies in an artificial rectangular lake.
Copper Buddha images and Chinese pottery were recovered from Wat Sa Si, also at the center of an artificial lake. These are now in the Ramkamhaeng National Museum.
Nearby, Wat Chana Songkhram has a restored, squat Sri Lankan-style chedi. A smaller chedi here dates from the Ayutthaya period.
To the north of Wat Mahathat is the modern King Ramkamhaeng Monument. Beyond lies San Ta Pha Daeng, a 12th-century Khmer shrine that once housed sandstone Hindu icons, now in the Ramkamhaeng National Museum.
Wat Sorasak, a small, brick, bell-shaped chedi, dates from the early 15th century. The square base is supported by 24 stucco elephants.
East of the Royal City
Wat Chang Lom, a bellshaped chedi similar to one at Si Satchanalai, has 36 brick and stucco elephants around its base. It represents mythical Mount Meru, supported by elephants. Beyond is Wat Chedi Sung, a beautiful chedi with a high, square base typical of the late Sukhothai era.
North of the Royal City
Wat Phra Phai Luang, a Khmerstyle complex, is thought to be part of the original mid- 13th century settlement, built when this region was part of the Khmer Empire. Only one of the three laterite prangs, decorated with stucco fragments, is extant. Nearby, the mondop of Wat Si Chum has an immense seated Buddha peering through an opening.