Sukhothai – the first capital of Siam (part one)

Sukhothai is a small city in central Thailand, located halfway between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. It is a major tourist attraction thanks to the sprawling ruins of the ancient capital of Siam, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Modern Sukhothai isn’t particularly pleasant or appealing, but it is certainly a backpacker-friendly destination.

A brick conical stupa with a stone seated Buddha in front of it at the Sukhothai Historical Park
The ancient Sukhothai

Chiang Mai to Sukhothai

Sukhothai is located halfway between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Since it’s not on a train line, it’s easiest to get there by bus. Booking the tickets in advance was unnecessary- the buses run every hour. The journey on the cheapest (207 baht) 2nd class bus took 6 hours, including a few toilet breaks and a 15-minute long meal break. Some buses stop only at the Sukhothai New Town, so make sure you’re buying the right ticket.

The bus station isn’t far from the New Town. Following the path on or the signs to the night market, you can easily cut to the main road in less than 15 minutes. If you don’t fancy walking, a pink songthaew would take you to the New Town for 10 baht.

Sukhothai on a budget

Sukhothai is a low budget destination. We stayed in the New Town as we thought it would be cheaper than the Old Town. It wasn’t necessarily true- there was a morning market in the Old Town, too and some of the eateries did serve 35-40 baht dishes. The main advantage of staying in the Old Town is the early start of sightseeing.

New Town has all a backpacker needs. There are 1 baht water machines and street stalls selling 30 baht meals. Morning market supplied us with amazingly cheap fruit and food for breakfast- all for fair prices. Our very decently looking room with a balcony and a shared bathroom cost 200 baht. It was frankly too hot in a fan room in April, though.

Visiting the historical Sukhothai – the logistics

Should you stay in the Old Town or New town?

If we stayed in the old town, we could set off really early in the morning, rent a bike and avoid the heat altogether. As we stayed in the new town, 14 km away from the old town, cycling there along a busy motorway would be a bit too much. We took the first morning songthaew to the old town. The guesthouse staff told us they start running at 7 am, but we narrowly missed one at 6.50 am. They start from the bus station but then stop on the main road, some 100 meters away from the bridge. Theoretically, the songthaews run every 20 minutes, but we waited for the next one to start the engine until 7.30 am. Once we got off at the old town, we rented a bike in front of the main entrance to the park (just 30 baht a day).

A pink painted, wooden songthaeow, a pick up truck stands near the bike rental in old Sukhtothai
Wooden songthaew plying between New and Old Town

Free of charge on 2nd April

We were incredibly lucky. Unknowingly, we reached Sukhothai on 2nd AprilThai Heritage Conservation Day, when most of Thailand’s attractions are free. Normally, the entrance to the Central, Northern and Western zones of the park costs 100 baht each, plus a 10 baht fee for a bicycle. We saved whopping 440 baht between the two of us since we’d have paid for at least two zones: central and northern.

A large painting of Thai princess stands in front of the ruined temple complex of the ancient Sukhothai capital
A portrait of a Thai princess who initiated the Thai Heritage Day

Which zones to see?

What if you arrive in Sukhothai on an ordinary day? Depending on how much you like temples, ruins and sightseeing in general, you might be perfectly satisfied with seeing only the central zone. That’s where all the most impressive temples are clustered. In that case, you don’t even have to rent a bicycle- the area is perfectly walkable within a few hours since the distances between the temples are short. If you do enjoy architecture and history, it’s worth seeing a few selected temples scattered all across the four zones, making the trip much longer.

How much time does it take to see Sukhothai?

It took us exactly 8 hours to see ALL the zones AND the museum (including the lunch break). That was well within our deadline of returning the bike at 5 pm. It wasn’t that pleasant because of the heat. We survived largely thanks to the trees covering the central zone. The roads leading to the other zones don’t offer much shade.

A backpacker sits on a bicycle in front of brick pillars of a ruined temple in Sukhothai
Exploring Sukhothai Historical Park by bike is convenient and pleasant

Which one is better: Sukhtothai or Ayutthaya?

There are two old capitals of Siam with preserved extensive ruins: Ayutthaya near Bangkok and Sukhothai in central Thailand. Both are the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Sukhothai is older but is also less conveniently located. You can visit Ayutthaya as a day trip from Bangkok, but the journey to Sukhothai, either from Bangkok, or Chiang Mai, requires staying there for at least one night. In my opinion, both sets of ruins are equally impressive. As in: not as jaw-dropping as Angkor Wat or Bagan, but comparably interesting to Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka or Mahabalipuram in India. Both are very pleasant to explore by bike and require an entire day to do them justice. The cost is similar: 220 baht for the whole historical site of Ayutthaya and 220 baths for two main zones of Sukhtothai when visiting by bike. I saw Ayutthaya and Sukhothai on two separate occasions: if I visited one after the other, it’d probably get a bit monotonous.

A row of headless small seated Buddhas lead to a medium sized conical stupa and a complete, larger seated Buddha statue in Ayutthaya

Sukhothai to Bangkok

The following morning we took a bus to Mo Chit station in northern Bangkok. It was a good location since we had a flight from a nearby Don Muang airport to Yangon.

Interior of a 1st class Thai bus, where the author can stretch the legs out completely and place her backpack in front of her
Total luxury on the 1st class bus from Sukhothai to Bangkok

We had a very comfortable albeit long journey on a 1st class bus (there weren’t any 2nd class buses available). The ticket controller gave us the best seats on the whole bus so that we could put our luggage in front of us. I don’t remember having that much space on a daytime bus ever. The seats were reclining and the AC was working, but it wasn’t too cold. The only weird thing was that the bus stopped for a lunch very early, at 11 am. Due to traffic in Bangkok, it arrived 40 minutes late.


How to get to Sukhothai?

By air
A small Sukhothai airport receives flights from Bangkok served by Bangkok Airways.
For budget carriers, take Air Asia flight to Phitanulok airport. Air Asia sells a combined ticket involving land journey to Sukhothai.

By train
Sukhothai is located exactly halfway between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. It doesn’t lie directly on the train line, though. If you go by train, get off at Phitsanulok and then take a bus for two hours.

By bus
Frequent buses from Chiang Mai (1st and 2nd class) leave from the Arcade bus station. Some of the buses stop only at the Sukhothai new town, so if you’re going directly to the old town, make sure you’re buying the right ticket. The journey i 6h long.
Frequent buses from Bangkok (1st and 2nd class) leave from northern Mo Chit bus station. The journey is around 8h long.

Prices [in Thai baht as of April 2019]:

210 THB en-suite double room in Sukhothai New Town
207 THB 2nd class bus Chiang Mai- Sukhothai
100 THB entrance fee to Central zone; entrance fee to Western zone; entrance fee to Southern zone of the Sukhothai Historical Park
30 THB songthaew from Sukhothai New Town to Old Town
30 THB bicycle rental at the entrance to the Sukhothai historical park
30 THB meal at Sukhothai street stall in New Town
10 THB fee for a bike when entering Sukhothai historical park
10 THB soya milk with 2 doughnuts at the morning market in New Town
10 THB sticky rice with coconut custard from the morning market in New Town
10 THB ready-to-eat pineapple from the morning market in New Town

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