Sukhothai (part two): the Sukhothai Historical Park route

The ancient city of Sukhothai is one of the capitals of Siam, dating from between the 13th and 15th centuries. Some of its temples are even older, from Khmer-rule times. The Sukhothai Historical Park is divided into four zones, out of which only one is free of charge. Exploring all zones of the historical park by bicycle is likely to take you the entire day.

A lake shows reflection of a square based brick stupa ad a seated Buddha statue at Sukhothai Historical park
Lake in the central zone

Central zone

We started our route at the most important temple of Sukhothai: Wat Mahathat. It is an impressive complex, full of giant standing and seated figures of Buddha, with a well-preserved colonnade of the viharn (assembly hall) and chedis (conical structures) mixing various architectural styles, eg. easily recognisable Khmer influences. A frieze depicting figures of Buddhist monks and pilgrims decorates the main stupa. It is the most crowded of all the temples, but on that hot April morning, there couldn’t be more than 20 people around.

A giant stone seated Buddha and a giant standing Buddha statues, both encased among brick walls, stand at Wat Mahathat temple in Sukhothai
Fragment of Wat Mahathat complex

The next temple, moving clockwise, is Wat Si Sawai, empty at the time of our visit. It is one of the oldest temples in Sukhothai, from the times when it was still a Khmer vassal state. It used to be a Hindu temple, later converted to a Buddhist one. If you saw Angkor Wat, it’d remind you of that architecture.

Three multitiered Khmer style towers stand behind the ruined colonnade at Wat Si Sawai in Sukhothai
Khmer-style towers of Wat Si Sawai

We carried on to the tiny Wat Traphang Ngoen, consisting of a stupa, a large seated Buddha statue and columns of the viharn. The best about that temple is a small image of a walking Buddha, the representation of Buddha unique to Sukhothai and indeed looking rather strange. The temple faces a lake with ruins of the ordination hall on the island.

A statue of a close eyed, slim, walking Buddha stands propped against a brick wall at Wat Traphang Ngoen in Sukhothai.
Walking Buddha at Wat Traphang Ngoen

Directly adjacent to it is Wat Sa Si, completely surrounded by water. There you can find another walking Buddha, this time made of bronze, a huge stupa built in Sri Lankan style and viharn’s colonnade. There are also ruins of the ordination hall on another island.

The blog author stands in front of a human-size bronze standing Buddha statue and a  tall narrow chedi at Wat Sa Si temple in Sukhothai
Bronze standing Buddha at Wat Sa Si

Already outside the paid area, heading towards the Northern zone stands Wat Sorasan. It is worth stopping by for a lovely chedi decorated with elephant statues.

Northern zone

Another moat surrounds the northern monuments group, which requires a separate ticket. The first complex worth stopping by is Wat Phra Phai Luang.  It is one of the oldest temples in Sukhothai. However, only colonnade, one Khmer style tower and headless Buddha statues decorating the ruined stupa remain. 

A single Khmer-style tower stands at the end of a ruined collonade at Wat Phra Phai Luang temple in Sukhtothai Historical Park
Wat Phra Phai Luang

Far more impressive is located further to the west 14th century Wat Si Chum. It is an unusual construction: a square block with a narrow slit through which you can glimpse the enormous seated Buddha statue. The giant, 15-meters high Buddha statue catches attention with its super-long fingers.

A 15- meters tall square brick Wat Si Chum Temple with a slit opening shows a giant seated Buddha statue inside
Mesmerising Wat Si Chum

100 baht fee for the northern zone seems overpriced, especially compared to the central one. There were far fewer visitors to this zone, even at the time of our visit.

Western zone

It was only 11 am when we finished the two zones, so we didn’t hesitate to check out the Western one, too. It was less than a kilometre away on a slightly more busy road. The first temple on the way (and the only one marked on the map we got when we rented a bike) is Wat Saphan Hin. It is set on top of a hillock, among a dry forest. A low stone wall leads you up and the giant standing Buddha statue becomes fully visible once you get nearer.

A sun-burned soil path and a stone low wall lead up the sparsely forested hillock to a giant standing Buddha statue visible at the top
A path to Wat Saphan Hin

There are a couple of minor temples further along the western loop. Most stand on top of hillocks, with the same slab-stone walls leading up. We were a bit too tired to go up each hill in the heat, so we often sufficed with taking some photos from a distance. I liked Wat Aranyik due to its top location and Wat Chedi Ngam with the enormous Sri Lankan style chedi on a hillock. The only other slightly bigger ruin is Wat Mangkon. The roots of a tree growing into one of the smaller brick chedis make it quite picturesque.

A tree intertwined its roots all over a small brick stupa at Wat Mangkon in Sukhothai
Wat Mangkon

The western zone is quite interesting as due to its geography makes it very different from the remaining zones. However, apart from Wat Saphan Hin, you won’t see here statues or elaborate structures. Is it worth 100 baht? Your call.

Lunch break and the National Museum

After seeing all the minor temples of the western zone, we turned back towards the central zone. It was a perfect moment for re-filling water and having lunch near the main entrance. Once we finished lunch, I thought it’d be a good idea to see the Ramkhamhaeng National Museum and rest from the heat.

A bronze statue of standing Buddha adornes the lobby of the Ramkhamhaeng National Museum in Sukhothai
At the National Museum in Sukhtothai

The museum was very empty as well. The museum is divided into three buildings but the first one didn’t contain anything of importance and the third one (displaying stucco pieces) happened to be closed. The two-storied main building is a nicely laid out and modern museum, showcasing pieces too fragile to be kept at the original temples. There are also some pieces of art from other regions of Thailand and later periods. Going through all the exhibits in the main building thoroughly would take you around an hour.

A man steps onto a wooden bridge over a moat, leading to a green island with a complete Buddhist temple and a tall ancient chedi, just outside SUkhothai Historical Park

There is an island with a wooden bridge right next to the museum. You can see there an early 20th century, active Wat Traphang Thong temple and an ancient Sri-Lankan style chedi. By the time we had lunch and visited the museum and the island, it was 3 pm, so we still had 2 hours before returning the bikes.

Southern zone

We took a shade-less road leading south. After 1.3 kilometres ride, we reached the large complex of Wat Chetuphon. It contained an enormous statue of walking Budha on one side and the standing one on the other. Untypically, it was surrounded by a wall made of stone slates resembling wood.

A massive brick stella witha headless Buddha relief surrounded with ruined colonnade at Wat Chetuphon in Sukhothai
Wat Chetuphon

On the opposite side of the road, a smaller Wat Chedi Song had a lovely chedi decorated with stucco figures of deities interspersed with elephants and lions.

Chedi decoration at Wat Chedi Song

Once we left Wat Chedi Song, we turned around and came back to the central zone to return the bikes. We were back at the guesthouse by 4.30 pm, tired but completely satisfied with the day.


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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