We are in Wat Sra Sri in the Sukhothai Historical Park, and my local guide Kung points to the water in the lake. Pretty waterlilies are showing off their grace everywhere.
So here is where Nang Noppamas the consort of the King of Sukhothai, made the first decorated Krathong. She wanted to impress the king and made the Krathong from banana leaves which she moulded into the shape of a lotus flower before adding a candle and incense sticks. Then the king lit the candle and incense sticks and floated the Krathong on the lake and said let’s celebrate like this every year.
That’s how I heard the story of Loi Krathong for the first time. Legend and fact, the beauty of storytelling.
Sukhothai is where two local rulers rebelled against the Khmer rulers of Angkor in 1238 and gave birth to an early kingdom of Siam. In Siams troublesome 19th century, squeezed between colonial powers, the” first inscription” was found by Rama IV. Furthermore, the description mentioned a king named Ramkhamhaeng and the year 1292. This inscription became more and more critical as time went by.
The Sukhothai Historical Park
Sukhothai has a well-arranged Historical/ Archaeological Park. A park dotted with perfectly sized ponds decorated with waterlilies and on the outskirts, lined by old mango trees and sugar palms that points to the sky like spears. You can go around the area on a small tram. It also conveniently stops at the major sights and then you can do your walking. Also, a popular option is to rent a bicycle and do the sightseeing at your own pace.
An important part of National History
Sukhothai has been claimed to be where King Ramkhamhaeng created the written Thai language. And in addition where Theravada Buddhism became the state religion. The “dawn of happiness” of Siam. Sukhothai is a word that derives from Sukhodaya, meaning to emerge from happiness.
The kingdom’s location was in what is the middle of what is today’s Thailand. That is to say, the central Chao Phraya plains. So this is an area abundant in river water and where you can harvest rice two-three times per year.
There is an old saying that in Sukhothai, people were free to grow rice, hunt in the forest, fish in the rivers, freely trade and that inhabitants of the kingdom were even allowed to request audiences with the king to bring up any misfortunes they had.
Moreover, this was a pious kingdom where monks from neighbouring states as far as Sri Lanka gathered to discuss the philosophy of Theravada Buddhism and the Tripitaka.
Well, of course, things are more complicated than that. However, it is vital to know the position of Sukhothai for the historical narrative of Siam/Thailand. King Mongkut showed the British Consul in Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring, the inscription of Ramkhamhaeng.
A continuity of history
Being able to point out a continuity of kingdoms and history of the Thai people helped Siam in the 19th century to stay independent. This was the colonial era when foreign powers like England and France were knocking at the door with the idea of a Mission Civilisatrice. It is a fact that Sukhothai is crucial in forming the concept of the Thai Nation idea. Sukhothai is also essential because the Thai people declared their independence to rid the “yoke” of the Khmer rulers.
However, The kingdom did enjoy a long period of peace and prosperity until the Ayutthaya Kingdom entirely annexed it in the 1430s.
Lastly, nine kings ruled Sukhothai, and at least three of them served under Ayutthaya’s rule as vassals since 1378.
The major sites of Sukhothai
It is recommended to start early or come later in the afternoon. The picturesque and beautiful area of Sukhothai is bathing in tropical sunshine during midday.
First and foremost, Wat Mahathat and the old base of the palace is a natural start for any tour around the area. The temple with the Lotus bud spire finial is covered with Jatakas and monks paying respect to the Buddha after visiting his mother in heaven.
There is a claim that there is a resemblance of Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka for the mounted chedi.
The temple consists of a beautiful mix of laterite, sandstone and stucco, creating a robust material that would last for centuries. Wat Mahathat was the setting for all significant Royal rituals. The notion of the temple in the centre and enclosed by water is the idea of Mount Meru surrounded by the oceans.
Wat Sri Sawai
Also, do stop at the small Shiva temple, Wat Sri Sawai. A mini temple with corn shaped prangs in the Lopburi style is probably converted from Hinduism to Buddhism. Probably the oldest structure in the area with a heavy laterite wall surrounding it.
Wat Sra Sri
At Wat Sra Sri, you find a statue of the walking Buddha in the typical Sukhothai style and a lovely seated Buddha among ten chedis. Wat Sra Si is located in Traphang-Trakuan lake and is accessible by crossing a wooden bridge. Here is where the important celebrations of Loy Krathong are held in Sukhothai.
Wat Sri Chum
The partially hidden Buddha at Wat Sri Chum is a most to see. It is a bit outside the Sukhothai area. The name Phra Achana means the “Buddha who is not frightened.” Legend has it that a contingent of the Burmese Army, while invading Sukhothai, fled upon seeing the statue. Some stories say that it was the words of the Ayutthaya king Naresuan that fooled the Burmese soldiers into believing that the Buddha spoke. The fingers of this Buddha is draped over the right knee. Thai people come here to press gold leaf on their fingers.
Ramkhamhaeng National Museum
The Ramkhamhaeng National museum has a great exhibition of artefacts from the temples, such as statues and good descriptions of what is typical for the Sukhothai art.
An excellent place to round off is to go to the statue of Ramkhamhaeng. Here is also the symbolic copy of a bell that citizens were supposed to ring to engage with the king.
Other attractions in Sukhothai and nearby
If you have the chance, visit the ruins of the sister Kingdom of Sri Satchanalai and the kilns of Sangkhalok. The green, greyish celadon art with fish motifs with a long and mysterious history of how the kilns seem suddenly abandoned. Another place that is worth a visit is Phitsanulok. This city arguably has the most beautiful Buddha in Thailand. The Phra Buddha Chinnarat. It is also a city with laidback market life and wonderful restaurants on and by the Nan river.
The legend about Sukothai’s first ruler Phra Ruang
According to a popular version of the legend of Phra Ruang, he was a Thai chief from Lopburi. He became a legendary ruler. The legend says he had magical powers. He could turn fish bones into living fish!
Before Phra Ruang became king, the Thai people were forced to pay tribute to the Khmer ruler of Angkor. This tribute consisted of holy water from a lake outside Lopburi. The Khmer gods’ kings needed holy water from all parts of their empire to carry out their ceremonies.
Every three years, this water was sent in large pots of earthenware. The perilous journeys took several weeks through jungles and over hilly terrain. Some of the earth jars inevitably burst on the road. Therefore the tribute payers had to travel repeatedly to meet the quota required by the Khmer King.
Genius water engineering
Phra Ruang invented an ingenious new way of transporting this water. The water was now brought in lacquered containers of braided bamboo. These containers handled the tough transports much better, and they usually arrived intact at Angkor.
Furthermore, Phra Ruang’s ingenuity had made the Khmers suspicious. Astrologers told the king that the inventive Thai subject had supernatural powers and was a potential threat to the empire.
King Indravarman II, therefore, immediately gave orders to one of his able generals that the threat be eliminated. Then the General Phaya Decho, also with the magical power to travel underground at great speed, took off to Sukhothai.
Lastly, Phra Ruang sensed that something was going on and went to Sukhothai where he hid as a Buddhist monk in Sukhothai’s largest temple Wat Mahathat มหาธาตุ มหาธาตุ. Strangely enough, Phaya Decho appeared in the middle of the monastery after her journey underground. There he met the monk Phra Ruang, who, with his magical powers, turned the unsuspecting general into a stone.
Phra Ruang married the Sukhothai ruler’s daughter and won the popular vote for power.
Loi Krathong in Sukhothai
Sukhothai is often said to be the birthplace of this festival in Thailand. Loi Krathong is an full moon festival (the twelfth lunar, which means November typically). It is a period to say grace to the water goddess for bringing abundance with water during the rainy season. But it is also a time where you apologise for any wrongdoings or sins if you want to use a Christian term.
You will see Krathongs; decorated banana leaves carrying candles, flowers, incense and maybe a coin and some hair for good luck.
The light show
The light show is spectacular with traditional dancing, illuminated temples in different colours and the story told in a loud dramatic voice how Sukhothai was liberated from the Khmers. It is a beautiful show, be aware that if Loi Krathong falls in the early part of November, the whole thing might storm away. One year when I was there, the whole show had to be cancelled, this is open-air, and we ended up in the middle of a massive thunderstorm.
TAT has an office in Sukhothai. Telephone number 055 – 616 228 if you need to find out the exact dates for the Loy Krathong festival.
Some places to eat…..
Famous for Sukhothai noodle soup with crispy pork. My favourite is the Mai Krai Krung. They have a variety of noodles, but their dry noodles are interesting to try. This is a very well renowned Thai dessert eatery as well.
Na Kothai has an exciting twist on their laarb, with wild olives. They are additionally giving it a richness and unusual sour character. They also serve the Gaeng Liang, a fish soup with smoked fish, pumpkin and mushrooms. JK Station Cafe has tasty food and an enjoyable “train atmosphere”.
However, if you are in the Historical Park and looking for somewhere inexpensive to eat, take a walk and find coffee shops and eateries outside the park. The same place where you find bike rentals and souvenir stalls.
And some places to stay..
During the years, I have stayed at four different hotels in Sukhothai. Two places are closed or either too rundown at this point. But 3-star Legendha hotel used to deliver. It has a traditional Thai village touch to it, and when crowded, they usually serve a buffet in the evening. In the morning, sometimes monks will walk by for the morning alms.
Additionally, below is a map from Booking.com. If you book through some of the links I will earn some commission from it with no extra cost to you. With affiliate cooperation I can keep this site going. Thanks for your support!
And the Sukhothai Heritage Resort, though a bit far from the historical park but close to the charming airport of Sukhothai.
The old and the new Sukhothai
Sukhothai is a little town about 430 kilometres north of Bangkok. It is located by the River Yom, a tributary of the Chao Phraya River. The population is about 40,000. The town is 12 kilometres east of the historic city of Sukhothai.
How to get here?
By air, you can fly into Sukhothai Airport with Bangkok Airways from Bangkok or via Phitsanulok airport, but it will be a longer transfer from Phitsanulok to Sukhothai.
It is around one hour between those cities. Phitsanulok is on the railway network. And taking the train through the central plains is a delightful experience. It gives you a good understanding of the importance of the area as Thailands rice basket. Buses to New Sukhothai leave from Phitsanulok from the terminal on Highway 12.
From Bangkok, you can catch buses from the Northern Bus Terminal(7h) and Chiang Mai; you depart from Arcade (5 1/2 to 6 hours).