Sukhothai Historical Park: A Photo Essay
Founded by King Si Inthrathit in 1248 CE, Sukhothai Historical Park served as the former capital of the Kingdom of Sukhothai until 1438 CE. The city was the first in a series of independent polities that eventually unified to form the Kingdom of Siam (present-day Thailand).
Today, the ruins of Sukhothai serve as a reflection of the diverse ancestry of the modern Thai people. It’s a place where the artistic influences from the Mon, Tai and Khmer peoples are beautifully etched into timeless monuments. Even stylistic overlays from ancient India and Hinduism accent the Buddhism-centered designs.
At the end of the 13th century, Sukhothai flourished as one of the largest centers of Buddhism in the world. It was a time when Sukhothai’s wealth and fame rose drastically, which allowed a distinct style of art to quickly emerge.
Throughout Sukhothai Historical Park, images of the Buddha are highly stylized and recognizable by their unique signaling of virtue and grace. Nowhere is this stylized artwork more pronounced, than the vast grounds of Wat Mahathat.
The structures of Wat Mahathat delineate a certain ethereal grace – monumental Buddha images, bell-shaped stupas, and lotus-bud finials, all come together to form a majestic yet imposing Theravada monastery.
Granted with a certain freedom of expression, architects and engineers came to the ancient city of Sukhothai to build exquisite works of art – grand monuments carved from brick and stucco that have stood the test of time.
With a strong Hindu influence, Wat Si Sawai’s meticulously detailed prangs* are a sight to behold and offer a stark contrast to the Buddhist pillars of Wat Mahathat. The temple itself is one of Sukhothai’s oldest, as it was built by the Khmers in the late 12th century.
(a prang is a tower with a conical shape and broad base that gets narrower towards the top – it’s meant to symbolize Mount Meru, a sacred mountain that stands in the center of the universe)
A couple hundred meters from Wat Si Sawai, is a 14th century chedi and viharn known as Wat Tra Phang Ngoen. This dilapidated structure is home to a stuccoed image of the Buddha sitting in the Bhumisparsha mudra*.
(the Bhumisparsha mudra depicts the Buddha touching the soil with his right hand – it’s meant to symbolize the liberation of the human spirit from worldly trappings and temptations)
To the right of Wat Tra Phang Ngoen, is an emblematic Walking Buddha image – a pose that signifies grace and elegance. This distinctive pose, based on the Vitarka mudra*, originated from Sukhothai’s patrons of the arts and is now used around the world.
(The Vitarka mudra symbolizes the act of teaching – it’s meant to depict the transmission of knowledge and insight, gained after reaching enlightenment)
When approaching Wat Si Chum on foot, the first thing you notice is the tantalizing gaze of a gargantuan Buddha peering through the slit of its 13th century chamber.
This confined, brick-stuccoed behemoth is known as Phra Achana – which roughly translates to “the one who is unstirred, who remains calm.” Sculpted in the style of Srivijaya art, Phra Achana is the largest Buddha image within Sukhothai (measuring 15 m high x 11.3 m wide) and is enshrined inside a roofless mondop (a cubicle-shaped pavilion) with a geometric design.
Given its magnificence, Wat Si Chum is frequented by Buddhist monks on pilgrimage.
During your visit, you may get to witness Buddhist monks gently rubbing gold-leaves on Phra Achana’s fingers, in effort to make merit.
Nearby Wat Si Chum is a temple that’s only second to Wat Mahathat in terms of significance.
Built during the reign of Angkor King Jayavarman VII in the 12th century, Wat Phra Phai Luang is one of the oldest monuments in Sukhothai. While it was the most important temple of the pre-Sukhothai era, the site’s stepped pyramidal chedi and principal viharn are now in a state of complete disrepair.
The most intact monument at Wat Phra Phai Luang is a 13th century prang that was originally adorned with fine stucco reliefs of Hindu depictions (similar to Angkor Wat). Unfortunately, most of these depictions have been carefully removed and taken to the Ramkhamhaeng National Museum for safekeeping.
Regardless of this site’s unrestored nature, Wat Phra Phai Luang is still worth visiting given its historical significance and grandiose construction (it’s surrounded by 3 different moats).
Compared to the imposing nature of the central and north zones, the west zone was relatively lackluster – there’s not much to see and the ruins are hidden amongst the forest.
In our humble opinion, save your 100 baht for a delicious bowl of Sukhothai noodles – unless you’re desperately itching to see the ruins of Wat Saphan Hin. The temple, which contains two Buddha images, is located on a small hill and requires a ~7 minute hike over slate rock to reach.
Trust us, it’s okay to skip this one. Baht for Sukhothai noodles > Wat Saphan Hin.
Overall, we were very impressed by how clean and well-maintained all three paid zones of the historical park were, especially when compared to Ayutthaya.
In regards to the park’s historical relevance, it’s hard to beat the effervescence of culture that Sukhothai had during the 13th and 14th centuries. To this day, Sukhothai is still revered as the birthplace of Thai culture since it has left an indelible imprint on Thai art and language.
Long story short: the distinctive architecture and artistic stylings found within the walls of Sukhothai’s Historical Park, make this place a must-see destination in Thailand.
Where To Stay: Orchard Hibiscus is the best value hotel in the Old City and it’s only a short bike ride away from the historical park. Alternatively, if you’re craving a place with a bit more luxury then you can check out, Legendha Sukhothai, which is located a stone’s throw from the park.
When To Visit: Sukhothai Historical Park is open year-round, but the best experience will be during Thailand’s rainy season (June – October) – during this time you’ll get less crowds than the cold / high season and enough cloud cover to block the scorching sun.
Opening Hours: The historical park is open daily from 6.30 am until 9:00 pm.
Entrance Fees: The historical park is comprised of 5 zones – two zones (the South & East) are free while the three main zones (Central, North, & West) each charge an entrance fee of 100 Baht for foreigners / 20 baht for Thai, plus an extra 10 Baht per bicycle. Free maps of each paid zone are available at the ticket office.
Good to Know: In Sanskrit, Sukhothai roughly translates to the “Dawn of Happiness.”
Tip #1: A bicycle rental shop can be found at the entrance of the Central Zone. Rentals only cost 30 baht per bicycle – we highly recommend utilizing this service as the grounds are pretty big.
Tip #2: The dress code for the historical park is the same as any other temple across Thailand – dress modestly by covering your knees and shoulders, take off your shoes when entering the temple, and remove your hat (if wearing one, of course).
Tip 3: Consider combining a trip to Sukhothai with a stopover at Phitsanulok’s Noen Maprang district – it’s a picturesque area with a lot of great photo opportunities (see the pic below).