Sukhothai: Exploring Thailand's Ancient Golden City

Reflections of Sukhothai, Thailand
Reflections of Sukhothai, Thailand | © Yosika ( ) / Flickr
An ancient Siamese capital, Northern Thailand’s Sukhothai provides a terrific window into the nation’s past. Glorious ruins are scattered throughout the city and the atmosphere is peaceful and serene. Here’s what you can expect from a hop back in time and a visit to Sukhothai.

Brief history of the Sukhothai Kingdom

The lands around Sukhothai were once part of Lavo (today’s Lopburi), which was controlled by the Khmer Kingdom. With attempts of independence since the late 12th century, Sukhothai finally broke from the Khmer Kingdom in the 1230s. The kingdom conquered and absorbed surrounding lands to grow and flourish with the capital of the empire, including nearby Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet. At the height of its power, the kingdom controlled most of the lands in present-day Thailand along with areas in modern-day Laos.

The kingdom’s glory days were short, however, with many areas breaking away after the death of the most influential king, King Ramkamhaeng. By the middle of the 1300s it was a small, local kingdom again. Forces from the Kingdom of Ayutthaya invaded in 1349, making the Kingdom of Sukhothai subordinate to the rapidly growing kingdom in the area’s central plains. Later years saw the earlier kingdom absorbed into the Ayutthaya Kingdom, with aspects from Sukhothai influencing Ayutthaya.

One of Sukhothai's many beautiful Buddha statues © Ninara / Flickr

Influence of ancient Sukhothai on present-day Thailand

Sukhothai’s golden years may only have lasted for a relatively short period, but the kingdom created many things that helped to shape later life. Indeed, the Sukhothai Kingdom is often seen as the start of the Thai nation and is commonly said to have been the first Siamese capital. It is often referred to as the cradle of Thai civilisation and the name Sukhothai means the “Dawn of Happiness”.

King Ramkamhaeng is often credited for aiding the spread of Buddhism throughout the lands and inventing the Thai script. He is sometimes referred to as a founding father of Thailand. He is also celebrated for his democratic approach.

There's lots of grace in the details © Adam Jones / Flickr

Sukhothai architecture

Sukhothai’s buildings were constructed using symbolic shapes, and the main architectural elements of Thai temples were born or made more popular. These include the chedi, prang, mondop, bot, viharn, sala, and prasat.

The chedi/stupa was originally used to house sacred relics. Later, it was also used to hold the remains of kings and other powerful people. The prang is a tower, often with elaborate decoration, and the mondop is a square-shaped, free-standing building, usually topped with a tower.

The bot is the rectangular ordination hall, complete with Buddha statues on a platform, and decorative roof edging and gables. The viharn is similar in design to the bot, but it is usually bigger. This is the assembly hall, the place where the head monk performs religious services. The sala is an open-air pavilion for relaxation.

The prasat is an important part of a temple complex, used as a sacred shrine or as a throne hall. Sometimes translated as the castle, the prasat is set out in a cross shape, with a square sanctuary at its heart and four chambers that lead away from the square core. There’s a rounded spire on top.

Other architectural aspects created during the Sukhothai period include elephants around a chedi and the lotus-shaped chedi.

Buddha in front of a chedi © Andrea Schaffer / Flickr

Sukhothai religious art

Artists from Sukhothai combined several styles to craft exquisite statues and other designs. Influences included Thai, Khmer, Mon, and Sri Lankan. The overall effect was unique, and the Sukhothai style went on to influence later regimes.

A visit to ancient Sukhothai today reveals gorgeous Buddha images with sharp details and striking serene features, intricate carvings and sculptures, and murals. The main positions of statues of the Lord Buddha were born during the Sukhothai period, namely standing, sitting, reclining, and walking. The graceful walking Buddha image is especially associated with Sukhothai.

Buddha statues from the Sukhothai period have a genteel expression, usually with a downward gaze, high curved eyebrows, and a slightly hooked nose on an oval face. The waist is typically small and the shoulders are wide. Sculptors sought to depict a combination of spiritual ideals, superhuman attributes, and the human form.

Stunning walking Buddha at Sukhothai © Mark Lehmkuhler / Flickr

Sukhothai today

Today, the ancient city is a UNESO World Heritage Site. Sukhothai Historical Park has almost 200 ancient sites, including temples, ruins, and statues, scattered among villages, rice fields, other farmland, ponds, grassy areas, trees, and flowers. Many ruins have been heavily restored. There are five zones, each with an admission fee: the Central Zone, which is often the most visited, and the North, South, East, and West Zones. The area can be explored by bicycle, scooter, and tuk tuk.

There are many fantastic sites, big and small, to explore in Sukothai © Doug Knuth / Flickr

Major sites of interest at Sukhothai Historical Park

Wat Mahathat: the largest Sukhothai temple

Wat Mahathat, in the Central Zone, was the biggest and most important temple during the Sukhothai period. The main chedi is in the shape of a closed lotus and it has several smaller chedis around it. The base is surrounded by statues of Buddhist devotees with their hands clasped together as though in prayer, meditation, or submission. Large columns mark the remains of ancient prayer halls, many of which have large Buddha statues still in place. Surrounded by a moat, the complex features many smaller chedis and statues.

Wat Mahathat, the biggest ruin in Sukhothai © Takuya ASADA / Flickr

Lake temples

Wat Sra Si sits on a small island in the lake, accessed by crossing a wooden bridge. The central chedi has a Buddha statue on either side and there are statues in various poses, including a gorgeous walking Buddha. Another lake temple, Wat Traphang Thong, has an ancient Buddha footprint within a modern building. An old chedi stands next to the hall.

Ruins by the water, Sukhothai © Ninara / Flickr

Wat Si Chum: home to a gorgeous Buddha statue

Wat Si Chum, in the North Zone, is home to one of Thailand’s most attractive Buddha statues. The large image is also the biggest Buddha statue in Sukhothai. In a seated position, the statue is housed within a mondop, the statue’s serene face visible through a slim slit in the wall.

Wat Si Chum's beautiful Buddha © Adam Jones / Flickr

Khmer-style architecture

The sprawling Wat Phra Phai Luang has a Khmer-style prang and a ruined mondop with eroded and damaged Buddha statues facing out in the four main directions. Wat Si Sawai is another stunning ruin, with three well-preserved and beautifully carved Khmer-style prangs that represent the Hindu trinity.

Khmer-style ruins at Wat Si Sawai, Sukhothai © Adam Jones / Flickr

Wat Saphan Hin: tall Buddha and beautiful views

The nature-surrounded hilltop ruin of Wat Saphan Hin, in the West Zone, boasts an 11-metre-tall standing Buddha statue. It was once a favourite site of worship for royalty. You can also enjoy great views from the elevated position.

The atmospheric Wat Saphan Hin, Sukhothai © Ninara / Flickr

More glorious ruins in Sukhothai

Wat Chetuphon, in the South Zone, has a large mondop that was surrounded by four Buddha statues in different poses. Unfortunately, they show many signs of age today. The site has several other ruined buildings and statues too. Wat Mangkor is the only ruin in Sukhothai to show local pottery in its construction. Wat Sorasak and Wat Chang Rob are good places to see an elephant-surrounded chedi.

Wat Mae Chon has a large seated Buddha statue, the Ta Pha Daeng Shrine is thought to be the area’s oldest remaining religious ruin, and the free-standing chedi at Wat Chedi Sung is one of the tallest in Sukhothai. Other sites to add to your list include Wat Tuk, Wat Son Khao, Wat Chedi Si Hong, and Wat Traphang Thong Lang.

Elephants at Wat Sorasak, Sukhothai © Andrea Schaffer / Flickr