Exploring the Original Capital of Thailand: Sukhothai

Regarded as a golden period in Thai history, the legacy of the ancient Sukhothai kingdom (1238-1438) helped shape the language, culture and religion of Thailand. Located approximately halfway between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, the picturesque Sukhothai countryside is dotted with ancient ruins and historic sites making it a wonderful destination for culture lovers.

In the 13th century, the country we now know as Thailand didn’t exist. Some areas were under the control of the mighty Khmer empire and other regions were a collection of separate kingdoms. Sukhothai was previously part of the Khmer empire but broke away and became established as a separate kingdom in 1238. Other Thai kingdoms were already in existence further north, but the rise of Sukhothai (the name translates as the ‘Dawn of Happiness’) was spectacular and it is often referred to as the first capital of Thailand.

Sukhothai’s rise to prominence owed much to King Ramkhamhaeng the Great. During his reign (1278-1298) Sukhothai expanded its borders to incorporate an area that included parts of what is now Laos with Luang Prabang and Vientiane coming under the control of the Sukhothai kingdom. It was a golden age for the arts and King Ramkhamhaeng is widely credited with developing the Thai alphabet that is used today and is regarded as the ‘Father of the Thai Language’. The death of King Ramkhamhaeng brought about a downturn in the fortunes of Sukhothai with Ayutthaya to the south emerging as the new dominant kingdom that would become the second capital of Thailand.

What to see and do in Sukhothai

Whether you are interested in history or not, the Sukhothai Historical Park is a wonderful location to visit. Located in Muang Kao (the Old City), the Historical Park is a 20-minute drive away from the new city of Sukhothai. And it is this quiet rural location that adds to the enjoyment of a visit here. With cars not allowed in the central zone of the park and quieter rural roads on the outskirts, the area is ideal for exploration by bicycle. A tram service is a comfortable way to explore the central zone and if you want to visit some of the ruins further away you can also hire a samlor (tuk-tuk) to take you there.  

Sukhothai Historical Park is divided into different zones with the main cluster of ruins located within the central zone. Highlights here include Wat Mahathat and Wat Si Sawai. The light in the late afternoon can be perfect for photography and a view of the sun setting behind Wat Mahathat is a memorable sight. A pleasant cycle ride away to the east brings you to the massive seated Buddha image at Wat Si Chum. And at the entrance to the northern zone of the park, Wat Saphan Hin is another impressive landmark with a huge standing Buddha located on a hill overlooking the Sukhothai countryside. For an overview of the history of Sukhothai, visit the informative Ramkhamhaeng National Museum near the main entrance to the Historical Park.

According to Thai folklore, Loy Krathong originated in Sukhothai and the Historical Park is one of the best locations in Thailand to witness this beautiful annual festival which falls in November. If you can’t make it for Loy Krathong, a mini light and sound show celebrating the heritage of Sukhothai is held on the first Friday of the month from February through to the beginning of September. The fireworks and cultural performance are hosted in the central zone of the Historical Park in front of Wat Sa Si. Performances start around 7pm with free entry.

If you have enough time in Sukhothai, it’s possible to make day trips to nearby Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet which both fall under the same UNESCO World Heritage listing that includes Sukhothai.

Food and drink in Sukhothai

Try not to leave Sukhothai without trying the local noodle dish, kuay tiao Sukhothai, a tasty combination of rice noodles, pork and vegetables. You’ll see it on the menu of many eateries in New Sukhothai and Old Sukhothai. If you are staying in the new town area, you’ll find the usual array of street stalls and night markets that can be found in most Thai towns. Poo Restaurant is a good location for a cold drink or bite to eat and Chopper Bar is another well-established venue popular with tourists seeking to relax after a day exploring the Historical Park.

In Old Sukhothai, Traphang Thong Market is where you’ll find the locals doing their food shopping and as good a place as any to wander around and buy some Thai snacks. A five minute walk east of the market brings you to Sinvana Restaurant which serves up a decent array of Thai food in a pleasant setting.

Where to stay in Sukhothai

Staying in the Old City is the most convenient location for visiting the Historical Park, but there are plenty of accommodation options too in New Sukhothai.

Suggested hotels:

At Home Sukhothai (New Sukhothai)

Le Charme (Old Sukhothai)

Legenda (Old Sukhothai)

Travel to Sukhothai

Sukhothai is located approximately halfway between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Bangkok Airways fly from the Thai capital to the delightful Sukhothai airport. Alternatively you can fly with Nok Air to Phitsanulok from where there are connecting road transfers to Sukhothai.

The nearest train station is located at Phitsanulok, an hour away by bus from New Sukhothai. From Chiang Mai, the bus company Win Tours run reliable services with a journey time of around 6 hours. Once in Sukhothai, regular songthaews make the 20-minute journey between New Sukhothai and Old Sukhothai for a fare of 30 baht.