Much of what constitutes modern Thailand can be traced back to the Sukhothai Kingdom, although some history dating back to this ancient period remains pretty much unclear and debatable. Before the rise of Sukhothai, Siam was made up of small fiefdoms, subject to the rule of the ancient Khmer Empire. The founding monarch of Sukhothai was able to consolidate power and succeed the Khmer as the ruler of newfound Siam.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage City, Sukhothai houses a vast number of historical sites and temple ruins. As the first capital of Siam, the Sukhothai Kingdom (1238-1438) was the cradle of Thai civilisation and the name means “dawn of happiness”. Due to its location (a 7 hour drive from Bangkok and around 5 hours from Chiang Mai), Sukhothai sees far less visitors than its more popular counterpart Ayutthaya. Sukhothai’s historical sites, however, are by no means less splendid. Apart from visiting the historical sites, Sukhothai itself is a quiet rural city where you can still relish the charms of Thailand’s rustic lifestyle.
Sukhothai Historical Park covers an area of about 70sqkm and contains more than 190 historical ruins. Inside the city wall and moat, Wat Mahathat stands at its epicentre, as the spiritual centre of the kingdom, and the royal palace (now collapsed) lies to its northwest. To the city’s immediate north is a small contained area, housing Wat Phra Pai Luang, believed to be the original foundation site of the Sukhothai Kingdom. Strolling through the grounds of the historical park, you will encounter at least three architectural styles.
I saw many visitors to the park explore on bicycle and this seemed a great way to go about proceedings. I chose to walk around, but perhaps this was the wrong decision. The gardens around the stupas and temples at Sukhothai are resplendent and much better than what you would find at Ayutthaya, which is rather tawdry in comparison from a scenic point of view.
As mentioned before, there seems to be quite a few architectural styles on display within Sukhothai Historical Park. I spotted the classic Siam style, as well as classic Angkorian styles which reminded me of my time in Siem Reap (including the stupa above with its elephant-clad façade, which is reminiscent of Angkor Thom). I feel that exploring the park with a guidebook would be of great value to the average visitor, so that you can know exactly the time period that each of the main temples were built and the style in which it was done so.