Sukhothai elephants

Scenes from Sukhothai

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Sukhothai, in north central Thailand, doesn’t tend to make it onto the itineraries of many visitors to the country.  It doesn’t have the beaches of the south or the humid excitement of Bangkok, and is far enough away from Chiang Mai (5-6 hours) that most people don’t bother to make the trip.

After a quick visit last month, I’m really struggling to understand why that is.

Sukhothai pond

With a day to spare before needing to be in Chiang Mai for the Yi Peng lantern festival, we decided to break up the trip from Bangkok with a night somewhere along the way.  Sukhothai is roughly half way between the two cities, and that was all the incentive we needed.

Sukhotahi Buddha

Arriving late afternoon, we spent a lazy evening exploring the modern town (New Sukothai) and eating too much at the night market.  The following morning dawned overcast and humid, and we hired a scooter and rode the 12km out to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Old Sukhothai.

There are plenty of ways to see the park – odd-looking tourist trams, bicycles and even on foot for total masochists.  We were (a) lazy and (b) needing to catch an early afternoon bus, so we just carried on through the gate and spent the next few hours exploring the sprawling site on our trusty Honda.  A good choice, I think, despite the interesting noises it made from time to time.


The Sukhothai kingdom lasted around two hundred years from 1238 AD.  The buildings and statues soon fell into disrepair, but many of them have been restored in recent years – sometimes excessively, but generally rather well.

Sukothai buildings

Restored wat, Sukhothai

Perhaps unsurprisingly we had done no research on the best parts of the park to visit, but figured that with a scooter we could get to most things worth seeing in three or four hours.  That turned out to be pretty much correct – we saw almost all of the central and northern zones (two separate entry fees required, 100 baht each + 20 baht for the scooter) in that time.

Large standing statue, Sukothai

The Loy Krathong festival is held throughout Thailand (and parts of Burma and Laos) at this time of year, and the distinctive floats were already being set up in the Sukhothai waterways when we were there.  They were a welcome sight, adding a colourful contrast to the muted tones of the nearby bricks and statues.

Loy Krathong float, Sukhothai

By now most of the clouds had burned away, leaving bright blue sky and blisteringly hot sun in their wake.  It made for better photos, at the expense of buckets of sweat and mild sunburn.  Totally worth it.

Splash of colour, Sukhothai

Other than right at the entrance, I was continually surprised at how few other visitors there were to Sukhothai.  Perhaps that’s due partially to the size of the place, but whatever the reason, it reminded me a lot of Angkor Wat without the people.  That’s not to say it was deserted – far from it – but no matter where we were it was always easy to duck around a corner or find a little hidden spot and not see anyone for several minutes.

Dedications, Sukhothai

Whatever crowds there might have been in the central zone completely disappeared once outside it.  There is less to see in the other two zones, even though they cost the same amount (around $3.50), but our time outside the old city walls and in the northern part of the site was totally worth it.  From wats covered in elephant sculptures to a huge Buddha peeking through an archway and a couple of sprawling ruins, this was probably my favourite part of the park.

Sukothai elephants


Sprawling ruins, Sukhothai

Our impending bus ride coincided nicely with our increasing weariness, so we left the park around midday and headed back to the guesthouse for lunch and a very long, very cold beer.

It makes little sense to me that Sukhothai is not much more popular, but I was thrilled that was the case.  Our half-day there was calm, relaxing and enjoyable, filled with a history and beauty that surprised me.

For those whose travels haven’t yet taken them to Cambodia and the famous temples at Angkor, this would be a great starting point.  Even for those of us who have spent those bleary early mornings on a tuk-tuk in Siem Reap, the site has a lot to offer.  If you’re travelling between Chiang Mai and Bangkok, give yourself an extra day or two and take the bus to Sukhothai.

It’s totally worth the effort.

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