The ruins of Sukhothai are one of Southeast Asia's best-kept secrets.
By Abby Sewell
Historically, Sukhothai was the cradle of Thai culture, scholarship, art, and architecture.
Photograph by Dani Salva, VWPics/Redux
The ruins of Sukhothai are
one of Thailand’s best-kept secrets. Dotted with the columns
and spires of 700-year-old temples and shrines presided over by the serene
visages of massive Buddha statues, the remnants of the Thai state’s first
capital have an enchanted, frozen-in-time feeling.
The historic town of Sukhothai—meaning “The Dawn of Happiness”—and surrounding
region are designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. The site encompasses more
than 29,000 acres and includes the ancient towns of Si Satchanalai and
Kamphaeng Phet along with Sukhothai itself.
Located in the lower north of present-day Thailand, Sukhothai was the
capital of the Kingdom of Siam for some 200 years beginning in the 13th
century when it gained its independence from the Khmer empire. While the
kingdom was initially small, the third ruler of Sukothai, King Ramkhamhaeng—
considered the founding father of the Thai nation—expanded its rule north
into present-day Laos, west to the Andaman Sea, and south to the Malay
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Sukhothai became an important center of worship as well as politics and
commerce. Nearby Si Satchanalai was known for its ceramics industry, temples,
and Buddhist monasteries, while Kamphaeng Phet guarded the kingdom’s southern
frontier from invaders.
The area also became the cradle of Thai culture, scholarship, art, and
architecture. The earliest examples of Thai writing were found in stone
inscriptions on the site, laying out details of the political, economic,
social, and religious life.
The kingdom thrived with the help of an impressive system of hydraulic
engineering. To keep floods at bay, the rulers of Sukhothai commissioned
a network of dams, reservoirs, ponds, and canals that irrigated the land,
while moats protected its residents.
But Sukhothai’s independence was short-lived. The kingdom was conquered
and absorbed by the Ayutthaya kingdom in 1438. After losing its place as
the seat of power, Sukhothai was abandoned in the late 15th or early 16th
The wooden houses and even royal palaces of Sukhothai’s heyday vanished
completely over the years. But the religious monuments, constructed from
brick and stone masonry covered with stucco in the signature Sukhothai
In the 1970s, the Thai government, with assistance from UNESCO, launched
an ambitious restoration project that eventually resulted in the opening
of Sukhothai Historical Park. The monument covers 27 square miles, with
the elaborate Wat Mahathat temple complex as its centerpiece. The park
includes several smaller temples, as well as the remains of the city wall
and moat and its complex hydraulics system.
Today, visitors meander through the boulevards of the Old City, discovering
the chedis—religious monuments topped by conical towers—and Buddha
statues set amid verdant grounds punctuated by lily ponds. The site’s out-of-the-way
location and the large geographical spread of the grounds keeps it free
of the crowds that attend some of the region’s other ruined monuments.
Wanderers looking for a moment of solitude for meditation will find it
The ancient city is illuminated during Loi Krathong, Thailand's Festival of Lights.
Photograph by Mario Weigt, Anzenberger/Redux
How to visit
You can get to Sukhothai from Bangkok or Chiang Mai by car or bus, or
from Bangkok by plane (though Sukhothai airport is located some 25 miles
from the city.) Because the site is spread out over a large area, many
visitors opt to explore by bicycle or motorbike. Apart from the ruins themselves,
those interested in history will find a collection of artifacts collected
from excavations at the Sukhothai Historical Park and Sri Satchanalai Historical
Park on display at the Ramkhamhaeng National Museum.