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Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai

THAILAND | Sunday, 13 November 2022 | Views [109]

Buddha behind and to the right of Wat Mahathat

Buddha behind and to the right of Wat Mahathat


Sukhothai is considered the first capital of Thailand; it was established in 1238 by Si Inthrathit, who united many of the local tribes. The city’s name means “Dawn of Happiness,” and this is also the name of the entrance to the historical park.

Sukhothai flourished under its third king and son of the first, Pho Khun Ramkhamhaeng (1279-1298). He extended the kingdom’s territory to its greatest extent, reaching into modern day Laos and Myanmar. He introduced Theravadin Buddhism, which became the national religion and supplanted Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism that had been practiced in the region prior to his rule. He is also credited with creating the first Thai alphabet. It is his legacy that defines Thainess even today as based in reverence for King, Religion, Nation (not necessarily in that order). As with many strong rulers, however, without his leadership and weak successors, the kingdom fell apart, and by 1438 Sukhothai came under the auspices of the budding Ayutthaya empire.

Today, Suktothai has two sections, the historical city ruins and the new commercial hub. As I was here for Loy Krathong, the “Festival of Lights,” I chose to stay near the ruins and am glad I did. My room was near the river and backed onto Wat Chang Lom temple with elephants surrounding the base.  According to legend, sometime in the 14th C a consort of King Ramkhamhaeng, Nang Noppamas, and other “members of the royal court were celebrating the water goddess on the night of the full moon in the 12th lunar month. To impress the King, Noppamas created an intricate floating raft from banana leaves and flowers. She then set a candle and incense stick in the center and placed it on the water to honor Buddha and the water goddess.  When the king saw this, he was so impressed by its beauty that he proclaimed the festival would be celebrated in the same way every year.” (Asiahighlights.com) Today, the Loy Krathong festival is celebrated in many cities around Thailand, the main ones are in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, but the Festival in Sukhothai is the oldest and is mostly visited by locals, not necessarily by tourists. While in Thailand the celebration on the full moon of the 12th lunar month is called Loy Krathong, throughout southeast Asia and the subcontinent, festivals to the water goddess, Laxmi in one of her many forms, occur on this night.  The idea of putting plants and incense on the water to honor her is also not just a Thai occurrence but happens at dusk almost every night in the evening pujas along the Ganges and other rivers in India. The extent of the Festival, however, with sound and light shows on the ruins, theatrical and musical performances in and around the ancient temples, the royal barge show, and the fair like atmosphere complete with fireworks, is far different from the simple daily Hindu rituals.

The Historical Park is quite large with a main rectangular area enclosed by remaining city walls and scattered temple ruins outside near each of the four directional gates. The site brochure states that the ancient city walls covered an area 1,600 m wide and 1,800 m long and was filled with alternating three-tiered structures and moats for a total area of 3.2 sq. km..  To defend Sukhothai against enemy attack, two outer ramparts and an inner wall were built with moats in between. The moats served as channels to carry away water as a means of flood prevention.  Town gates and defensive towers were constructed in the middle of each side of the wall.

From the descriptions, I wasn’t able to ascertain when each of the temples was constructed, but they did seem to cover the gamut of eras from prior to Si Inthrathit through to the Ayutthaya period.

The Loy Krathong Festival lasts eleven days, but I was only there for the final night, on the full moon, which is the highlight of the event.  The sound and light shows happened in various places across the park, so contrary to most of the people, who sat on a tarp or blanket on the grass and waited for the midnight fireworks display, I wandered from one show to the next, and while doing so set my own Krathong, candle lantern, afloat in the large reservoir.  The layout of numerous vendor shops and food sections reminded me of the Christmas markets in the big cities in Europe. The place was jam-packed, again, like at the big Christmas events, and it was a challenge to walk around, but it was fun as everyone seemed to be having a great time. The ruins came alive with people, music, and lights.

The next day I went first to the museum, which is right near the entrance, and then back into the park. It was a very different experience than the night before. The park was basically empty.  There were workers disassembling the stalls, but the entire area had already been cleared of trash by the time I got there just before noon.  The staff must have worked all night cleaning up. In the daylight, the ruins were more clearly defined, but also much less mystical – although, clearly still very impressive. Some of the Wats that had descriptions in the brochure and of which there are photos in the photo gallery include:

 Wat Mahathat, which is perhaps the centerpiece of the historical park as it was believed to be where Lord Buddha’s relics had been enshrined. Marauders cleaned them out so, nothing was left. The main chedi is in lotus bud shape, which is typical of Sukhothai architectural form.

The Ta Pha Daeng Shrine was built in the Khmer style during Angkor Wat period (1107-1157). In it several god and goddess images carved from stone were found; they are now in the local museum.

Wat Si Sawai has three Khmer-styled corn shaped stupas and is located south of Wat Mahathat. It is supposed to be earlier than Mahathat as fragments of images of Hindu gods were found, and a Shiva image was in the porch of the second stupa indicating that the temple complex was associated with Hinduism and Shivaism. It appears that the Hindu temple was later transformed into a Buddhist temple by adding a vihara to its front.

Wat Sa Si is in the middle of a large reservoir known as Tra Phang Tra Kuan.  The round stupa indicates the presence of Sinhalese Buddhism in Sukhothai. King Ramkhamhaeng brought many Sri Lankan monks to Sukhothai, and they may have used this temple for their meditations.  The ordination hall in the middle of the reservoir points to a Buddhist concept of demarcating an area where monks perform religious functions by enclosing the holy precincts with water as a symbol of purity.

Wat Saphan Hin lay in the middle of Aranyik forest, which is now part of the Historical Park. There was a large vihara in front and a Buddha image called Attharot, the Buddha in a standing posture inside. Wat Saphan Hin is supposed to be where Ramhamhaeng went on a white elephant named Ruchakhir to worship at the Buddha image every Buddhist sabbath day.

 In addition to the famous ruins, Sukhothai and neighboring Si Satchanalalai are also known for their pottery. Much of which is on display in the local museum.

 On my way in to Sukhothai from the airport, I made the acquaintance of two fellow travelers from Paris. Denise was visiting her son, Alex, who now lives in Bangkok.  We had a very pleasant conversation in the shuttle.  Given the masses of people in the park in the evening, we never expected to run into one another again, but as it turned out, two of the very few people in the park the next day were Alex and Denise.  We visited a few temples together and then went our separate ways, but not before they invited me to go with them the following day to Si Satchanalalai.  As I had planned on going there anyway, this was a nice opportunity. It turned out they were on the same flight I was going back to Bangkok, so we could go first to the archeological site and then back to the airport together. It worked out beautifully.

Si Satchanalalai is similar to Sukhothai in that the area grew from a rural setting to an urban one during the Sukhothai period. Here though, even older traces of pre-historic settlements have been found both in and outside the town. There are also remnants of the Dvaravati culture (6th -10th) and Lopburi, Thai Khmer, (11th-12th) in a few of the temples. Kilns from the 11th C have also been found. After the end of the Ayutthaya era, the center was deserted, and nature re-took the site. “The site” is a bit of a misnomer, as there are multiple.  We only went to the main one in the former walled city and visited four of the most prominent temple complexes.  Si Satchanalalai has a very different feel to it than the more popular Sukhothai. It is quieter, more laid back – if that is possible for ruins – and somehow more in tune with nature.  The first of the temples was a two-storied Wat Chang Lom, which was larger than the one behind my hotel room. The thirty-nine elephants, however, weren’t in as good shape. On the second story were remnants of twenty niches with sculptures of Buddha subduing Mara. Above that, near the base of the spire, were a number of walking Buddha figures circumambulating the spire.  Wat Chang Lom looked over at Wat Chedi Chet Thaeo, which had a lotus-bud stupa, a vihara, and twenty-seven chedi along with five mandapas (covered spaces with open walls). The chedi display various architectural cultural influences including Sinalese, Khmer, Mon, and Bagan, i.e., the main Theravadin Buddhist sites in SE Asia during the 12th-14th C. After visiting the site, we still had some time, so we drove to Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat, which is right by the river and a new temple, with golden Buddha figures.  The historical temple was probably founded just prior to the Sukhothai era, but also has elements from later eras up to the Ayutthaya. There was a small restaurant at the temple where we had lunch after buying water and iced tea from a small grocery store across a suspension bridge. This gave us a quick look into local village life, and I was thankful that Alex speaks Thai as otherwise we might not have been able to communicate with the friendly people helping us get around.

After lunch, pad thai and a couple of rice dishes that I don’t have a clue what they were called, we headed to the airport.  It was a good day filled with new sights, sounds, and friends. The historical park(s) in Sukhothai are definitely worth visiting if you are at all interested Thai history and ancient architecture.

Tags: ancient ways, archeological ruins, buddhism/tantricism


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