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Joe and Sarah's Adventures

Sukothai, Thailand

THAILAND | Tuesday, 15 January 2013 | Views [1377]

From Pai and Chiang Mai it was a relatively easy bus journey down to the ancient city of Sukothai in Central Thailand. There's not much to Sukothai besides ruins but they are well worth the trip! Sukothai is basically a later, mini-Angkor. As the Khmer empire was falling in the 13th century, this city emerged as the first independent Thai kingdom. Sukothai rulers captured or invited many of the Khmer artisans, craftsmen, and others, and brought them to Thailand to draw artistic and architectural inspiration from them. Therefore Sukothai (meaning "Rising Happiness") is seen as the birthplace of the Thai artistic tradition. What was originally a massive capital complex of temples and other buildings is now a sprawling historical park on the outskirts of the modern and rather dull town of "New Sukothai." We stayed in a little wooden bungalow in New Sukothai and took a shared taxi truck or sawngthaew out to the park. It was easy to remember where to catch the ride- the pickup point was right in front of the Poo Restaurant! We walked around the town itself in under 30 minutes and were not very impressed, although we did get a decent dinner at an outdoor fish market (we decided not to test out Poo Restaurant).

Buddha amid ruins of Sukothai
Sukothai- the birthplace of ancient Thai art

We spent an entire day at the Sukothai Historical Park and although we didn't get to see the museum, we made good use of our time and visited the majority of the park. The best way to get around is by bicycle, which you can rent for about $2 per person for the day. The weather was perfect for a leisurely bike ride around the ruins, and even after Angkor, stopping to explore all of the temples here was interesting and fun. The park is clearly a source of pride for Thailand and its perfectly manicured grounds and excellent English signage were proof of this. We also found out that in honor of the Queen's birthday they were having a big celebration and fireworks show there that evening, so this is clearly an important national monument. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and within the ruins of the old walls are the remains of 21 separate historical sites. There are 70 additional sites within a 5km radius, so it's easy to see why a bicycle is necessary. We knew we wouldn't have time for everything, and you have to pay separately for each section of the park you want to visit, so we decided to spend most of our time within the central complex where most of the best preserved ruins are and then swing out to a farther section if we had time.

Biking around Sukothai Historical Park
Biking around Sukothai Historical Park

Visiting Sukothai
Joe and Sarah at Sukothai

The first and biggest temple we saw was Wat Mahathat, called the "crown jewel" of Sukothai and one of the best architectural examples of early Thai architecture. Standing among its columns felt like we were standing within an ancient greek or Roman temple-- we imagine this is what visiting the Parthenon must feel like, at least a little bit. Except here we were free to roam around whereever we want, touch whatever we want, etc. Plus there were giant Buddha statues, one as tall as 9 meters, standing amidst the columns. Even with other tourists around, it was a very peaceful and ancient-feeling place. Several other temples within the compound were situated on islands, or with big lotus-filled moats surrounding them and you had to cross little footbridges to reach them. The mix of water, trees, flowers, and these ancient temples rising up out of them was beautiful. One of the prettiest temples (in Sarah's opinion), Wat Si Sawai, was stylistically just like those of Angkor, with 3 towers or praang all intricately carved and beautifully preserved.

Joe at Wat Mahathat
Joe at Wat Mahathat

Wat Si Sawai
The beautiful Wat Si Sawai

After visiting all of the temples within the main walls, we decided to get out a back exit and try to bike to some of the other sections of the park. This proved challenging, but we had a decent map in our Lonely Planet guidebook and were able to figure out our way. We biked north past grassy fields with cow herds grazing and every so often the remains of yet another temple or other ancient structure. They littered the countryside. We eventually came to one of our favorites: Wat Chang Lom which has 36 elephant sculptures (all restored) built into its walls, 9 facing each direction. We were the only ones here besides a herd of humpy-backed cows and we walked around admiring all the elephants and remarking on how they reminded us of those at the Elephant Terrace in Angkor Wat.

The Elephant Temple: Wat Chang Lom
The Elephant Temple: Wat Chang Lom

Just us and the cows
Just us and the cows

Our last stop of the day was also our favorite. Several kilometers outside of the park is the temple Wat Si Chum. We had to pay an extra fee to go see it, and it was much more crowded than any of the other temples from earlier in the day, but it was pretty spectacular. Set quietly in a grove of trees, it's a large temple with tons of columns leading up to the actual altar or sanctuary space (again, it felt a bit like the Parthenon). But within that altar space is a massive statue of a seated Buddha with long, tapered fingers the size of a tall person. This Buddha, and specifically these fingers, are one of the most famously photographed sites in all of Thailand. Seeing them in person was pretty cool. The aura of peace and tranquility here, even though we had to share it with tons of other photograph-frenzied tourists, was unbroken.

Famous tapered fingers of the Buddha at Wat Si Chum
Famous tapered fingers of the Buddha at Wat Si Chum

Joe being... Joe
Joe being... Joe (no he didn't actually touch it)

Unfortunately we couldn't spend more than 1 full day in Sukothai since we were running low on our remaining days for our Thai visas and had to get moving down to Bangkok. However we are very glad we decided to stop here and we could have spent 2 or even 3 days exploring everything. After a full day of temple hopping we returned our bicycles and caught a ride back into town, grabbed some dinner, and watched the Queen's fireworks show while Joe attempted to fish off of a bridge in the middle of town. He didn't catch anything, but all in all it was a great day!

Joe fishing with fireworks in the background
Joe fishing off a random bridge with a floating house and fireworks in the background

Tags: biking, buddha, buddhism, queen, siam, sukothai, temples, thailand

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