Explore Thailand's awe-inspiring ancient city

The ruins of Sukhothai are one of Southeast Asia's best-kept secrets.

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 Peninsula.

<a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destination/timor-leste" target="_blank">Timor-Leste</a> is the 21st century’s first declared sovereign state; understandably “tourism is still in an embryonic stage,” says Caroline Mongrain of <a href="http://worldexpeditions.com/" target="_blank">World Expeditions</a>. Nevertheless the company’s “East Timor Adventure” packs in picturesque rice fields, tumultuous history, and deeply held culture in 10 days. Explore the Portuguese-influenced capital, <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/article/ten-places-that-deserve-more-travelers" target="_blank">Dili</a>; hike up the country’s tallest summit, Mount Tatamailau, to see the sunrise; and snorkel biodiverse waters.<i></i>
Timor-Leste is the 21st century’s first declared sovereign state; understandably “tourism is still in an embryonic stage,” says Caroline Mongrain of World Expeditions. Nevertheless the company’s “East Timor Adventure” packs in picturesque rice fields, tumultuous history, and deeply held culture in 10 days. Explore the Portuguese-influenced capital, Dili; hike up the country’s tallest summit, Mount Tatamailau, to see the sunrise; and snorkel biodiverse waters.
Photograph by David Kirkland, Design Pics/Getty Images

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 century.

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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 style, survived.

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 in Sukhothai.

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.

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