Sukhothai, the capital city of the ancient Sukhothai Kingdom existing from the 11th to 14th century, now lies in ruins and is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was lucky enough to get to spend a couple of days touring around this old, yet quiet and very authentic, city in Northern Thailand, and it was one of the most magical places I've visited in Asia thus far. The historical park, where the capital stood during the last one hundred years of the kingdom, contains nearly 200 ruined wats, chedis, and Buddhas spread across the 70 sq km.
Following my week in Pai, I traveled south to the city of Sukhothai, the former capital of the Sukhothai Kingdom that stood for nearly 300 years between the 11th and 14th centuries. Sukhothai (pronounced like Suh-koh-tie) is not a common destination for backpackers as the much larger and more dominant ancient ruins of Ayutayah tend to attract larger crowds of visitors. This was great, though, as the city and ruins were relatively quiet, and the local Thai people in the city were genuinely excited to accept and see westerners and visitors. It was the first place I've visited in Asia that wasn't heavily dominated by backpackers, and it was extremely refreshing to see a city still relatively untouched by tourism (despite the old city being a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
We arrived into Sukhothai late at night and quickly grabbed a guesthouse for the evening near the Old City where we would have easy access the next day to explore the ruins. I traveled there with my friend, Laurie, who would be departing the following evening so we had limited time to explore the city together. A guesthouse in Sukhothai came very easy to acquire, though, and within twenty minutes of arriving we were settled into a two-bed room for 400 baht/night (~ USD$11.75) total.
We woke up early the next morning with the intent to explore the ruins for the entire day. There are nearly 200 of them so we anticipated a very jam-packed day full of exploring. Sukhothai is by far the hottest city I've visited in Asia and the humidity nearly unbearable. We decided to rent bicycles for the day (a genius decision with the heat...) and ultimately rode around for five or six hours dripping with sweat. I come from a place where temperature extremes from season-to-season are a given, and fluctuations of 120 degrees F (60 degrees C) within a calendar year are a given. This, though, was some of the hottest I'd felt, and my t-shirt was evidence to that the entire day.
The ruins themselves were amazing, and with so few tourists polluting the grounds it was easy to navigate our way around the wats (temples) and chedis (stupas/towers) in the park. The historical park itself is split into four districts, three of which you need to pay to enter. Once inside the districts you are free to explore the different ruins contained inside. The largest, located within the walls surrounding the former central part of the kingdom, contains the most impressive ruins on the grounds. Wat Maha That is the largest of the ruins in the park and contains the more iconic images of the city. A simple Google search of Sukhothai will likely show you pictures of this impressive series of ruins, dominated by a large Buddha with red-stoned pillars towering all around it.
After exploring the inner part of the ruins, we spent the better part of the afternoon riding around to many of the surrounding ruins. Many of the ruins are small and barely visible from the road, but a few are perched high up on a hillside or within a former canaled area that once was surrounded by water. There were also several ruins seemingly in people's front yards, and as we rode by on our bikes we were able to see the local Thai's cooking traditional family meals with a half-standing chedi lingering 50 yards away. It was quite a sight to see and they all seemed very unimpressed with the ancient ruins encroaching on their homes.
All-in-all the ruins were incredibly impressive. I'd seen hundreds of temples up to this point in Asia, all of which were impressively restructured and decked out in gold and silver paint. Sukhothai provided something a bit different though, giving a glimpse into the past that many of the other temples throughout Thailand fail to display. Unfortunately I didn't know much about the Sukhothai Kingdom before arriving so I didn't have a lot of reference to go off of while we were exploring the grounds, but a little research afterward was great to find as it gave a bit of context to what we'd seen following our day of exploring.
We finished off the day by heading into the Sukhothai New City where the actual city and its day-to-day residents reside and work. Most other Thai cities I've visited have been quite busy with tourists, but Sukhothai was a refreshing change of pace, and though busy, gave a glimpse into what a fairly large Thai city would look like without all the travelers. The locals were genuinely intrigued by our presence, thrilled to converse with me in the little Thai I know (nit noy), and all of the them had a big smile on their face as you approached their food stand to buy some of their delicious street meals (my personal favorites are pad see ew gai and khao soi...look them up).
Overall I was happy with my visit to this ancient kingdom. It gave me a look into the history of Thailand I hadn't seen and also a glimpse into the modern lifestyle that is seen in less touristy Thai cities. It was a great balance of the Thai culture and a place I'll remember for some time moving forward. If you're in Thailand and get a chance to visit Sukhothai (or Ayutayah which is another former capital of an ancient kingdom with just as many ruins) I definitely recommend a visit to one of them. You'll learn loads and see parts of the country that many miss out on.