Between Chiang Mai and Bangkok lie two cities of ruins from old kingdoms.
Both Sukhothai and Ayutthaya were capitals of Thailand at one point in time and thus have a huge historical significance. We took a week to explore them both starting in Sukhothai.
After a pleasant six-hour bus ride from Chiang Mai we arrived in New Sukhothai, our headquarters for the next few days. We booked a bungalow at the Ban Thai Guesthouse, a lovely little place on the cheaper side that had AC and included breakfast. I don’t think we stayed anywhere more charming for the price in almost two months in Thailand!
That evening we explored the area. There is a good deal of street food available and we happily ate up some tasty meat on a stick! There were also a smattering of other restaurants and several bars to relax at – we had drinks at one right on the main strip and people watched, always a fun evening activity.
The next morning we got an early start and followed the directions from our guesthouse to find the public bus going to Old Sukhothai, where the temple ruins are located.
It takes about twenty-five minutes and costs 30 Baht/person one way. The bus drops you off right in front of the Central Zone of the ruins. There are a couple of bike rental places across from the bus stop costing 30 Baht/day and this is the easiest way to explore the ruins yourself. The four zones encompass seventy square kilometers so if you want to get to them all it is highly recommended to bike. And we were off!
We started out at Wat Mahathat.
This is the largest and also the main temple area for the whole city in its’ heyday. It is the most crowded spot as the tour buses can park near here but stunning and totally worth exploring. Be prepared for huge standing buddhas all in different poses. There are quite a few smaller buddhas and pagodas as well and the detail work is phenomenal. We were blessed with a clear blue sky which made for fabulous photos. Although buses travel to this Wat, once you bike out of it we found we had most of the ruins to ourselves or with only a few others.
Riding on bikes was super fun (albeit HOT!).
The grounds in the Central Zone are well taken care of and stress-free because of the lack of cars and motorbikes. There is also plenty of shade to take some breaks in between exploring. We biked our way around the rest of the Central Zone before taking a break for lunch. Wat Sa Sawai was our favorite – a smaller temple with a definite Hindu vibe to it. Wat Sa Si was also neat; it’s located on a small island surrounded by waterways representing purity.
After lunch we tackled the Northern Zone.
It doesn’t have as many large ruins, but Wat Si Chum, the sitting Buddha, makes it worth going there. We also liked the smaller Wat Sorakan on the way with huge elephant sculptures on the base. To see some slightly creepier ruins check out Wat Phra Phai Luang and the many beheaded buddhas. We were pretty beat after this and returned our bikes ready to head back to the AC in our bungalow!
The topper of the day was the comical bus ride home.
About a third of the way back we stopped by a high school that was just letting out and about 30 students, all in matching purple uniforms crammed onto the bus with us. They were laughing pretty hard at having to share with a bunch of farangs!
Low point? Fire ants bit me while leaning against one of the ruin walls. My thigh swelled so much I couldn’t even wear shorts the next day. But the Thai grandma at our guesthouse saw my pain and gave me a local salve which really helped. This only made me love Ban Thai Guesthouse more.
Our second day we got to Old Sukhothai a bit earlier to try to avoid some of the heat.
We headed directly for the Western Zone, the furthest away of the four. Our sweat equity was worth it. We saw less than ten people all morning and had most of the sites we explored to ourselves. The roads there were a little rougher, but we plowed along. Most of the Western sites included a small walk up a hill after parking the bikes. We trekked through dry crackly leaves that made it feel like Autumn back home. Except for the 95 degree heat that is!
Wat Saphan Hin has gorgeous views of the rest of Old Sukhothai and is worth the climb. And to see an interesting structure that looks like an ancient outhouse trek up the hill to Wat Khao Phra Bat Noi. We both agreed this area was our favorite because of the lack of crowds, the winding roads and the smaller wats littered here and there on the roadside begging you to jump off your bike for another photo op.
After our hard work in the sun during the morning, we opted to skip the Southern zone.
Instead, we cooled off in the National Museum in the afternoon. Surprisingly we only ran into 3 other people. The exhibits were super interesting and had artifacts dating back to the 5th century! It explained a lot of the history of the rulers as well as the development of the artistic styles of different periods.
Myself, I liked seeing the Buddhas slowly change in their looks and styles from older to newer. It’s much more obvious when they are side by side. There was even an exhibit featuring old toilet seats, which made us laugh after spotting the “outhouse” earlier. After the artifacts and other exhibits, you head outside where they have constructed models of household items from the Sukhothai period. To end the day, we stopped at one last modern Wat to see the Buddha’s footprint. And that was a wrap on Sukhothai.
We definitely recommend staying two full days so you don’t have to rush through – it’s a sensational city of ruins and deserves the time to explore the off the beaten path side of it.
As a tip, plan to arrive early in the morning to avoid the heat and the crowds. The main Wat Mahathat seemed less crowded closer to closing so perhaps save that until the end of the day when exploring the Central Zone. And bring a sarong with you so you can take a little rest in the shade. There are plenty of secluded spots to have a quiet moment and reflect on the impressive capital city that once was.
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