Northern Thailand is enveloped by rugged mountains, lush vegetation, and a wide diversity of different ethnicities. The very first capital of the country – Sukhothai was founded in this very region. Today the ruins of this ancient capital can be visited in the Sukhothai Historical Park.
The first capital of Thailand lies smack in the middle of two cities that feature heavily on the tourist radar, Chiangmai to the North and Bangkok to the South. Somehow Sukhothai Old Town receives but a fraction of the footfall and has remained relatively off the tourist radar.
I learned about the first capital of the country while visiting the Ethical Elephant Sanctuary BLES for a couple of days, and decided to extend my stay in the region and visit the UNESCO classified Sukhothai Historical Park.
This guide takes you through everything you need to know to plan the perfect visit: A brief overview of the history, the best Sukhothai temples to visit, how to get to Sukhothai, and the best way around the Historical Park.
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Plan your trip to the historical park of Sukhothai
The Sukhothai historical park is over 70 square kilometers and contains no less than 193 different ruins to visit.
GETTING THERE: Book your transport online via 12GO
GETTING AROUND: Rent a bicycle at one of the four main entrances. Cost price is 50 TBT + 50 TBT deposit for the bike lock. Alternatively invest in a great vale/money guided bike tour.
ENTRANCE FEE: The Sukhothai Historical Park is split into four sections, each charging 100 TBT (+ 10 TBT for the bike) to enter.
WHERE TO STAY: Stay in the top-rated Legendha Sukhothai Hotel a mere 1.1 km away from the historical park of Sukhothai. Great value/money and location!
History of the Sukhothai Kingdom
Sukhothai is known as the first capital of Thailand, dating back as far as 1238 AD. Sukhothai – ‘ Dawn of happiness’ in Thai, was the capital until 1365 when the armies of the Ayutthaya kingdom invaded and forced the reigning king to submit to a new power.
The capital was moved to Ayutthaya and so began the decline of Sukhothai. In the 18th century, King Rama the first founded a new Sukhothai about 12 kilometers from old Sukhothai, and old Sukhothai was completely abandoned.
Historical Sukhothai contains 193 ruins on 70 square kilometers of land. The historical park opened in 1988 and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1991.
Due to its remote location, Sukhothai sees a lot fewer tourists than Ayutthaya. It has in fact remained pretty under the radar, avoiding being bunched in with the more traditional “Thailand Bucket list” spots.
While both sites are definitely worth a visit, I have a soft spot for Sukhothai. The ruins are surrounded by beautiful lakes and lush trees. I visited in January when the Jasmine trees were in bloom, giving off a sweet scent and making the blistering heat more tolerable.
Tip: There are two districts within Sukhothai: the modern city and old Sukhothai, which is also referred to as historical Sukhothai. Songthaews connects the new and old districts and they leave from Jarot Withithong Road, near the Yom River on a regular basis from 06:30 to 18:00 every day. Expect to pay no more than 20 TBT for a one-way ticket.
Sukhothai Tours and Activities
Getting to Sukhothai and spending the day exploring temples is very easy, in fact I would say you do not even need a tour. It does however require a bit of research and renting a bike is essential to whizz around the Historical Park (it is huge!).
There are however a few cool activities on offer in Sukhothai which will allow you to get in-depth knowledge of the historical and cultural significance of Sukhothai for the local Thai community. Plus it saves you the hassle of having to find all the temples in the 70 square kilometers that make up The Sukhothai Historical Park!
TOP-RATED TOUR: Full-day cycling through Sukhothai Historical Park
Top-rated tour in Sukhothai according to Tripadvisor and Get Your Guide. A family-run business offering full-day or half-day cycling tours through the Sukhothai Historical Park and surroundings. Includes entrance ticket to the park, lunch, snacks, helmet, and a comfortable bike with gears.
MOST CULTURAL: Guided sunset bike ride
Learn about local life in Sukhothai. Cycle along the Kong Mae Lampan irrigation channel and through bucolic villages and rice paddies. Get the best views over the Khao Luang mountains. Length and difficulty of the bike ride can be adapted to the fitness level of participants.
BEST DAY TRIP: Day tour from Chiangmai
Departure and drop off at your hotel in Chiangmai. Explore Sukhothai and the Sukhothai Historical Park with a knowledgeable guide. Visit the local market in Lampang, enter 7 different temples in the park, and take a guided bike ride to explore other interesting corners of the historical park.
7 Best Sukhothai Temples To Visit In Old Town
When it comes to things to do in Sukhothai one of the most obvious answers has to be visiting the ancient Asian temples that speak so vividly of Sukhothai history.
The ancient temples of Thailand are dotted around the historical park of Sukhothai and offer a real insight into Thailand’s colorful history and the once reigning Sukhothai Kingdom. The ruins have been painstakingly preserved for the enjoyment of travelers and locals alike and to help the would-be traveler when visiting the historical park of Sukhothai, here is a list of 7 of the best Sukhothai Temples worthy of your time.
This temple was considered the most important royal temple in the Sukhothai Kingdom and can be found in the very middle of the central zone surrounded by a moat and brick wall. Wat Mahathat is one of, if not the most impressive Sukhothai temple and is guaranteed to take your breath away. It is certainly fitting of its name ‘Mahathat’ which means ‘great relic’.
The architecture of Wat Mahathat Sukhothai reflects its 13th-century origins and you can expect to see a large number of stupas, prangs, and Buddha figures as you explore this vast site. It is so large you could, and should, spend at least an hour just walking around the great number of monuments in this magnificent location.
Wat Sa Si
The Sukhothai temple of Wat Sa Si is beautifully located on a small island in the midst of the Traphang-Takuan pond northwest of Wat Mahathat. This temple is one of the most beautiful settings in Sukhothai Historical Park owing to the tranquil lotus flowers resting on the serene Traphang Trakuan.
One of the highlights of this temple is the Sukhothai style walking Buddha image, with the symbolic Vitarka Mudra. A ritualistic hand gesture means teaching or discussion. This site is also home to an impressive bell-shaped chedi indicative of Sri-Lankan-style architecture that influenced the culture at the time.
Wat Si Sawai
Transport yourself even further back in time at the Wat Si Sawai temple, which was built around the late 12th century or early 13th century when Sukhothai was still part of the Khmer Empire, now recognized as Cambodia. Its Cambodian influence is evident from the Khmer-style design of the prangs, which have been beautifully preserved and notably differ in design from some of the other temples in Sukhothai Historical Park.
This temple has been likened to another of Asia’s magnificent ancient temples, Angkor Wok in Cambodia. Although this may be somewhat of a stretch the likeness is apparent and unsurprising given the dynasty from which it originates.
Staying inside the central zone the small temple of Wat Sorasak, which is named after its builder Nai Intha Sorasak, can be found in a spacious area surrounded by tall luscious trees. What sets this temple apart is that the main chedi is surrounded by elephants. At the base, you will see 24 elephant statues protruding and seemingly carrying the chedi on their back while simultaneously standing guard. Elephants are a significant part of Southeast Asian history, which is celebrated at the temple of Wat Sorasak.
Wat Si Chum
Moving to the North Zone the temple of Wat Si Chum is a real highlight of Sukhothai National Park and perhaps one of the most iconic Sukhothai temples. It is thought to be the most photographed temple in Thailand and with good reason. Sitting in a Mondop (a high walled cubic pavilion) is a majestic and powerful Buddha image, the largest in Sukhothai and one of the largest in the world measuring 15 meters high.
While you can see the Buddha from outside the Mondop it is when you step inside you truly appreciate its scale and magnificence. The Buddha is named Phra Achana meaning ‘he who is not frightened’ and despite being built in the 13th century is now one of the famous landmarks of Thailand and a holy shrine for pilgrims of today.
Wat Phra Phai Luang
If you remain in the North Zone and head just outside of the old walled city you will find the temple of Wat Phra Phai Luang. Similar to the temple of Wat Sa Sawai this temple will have you time-traveling back to the Khymer days preceding the Sukhothai Empire.
Wat Phra Phai Luang is thought to be one of the oldest monuments in Sukhothai Park and you will journey back to the 13th century as you stroll amongst the Khymer prangs and intricate carvings on the walled structures.
Wat Saphan Hin
It is absolutely worth heading over to the Western Zone of Sukhothai Historical Park, even if you only visit Wat Saphan Hin. Wat Saphan Hin translates as ‘temple of the stone bridge’ and is so named after the path of slate stones that lead to it. The hike itself is a manageable incline surrounded by luscious greenery.
When you get to the top you will be greeted by a large standing image of the Buddha Phra Attharot and be able to enjoy the panorama overlooking the plains from a 200-meter high viewpoint. While the temple itself has lost much of its structure the 12 meters high Budha is a glorious sight worth making the effort for.
Additional things to do in Sukhothai
Visit the Sukhothai Historical Park at night
Although the daytime is one of the best times to truly see the Sukhothai ruins and temples staying in the historical park until after hours can offer you an equally magical experience.
The park is illuminated by night and creates a picture-perfect scene and calming atmosphere; the perfect ambiance for you to wander around the ruins without the soaring heat of the day. All to the backdrop of the fading sun.
When it comes to watching the sunset there are two main hot spots to get the best views in Sukhothai Historical Park; The temple of Wat Mahathat, more specifically in front of the lotus pond, or the temple of Wat Sa Si. What makes these spots so spectacular is their surrounding water, which can reflect the vibrant reds and oranges of the setting sun and the silhouettes of the temples onto the lakes.
As the sun sets on the magnificent Thai temples it creates the perfect moment to shoot some unforgettable photos worthy of any wall. If you are planning on watching the sunset alongside the water be sure to bring plenty of insect repellent as this time of the day is a feeding ground for the many mosquitoes who share the park.
Finally, the last entry time is 7.30 pm, so if you have not spent the day in the park then ensure you arrive in plenty of time.
Eat at the Sukhothai night market
If you can, time your visit for a Friday or Saturday night as this is when the Sukhothai night market takes place within the ruins of the Central Zone.
The market is a great opportunity to try regional dishes and immerse yourself in the local culture. One thing you will notice immediately is that the market is very popular with locals tucking into all the finger street food on offer.
You can expect to find an array of spicy salads, seafood, marinated skewers, and Thai sweets and desserts. There are a few tables situated at the end of the market where you can sit and enjoy your Thai street food and watch the world go by.
Good to know: The night market commences between 5 and 5.30 pm and Saturday nights enjoy later opening hours until 9.30 pm.
Try the Sukhothai noodles
Another must when visiting Sukhothai Historical Park is to try the infamous Sukhothai noodles, which is a difficult dish to find elsewhere in Thailand. Sukhothai noodles differ from other noodles in that they are served with green beans, salted turnip, and ground peanuts.
The thin rice noodles sit in a spiced red stock and are topped with sliced roasted pork. They can be served as a dry dish or soup version and are slightly sweeter and sourer than those you might find in broader Thailand.
Sukhothai noodles are available at almost every Thai restaurant and usually cost around 40 THB per bowl. If you were to ask the locals where to find the best Sukhothai noodles then expect to be pointed in the direction of Ta Puy.
Local Tip: Ta Puy is located on the road that separates Old Sukhothai city from New Sukhothai and serves just a handful of high-quality authentic dishes, Sukhothai noodles being one of them. If big portions are what you are after following a busy day exploring the ruins then head to the Check-In Eatery in the city center. It offers a wider menu than Ta Puy, all of which are very reasonably priced.
Do a guided bike tour around Sukhothai Historical Park
A great way to see Sukhothai Thailand and to promote sustainable tourism practices in the process is to go on one of the many guided bike tours that are available. Tours offered are countryside tours, Historical Park tours, or a mixture of both,
The countryside bike tours will take you through rural Thailand. You will pass through small villages, enjoy endless scenery and ride alongside rice paddies set to a backdrop of the Khao Luang Mountains.
If the season is right you may even be able to help out on the rice fields. Depending on the tour you will have to opportunity to attend local markets, and rural workshops and experience local rice whisky making at the countryside distillery.
Alternatively, you can opt for the historical park tour to explore the famous ruins of Sukhothai Historical Park. Cycling through the park is a fantastic option as the park is too large to walk in its entirety. A tour should take you to some of the main sites, temples, and ruins during which you will benefit from an English-speaking guide who can share reams of their local knowledge.
Good to know: Tours can typically be either a half-day or full-day excursion and cover anything from 25 to 45 kilometers (15 to 28 miles), on mostly flat terrain. You will enjoy regular stops to refuel on water and traditional Thai snacks which often come as part of the package.
How to get to Sukhothai
Sukhothai is located between Bangkok and Chiangmai and is reachable from either of these two cities. It is the perfect add-on to any extended Thailand itinerary that includes visiting Northern Thailand.
Fly into Sukhothai
Direct flights between Bangkok and Sukhothai are operated via Bangkok Airways.
The airport of Sukhothai is located 30 kilometers outside of New Sukhothai. To get to new Sukhothai take one of the minibusses (price 180 TBT (5 USD))
Take the bus to Sukhothai from ChiangMai
Take the direct bus from Chiangmai Provincial Arcade to Sukhothai Bus Terminal. The station has busses leaving from both sides of the road. Go to the building that has signs for Bangkok outside. If all else fails, ask anyone at the counter and they will point you in the right direction.
RIDE LENGTH: The bus ride will take between 4 to 6 hours (depending on the traffic).
BOOK TICKETS: Book tickets via 12GO in advance or directly at the bus station.
UPON ARRIVAL: Once you arrive, you can catch a Tuk Tuk to your guesthouse. The Songthaew I took cost 100 TBT to a new town. If you are going to the same location, try and share with fellow travelers as the price is set.
Take the train to Sukhothai
The nearest train station is in Phitsanulok, located 60 kilometers east of Sukhothai. From the train station, you can catch a Tuk Tuk to the bus station where the Sukhothai-bound busses or minivans depart from.
Where to stay in Sukhothai
There are plenty of lovely locally run guesthouses in Sukhothai. I opted to stay in New Sukhothai as it allowed me to visit walk around town in the evening, go for a drink and grab a bite to eat on the stalls on the night market held in New Sukhothai. That did mean in practice catching a Songthaew to reach the old town.
BEST LOCATION (OLD SUKHOTHAI): Legendha Sukhothai Hotel
Located a mere 1 kilometer from Old Town Sukhothai, the hotel is the perfect spot for travelers looking for convenience and luxury on a budget. Rooms are tastefully decorated according to classic Thai design and come with air conditioning and views over the canal and a temple of an inner courtyard.
VALUE FOR MONEY (NEW SUKHOTHAI):
Jitra Resort is the perfect budget-friendly Thai boutique guesthouse. With a 24-hour reception, readily available to help you with any future travel plans, air conditioning ( a must in the tropical Thai weather), and surrounded by plenty of local eateries.
Sukhothai sightseeing map
Click on the interactive Google Map to find where all the above-mentioned Sukhothai attractions. Or have a quick glance at the below. The red pins are the various Sukhothai temples and other attractions while the yellow pins indicate the airport, bus and train station. The green pins are the hotels recommended in this guide.
Visiting the Sukhothai Historical Park: FAQ
A couple of last pieces of advice for your visit to Sukhothai to plan the perfect itinerary from the best time to go, what to wear and the various entrance fees to watch out for.
Best time to visit the Sukhothai Park: The best months to visit are generally speaking between November and February, as the weather is dry and relatively mild.
Opening hours of the Sukhothai old city: Daily between 06:00 and 18:00 PM
Entrance fee to the historical park of Sukhothai: The park is divided into four different zones, each of which requires an entrance ticket that costs 100 TBT (+ 10 TBT for a bicycle). Previously one ticket could be bought encompassing the full park, but this ticket has since been canceled.
What to wear to visit the Sukhothai ruins: There is no specific dress code for a visit to the ruins.
Visiting Sukhothai Old Town conclusion
The old town of Sukhothai is a rare hidden gem within the folds of a well-visited Thailand. Due to its relatively remote location, it sees a lot fewer tourists making it a wonderful place to delve deep into Thai culture and history, without the hordes of tourists.
Jump on a bike a tour the many Sukhothai temples that lay sprawled out across the vast Historical Park.
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES FOR TRAVELING IN ASIA
Guide to Ayutthaya Historical Park
Ethical Elephant Sanctuary Sustainable tips and tricks to use while traveling