I have visited the Sukhothai Historical Park in northern Thailand not once, but twice.
The first time, I took leave of my senses and decided to explore the archaeological park on foot, walking close to 20km under the blazing sun. Needless to say, I did not even come close to covering the entire park.
The second time, I decided to take the much more sensible option of renting a bicycle. This made all the difference and is an option I heartily recommend.
About 430km north of Bangkok, the sprawling Sukhothai Historical Park — the site of the ancient city that served as the Thai capital in the 13th and 14th centuries — stretches out over some 70 sq km and contains close to 200 ruins.
Together with two other ancient towns, Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet, Sukhothai existed as a political entity where the artistic and architectural style identified as the “Sukhothai style” flourished.
In fact, the Kingdom of Sukhothai was in many ways the seedbed of what we consider today Siamese or Thai culture. The earliest evidence of Thai writing was found here, and visitors can witness a wealth of early Siamese sculpture and decorative features in the monastery and temple ruins.
The Kingdom of Sukhothai was remarkably advanced for its time, as evidenced by the feats of hydraulic engineering that allowed for the construction of ponds and moats, some of which can still be seen today.
Historians have also found the kingdom to be a surprisingly advanced one in terms of its social, economic and legal institutions, propelling it into a golden age of prosperity.
While the temples are certainly jaw-dropping, it is the act of riding a bicycle through lonely landscapes littered with the ruins of an ancient kingdom that is so captivating.
The minute you enter the park, you are bombarded with monumental, meticulously restored ruins, but upon leaving the central section for the western and eastern zones — both of which are charged separately — you feel like you are in a different world, as you cycle down dirt paths, chancing upon a ruin every few minutes.
The central zone of the park, where the main entrance is situated, has the most spectacularly restored ruins.
The monumental Wat Mahathat is the first sight visitors come face to face with. The focal points of the temple are the double rows of pillars, which used to support the roof of the viharn or sermon hall, leading up to a serenely seated Buddha statue. But what makes the temple a delight to explore are the many stupas or mound-like structures containing relics.
Wat Sa Si, just a few minutes’ walk away, is a temple that looks straight out of a fairytale. Situated on an island surrounded by tranquil moats in which lotus flowers grow, its central stupa is topped with a slender spire that appears to pierce the sky. The temple appears to quiver as a soft wind moves across its reflection in the waters below, adding to its ethereal quality.
Wat Si Sawai is another fascinating site. Built in the Khmer style, it bears some resemblance to the famous Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia.
Once you depart the central area of the park to explore the northern and western zones, you no longer feel like a tourist visiting a site that has been carefully maintained under the Unesco banner, but an explorer venturing into uncharted territory.
The most visually striking temple in the northern zone is Wat Sri Chum. This temple is home to a gigantic Buddha statue measuring almost 15m in height, encircled by an enclosure with an extremely narrow entrance that, from afar, seems to be barely a slit in the wall.
It is only upon getting close enough to the entrance that you get a glimpse of what lies within — a sitting Buddha statue so big that you can barely reach the knuckles resting on its knee.
The western zone of the Sukhothai Historical Park is not only the largest of the three, but is also located approximately 2km away from the westernmost point of the central zone.
It is the most rewarding area to explore and the one that sees the fewest visitors. I hardly saw anybody throughout the duration of my visit. The woods remained eerily quiet, and that made the treks up to the temples all the more exhilarating.
Another reason the western zone is so special is that many of the ruins, such as the standing Buddha at Wat Saphan Hin, are perched on top of hills. An up to 15-minute climb is often necessary, but the views from each summit are worth the effort.
Wat Saphan Hin is one of the first major temples visitors to this zone encounter. Take the stone pathway that winds its way up the hill, and upon reaching the top, what greets you is an awesome 12.5m-tall Buddha statue standing amidst the ruins of an ancient viharn.
Unlike in the central zone, there are few readily identifiable temple ruins. Most of the ruins that have undergone extensive restoration require a hike to reach and are barely visible at ground level.
As I pedalled past vestiges of once-grand temples — some reduced to piles of rubble in the undergrowth — I recalled the grander monuments I had seen earlier. Viewed as a whole, Sukhothai’s past splendour must have been a sight to behold.
Scoot operates direct flights to Bangkok. Take a taxi to Mo Chit Bus Station from the airport, and then take a bus to Sukhothai on a journey that lasts about 5 hours.
■ Sukhothai’s tropical weather can take its toll, so make sure you bring along plenty of water and sunscreen.
■ If you are not up for a bicycle ride, you can opt to hire a tuktuk driver or rent your own scooter or car.
■ Explore the modern-day city of New Sukhothai, where you can check out the night market on Jarot Withithong and enjoy a range of street snacks.
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