(By Alistair Fabius)
No longer distracted from the festivities of Songkran we got back to our usual sightseeing and explored Sukhothai Historical Park. Located 12km east of New Sukhothai the historical park, which is also known as the old city, is easily accessible by the local bus that runs hourly. We hopped on the rickety old beast with its wooden benches running down the side of the flat bed without walls save for a single plank for a back rest. It was a kind of make-shift bus that would have put the Beverley Hillbillies to shame. Upon arrival we rented a couple cruiser bicycles and began exploring the world heritage park.
It was another scorcher in Northern Thailand and the heat was relentless. With sweat already pouring down my face before we even started pedaling I realized I’ll never get used the heat. There’s five zones that make up the old city, but the bulk of it and the best preserved make up the central zone where we spent most of the day. We started with the crown jewel of Sukhothai, Wat Mahathat, which contains the biggest collection of structures in the old city. Mahathat contained two sitting Buddhas and two massive standing Buddhas 9m in height along with several large stupas, one of which showcased four sitting Buddhas facing north, south, east, and west. As we were preparing to move on to the next temple, we witnessed a long line of over 50 young monks zigzaging their way through the grounds.
Next we moved on just north to Wat Chana Songkram, a temple with a large but lonely conical spire. We then headed east to Wat Mai, another single structure with only the base and pillars left that once supported a grand temple. After a quick rest in the shade we backtracked a bit and made a short stop at the Ramkamhaeng Monument. There was a crowd of worshippers surrounding the statue tossing and spraying some sort of liquid or juice onto the feet and legs in what must have been a ritual. As we approached for closer inspection we noticed a sign asking us to remove our shoes, and we proceeded barefooted onto the marble steps we could almost hear the skin on the bottoms of our feet sizzling from the heat. I briefly tiptoed closer for a quick snapshot and then hurried back to the safety of my sandels wondering how on earth all the locals could bare to stand for several minutes on that frying pan of a surface. I was happy to return to the natural a/c of our bicycles as we cruised on to the next site.
West of the monument lies a small lake surrounding Wat Sra Si. Accessible by a foot bridge, Sra Si’s main attraction is a conical spire with a sitting Buddha in front. After another brief rest in the shade we continued south to my favourite wat of the day, Wat Si Sawai. Complete with a moat Si Sawai has three towers, known as praang, built in Khmer style surrounded by walls with a beautiful walkway leading up to it. The best part about this wat is the cool looking perfectly round trees in the courtyard.
After another quick break, this time with fruit smoothies and some real a/c, we continued north on our bicycles to another wat with a sitting Buddha before arriving at the northern most section on the central zone. San Ta Pha Daeng was one of the most complete looking structures we had seen seen all day with two complete walls, archways, and steep steps leading to the elevated ruins. A little further Northeast from here was one of Renee’s favourite wats, Wat Sorasak. From afar it looks like just another conical spire atop a rectangular base with pillars in front which once supported the long since decayed structure, but as you approach you realize the base is surrounded by dozens of elephant statues emerging from it. With nostalgia from memories of the Terrace of the Elephants at Angkor Renee was able to maintain that beautiful smile of hers through the blistering heat that I knew we would both eventually succumb to.
For one of our last wats of the day we cycled over to the northern zone and explored Wat Phra Pai Luang. Laying mostly in ruins but surrounded by a massive moat and some pleasant countryside the remnants of Phra Pai Luang contain a heavily decayed standing Buddha and a Khmer style praang amongst ruble and the base of its walls. Before returning our rented bicycles I made one last visit to a wat in the most eastern part of the central zone, Wat Traphang Dong, which is still an active temple today though the only meaningful part is another conical spire surrounded by a moat.
Although it only took us a little more than half a day to explore the better part of Sukhothai Historical Park, I would highly recommend this city to anyone. You can explore all 5 zones by yourself on a bicycle or moto, and you could probably bang it off in one day if your eager enough. With temples and ruins dating back to over 1000 years ago, Sukhothai is a must see for anyone visiting Northern Thailand.