Sukhothai, the Dawn of Happiness

Sukhothai was the capital of the Sukhothai Kingdom which existed from 1238 until 1438 in what is now Northern Thailand. Today the area contains over 200 temples and other structures from that time that have been excavated and partly reconstructed. The three Sukhothai historical parks have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Historical Park.

Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat , part of Si Satchanalai Historical Park, Sukhothai
Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat , part of Si Satchanalai Historical Park, Sukhothai

Sukhothai means “dawn of happiness”. At one time Thai historians considered the Sukhothai Kingdom to be the origin of Thailand because little was known about the time before. We now know that Thai history started before Sukhothai, but the founding of Sukhothai is still celebrated in Thailand.

Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat
Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat

Sukhothai is 12 km west of the modern city of Sukhothai Thani. It lies on the route from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, and also from Udon Thani to Chiang Mai.

Si Satchanalai (“City of good people”) was founded in 1250 as the second center of the Sukhothai Kingdom, and as a residence of the crown prince. Si Satchanalai Historical Park is located in Sukhothai Province, about a one hour drive from Sukhothai Historical Park.

Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat
Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat

Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat (pictured above and below) is the biggest and the most important historic temple in Si Satchanalai Historical Park. It is located on a U-bend in the Yom River, and is flanked on both sides by that river, separate from the bulk of the ruins at Si Satchanalai Historical Park.

Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat
Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat

Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat was built as a Mahayana Buddhist temple in the late 12th century during the reign of Jayavarman VII when the area was part of his Khmer Empire. It shows similarities to the temple ruins at Angkor Wat, also constructed by the Khmer Empire, and located over 800km away in Cambodia.

A tower of Angkor Wat
A tower of Angkor Wat – from Wikimedia Commons

Inside of the tower at Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat is something that looks a lot like a City Pillar. King Rama I probably erected the first city pillar on 21 April 1782, when he moved his capital from Thonburi to Bangkok. The practice quickly spread to other cities in Thailand.  The prang (tower) of Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat was redesigned to its current form by Borommakot in the 18th century, so maybe the City Pillar was placed at that time.

Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat
Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat

In the view below of Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat from the tower you can also see the back of a newer temple.

View from the tower
View from the tower

Inside is an extensive collection of Buddhas, including a large one made of a dark green stone. During our visit men were scrubbing the gold-colored foil from that large Buddha. In many temples you can buy small squares of “gold” foil to rub onto the statues. In the picture below you can see several Buddhas that have been partially coated, and one that has been fairly thoroughly coated, in this way.

Inside the newer temple
Inside the newer temple
Inside the newer temple
Inside the newer temple

Behind the tower is a large stupa – a mound-like or hemispherical structure containing relics, typically the remains of Buddhist monks or nuns.

Pagoda at Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat
Pagoda at Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat

A stupa is used as a place of meditation. In Buddhism circumambulation or pradakhshina – walking around a sacred object or idol – has been an important ritual and devotional practice since the earliest times, and stupas always have a pradakhshina path around them.

Behind the stupa is a large standing Buddha.

Buddha at Pagoda at Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat
Buddha at Pagoda at Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat

It’s a short drive to the rest of Si Satchanalai Historical Park, most of which is shown on the map below. We had lunch at one of several restaurants there.

Si Satchanalai Historical Park
Si Satchanalai Historical Park

Wat Nang Paya means “temple of queen”. An unsubstantiated local legend says that the temple was built by the daughter of a Chinese emperor. The temple features a large stupa. Like most of the buildings here, it is constructed of laterite.

Wat Nang Paya
Wat Nang Paya

There are also the remains of a seven-roomed monastery.

The monastery, viewed from the stupa
The monastery, viewed from the stupa

Wat Nang Paya is famous for the remains of beautiful stucco-reliefs,  protected by the tin roofed shelter shown above.

Stucco reliefs at Wat Nang Paya - Wikimedia Commons
Stucco reliefs at Wat Nang Paya – from Wikimedia Commons

Many moss covered moats protected the various temples and the city itself.

Si Satchanalai moat
Si Satchanalai moat

Wat Chedi Chet Thaeo means the temple of seven rows of stupas.

Wat Chedi Chet Thaeo
Wat Chedi Chet Thaeo

It is  considered unique among the temples in Sukhothai Kingdom, because it consists of 32 stupas of different sizes in different styles. This temple was apparently built for the royal family.

Wat Chedi Chet Thaeo from Wat Chang Lom
Wat Chedi Chet Thaeo from Wat Chang Lom

Wat Chang Lom is named for its 39 full sized elephants. Usually only the front half of the body is sculpted in Sukhothai temples. Here the full bodies are sculpted. Unfortunately they haven’t held up well to the elements.

Wat Chang Lom
Wat Chang Lom

On the second tier of the stupa base are 20 niches, some of which still contain the original 1.4 m high Buddha images.

Wat Chang Lom
Wat Chang Lom
Wat Chang Lom
Wat Chang Lom

The temple grounds contain the remains of a monastery and several other structures.

Wat Chang Lom
Wat Chang Lom

Large noisy birds infested the trees behind Wat Chang Lom. Most appeared to be Asian openbill stork, but egrets and herons also live in the park.

Asian openbill stork
Asian openbill stork

It was easier to see large groups of storks from Wat Khao Phanom Ploeng the top of the hill.

Asian openbill storks
Asian openbill storks

144 laterite steps lead up the hill to Wat Khao Phanom Ploeng.

Stairs to Wat Khao Phanom Ploeng
Stairs to Wat Khao Phanom Ploeng

There’s an old stone Buddha in the remains of a temple.

Wat Khao Phanom Ploeng
Wat Khao Phanom Ploeng

There are also several stupas and other ruins.

Wat Khao Phanom Ploeng
Wat Khao Phanom Ploeng

The hill is high enough to look down on the tops of nearby trees and into the nest of the storks.

Wat Khao Phanom Ploeng
Wat Khao Phanom Ploeng

Back at the bottom of the hill we looked back on the top of the stupa at nearby Wat Khao Suwankhiri protruding above the trees.

Stupa of Wat Khao Suwankhiri
Stupa of Wat Khao Suwankhiri

There are at least 4 more temples and the ruins of the royal palace inside of the defensive wall at Si Satchanalai Historical Park, and a large number of monuments and other ruins, and over a dozen more temples outside the wall.

We didn’t visit Sukhothai Historical Park or Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park, so we barely scratched the surface of the ruins of the Sukhothai Kingdom.

Buddhas at Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat
Buddhas at Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat

Please enjoy the full gallery of 46 pictures below.

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