Handily located midway up the railway line between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, the likeable provincial capital of PHITSANULOK makes a useful and pleasant stopover with reasonable hotels and good transport connections, especially to the historical centres of Sukhothai and Kamphaeng Phet. The main sight in town is the country’s second-most important Buddha image, enshrined in historic Wat Mahathat and the focus of pilgrimages from all over Thailand; it is complemented by one of the best ethnology collections in Thailand, at the Sergeant Major Thawee Folklore Museum. There are also several potentially rewarding national parks within an hour or two’s drive along Highway 12, the so-called “Green Route”.
Typically for a riverside town, “Phit’lok” as it’s often nicknamed, is long and narrow. The heart of the city, which occupies the east bank of the Nan River, is easily walkable and still feels quite old-fashioned with its shophouses, traditional restaurants and foodstalls, particularly along Thanon Boromtrailoknat between the police station and the Pailyn Hotel. The two main sights, however, lie at opposite extremities: Wat Mahathat to the north, and the folklore museum 2.5km south.
Huge swathes of Phitsanulok were destroyed by fire in 1957, but the town’s history harks back to a heyday in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries when, with Sukhothai waning in power, it rose to prominence as the favoured home of the crumbling capital’s last rulers. After supremacy was finally wrested by the emerging state of Ayutthaya in 1438, Phitsanulok was made a provincial capital, subsequently becoming a strategic army base during Ayutthaya’s wars with the Burmese, and adoptive home to Ayutthayan princes. The most famous of these was Naresuan, a famously courageous warrior who was governor of Phitsanulok before he assumed the Ayutthayan crown in 1590. The ruins of Naresuan’s Chandra Palace, where both he and his younger brother Akkathasaroth were born, are currently under excavation in the grounds of a former school northwest of the bridge that bears his name; the tramway tour makes a stop there.