For a brief but brilliant period (1238–1376), the walled city of SUKHOTHAI presided as the capital of Thailand, creating the legacy of a unified nation of Thai peoples and a phenomenal artistic heritage. Some of Thailand’s finest buildings and sculpture were produced here, but by the sixteenth century the city had been all but abandoned to the jungle. Now an impressive assembly of elegant ruins, the Old City, 58km northwest of Phitsanulok, has been preserved as Sukhothai Historical Park and is one of Thailand’s most visited ancient sites.
There are several sleepy accommodation options near the historical park, but travellers longing for urban comforts tend to stay in so-called NEW SUKHOTHAI, a modern market town 12km to the east, which has good travel links with the Old City and is also better for restaurants and long-distance bus connections. Straddling the Yom River, it’s a small, friendly town, used to seeing tourists but by no means overrun with them. The new town also makes a peaceful and convenient base for visiting Ramkhamhaeng National Park, as well as the ruins of Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet which, while not as extensively renovated, are still worth visiting – if only for their relative wildness and lack of visitors. Most of these outlying places can be reached fairly easily by public transport, but for trips to Wat Thawet and Ramkhamhaeng National Park you’ll need to rent your own vehicle or arrange a driver through your accommodation.Read More
The Sukhothai Buddha
The Sukhothai Buddha
The classic Buddha images of Thailand were produced towards the end of the Sukhothai era. Ethereal, androgynous figures with ovoid faces and feline expressions, they depict not a Buddha meditating to achieve enlightenment – the more usual representation – but an already enlightened Buddha: the physical realization of an abstract, “unworldly” state. Though they produced mainly seated Buddhas, Sukhothai artists are renowned for having pioneered the walking Buddha, one of four postures described in ancient Pali texts but without precedent in Thailand.
Every year on the evening of the full moon of the twelfth lunar month (usually in November), Thais all over the country celebrate the end of the rainy season with Loy Krathong, also known as the Festival of Light. One of Thailand’s most beautiful festivals, it’s held to honour and appease the spirits of the water at a time when all the fields are flooded and the canals and rivers are overflowing their banks. The festival is said to have originated seven hundred years ago, when Nang Noppamas, the consort of a Sukhothai king, adapted an ancient Brahmin tradition of paying homage to the water goddess.
At this time, nearly everyone makes or buys a krathong and sets it afloat (loy) on the nearest body of water, to cast adrift any bad luck that may have accrued over the past year. Krathongs are miniature basket-boats made of banana leaves that have been elegantly folded and pinned, origami style, and then filled with flowers, three sticks of incense and several lighted candles; the traditional base is a slice of banana tree trunk, but it’s increasingly popular to buy your krathong ready-made from the market, sometimes with an eco-unfriendly polystyrene bottom. Some people slip locks of hair and fingernail clippings between the flowers, to represent sinful deeds that will then be symbolically released along with the krathong; others add a coin or two to persuade the spirits to take away their bad luck (swiftly raided by opportunist young boys looking for small change). It’s traditional to make a wish or prayer as you launch your krathong and to watch until it disappears from view: if your candle burns strong, your wishes will be granted and you will live long.
Chiang Mai goes to town over Loy Krathong, but Sukhothai Historical Park is the most famous place in Thailand to celebrate the festival, and the ruins are the focus of a spectacular festival held over several nights around the full moon. The centrepiece is a charming son et lumière performance at Wat Mahathat, complemented by firework displays, the illumination of many Old City ruins, thousands of candles floating on the shimmering lotus ponds, a parade of charming Nang Noppamas (Miss Loy Krathong) lookalikes and all sorts of concerts and street-theatre shows. All accommodation gets packed out during the festival, so book ahead if possible.