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.
Phitsanulok hosts two lively food festivals every year, once during the Western New Year period (Dec 25–Jan 1) and again at Songkhran, the Thai New Year (April 9–15). Almost every restaurant in town participates, selling their trademark dishes from special stalls set up along the east bank of the river, and there’s traditional Thai dance and other entertainments. In February, Phitsanulok honours the Phra Buddha Chinnarat with a week-long festival, which features likay folk-theatre performances and dancing Then, later in the year, on the third weekend of September, traditional longboat races are staged on the Nan River, in front of Wat Mahathat.
The Sergeant Major Thawee Folklore Museum (Jatawee Buranaket) puts a different slant on the region’s culture. Its fascinating look at traditional rural life makes this one of the best ethnology museums in the country. The collection, which is housed in a series of wooden pavilions, belongs to former sergeant major Dr Thawee, who has pursued a lifelong personal campaign to preserve and document a way of life that’s gradually disappearing. Highlights include the reconstructed kitchen, veranda and birthing room of a typical village house, known as a “tied house” because its split-bamboo walls are literally tied together with rattan cane; and an exceptionally comprehensive gallery of traps: dozens of specialized contraptions designed to ensnare everything from cockroaches to birds perched on water buffaloes’ backs. There’s also a display on weaving and natural dyes, a collection of traditional toys and some fearsome-looking wooden implements for giving yourself a massage.