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.
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.