Sukhothai in Thailand, the complete guide
I’ve decided to take some time out and come back to the pieces I wrote on my trips to Southeast Asia, and in particular to the famous country of smiles, Thailand. Lately, I realize, I had forgotten them in order to focus on French Polynesia. However, I must admit that I sometimes like to go back in time, especially to 2013, the year I visited the historic site of Sukhothai. If you are preparing your trip and you don’t know where to go in Thailand, this is for me a must.
All lovers of Asian history will enjoy discovering this magnificent site, which was the capital of the first Thai kingdom. I won’t give you a detailed history lesson on this subject as I don’t know enough about it. In any case, when visiting Thailand, you’ll often find it’s a mandatory stop off when travelling to Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai, which are further north. It’s a very beautiful place to take a pause during your journey, one could call it, a little cultural bath…
So what’s on the schedule for a day or even a few days (if you have the time) in this magnificent place? Well, there are the imposing remains of temples, various monuments, basins filled with lotus flowers and impressive Buddhas, to name but a few. Oh yes, I forgot to mention that in this article I am talking about the old city of Sukhothai, the one that everyone visits, and not the new city which seems to be of very limited interest. In the next few paragraphs I will also be talking about the temples of the Si Satchanalai Historical Park! So, let’s go!
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A little history about Sukhothai?
A few historical facts to help you learn a little more about this place:
- The city, initially considered a Khmer city (like Angkor), was founded in 1238 by Prince Inthradit. It is considered the first capital of the Kingdom of Siam.
- The city lasted until the end of the 13th century and was conquered by the Kingdom of Ayutthaya in 1438,
- In 1977, major restoration work was carried out on the old Khmer city,
- In 2003, the site was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
How to get there?
From Europe, it is really very easy to find cheap flights to the country’s capital, Bangkok. You can find cheap flights by being flexible, from 350€ from Paris, London, Madrid and other major cities.
From the United States, prices are almost identical. There are flights directly to Bangkok, Phuket or Chiang Mai for 350/400$, always by being flexible.
In any case, I highly recommend that you search for your cheap flights on this flight comparator that I have been using for a very long time now. It’s a sure way to travel cheaply!
To give you an idea, it costs me more to go to the Marquesas Islands from Tahiti (about 550€) than to take a Paris-Bangkok flight. If you are flexible, you can find flights from France, for only 350 to 400€.
For our Canadian friends, there are also cheap flights from Canada to Thailand, as long as you can be flexible, starting at around $500.
If you are already in Thailand, or if you have just arrived, there is a good chance that you will pass through Bangkok to get to Sukhothai. Here, I would say you have 3 possibilities. These are given from the most economical to the most expensive (small reminder 40 Thb = about 1€):
- By Bus: From the North Terminal (Mo Chit), allow about 7 hours by bus for a trip from Bangkok to Sukhothai. Expect to spend approximately 400 baht (10€). You might also (as in my case) be interested in stopping over in Ayutthaya, Lopburi and Phitsanulok on the way. In my case, I had just returned from a visit to the west of the country, not far from the Burmese border (Sangkhlaburi and Kanchanaburi) and I had no choice but to return to the Thai capital).
- By Train: Sukhothai is not directly accessible via the train network but you can take a train from Bangkok to Phitsanulok (5 – 7h) then take a bus to Sukhothai from there (40 Thb). Expect between 150 to 800 Thb depending on the class of train you choose (I know it’s a very wide range!).
- Air travel: As far as I know, few travelers choose this option. In addition, you will have to go to the airport outside the city in order to take your flight. Allow 50€ one-way from Bangkok to Sukhothai, with Bangkok Airways, for example. For passengers in a hurry, a flight only takes an hour, but the experience is, in my opinion, still much less interesting than taking the sleeper train or the bus!
How to get around?
So, a few words about moving around in the old city. Ideally, you would find accommodation close to the temples, but this is not always easy. I personally found myself sleeping in the new city of Sukhothai and then being dropped off in a minibus (30 Thb/person) to the city’s historic park. Between you and me, it’s not the best option and it would be much better to stay in one of the small guesthouses in the old town. You’ll find my selection further down in this article!
Everyone will choose the option that suits them best of course, but I would advise you to take the shuttle, if you can, to the old town as there is not much of interest to see when travelling between the old and new towns. Once there, you can rent bicycles at 30 Thb/person for the day, which is definitely the best way to discover the area. Visiting everything on foot is, I believe, too complicated. In fact, there are a number of temples in the center of town which you can visit on foot, but those outside the town are a bit too far…
I recall that when I was there I visited the centre of the park in the morning on foot, and then got on my bike and rode to see 4 other areas outside it!
For those of you who, like me, have the motivation, the time, or the desire to spend an extra day in the area, you should not miss the temples of Si Satchanalai, which are situated about 50 km from the old town. I’ll tell you about these famous temples further down the page. So, when thinking about travelling to those temples, you should consider taking a minibus from the city of Sukhothai (50 Thb/person – 1h) to Si Satchanalai. You can also consider renting a motorbike. Once there, renting a bike (30 Thb/day) is, I believe, still the best option. You may also want to try travelling in a tuk tuk!
The most beautiful temples of Sukhotai
I don’t have the statistics on hand but I would say that the fact that Sukhothai is not on a direct train or bus route would suggest that it is less visited than the famous city of Ayutthaya, which is also closer to Bangkok. Which one did I prefer and which one do I think you should visit? I’ll tell you about that below.
I wanted to talk to you first about the more classic temples, those in both the central part of the town and the surrounding areas. Very few adventurers attempt to go to Si Satchanalai Park, which is a pity as it is very beautiful.
It’s probably the central area of Sukhothai that has the most beautiful temples. My favorites? Wat si Sawai and Wat Sa Si.
The northern section is also very popular due to the presence of Wat Si Chum, a temple surrounding a magnificent Buddha, 12m wide and 35m high. He alone is worth a visit to the area. There is also Wat Phra Pai Luang.
The Western and Eastern sections also have very beautiful temples, although less known and less visited by tourists. It’s the perfect place to spend a few moments alone, or almost alone, away from the crowds that pile into the central area. In the western area, you have superb views of the surrounding Thai countryside and its magnificent rice fields….
I did not go to the southern part which seems to house older and much less well-preserved Thai temples and ruins. This section is free of charge.
We also decided to go to Si Satchanalai Park, about 50 km from the city. At this time, we had 2-month visas which gave us plenty of time to visit Thailand at a leisurely pace, without having to speed through all our sightseeing. I must say that I wasn’t at all disappointed by my visit here.
The park has a very beautiful and special atmosphere, it’s a bit like being in the movie Indiana Jones. The temples are in worse general condition than those in the tourist areas, but I found the general atmosphere in Si Satchanalai Park was much better. You hardly see anyone here and you can walk around freely all day, or sit and have some Thai cuisine. Some pictures of the walk to tempt you!
When is the best time to go there?
As in most areas of Thailand, it would be better to travel to Sukhothai between October and March, from the weather perspective. However, nothing here is really set in stone as far as the climate is concerned and if you don’t mind risking a little rain, you might consider going a little earlier (August/September) when you’ll have the advantage of avoiding the crowds of tourists who come to the area, especially around Christmas time.
Please note, you may find it fun to consider going to Sukhothai for one of the festivals held during the year. I wasn’t that fortunate, but I’m sure it would be worth going if you have the chance. After a quick look on the web I found the Loy Krathong Festival of Lights, which is held every year in November, sounds like it could be fun!
Where to sleep in Sukhothaï?
If you are in Sukhothai for a couple of days and are looking for somewhere to stay, I recommend that you stay in the old town, so that you are as close as possible to the temples. The new town is located quite a way away and is not really very interesting. Below you will find a selection of the best guesthouses and other beautiful establishments to be found near the sites. I have gathered information on those I know personally, those I’ve had recommended to me by friends on recent visits and some which I just happened to hear about too!
The best accommodation in Sukhothai
Sukhothai - Practical information
The whole park is open from 6am to 6pm every day. As for the price; Sukhothai is one of the few areas which does not have tickets available encompassing all the sites for one price and therefore you have to pay for each visit individually (100 Thb/person). You will also have to include 10 Thb/bicycle if you, like me, want to rent one.
A little advice from a photographer and for those who want to avoid crowds, as always, be sure to get up early and if you can, get to the park first thing in the morning when it opens, I believe that’s the best time. As for light, you will enjoy beautiful soft light shining on the temples and you avoid all the tourist buses too! Going back in the late afternoon, around 5-5:30 p. m. is not a bad idea either, for the same reasons.
Most of you will only do a classic half-day tour of the central area, but if you like temples and old stone artifacts, I thoroughly recommend spending a whole day exploring all the areas of the old town. The temples of Si Satchanalai, outside the town, also deserve a full day’s visit due to their remoteness, the fact that they are just as beautiful as those in the central area, and of course, because of the temples like those seen in the jungle in the Indiana Jones movie.
My opinion about the park....
Personally, I enjoyed walking around the temples and frankly I would recommend them to anyone passing through the area. The region is fairly flat and therefore perfect for seeing on a bike. I know I’m repeating myself but do yourselves a favor and make sure you go either early in the morning or later in the day (early evening) to be able to really appreciate your surroundings.
I very much enjoyed both Si Satchanalai Park and Sukhothai, but it was impossible to go to both places in one day. If you have the time, either because you’re on a world tour, or simply because you want to make the most of being in this amazing place, I recommend that you go along with no preconceptions. Even though I wasn’t really a fan of ancient temples when I set out on my journey, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Nonetheless, Sukhothai remains for me an unmissable place to visit on the road to the golden triangle and I confess that I prefer it to Ayutthaya. For those who are interested, you can fly to the heavenly beaches of Phuket, Ko Samui, Krabi and others, from Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai, further north, for less than 20€…
So, I hope you enjoyed this little walk around these temples and that this article has inspired you to plan your own journey? If you have any comments or remarks, don’t hesitate to leave me a little message! If you are planning a trip to Thailand, I invite you to read my 30 tips for a cheap trip to Thailand.
See you soon,