Sukhothai: The Ancient Capital

A small metropolitan area, New Sukhothai services tourism to the old city 14km west. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, old Sukhothai contains the ruins of more than 40 temples of all different sizes as it was once the capital of Thailand 700 years ago. Broken into 3 zones, the central, northern and western it offers a great few days of ruin sightseeing and countryside exploration. We took a local bus out the 14km the first day and rented bicycles (highly recommended to be able to get the most out of a day) as some Wats are pretty spread out and explored the central and northern zones.

Bikes are the best way to see the most in one day

The central zone is beautifully landscaped around spectacular temples of varying architecture. 

Wat Mehthat is the central piece and has been the most restored of any of the temples in the park
Many Wats feature elephants protecting and holding up the Chedi towers
Some close up preserved sculpting work from 700 years ago!

Signs all around the park offer tons of cool historical information. For example certain features on some of the Wats indicate they used to be Hindu worship sites which were later converted to Buddhist temples many years later.

Wat Si Sawai, a former hindu temple

Many of the Wats are surrounded my huge moats and are only accessible by foot bridge. The water in these moats is of varying cleanliness ranging from only kind of brown to down right terrifying. 

Long foot bridges extend out into these man made moat ponds


For lunch we rode our bicycles out of the park and stoped at one of the little shops near by. It was pretty much 4 ladies sitting around laughing and chatting with one other table of locals eating there. But it was the best pad Thai I’ve ever had. And I’ll see if anything else beats it but as of now (a week later in Chiang Mai) nothing has come close. Oh and it was 30THB. 

The northern zone is more spread out than the center and has a MASSIVE standing Buddha sculpture which was quite a sight to see.

A classic image all around Sukhothai, the locals call it “big buddha” (in Thai obviously)
The moat around “big buddha” is definitely one of the scarier ones


Very glad that we had bicycles we were still tired after 7 hours of touring around so we headed back to the new city and took a dunk in our hostels pool. Happily not stagnant water like much of the rest around it was nice to finally dunk even if it wasn’t all that cold having sat out in the sun all day. 

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Not a terrible pool for $12 a night

We got dinner at a weird little restaurant called “Chopper bar”, a new favorite for Athena as they had a pretty decent vegetarian menu. After dinner we walked around the Sukhothai night market, which runs up the Main Street though down and houses food carts and shopping stalls the appear out of nowhere at about 6pm. As we walked deeper we found a bunch of carnival games and the worlds sketchiest ferries wheel. Of course being the carnie lover she is Athena HAD to go in the ferries wheel so we stunk ourselves into what can only be called a tiny cage not a actual car and round we went. After a few more hours of wandering evening exploration we headed back to our hot fan cooled room and slept. 

Sketchy Ferris wheeling for Athena. Check out the literal cages

The next day we woke up around 8 and had a plan to see the western zone and more of the country-side….rent a motorbike. I was stoked to get my first moto experience of SEA and who cared if it was only a little 125cc scooter. We had looked around and our hostel had the cheapest rentals in walking distance so ~$3USD later I was the proud rider of a Honda clicks for the next 24hrs. Supplied with 2 helmets best equated to styrofoam semicircles with a plastic covering we were off. And like any new bike the first 10 minutes are a little nerve racking, figuring out how much power I had (none), seeing if the brakes were good (they weren’t), and generally trying to figure out the maze that is Thai traffic. But by the end of the day I was a pro.

I lied earlier, Motorbike > bicycle

We headed off to the old city and explored the western zone, the highlight of which is a standing Buddha who sits on a hilltop up a 300m inclined ancient paved path. It had a pretty cool view of the surrounding jungle from up there.

The paved path on the way up to Wat Saphan Hin is where it gets its name
if I was just a little taller I bet I could reach!

Back of the “bike” we kept exploring and being a small, easy to ride scooter on well paved roads with very little traffic we both figured it was time Athena had her first powered two wheel lesson. And while it was definitely TERRIFYING at first she picked it up pretty quickly. Got the straight lines down and we even managed some turns without causing full buttpucker from me on the back. As the gas gauge was getting low and it was lunch time we headed back in towards town and got lunch at a little spot called Jayhae.

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Jayhae! Photo credit: Teeradon Thongkam, from google maps

After lunch we hoped back on the bike and headed back west. We kept going past the ruins and Athena practiced riding a bit more. Then as we kept going we saw a sign for a canyon to the left or a cave up ahead so we chose cave. 

30 minutes later after taking many different turns along the way we made it to Phrae Mae Ya cave. It was a cool cave temple tucked in under a rock in the side of the mountain.

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The little gate on the right is how you get in, (mostly to keep out animals from making a home)

After exploring around a bit we heard thunder in the distance and figured it was time to leave, but when we got back to the bike there was a monk standing by it who ushered us in towards a gate way and said ride the bike in. We figured what the hell so I pulled up where he wanted. And then we got a private tour of the temple that monk was in charge of maintaining. It was super cool. A huge language barrier but he showed us all of the shrines individually and mined out the history. There was a huge Buddha with jungle all around it that looked like someday it could take its own place in the Sukhothai Historic Park.

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This Buddha has a “hair net” to keep off birds. This photo doesn’t cover the huge size, but its massive.

After many “kop khun kap”‘s and a few deep wai’s we were back on the bike heading away from the ever approaching thunder. By the time we got back to the Historic Park some 30 minutes away it was a beautiful sunny day.

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Our trusty stead “click-i” sheparding us away form the rain clouds in the background

Earlier we had found a bicycle route between the old and new towns and figure it might be fun to explore that on the way back instead of just taking the highway back again. We got to the start and immediately took a wrong turn down a dirt road. but we were headed generally the right direction and I was having a blast avoiding huge washout mud ruts two-up on the tiny scooter with no ground clearance. Still counts as offloading right? When the road stared to curve in the wrong direction I checked google which somehow had these small dirt roads and righted our way back to the official paved Trail. But we both enjoyed our dirt detour deep into some rice patties far away from everyone else and most importantly the main tourist path.

After making our way back to the hostel we took showers and relaxed in the courtyard doing some Chiang Mai Research with a nice cold Chang. Some dinner and we were off bed to get up early the next morning and catch a bus north again to Chiang Mai!

Gorgeous sunset from our last night in Sukhothai

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