Located between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Sukhothai is 400km north of the former and 300km south of the latter. It was the first capital of the Kingdom of Siam which got its name from the Khmer people who used to call the people of Thailand “Śyāma” (Sanskrit for dark) due to their skin color. Over time, Śyāma became what we now know as Siam.
Just like in Ayutthaya, you’ll find yourself travelling through time and space in Sukhothai so let me quickly brief you on the history of this city before moving on to what I did there!
The History of Sukhothai
Just another quick reminder, I really encourage you to research the history of the cities or the countries you’re visiting before actually getting there, just a quick research, no need to dive into history books for that. It’ll give more meaning to your trip; I know that when I don’t, I feel a little bit lost and find myself taking pictures of everything, not really knowing what I’m doing.
When you devote some time to know more about a country’s past, you’ll be more receptive to the various available attractions or the historic sites you visit. You’ll also get to understand the local people’s mentality a lot easier.
It’s only when you understand what you’re actually looking at that everything becomes so thrilling! It’s always enlightening to look at the things you’ve read about and understand what they mean and it’s even more so in a city like Sukhothai.
Thai People’s Chinese Origin
The Kingdom of Sukhothai literally means “dawn of happiness” and is the first state of the people of Thailand.To spare you a lot of boring details, just keep in mind that the people of Thailand are of Chinese origin. In the 11th century, they migrated from South China (the Yunnan region) to the actual Thai territory.
End of the Angkor Rule over Sukhothai
During the 12th century, the city of Sukhothai was part of the Lavo Kingdom, itself under the powerful rule of the Khmer Empire of Angkor. Around 1180, an ethnic group who went by the name of Mon ended the Khmer rule but ended up giving the Kingdom of Sukhothai back to its people in 1239. The state of Thailand was only then officially established since the Thai people first migrated from China.
You’ll probably hear some local people proudly tell you that they vanquished the Khmer people themselves in Sukhothai; there’s an ongoing competition between both people actually. But history tells it otherwise and it appears that it is indeed the Mon people who got to the Khmer first.
The Kingdom’s Decline
The Kingdom of Sukhothai went on for a relatively short time (200 years) and came to end in 1438 when it got annexed to the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, the prosperity of which lasted for 400 years. By the way, it’s under the Ayutthaya rule that the city of Sukhothai was destroyed during the Burmese invasion in the 18th century.
The majority of the city’s ruins were restored since then, a bit too much I would say. I think restorations in Sukhothai were a bit too extensive actually, so much so that the city’s ruins lost some of their character and beauty. I guess priority was given to the sites’ visual appearance at the expense of their authenticness, to attract more tourist maybe? All I know is that things are different in Ayutthaya.
Of course this is just my opinion and the Sukhothai ruins are nevertheless impressive. By the way, let’s go there right now!
How to go to Sukhothai?
By Train and Bus
There is no train station in Sukhothai so if you’d like to go there by train, you’d have to go to Phitsanulok station then take a bus to Sukhothai. The bus trip will be around an hour long.
By Bus Only
If you’d like to go straight to Sukhothai, your best option would be to hop on a bus that will take you there directly. It’s a fast and convenient way to reach your destination at once without having to make any plans to catch other means of transportation.
From Ayutthaya, the bus trip lasted around 6 hours and cost 400 bahts (around $12). If you’re taking a bus from Bangkok, the trip to Sukhothai will last an hour and a half longer and cost around $15.
Hotels in Sukhothai
In this article, you’ll find a review of this great guest house in Sukhothai where you can stay for as cheap as $3 a night! If you’re not on a tight budget and can afford better accommodation, you can stay at the hotel below in the old city, I’m sure you’ll love it.
The Old City and Sukhothai Historical Park
The actual city of Sukhothai is currently located 12 kilometers away from the old city of Sukhothai where most of the historic sites are. It is more commonly called New Sukhothai or the new city. You’ll probably stay at a hotel in the new city like I did, just because it’s cheaper and because there are more options to choose from. A regularly scheduled bus will take you to the old city in 15 to 20 minutes and will cost you less than $2. Of course if you can afford it, you can always book a room in a hotel in the old city.
The old city has several historic sites; one of the main sites is located right in the center of the city (colored in pink on the map above). The other four are located towards the north, the west, the south and the east. The last two sites are free but you need to pay to access the others (around 3 to 6 dollars). If you get there on a scooter and want to get in, you’ll have to pay an additional $1.5.
On my first day in Sukhothai, I met Wendy, a Taiwanese girl. Apparently, we got to the hotel at the same time, only she was coming from Chiang Mai. We became friends very quickly and decide to visit the old city together on our scooters.
You might come to notice that these encounters tend to happen rather often when you travel alone. I always say that if you travel alone, you won’t be for too long.
So we went to the old city. It took us only ten minutes to get there from New Sukhothai. We started with the small park towards the east and visited the Wat Traphang Thong.
Then we went to the main historical park and got inside on our scooter. It’s a big park actually so plan ahead and get there at least on a bike if you want to visit the whole thing.
This park was outstanding by the way; the ruins were magnificent and the whole park was really nice and well-maintained. We got off the scooter to get closer to the ruins, just to absorb all the intensity emanating from that place. Such a magical moment!
We ended up having a picnic and staying there the whole morning. I have to admit we didn’t visit all three sites. It’s not that they weren’t worth it but after Ayutthaya, I’m kind of trying to avoid a temple overdose. It’s actually a thing! Overdosing on temples, I mean. It’s such a thing that you’d hear expressions like “I’m templed out” quite often from backpackers who “did” too much temples. So the next day, no more ruins, time for adventure!
Discovering the Chao Ram Cave
Sukhothai, second day.
We rented another scooter and hit the road. We still had no idea where to go but we kept on going and at the end of the day, that’s what really matters. Honestly, it was a first for me because I usually plan everything out in advance but I really liked feeling this mixture of freedom and excitement for what is unknown.
So we had to pick a destination and for that, we decided to hear what the yin side of the group had to say about it. I mean Wendy.
In Taoism, yin represents intuition which is, as an aspect of our nature, often embodied by women. Yang on the other hand is the practical and pragmatic aspect of our nature and is embodied by men. Therefore men and women are two reflections of the same thing, two poles of the same whole entity. If you’re interested in reading more about this, I’m going to put up a blog post on Taoism, which will be available in the spirituality section of this blog very soon. You’d be amazed by the fascinating stories of Taoism.
Anyway, it couldn’t get better than this! The group’s female instinct had nothing but a terrific day in store for us. We kept heading to nowhere and that’s exactly where we found ourselves: nearly nowhere.
Wendy had noticed a sign on the road with Chao Ram Cave on it. Why not, after all? A cave could have enough potential to be fun! Anyway, we didn’t have time to waste so we kept on going. We were so excited that we forgot to fill up on gas and ran out of fuel…some 300 feet away from a gas station. I’d love to say I’m joking but I’m not! It was so hilariously ridiculous that we looked at each other and burst out laughing.
We walked to the station and met the nice family that runs the business there. We shared a cup of coffee and told them we were going to the Chao Ram Cave. “Far faaaar” they said, their eyes wide open. It wasn’t disheartening enough for us; it was even more motivating and just like me, Wendy liked a bit of challenge from time to time.
They told us that part of the road to the cave was under construction so they gave us useful directions to a shortcut. See? Good things happen to those who look for adventure! And good things did happen to us after we left the road to cross some random fields to then get back on the paved road about 15 minutes later. The closer we got to the caves the more breathtaking the view became; a few highlands scattered here and there and deep forests surrounded us. We made sure to stop every time we liked a spot.
We couldn’t use the mobile app maps.me to find our way during this road trip (I show you how to do it in this article) because we didn’t locate them on our map before leaving so we relied mostly on road signs if we saw and asked people for directions when came across a village or something. Sometimes, old ways are the best!
We drove for another two hours and didn’t even notice we’ve been driving for that long until we finally find the caves. Oh, and we also drove along this beautiful lake:
We get into the forest and take a road that goes high up a mountain. We had to pay the negotiated price of 100 bahts (around $3) to a forest ranger to be able to continue on our way. Once we got there, we felt kind of funny. We weren’t interested in those caves as much as we were when we left in the morning. We were already filled with beautiful memories of the trip we went on. We didn’t have to reach our destination for it to make our day.
As they say, happiness is a journey, not a destination.
In the Chao Ram cave
We crossed a high plain and saw a path that went deep into the forest. We thought the caves must be there and wanted to make sure we were headed in the right direction. We met another family there and told them we wanted to go see the cave. They said it wasn’t too far away but the road was a bit rough. They tried to dissuade us from going and said the cave was full of bats.
It was clear that we were going there anyway and that they could only spark our curiosity even more no matter what they say so they decided to come with us so we don’t get lost. The hiking trip became a climbing trip and without them, I don’t think we would have risked to go further into the forest. Climbing up was rather fast, the rocks were solid though slippery and the night was starting to fall. We knew there were hundreds of bats waiting to fly out and it wasn’t a very pleasing thought then.
We noticed how easily the little girls of 7 and 10 years old went on climbing the mountains and we felt a tiny bit behind. We reached the cave’s entrance, a few slips later, drenched in cold sweat.
We heard the bats screeching inside the cave so I got inside and directed my phone’s flashlight upwards. Much to my surprise, it was swarming with those tiny little creatures so I didn’t get any further and left quickly.
Bats are not really dangerous; they won’t get in your hair to mess with you so don’t believe the farfetched stories you’re told about them. The only downside is that their excrements, in high doses, can spread pulmonary diseases so don’t hang around in bat caves for too long and you’ll be fine.
The cave was so fascinating that we almost forgot to enjoy the surrounding landscape.
So we decided to capture this beautiful moment with the whole team and move on.
The sun was starting to set so we got back to our scooters because we wanted to avoid having to drive at night but when we got to the high plain we crossed earlier, one of the men we met (the one wearing black in the picture) said we should stay a bit longer. We kindly declined saying we should really get going but he insisted just as much.
We didn’t understand why he wanted us to wait so a couple of minutes later, we got the idea. A huge black swarm was headed towards us, we still didn’t understand what was going on so we felt a little bit anxious but we finally realized that all the bats were flying out of the surrounding caves in huge black swarms that looked like this:
It was quite something to watch…for minutes on end! It went on for half an hour actually. With sparkling eyes, we kept smiling until the bats got away. We couldn’t believe that everything that happened that day was sheer improvisation. We managed to make pretty nice memories out of it, to say the least. It couldn’t get better than this… or could it?
After the bats got away, the family invites us to have dinner with them and the thought of turning down their proposition didn’t even cross our minds; we already liked them too much. They lived in a small but very neat house. Their father went to Kuwait and we came to understand that he had left to work there to provide for his wife and children, sending them money regularly.
We spent the evening playing with the children, eating good local food and drinking strong Thai whiskey! They asked us to stay the night and even had our beds prepared for us but we absolutely had to leave to get the scooter back before 10 PM. The little girls were in tears when we left and I did cry a little bit myself to be honest because even though they were rather poor, those people were extremely generous.
I did learn that sometimes, the less you have, the more you give.
It was already dark outside but we got back to our hotel safely. We fell asleep, full of memories. It was an unforgettable day.
The Sai Rung (Waterless) Waterfall
On our way back from the caves, we saw signs indicating that there were many waterfalls in Sukhothai so we asked at the hotel reception desk and were told that there was no water there during the current season (it was December back then).
Stubborn about everything as we were, we decided to go there anyway. It was our third and last day in Sukhothai after all and even if there’s no water, we would hike here and there in nature and it would be make our day. I’m glad we did !
We picked the Sai Rung (or Sai Roong) waterfall in the Ramkhamhaeng National Park, about an hour away from the new city of Sukhothai (use this tip to never get lost while travelling). We enjoyed riding to get to the waterfall; bits of unpaved road here and there but very enjoyable nonetheless.
We arrived at the park and the forest was waiting for us to discover it. It was actually on a valley and although climbing up there wasn’t easy and we were relatively new to this, we were able to do it. No trekking shoes for me though! I went up the whole thing in tongs and it went relatively well but if you can grab a stick, just do it. Use it to keep your balance or to check if a rock is stable enough.
One more thing, avoid climbing on rocks if you see sticks under them. They were stabilized that way to avoid a rockslide so don’t risk climbing on them.
It was really enjoyable to be there, we were alone in nature with fresh air and absolutely no one around. We could feel the energy emanating from the forest and it was invigorating. We could even hear water streaming as we go deep into the forest. Would there be water after all in dry season? There absolutely was!
Of course, we weren’t expecting the Niagara falls (and we were right) but there were spots where there was enough water to swim and it just made our day. The water was cool and clean and everything was refreshing.
There are five waterfalls in the park and it took us two hours to get to the second one so we didn’t climb any further but you could if you’re interested.
If you get lost, which is unlikely, follow the yellow spots on the trees and on the rocks.
Soon, we were on our way back.
Later, we stopped by the old city’s market to try some local dishes. The market is located on the eastern side of the main historical park, in front of several restaurants.
The next day, I was getting ready to go back to Chiang Mai and Wendy was planning a trip to Ayutthaya. We had a lot of fun together for 3 days so I’m definitely going to miss her. When you’re travelling, relationships become more intense but also kind of fleeting.
Come to think of it, it’s probably better that way. When you know it’s only temporary, you don’t ask yourself a lot of questions, you just live the moment in the moment, without thinking about the next. It could be, maybe not the best, but a better way to deal with relationships, don’t you think?
I hope you have enjoyed this blog post on Sukhothai. They’re more like a travel story rather than a travel guide so I hope you’ve enjoyed this more personal aspect of my trips in Asia. I also hope it helps you plan your upcoming trips.
As always, feel free to share this blog post with your friends if you liked it. You have to visit Sukhothai if you’re traveling to northern Thailand so don’t miss out on it. I’ll talk to you very soon to let you know about my next adventures in Chiang Mai.
Talk to you all very soon,