Local legends tell of a Golden Age that once existed in the histories of Thailand. After throwing off the shackles of the Khmer Empire, one Thai kingdom stood strong, independent, and united. Its name was Sukhothai, the “Dawn of Happiness” and it is credited as being the beginning of true Thai history.
Of course, like so much of history, the beginnings of Sukhothai have been enshrouded in mythological tales, as the city became a forgotten backwater and eventually just forgotten by the people who revere it so much. Only rediscovered 150 years ago by King Mongkut and excavated only about 50 years ago. I hoped to discover what in all this embellished history might be true as my motorcycle cruised past the remnants of the city gates into the Old City of Sukhothai.
Immediately inside the wall was not the ancient site you would expect, but instead a quite modern assortment of houses. Although there were one or two old brick foundations on the way to the city wall, nothing stood out immensely. The first thing inside the walls that looked old was a red stone stupa poking out of a modern temple. Pulling up to it on the bike, I saw that it was built on an artificial island.
This temple, Wat Traphang Thong Lang, is said by popular legend to have been the origin of Loi Krathong, one of many historical falsehoods. Its grounds were dotted with towering palm trees and curious sayings written in both Thai and English. Several people stood over the moat near one of the bridges feeding the massive swarms of fish inside.
Unfortunately, the Ramkhamhaeng National Museum, named after the most famous king of Sukhothai, was closed, so I had only the information I could find at the ruins to work with. The central ruins of the city are all nicely located in a gated and well-landscaped park just down the road from the museum. However, I had heard that these were best seen nearer night when they begin to light up.
The map I had been given pointed the way to a western loop of ruins, which seemed a better place to start. Better to get a sense of the lesser ruins and work my way up than to see the best first and be underwhelmed later. The gate led the way into a dry, grassy plain, not unusual for the time of year.
The ruins hidden in this grassy expanse were going to be much more spaced out, but there would be a LOT to see in this direction. The disappointing thing was that many of them did seem quite similar. Of course, this was the first instance of large-scale Thai ruins I had seen. Lopburi had some, and many Khmer ruins, but Sukhothai had been a Thai capital city, and an early one at that.
One of the most curious things about the first few temples I saw was the columns. Overall, usually unremarkable in architecture, but they were something I hadn’t seen before in modern or old Thai temple architecture. Despite being made of brown, porous laterite and speckled with decaying plaster, many of them instantly reminded me more of Greek than anything Thai or Khmer I had seen so far.
The columned areas of these temples were lined in 2 or 4 parallel rows in a reception hall called a ‘sala’, which led to the centerpiece of the temple, usually a seated Buddha or a form of stupa. Generally the stupas seemed to wear the centuries better than the brick and plaster Buddhas did.
Although, it is worth noting that many of the figures were beheaded by thieves, like many of the other deity statues in the region.
Nearly all of the temples, whether forested or not, had makeshift bamboo shelters, which more often than not housed a sleeping Thai person. It was never clear to me if these were the caretakers of the individual monuments, ticket-takers, or just people camped out for the day. However, not one ever made any attempt to check a ticket or even communicate with me.
Some of the temples were certainly more remarkable than others. In particular, there are two standing Buddha temples. One, Wat Saphan Hin, is located up a hill by way of a rough rock-paved walkway. Honestly, it was so disheveled that it’s easier just to walk up the grass. Once at the top, not only is the standing Buddha being supported by large stone beams impressive, but it gives a great view over the plain eastward toward Old Sukhothai. But, none of the monuments are large enough to be distinguished from this distance.
Another temple that stood out is Wat Khao Phrabat Noi, which has the remaining base of a very large stupa. It’s hard to figure how tall it would have been, but given the base’s size, it could well have been the single largest stupa in Sukhothai.
Not far down the road is Wat Sri Chum, one of the best-preserved and arguably most attractive temples in all of Sukhothai. It consists of an 11-meter seated Buddha fortified inside of a thick square building (mandapa) slightly visible through a thin, narrow entrance.
When I pulled into Wat Sri Chum, it was easily the busiest temple I had seen or would see that day. Strangely, in a ditch surrounding the temple, which I supposed would function as the moat in wet season, piles of leaves and other debris were smoldering and putting out large clouds of smoke. How they keep these constant fires from getting out of control or why they would do it next to an important monument with many people still puzzles me.
The large Buddha image, known as Phra Achana due to an inscription found at entrance, translates to “He who is not frightened.” Approaching it is quite an impressive sight, even if others are there taking pictures as well. Once inside the mandapa, there is not a lot of space. Still, it amazed me they had to put up a sign telling people not to climb the monument.
Around the corner from Sri Chum is Wat Phra Pai Luang, a moated temple about a quarter the size of the walled city, and is almost a square ruined citadel in itself. Again, smoke was coming from the shallow moat as floating lotus flowers burned unattended.
The grounds of Wat Phra Pai Luang were littered with brick platforms, ruined columns, and the occasional decaying Buddha image. It seems it would have been quite impressive fully constructed, but it’s quite hard to imagine in its entirety. It was the same problem I encountered with the Thai ruins in Lopburi, the brick Thai construction was badly destroyed by time, while the large stone construction of the Khmers was in much better condition.
Speaking of the Khmers, though, the single outstanding structure at this temple was a single prang. Apparently, when Sukhothai was still under the influence of the Khmer Empire, this temple was the centerpiece of the town, and the single prang left standing was part of a three-prang temple dedicated to the Hindu Trimurti, very similar to Lopburi’s Prang Sam Yot, or Wat Si Sawai I would see in the Central Zone.
The remaining laterite block bases of the two other prangs can be clearly seen and are an obviously different architecture style than the surrounding temples. In the sole remaining prang, the standard Hindu shrine has been replaced instead by a seated Buddha figure, what was seeming to become a trend to Khmer temples in I visited in Thailand.
Back inside the city wall, I was treated to a couple small temples on the way back to the main gated park. Wat Sorasak was quite an intriguing, if small one. Although the main stupa was quite common, the base was encircled by elephants of quite surprising detail and still in a good state of preservation.
It was still a few hours until sunset and I didn’t feel like waiting until then for the monuments to be illuminated. After paying the entrance fee, I was allowed to take my motorbike into the park, which surprised me. All of the monuments are in very good condition, likely due to active preservation and some reconstruction.
The main monument of the city, named (unsurprisingly) Wat Mahathat, is a very dense cluster of surprisingly square and angular stupas. They are very unlike any other stupas in Sukhothai or any others I have seen in Thailand. Some of them even look more like Christian steeples than Buddhist stupas. The explanation for this is that many of these smaller stupas were added over the centuries, even some from visiting nations, such as Sri Lanka.
The central square stupa is surrounded on all four sides by a seated Buddha in the ‘Subduing Mara’ position in which he is resisting the temptations of the demon Mara. The same pose as Wat Sri Chum and most of the other Buddha figures around Sukhothai, this seems to be a very meaningful position to Sukhothai in particular.
Likewise, the other nearby temple, which seems to be much more photographed in travel literature than Wat Mahathat is Wat Sa-Si. Located on an artificial island in an artificial pond with its own pond in the center, this temple is perhaps the best remaining example of the pillared sala leading to the Buddha, again in Subduing Mara position, with a stupa erected behind.
Other similar monuments dot the park, but alone and far-flung in on the southern end is Wat Si Sawai. Although it has a 3-pranged Khmer-Hindu design, the prangs are very different from any other Khmer Prangs I’ve seen since, being called Lopburi-style. However, the style is unlike any prangs in Lopburi.
Its style is actually much closer to the later Thai prangs found in Ayutthaya and Bangkok. These are generally single towers of a thin, sleek corncob shape, rather than the gradually rising levels of the Khmer style. However, the 3-towers together with historic accounts of Hindu idols being found there do seem to indicate Wat Si Sawai was a Khmer temple long before Thais turned it into a Buddhist monument.
So what truth was I able to gather out of the legends of Sukhothai? Minus the information I wish I could have gotten from the closed museum, quite a bit I think. The city did obviously begin before it was fully established as a Thai city, as the older Khmer ruins at Wat Si Sawai and Wat Phra Pai Luang suggest.
However, the two brothers said to have overthrown the Khmer-dominated Lavo (Lopburi) and established the city as independent, there doesn’t seem to be any historic record for. Even the historic kings are likely to have been embellished by the story of the Ramkhamhaeng stone, said to have been the first writing system invented by King Ramkhamhaeng. Even in a quick glance at the two writing systems, it’s easy to see that Khmer and Thai are very similar, despite the languages being quite different. Given that the Khmers controlled this region for an extended period of time before the Thai writing system came into being, it’s not a big jump that it evolved from the Khmer alphabet. Although, perhaps it was assisted and standardized by Ramkhamhaeng.
As to the mythic Golden Age, I also have my doubts. It’s unlikely any new state suddenly emerging from the control of another is immediately successful. Within the next century, it’s borders extended north through Laos and south to Malaysia. Also hard to have a Golden Age when you’re constantly warring with your neighbors to subdue them, and even harder for a newly-independent kingdom to raise and maintain an army strong enough to ensure their loyalty. It’s much more likely they were a loose alliance than a dominant empire.
And finally, if they did manage all this, they still fell to a stronger Ayutthaya within 150 year of becoming independent. Allowing one of their subordinate territories to raise a large enough army to replace them as the dominant kingdom doesn’t seem like a move of a kingdom going through Golden Age.
It was with this fall to Ayutthaya that Sukhothai’s sun set and the state that would (after many changes and wars) become modern Thailand began. Sukhothai’s sun was setting for me in a much more literal sense as I finally took my motorcycle from Wat Si Sawai, past to a nearby food festival, and then back to the modern town of Sukhothai about 20 km down the road.