Things to do in Sukhothai

In the first capital of Siam, there’s a wonderful collection of historic monuments from this great city.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

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The best things to do in Sukhothai

Much of the ancient capital still remains and you can easily spend a couple of days in Sukhothai exploring the ruins of the temples and monasteries.

But some of the best Sukhothai attractions are beyond the ancient city centre, in the surrounding region.

Long before the modern Thailand that we know today, about a thousand years ago, most of the land here was controlled by the Khmer Empire of Cambodia. But in 1238, a new kingdom began to rise in the north, one that was finally able to repel the might of the Khmer.

This new kingdom was called Sukhothai and it would become the first capital of Siam. Sukhothai expanded its power across much of Thailand and ruled for almost 200 years, until the kingdom of Ayutthaya rose up and became the next political capital of Siam.

The best things to do in Sukhothai

When you visit today, you’ll discover there are so many things to do in Sukhothai. This city-state was not just powerful, it was also wealthy, and it created a magnificent centre of palaces, temples, and monasteries. Although none have survived completely intact since the capital’s decline in the 14th century, the most important monuments still paint a vivid picture of how Sukhothai once was.

Visiting Sukhothai today starts with an exploration of these historic temples. Some are in a historic fortified city centre where the king and nobility lived. Others are spread throughout the surrounding forest, amongst tranquil nature where monks would once have prayed and meditated in peace.

But you’ll also find that there are a lot of cultural activities in Sukhothai, where you can learn about the traditions and try your hand at some of the iconic art and religious practices.

Morning monks in Sukhothai, Thailand

Beyond that, some of the best things to do in Sukhothai offer you an authentic look into regional Thailand, away from the heavily touristed areas of Bangkok, the southern islands, or even Chiang Mai. There are plenty of facilities here to make a visit easy, but it feels much more relaxed.

Why is Sukhothai famous?

Sukhothai is famous as the first capital of Siam. The city is about 400 kilometres north of Bangkok and was founded in 1238. It was the political centre of the Sukhothai Kingdom for almost two centuries and there’s a wonderful collection of temples and other monuments to see here.

Is Sukhothai worth visiting?

Sukhothai is famous as the first capital of Siam. The city is about 400 kilometres north of Bangkok and was founded in 1238. It was the political centre of the Sukhothai Kingdom for almost two centuries and there’s a wonderful collection of temples and other monuments to see here.

How many days should I spend in Sukhothai?

Although you can see the highlights of the historic centre in a day, it will feel rushed and you’ll miss out on a lot. I recommend two full days as a minimum in Sukhothai – not including side trips to Si Satchanalai or Kamphaeng Phet. Three days in Sukhothai is probably the perfect amount so you can also do some cultural experiences.

At its apex, Sukhothai probably had almost 100,000 people living here. For the most part, they were happy people, with abundant rice paddies, fish in the river, and relative peace. The name Sukhothai even means ‘dawn of happiness’.

You can also see this in the Buddha statues that remain within the temples. The people here developed what is now called the ‘Sukhothai Style’ and one of its features is a Buddha who has a slight smile and arched eyebrows, which supposedly represent the happiness of the city’s residents.

Things to do in Sukhothai: Temples

The people who live here today tell me they’re also happy – that they like being in an important city, but one that’s not as hectic as Bangkok or Chiang Mai. As a visitor, you may not have to go to the modern city, though, because most of the interesting things to do in Sukhothai are around the old town from centuries ago.

This is where you’ll find the majority of the temples, many of the cultural experiences, and also a good selection of hotels and places to eat. The old town of Sukhothai is about 10 kilometres from the modern town, so it’s a fair commute otherwise (especially by bicycle).

Things to do in Sukhothai: Historical Park

So, with all that in mind, let’s have a look at how to spend a few days in Sukhothai, with my top suggestions for what to do in Sukhothai.

Sukhothai Historical Park (Central)

Let’s start at the Sukhothai Historical Park, the core of the World Heritage Site, and the reason that most visitors come here. It’s really the main attraction out of all the things to do in Sukhothai.

The first thing to understand is that the Sukhothai Historical Park is actually divided into five different sections – Central, Northern, Western, Southern, and Eastern. There’s a separate 100 B entrance fee for each of the Central, Northern, and Western zones (plus 10 B each time for your bicycle). The Southern and Eastern zones are free.

I’ll cover the other sections shortly, but I want to first focus on the Central zone because it’s where you’ll find most of the main temples of Sukhothai.

Sukhothai Historical Park

The centre of the Sukhothai Kingdom was once here, within the fortified walls that were 1.8 km long and 1.6 km wide. It’s where the king lived, in a grand palace that no longer exists. And it’s also where some of the most important temples in Sukhothai were built for important ceremonies and for the king to worship.

These are about half a dozen temples here, including Wat Sorasak and Wat Traphang Ngoen, which I’m not going to mention in great detail. But I do want to tell you about these most important sights:

Wat Mahathat

If you were to do just one thing in Sukhothai, this would be it. Wat Mahathat is the most important site in the city and it’s believed to be the place where Buddha’s relics were enshrined.

Wat Mahathat, Sukhothai

It’s a large temple that has the main chedi (Thai stupa) at the front in the shape of a lotus bud. Around it are 200 smaller chedis of different sizes that you can wander amongst as you explore.

Wat Sa Si

Wat Sa Si is probably the most scenic of the temples in this section because it’s set on an island in the middle of a large water reservoir. You’ll walk across a narrow bridge to reach it.

Wat Sa Si, Sukhothai

A statue of Buddha sits at the end of the rows of stone columns that would once have supported the roof of the assembly hall. The shape of the chedi is interesting because it’s Sri Lankan style, which shows the prevalence of Sinhalese Buddhism.

Wat Si Sawai

If you think Wat Si Sawai looks different to many of the other temples here, you would be right. It’s older than most of the others and was built in the Khmer style, with three tall prangs (towers) at the back.

Wat Si Sawai, Sukhothai, Thailand

Because the temple was founded before the Sukhothai Kingdom, it still has some Hindu images, including a Shiva image, but it was later converted into a Buddhist site.

Ramkhamhaeng National Museum

Although you’ll get a good sense of ancient Sukhothai from the temples, the most important items from these sights have been collected and put on display in the Ramkhamhaeng National Museum, opposite the Historical Park’s main entrance.

There’s a good collection of sculptures that lead you through the evolution of the cultural styles here and show how Sukhothai was connected to other parts of Asia.

Ramkhamhaeng National Museum, Sukhothai

One of the most significant items, here is the Ramkhamhaeng Inscription, a stone block engraved on all four sides with the story of Sukhothai, dated 1292. Not only is it a wealth of historical knowledge, it’s considered to be the first example of the Thai script.

The upstairs of the museum then has more exhibitions about the life in Sukhothai and other aspects like the ingenious water system. The entry fee is 150 B.

Other temples

As well as seeing the main temples in the Central Zone, I think it’s also worth visiting some of the outer zones of the Sukhothai Historical Park.

The Northern and Western zones each have significant sites that are amongst the best things to see in Sukhothai. The Southern and Eastern zones are less important and could be skipped – but they are free and so it may make sense to cycle through them at some point during your visit to Sukhothai.

Northern Historical Park

The best temple to visit in the Northern zone is Wat Si Chum – a must-see in Sukhothai. It’s famous for its huge 15-metre-high Buddha statue enclosed within four walls, which you can see as you arrive but doesn’t truly reveal itself until you go inside.

There’s a passageway up through the left wall that leads to an opening near the Buddha’s head. Legend says that the king once spoke through it to nervous soldiers, pretending to be Buddha and encouraging them to fight.

Wat Si Chum, Sukhothai

Nearby is Wat Phra Phai Luang, which appears to be on an island because it has a large moat around it. You can see stucco reliefs here that are similar to one on the main stupa at Wat Mahathat, as well as the remains of a building that once held four large Buddha sculptures in different poses.

And this is where you’ll also find Tao Thu Riang, the ancient kilns that were used to make ceramics that Sukhothai was famous for. I’ll tell you more about the ceramics soon, but it’s interested to see these large ovens that were close together and basically operated as the industrial zone of the historic city.

Western Historical Park

The Western part of the Sukhothai Historical Park feels even more tranquil than the main section – and that’s because it was. This is a forested area where the monks would live and meditate away from the political centre and the more ceremonial temples.

The most important site here is Wat Saphan Hin, a temple at the top of a 200-metre-high hill. It’s not large, with just a standing Buddha on a stone platform with two rows of columns, but you get a great view and it’s pretty atmospheric. You’ll need to walk up the steps to reach the top, but the king used to visit and come up by elephant!

Wat Saphan Hin, Sukhothai

Most of the other temples in this area (and there are around a dozen of them) are quite small and won’t be as dazzling as the large ones you’ve seen in the centre. But I do love the way they’re almost hidden amongst the trees of the forest. It’s a lovely bike ride and you won’t see many other tourists.

Southern Historical Park

In the south, you’ll find about eight temples but none of them is particularly large or significant (which is why there’s no entry fee for this area).

One temple of note, though, is Wat Chetuphon, which has the remains of a structure that would’ve have four Buddha statues in different poses on the cardinal points. You can see some of the figures still in place.

Cycling in Sukhothai Historical Park

The historical sites here are a little spread out (Wat Chetuphon is about 1.5 km from the Central zone wall, for instance) but, again, it’s a nice bike ride.

Eastern Historical Park

Like the Southern section, the temples in the east are not relatively significant and there are none that I think you would regret not seeing.

The most interesting of them is Wat Tra Phang Thong Lang, which is known for its stuccoed reliefs depicting the story of Buddha on three sides of the mandapa building.

Unlike the southern temples, the Eastern section is closer to the main part of the Historical Park and many of the temples are actually next to hotels or restaurants that you might be going to. It’s quite easy just to see a few of them when you’re in the area.

Cultural experiences

One of the heartening things about the heritage of Sukhothai is that the culture has continued on through the generations. Even after the collapse of the Sukhothai Kingdom, the influence on elements like Buddhism and art continued – and we can still see it today.

To understand the history and how it’s woven into modern life in Thailand, I would recommend some of these cultural things to do in Sukhothai.

Alms giving

All across Thailand, the daily alms rounds are an important part of Theravada Buddhism, and you’ve possibly seen the monks somewhere walking the streets with their bowls in hand. The idea is that traditionally monks didn’t earn an income, so local people donated some food for that day’s meals.

Throughout Sukhothai, monks will still walk their local streets in the morning, but there’s a special gathering at 6:20 each morning at Wat Traphang Thong, a temple on an island in a lake. Here, the monks will walk along a wooden bridge to receive offerings (food and other gifts) from the waiting crowd.

Alms giving, Sukhothai

It’s designed to be accessible for tourists, but it’s still a completely authentic experience that many Thais attend as a way to show their appreciation to the local monastery.

Ceramic workshop

There were many reasons that the Sukhothai Kingdom became so wealthy and powerful, but one of them was the ceramics industry that was centred here (in Sukhothai and nearby Si Satchanalai). The city had enormous underground kilns that were used to make vast numbers of ceramic items, often decorated with a translucent green glaze.

Today, there are still families that make these ceramics the traditional way, running their kilns from their neighbourhood homes that have expanded to feel like small factories. Some of them offer workshops, where you can learn the Sukhothai style and paint items that you can take away.

Ceramics workshop, Sukhothai

A popular ceramics workshop near the Historical Park is Suthep Sangkhalok, located on a charming local street that is easy to cycle to.

Amulet making

An essential part of Buddhism in Thailand are the Buddha amulets, also known as votive tablets. These small amulets with images of Buddha or monks are given to worshippers after they have made a donation or an offering, and they’re supposed to bring good luck.

Votive tablets are often placed in stupas as they are constructed and around the Sukhothai region, with so many temples falling into disrepair over the centuries, old amulets from the height of the kingdom have been found at the archaeological sites.

Amulet making, Sukhothai

At Ban Pra Phim, not far from the centre of Sukhothai, you can see a collection of local amulets and take part in a workshop to make your own ones. Led by specialist guide Narongchai Toain, you’ll use moulds to shape local clay, which in this case is made from a mixture of limestone with sugar cane, banana, sea-shell powder, fat from buffalo skin, and plant resin.

Local food

Of course, one of the best things to do in Sukhothai is to try the local food – but you could probably say that about almost anywhere in Thailand, right? Everywhere has its own specialties – and here the most famous local dish is simply called ‘Sukhothai noodles’.

Sukhothai noodles are thin rice noodles with slices of roast pork. What makes them stand out from other similar dishes is that they’re served with green beans, salted turnip, and ground peanut. You can get them with or without soup – the version with stock is quite different because that’s where a lot of the spices are.

Around Sukhothai

The historical park is usually the main focus for visitors, but there are other things to do around Sukhothai that are quite interesting.

Bike ride

One thing I would recommend is exploring by bicycle. It’s definitely the best way to see the historical park, because cars aren’t allowed in to the central areas (and it can get pretty hot walking between the temples), but you can also explore around Sukhothai by bike.

There is a bike path that connects the modern city with the historic centre, and this trail away from the traffic also leads past some smaller temples and other interesting sites.

Cycling tour in Sukhothai

But I think one of the best things you can do is join this cycling tour that will take you through the countryside and give you an incredible insight into the region. It’s run by a local family and is such a rewarding experience.

Holy Heartland

If you fly into Sukhothai, you may see the Holy Heartland on your approach – and, in fact, the best view of the site is from the air. Because the Holy Heartland is an enormous heart-shaped reservoir with an island, also shaped like a heart, at its centre.

Construction of the reservoir began in 2002 but the island was only built in 2010 after the discovery of a 14th-century bronze Buddha statue, found submerged in the waters of the Yom River.

Holy Heartland, Sukhothai

The island, which you reach by walking across a causeway, has a temple structure in the middle to house the statue, known as Phra Phuttha Ratanasiri Sukhothai. At the tip of the island is a Bodhi tree planted from a cutting of the Mahabodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya in India where Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment.

Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary

About an hour’s drive north of Sukhothai, Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary was founded to protect elephants and give them somewhere safe to live. Unfortunately it’s important to have somewhere like this, because many elephants are still being rescued from tourism, while others that were used for industries like logging can’t be released to the wild.

Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary currently has about ten animals, which are able to take part in natural behaviour like foraging, swimming, and dust baths.

Most people visit for a number of days, spending time at the sanctuary with the elephants, helping with activities like gathering food, walking the animals to grazing grounds, shopping in the villages, and more.

Day trips

As the capital of the empire, Sukhothai gets much of the attention – from both historians and from visitors. But other cities in the surrounding area were also extremely important, as outposts and political centres in their own right.

It’s certainly worth giving yourself enough time to visit some of the other important areas around Sukhothai – especially those that are included in the World Heritage Site.

Si Satchanalai

About 45 kilometres north of Sukhothai, Si Satchanalai was considered the second city of the empire, and the historical park is part of the World Heritage Site. It was a spiritual centre of the kingdom, and was also one of the main workshops for the ceramics that were such an important trading commodity.

When you visit, you’ll find that there are lots of things to see in Si Satchanalai. Most of the important landmarks are in the centre of the Si Satchanalai Historical Park, which is surrounded by 3.8 kilometres of fortified walls.

Si Satchanalai, Thailand

Highlights include Wat Chang Lom and its elephant sculputres around the base, Wat Chedi Ched Thaeo with a total of 33 stupas, and Wat Nang Phaya which is significant for its intricate stucco on the southern wall.

Another important sight not to be missed is Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat, where you’ll find the statue of a beautiful walking Buddha that has become a symbol of the region.

Kamphaeng Phet

To the south, about 65 kilometres from Sukhothai, the city of Kamphaeng Phet was a large urban centre that, as well as being an important trading centre, served as a military base to protect the kingdom from invaders heading north.

A bit like Sukhothai, Kamphaeng Phet had an urban centre and then a forest zone, full of temples and monasteries. Both areas are part of the World Heritage Site.

Kamphaeng Phet, Thailand

The City Zone is dominated by the vast Wat Phra Kaeo and adjacent Wat Phra That, which would have been the main temple for the king and features impressive stupas and statues.

I think the more interesting temples are actually in the Forest Zone, where they sit in a tranquil environment of dappled light amongst the tall trees. Highlights are the largest of Wat Phra Non, the beautiful Wat Chang Rob surrounded by 68 elephant sculptures, and Wat Phra Si Ariyabot that has four Buddhas placed in unusual curving walls.

Ramkhamhaeng National Park

It’s not all historical buildings around Sukhothai. There’s also beautiful wilderness here, and some of the best landscapes can be found in Ramkhamhaeng National Park, about 25 kilometres south of the Sukhothai Historical Park.

The national park is quite mountainous and you’ll find waterfalls amongst the rocky areas, along with wild animals and dense forests. There are hiking trails to explore different parts of the park, and you can even camp if you’re able to organise the equipment.

Because of its proximity to Sukhothai, there are also quite a few historical sites within the national park from the time of the Sukhothai Kingdom. The wilderness here was mentioned in old documents from that era, so we know that it held a special place in the community even back then.

THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN SUKHOTHAI

I would recommend staying near the Sukhothai Historical Park… although you do get slightly cheaper rooms in the modern city.

BACKPACKER

Being in the modern city is a little inconvenient for sightseeing, but you can’t argue with the $5 dorm rooms at Rueang Sri SiRi Guest House!

BUDGET

You’ll get amazing value at OldTown Boutique House, which has lovely clean rooms just a short stroll from Sukhothai’s main sights.

BOUTIQUE

My favourite accommodation in the city is Legendha Sukhothai Hotel, which has traditional architecture and a great breakfast.

LUXURY

The most luxurious accommodation in Sukhothai is Sriwilai Sukhothai, with an incredible pool and beautiful views across the countryside.

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1 thought on “Things to do in Sukhothai”

  1. I have visited Sukhothai on numerous occasions and never cease to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of the historical park. It is well maintained, the visitors are very respectful of the place and hiring a self drive electric buggy is both a fun and convenient way to get around at your own pace. the Ramkamhaeng Museum is full of fascinating and beautiful artifacts and on a hot day it is a gorgeous air conditioned refuge. I usually spend 3 days in the city and always feel that an additional day would have been worthwhile, but then I do have plenty of time on my hands. I highly recommend Sukhothai to anyone who enjoys history and culture with which Thailand is so richly endowed.

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