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Sukhothai Land of the happy morning

  It was a warm sunny morning. Under the canopy of a big tree, a group of ladies, most of them in late 50s, were busy snapping up souvenirs before boarding the tram bus. They were on a ride back in time to the lost ancient capital of the Siamese (now Thai) Kingdom, Si Satchanalai. This small city was once the most significant outpost of the Sukhothai era, the first kingdom of Siam -- '

The Land of the Happy Dawn.' This small peaceful town is now a lush green park decorated with Buddhist stone edifices.

  As the bus crawled slowly past temple ruins,

  the rest of the group, younger ones, were trailing on their rented bicycles, not far behind. The first stop is at a brown sandstone stupa called Wat Chang Lom, a bell-shaped chedi on a square base surrounded by sculptured elephants believed to have been built around the 13th century, predating the Sukhothai era. The architecture of the stone elephants are carved in a style originating from Sri Lanka when Theravadha-Sect Buddhism was introduced to Siam.And if Wat Chang Lom is an example of Sukhothai’s religious architecture dominated by its neighboring country’s artistry, its opposite temple, Wat Chedi Chet Theao or 'The Temple of Seven Rows of Stupas' is a mixture of sacred arts from even closer neighbors. The temple has a collection of several dome-shaped monuments, with many resemblances to stupas found in China, Burma and Cambodia; a solid proof that signals the cultural link between Sukhothai and other kingdoms. 

                   Even though many edifices in Si Satchanalai Park are not spectacular, it is the unique style of architecture and the placid ambience of the park that impress most visitors. Indeed, what made Sisatchanalai a significant outpost of Sukhothai was the production of Sankhalok earthenware – glazed pottery with many colors and decorative designs -- the most lucrative exports of the period that made their mark in Malaysia, Japan and the Philippines during the 14th century. 

Some masterpieces of sacred art were also created during this period such as intricate carving patterns of frieze and graceful Buddha statues in a walking posture - believed to originate in Siam. Scholars generally believe that Buddhism and politics in Sukhothai reached their peak in the late 14th century. And this is reflected in the Buddhist structures. Some people assume that the artists must be in the blissful state of mind to create such graceful pieces of arts – most Buddha images built during this period appeared to look calm and sympathetic, making enlightenment appear more attainable. The uniqueness of the sculptures are the reason several areas of Sukhothai Province and the nearby town of Si Satchanalai have been designated as World Heritage sites. 

Perhaps Sukhothai’s proudest invention though is the Thai script still in use today – the Khmer-adapted alphabets were created in the reign of King Ramkhamheang eight centuries ago. As a warrior and a far-sighted statesman, King Ramkamhaeng brought prosperity to the kingdom and expanded the country as far as the Malay Peninsula. The evidence of Sukhothai’s affluence can be seen around Sukhothai town and within its Historical Park, which consists of the city moats, Buddhist stuccoed towers and numerous large Buddha statues enshrined in the roofless temple ruins. 
   A few foreign tourists cycled past us as the group walked across the road to the next set of ruins. Apart from my group, they were the only other visitors. It’s not unusual that only a handful of tourists come to such places. However, the fact that Sukhothai is such a well-kept secret makes it an even more attractive place to visit. Even though most of the architecture centers on the manicured garden of Sukhothai historical park, other religious monuments outside the old city wall such as Wat Sichum and Wat Tra Phang Thong Lang are every bit as lovely. Nowadays, more foreign tourists may stop at Sukhothai for a night or two before heading to Chiang Mai and other northern cities but Sukhothai is a long way from becoming a crowded destination.  
  After almost two hours of wandering around the park, the older ladies looked exhausted and started talking yearningly about lunch. Since food and shopping are major pastimes of Thai people -- especially when they are on a trip, it’s almost impossible to imagine Thai tourists leaving a place without tasting the local food or shopping for handicrafts. After a surprisingly tasty lunch at the roadside restaurant everybody gathered in front of a handicraft shop to listen to Mr Sathorn explaining about his little silk gallery. Mr Sathorn, a former school teacher, is a keen collector of Thai silks with rare traditional patterns. He converted a simple roadside house into a small gallery and induced local folks to maintain their silk weaving skills by sending their products to his shop for sale. The shop offered a variety of silk and cotton products from sleek silk pajamas to cotton wallets. Far from being a tourist trap this is a place where you can find authentic crafted objects made by villagers who care to preserve an important cultural legacy -- the staffers are hospitable and helpful, never pester visitors to buy anything. 

It is a change of pace for Thai people to choose Sukhothai as a weekend getaway instead of Pattaya, Hua Hin or other renowned beach towns. It is a sort of introspective journey where you find enjoyment simply by taking in temple ruins and contemplating the past glories of an ancient kingdom

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