Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai, Thailand – My COVID Silver Linings

There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic was a scourge on the earth, however for me there were a few silver linings amongst the lockdowns and quarantines. One of those silver linings was simply being in Thailand, where the cases were very low and the deaths even lower. To date, with a population of about 70 million (20% of the population of the U.S.) Thailand has had slightly less than 30,000 deaths from COVID. Not only did I feel safer here than I would have in almost any other place in the world, but being unable to travel outside of the country forced me to finally visit some Thai destinations that had long been on my wish list. The most wondrous of these were the ruins of the ancient capital city of Sukhothai and its historic spiritual center of Si Satchanalai.

Thailand Sukhothai Historical Park Central Zone Wat Mahathat Buddha icon closeup
Closeup of the Buddha icon at Wat Mahathat, in the central zone of the Sukhothai Historical Park. Buddha’s left hand lies in his lap, palm up, while the right hand hangs over his right knee, with fingers pointing to the earth. This is the most common Mudra in Thai Wats (temples), and is known as Subduing Mara or Calling the Earth to Witness.

Archeologists believe that Sukhothai was originally part of the Khmer Kingdom, the precursor to present day Cambodia. Constructed during the 12th or early 13th century, it was inhabited by Mon and Khmer people. The original city featured numerous Hindu temples and an extensive network of canals and retention ponds similar to those found at the famous ruins at Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Over time, large numbers of Tai ethnic people migrated from southwest China and intermarried with the locals. Outsiders referred to the Tai as Siam, from which the term Siamese emerged.

Thailand Sukhothai Historical Park Central Zone entrance walkway
Inside the central zone of the Sukhothai Historical Park, a broad walkway shaded by trees leads to the ruins
Thailand Sukhothai Historical Park Central Zone ruins overview
The entrance promenade leads to one of the main ruin sites within the Sukhothai Historical Park central zone
Thailand Sukhothai Historical Park Central Zone Wat Mahathat
The ruins of Wat Mahathat at Sukhothai Historical Park central zone
Thailand Sukhothai Historical Park Central Zone Wat Mahathat
Some of the ancient temple buildings at Wat Mahathat in the central zone of Sukhothai Historical Park are up to 1,000 years old
Thailand Sukhothai Historical Park Central Zone Wat Mahathat
More of the spectacular ruins of Wat Mahathat
Thailand Sukhothai Historical Park Central Zone Wat Mahathat Buddha icon
Buddha icon at the front of the ruins of Wat Mahathat
Thailand Sukhothai Historical Park Central Zone Wat Mahathat Buddha icon head
Serenity and craftsmanship – a closeup of the seated Buddha at Wat Mahathat within the central zone of the Sukhothai Historical Park

After years of warfare with neighboring kingdoms, the Khmer Empire fell into decline. By the dawn of the 13th century, the Tai had won independence from their Khmer rulers. Led by King Si Inthrathit, the villages of central Thailand coalesced into the Kingdom of Sukhothai, becoming the first national capital of what is today Thailand.

Thailand Sukhothai Historical Park Central Zone Wat Sa Si
Remains of Wat Sa Si, located in the central zone of Sukhothai Historical Park
Thailand Sukhothai Historical Park Northern Zone Wat Phra Phai Luang
Wat Phra Phai Luang in the northern zone of the Sukhothai Historical Park. The structure in the center, built prior to the founding of the Kingdom of Siam, is a typical Khmer-style prang
Thailand Sukhothai Historical Park Northern Zone Wat Phra Phai Luang with rare standing striding budda sculpture
This Buddha is found at Wat Phra Phai Luang in the northern zone of the Sukhothai Historical Park. The standing/striding depiction of Buddha is rare.

King Ram Khamhaeng, son of Inthrathit, expanded the boundaries of the kingdom and adopted Theravada Buddhism as the official religion. Successors of Inthrathit and Khamhaeng brought architects and engineers to Sukhothai to build Buddhist temples and monasteries. The facades of the completed structures were plastered with stucco and covered with elaborate carvings.

Thailand Sukhothai Historical Park Northern Zone Wat Si Chum with giant Buddha icon peering out door of temple
Giant Buddha icon peers out the door of Wat Si Chum in the northern zone of Sukhothai Historical Park
Thailand Sukhothai Historical Park Northern Zone Wat Si Chum interior with giant Buddha icon
Giant Buddha icon inside Wat Si Chum
Thailand Sukhothai Historical Park Northern Zone Wat Si Chum interior with closeup of giant Buddha icon
Hand of the enormous Buddha image inside Wat Si Chum, in the northern zone of Sukhothai Historical Park

Word of Sukhothai’s stunning architecture and prolific monasteries spread far and wide, attracting Buddhist monks from across Asia. By the end of the 14th century, Sukhothai was one of the largest centers of Buddhism in the world. For the next 150 years, the Kingdom of Sukhothai flourished as a center of architecture, culture and art. Among the most notable accomplishments was the perfection of a process to produce high quality ceramics. Pieces produced in Sukhothai were in high demand and were exported throughout Southeast Asia.

Thailand Sukhothai Historical Park Central Zone Wat Si Sawai built as Hindu temple in Khmer style
Three prongs of Wat Si Sawai, located in the central zone of the Sukhothai Historic Park. Built as Hindu temple in Khmer style prior to the existence of Thailand, it was converted to a Buddhist temple after the fall of the Khmer Kingdom
Thailand Sukhothai Historical Park Central Zone Wat Si Sawai with a carving of the Hindu god Vishnu over door lintel
The center prang of Wat Si Sawai still displays a carving of the Hindu god Vishnu over its door lintel

“Interestingly, the new rulers converted the old Hindu temples into Buddhist Wats rather than raze them.”

Thailand Sukhothai Historical Park Northern Zone Wat Sorasak
The base of Wat Sorasak, located in the northern zone of Sukhothai Historical Park, is held up by stone elephants
Thailand Sukhothai Historical Park Western Zone Wat Saphan Hin atop high hill
Atop a hill in the western zone Sukhothai Historical Park, a massive standing Buddha towers above Wat Saphan Hin

During this period, a distinct style of art emerged that became known as the Sukhothai style. Defined by graceful curves and elegant lines, it is best known for its bell-shaped stupas and lotus-bud finials. These characteristics are still visible today in the extensive ruins of what was once the cities of Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai. Interestingly, the new rulers converted the old Hindu temples into Buddhist Wats rather than raze them. The eclectic mixture of the newer Buddhist architecture with Hindu-style prangs, some of which still feature carvings of Shiva above the door lintels, is one of the more fascinating aspects of the ruins.

Thailand Si Satchanalai Historical Park Wat Wat Ched Thaeo complex
Wat Wat Chedi Ched Thaeo complex at Si Satchanalai Historical Park. While Sukhothai was the arts and culture center for the Kingdom of Sukhothai, the monasteries at Si Satchanalai were the kingdom’s spiritual center
Thailand Si Satchanalai Historical Park Wat Wat Ched Thaeo
Wat Chedi Ched Thaeo at Si Satchanalai Historical Park. Note the graceful lotus bud tip on the Chedi at left.
Thailand Si Satchanalai Historical Park Wat Wat Ched Thaeo with golden Buddha icon
Golden Buddha carved into a stupa at Wat Chedi Ched Thaeo in Si Satchanalai Historical Park

Alas, the Kingdom of Sukhothai was to meet the same fate as its predecessor when it became too powerful. Ayutthaya, a rival Thai kingdom in the south, perceived Sukhothai as a threat and challenged its sovereignty. Gradually, Ayutthaya annexed or conquered territories belonging to Sukhothai. By 1438, Sukhothai had succumbed and Ayutthaya became the new capital city of Thailand.

Thailand Si Satchanalai Historical Park Wat Wat Phra Si Ratanamahathat Rajvorsvihara
Wat Phra Si Ratanamahathat Rajvorsvihara at Si Satchanalai Historical Park
Thailand Si Satchanalai Historical Park Wat Phra Si Ratanamahathat Rajvorsvihara
Duo of Buddha icons at Wat Phra Si Ratanamahathat Rajvorsvihara, Si Satchanalai Historical Park
Thailand Si Satchanalai Historical Park Wat Phra Si Ratanamahathat Rajvorsvihara
Standing Buddha at Wat Phra Si Ratanamahathat Rajvorsvihara, Si Satchanalai Historical Park

The ruins of Sukhothai, Si Satchanalai, and a third nearby district known as Kamphaeng Phet, were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991. The historic areas are separated from present day villages and have been designated as National Parks. The only development allowed within the historic boundaries is that deemed necessary for site protection, conservation, and interpretation. All roads have been diverted around the parks and the historic landscapes of the sites have been preserved. Activities within and around the monuments (most of which are the remains of former temples or Buddhist monasteries) are strictly controlled.

Thailand Si Satchanalai Historical Park Wat Phra Si Ratanamahathat Rajvorsvihara with Khmer prang and Buddha icon
Wat Phra Si Ratanamahathat Rajvorsvihara with Khmer-style prang behind the seated Buddha icon, Si Satchanalai Historical Park
Thailand Si Satchanalai Historical Park Wat Phra Si Ratanamahathat Rajvorsvihara Khmer style chedi
The Khmer-style Chedi at Wat Phra Si Ratanamahathat Rajvorsvihara, Si Satchanalai Historical Park

“In my opinion, these conservation efforts ensure that Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai are among the best preserved and well managed historic sites in the world.”

Thailand Sukhothai street scene in Old Sukhothai village
The present day village of Sukhothai, located a short distance from the Sukhothai Historical Park, is also worth a visit
Thailand Sukhothai Chedi at Wat Traphang Thong in Old Sukhothai village
The Pagoda at Wat Traphang Thong, located in present-day Sukhothai village
Thailand Sukhothai Wat Traphang Thong in Old Sukhothai village Holy Pond Well
The Holy Pond Well at Wat Traphang Thong in present-day Sukhothai village. Water from this well is one of three sources of sacred water that is used in Royal weddings and events.Most recently, water from this well was carried to Bangkok to be used in the Coronation of King Rama X.
Thailand Sukhothai Wat Traphang Thong in Old Sukhothai village memorial to Phra Ruang folktale
This sculpture at Wat Traphang Thong in present-day Sukhothai village depicts the local folktale about Phra Ruang, a monk who is said to have transformed a Khmer assassin into solid rock

In my opinion, these conservation efforts ensure that Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai are among the best preserved and well managed historic sites in the world. At Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai I felt like I had entered a portal that transported me 800 years back in time. Traffic sounds were replaced by birds chirping. There were no backpackers climbing on ancient walls to perform Yoga poses. There was no trash on the ground. The handful of visitors I encountered spoke in hushed tones as they gaped at massive Buddha images within ancient temples. The experience was ethereal and otherworldly.

I later learned later that the word Sukhothai means “Dawn of Happiness” or “Emergence of Joy” in Sanskrit. I cannot think of a better description for these historic ruins and I am extremely grateful that I got to experience them at the height of COVID, when few people were traveling. The crowds will undoubtedly return, but even if they do, Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai should be on the itinerary of anyone planning a visit to Thailand.

21 thoughts on “Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai, Thailand – My COVID Silver Linings”

  1. I must say that I learned much more about this historic site from your post with all the gorgeous pictures than I ever did when I visited there over six years ago. I was on my way to Bangkok to get my flight back to Canada so like you since I had never been to Sukanthai after so many visits to Thailand, I decided to spend a day and night there. Not nearly enough time to see it all as you did. Thanks for taking me back again.

    Betty

    Reply
  2. Barbara, thank you for all these gorgeous photos and history. I’ve never been to Thailand, unlike many Americans, but I’ve always been curious about the ancient history, especially the spiritual centers. This is a wondeful article!
    Take care & continue to wow us with your interesting, arresting articles
    Morgan

    Reply
      • Hi Barbara, just found your article through a link in an article about solo women travelers. I’m on my first adventure alone after 25 years (when I ventured out alone at 25) and am inspired by your story. As it happens I’ll be in Chang Mai next month (September 2022) and thought it would be lovely to hear more and meet you, if you’ll have me :). Hope to hear back !

        Reply
        • Hi Lena: Normally I would love to meet up, however I am about to hit the road for two months, so I won’t be in Chiang Mai after September 14. If you’re here earlier than that, I’ll do my best to make time, but I’m sure you know how crazy it gets as time winds down before a trip.

          Reply
  3. Good to hear from you again! This was an excellent commentary. I enjoyed reading and seeing your beautiful photos.
    Stay well. We here in NJ are still seeing many new cases of COVID a each day. One day last week over 5,000 new cases reported.
    We (my wife and I) are not vaccinated so our travel the past 2 yrs has been nonexistent.
    Looking forward to your next destination.

    Reply
    • Hi Mark. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. It really helps me to keep on keepin’ on, if you know what I mean. Always good to know that real eyeballs are reading what I write.

      Reply
  4. What an interesting history with beautiful pictures. I have enjoyed your travels for many years and am always glad to receive another travelogue.
    Thank you,
    Lynn

    Reply

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