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The marvels of Sukhothai in northern Thailand

Adding to the lure and mystique of Sukhothai, the emperor of Japan and his wife visit the former capital of northern Thailand.
Adding to the lure and mystique of Sukhothai, the emperor of Japan and his wife visit the former capital of northern Thailand.
Photo by Pool/Getty Images

Some of the earliest traces of human culture can be found in the Southeast Asian nation of Thailand. For example, it is evident that Homo erectus passed through Thailand on their way down the Malay Peninsula, where their remains have been unearthed on the Indonesian island of Java. The earliest traces of inhabitation come from the Ban Chiang culture (4,000 BCE to 500 CE), named after the village of Ban Chiang in northeast Thailand. Here the earliest Southeast Asian high culture emerged by producing impressive jewelry items and weapons out of bronze. The people of Ban Chiang also produced beautiful earthenware pots, some embellished with curving and spiral designs. This early culture must have held a profound belief in the afterlife, because many of these objects were found buried in graves. Like the Egyptians, they buried personal objects with the body so the deceased would have their necessary items in the next world.
The art and architecture of Thailand were largely produced in the service of Theravada Buddhism, which was introduced from India in the 5th century CE. Thailand is the largest Buddhist nation in Southeast Asia and has nearly 20,000 temples (wats) and monasteries scattered throughout the cities and countryside. Although animism is practiced in the ubiquitous Thai spirit houses seen everywhere, its mixture with Buddhism is easily tolerated by the mellow Thai people. The result is the gentlest and most liberal form of Buddhism practiced today. Glittering Buddhist temples and shrines are scattered around Thailand. Most young men continue to embrace monkhood for a short time, usually for one year. Religious festivals and visits to Buddhist temples are an integral part of Thai life, but influence from the West is becoming more and more apparent, such as strip malls and Western fashion.
The Khmers of Angkor were the first to settle Sukhothai, establishing the site originally as a major frontier post. As Khmer power waned, several rival kingdoms emerged in peninsular Thailand in the 13th century CE, each vying for regional power. The most notable kingdom was Sukhothai, being founded in 1238, when several northern Thailand kings unified to drive the Khmers out of their frontier post. The son of a rebellious king named Ramkhamhaeng rose to power and eventually unified the country. He was Thailand’s first great king and chose Sukhothai as his capital. King Ramkhamhaeng ascended the throne in 1278, ruled for 40 years, and became known as a fair and just ruler. His reputation became legendary—much like King Arthur in England—with Sukhothai as his fabled court. King Ramkhamhaeng opened political relations with China, visited Emperor Kublai Khan in 1282, and returned with Chinese artisans and the basis for a new Thai alphabet. Sukhothai came to represent early Thai society in its purest form—a period when citizens were allowed to pursue their chosen livelihood. During his reign there was a high degree of prosperity and happiness. In fact, the name Sukhothai translates into “the dawn of happiness.”

The magnificent ruins of Sukhothai in northern Thailand will dazzle any visitor
Brad Olsen

Early on Sukhothai emerged as the first independent Thai kingdom. As a result the ancient city became exalted as ushering in the golden era of Thailand history.

Sukhothai was originally founded by the Khmers, who left behind three buildings and a sophisticated water irrigation system like those they constructed at Angkor, Cambodia. After the Angkorian outpost was evacuated, the Thais moved in and started constructing their own buildings. First built was a massive wall protecting the inner city, including two moats, three earthen ramparts, and four gates. At one of the gates King Ramkhamhaeng set up a bell, where, if his subjects needed help settling a dispute, they could ring the bell and he would emerge and dispense justice. Within the inner city there were at least 35 monuments, including Buddhist temples and 70 more in the immediate area, most repeating familiar architectural themes. Unfortunately, the Thais eschewed the intricate Khmer irrigation system and when the Yom River changed its course, the city dried up. This is believed to have led to the city’s demise after serving as the capital for 120 years.
The Thais of Sukhothai adopted Theravada Buddhism, distinguishing themselves from the Hindu influence of the Cambodian kings. The Khmers left behind statues of Hindu gods such as Vishnu and Shiva, while the elegant Theravada Buddha images of Sukhothai – replete with parrot’s beak noses and elongated faces – were housed in temples of brick, many of which can still be seen today. Ever since the founding of Sukhothai, Buddhism has been deeply rooted in the Thai way of life. A common statue is the characteristic sitting Buddha in a lotus posture with his hands resting in a gesture of meditation, conveying both spiritual strength and solidity. Most statues of the Buddha were carved for placement at a Buddhist stupa or monastery. His elongated earlobes, the lotus marks on his palms, the cranial bump with the flame of wisdom, and the third eye of insight together identify the Thai image of a Buddha.
Getting to Sukhothai
Sukhothai is located about 267 miles (427 km) north of Bangkok. There is a New Sukhothai of modern buildings and an Old Sukhothai where the ancient capital resides, about seven miles (12 km) apart. Public transportation from other Thai cities access New Sukhothai, where most of the accommodations and restaurants are, while people seeking the ruins of Old Sukhothai usually take a shuttle or tuk-tuk (small taxi) out to the site. There is regular bus service from Bankgkok’s Northern Terminal to Old Sukhothai. New Sukhothai is best reached by tour bus, or a private vehicle up Route 1 to Tak, then Highway 105 west.

© Brad Olsen, 2014. Excerpted from Brad Olsen’s sixth book: Sacred Places Around the World: 108 Destinations by CCC Publishing. This is the fourth book in the “Sacred Places: 108 Destinations” series. Order it today through CCC Publishing, or call (800) 888-4741 during regular working hours.