"How would you like to spend 30
years on a grand plan to humiliate your neighbor, but at the end of it
all, though you look better than you did 30 years prior, still appear
the bigger fool. That's the Sukhothai story the Tourism Authority
of Thailand doesn't tell you."
Thailand is not the first country in the region anyone ever thinks
of when impressive ruins are mentioned. Burma and Cambodia trump
Thailand on every measure. But of the ruins in Thailand one is
willing to see once he's in Thailand, Sukhothai tops the list.
There are two Sukhothais. Old Sukhothai is the area you'll be
interested in, the place that contains nearly 200 ruins in a 70 square
kilometer area. Then, there's the modern Sukhothai, known as New
Sukhothai, a place much like any other small Thai city except it gets
the tourists because of its proximity to Old Sukhothai.
Wat Sa Si is
a real hoot for ducks, swimmers, and oarsmen. Too bad the best
ducks, swimmers, and oarsman are on the waters near Angkor Wat (Cambodia)
So where to stay, Old
Sukhothai or New Sukhothai? We live in a disposable
culture today. Everyone wants the new. Let's say
bought a brand new iPhone Z a year ago. When the
iPhone Z+1 is released, you're going to rush out and buy
that one, too. You have to keep up appearances.
Your first inclination then would be to head towards the
new, to New Sukhothai. But what the hell is in New
from looking at the map, but hey, Doug's Republic isn't the
site that told you to dilly dally with the New. We're
telling you if you want to taste Sukhothai, then taste the Old.
Thailand announced that it wanted to do
something with the old ruins of Sukhothai back in the early
1960's. The actual historical park project, however,
took years to execute, and the park didn't open for the
first visitor until 1988. If plans are ever announced
to expand the park, you'll have to still be alive by the
twenty-second century to experience the additions.
Doug's Trip To
The father was visiting me for a
month in 2008. I slotted in a two-night stay in (Old)
Sukhothai on the way down from Chiang Rai. Two nights, possibly
three, is adequate for any normal visitor. The plan was to
spend a full day exploring the historical park, and if you were
here for three nights and two days, you could allot another day
for park exploration, slowing down your pace of exploration.
From Sukhothai, we'd fly on Bangkok Airways to Bangkok and catch
an onward flight with Bangkok Airways to
Koh Samui. Bangkok Airways owns the airport in
Sukhothai; it's the only airline flying in and out, so as a
result, the prices given the distance flown is dear.
Sukhothai holding its own or trying to (l to
r): Doug at the Thanaburi, one of the few hotels/resorts
located in old Sukhothai, location for the
historical park; standing before the
soon-to-be-renovated Wat Mahathat, the largest and
most important temple in Sukhothai; feeling like a
midget next to Buddha at Wat Si Chum
With only a single full day to explore the ruins, I didn't even consider
the New, booking us in a
two-bedroom suite right in the Old, a sound decision all around.
We were free to explore a temple, rush back to our two-bedroom suite and
drink a beer, see another temple, return to the room for another beer or
vodka, and then see more temples before the historical park closed at 5
PM, and still catch the sunset with a cool beer from our small porch
behind our two-bedroom suite.
Wat Mahathat is the most important temple in Sukhothai. It's
almost 800 years old and comprised of over 200 structures.
Impressed yet? When my father and I stopped by, it was under
extensive renovation. The masses also rave about Wat Si Chum
1.5 km away. A stucco covered Buddha about 40 feet in width gets
kissed by Buddha devotees. The father was craving some serious
exercise and without a racetrack in the vicinity, we hiked up
Wat Saphan Hin. It's only a 300 meter ascent, but any exercise
is better than no exercise. Elephant-lovers can get off
drinking a Chang beer (the word 'chang' is Thai for elephant) as they
stroke the art work at
Wat Chang Rop.
Wat Phra Phai Luang is something special indeed. The
temple pre-dates the founding of Sukhothai and was built sometime in the
twelfth century. Upon construction, it was a Mahayana Buddhist temple,
the type of Buddhism common to East Asia and the more prevalent type
found throughout the world. After the founding of Sukhothai, Phra
Phai Luang was converted to a Theravada Buddhist temple. Theravada
Buddhism remains Thailand's cornerstone religion to this day.
When I was in Cambodia, I noticed Hindu temples that later became
Buddhist ones, but Wat Phra Phai Luang marked the first time I'd ever
visited a temple that had flipped from one from form of Buddhism to
another. A conversion might be like altering your
preference on your hamburger from pickles, lettuce, and ketchup to
pickles, lettuce, ketchup, and a bit of onion. The flavor is
slightly different, but the overall caloric content is identical --
unless the onions are deep fried. Buddhism is a non-violent religion.
I don't see one sect holding a sword to the other's and forcing a mass
Buddhism differences: like
night and day or more like a Quarter Pounder vs a
Quarter Pounder with Cheese?
No Match For Cambodia, But Does It
Sukhothai is Thailand's
best shot to snag the ruins-loving tourist market, and it's an admirable shot. The problem is . . . well, it's simple.
Sukhothai ain't Angkor Wat. Siem Riep, the town closest to
Angkor Wat, is a tiny town and
can't handle tens of millions of tourists, but desperate
to suck in the tourist dollar to generate foreign currency, in 2005 alone
without much effort, Siem Riep reaped
over 1m tourists, significantly more than it should have
been handling at that time with its current infrastructure. Siem Riep's local population grew by 50% in a three year period between
2002 and 2005, putting the tiny town under the stress of
rapid expansion. Sukhothai could never expect to attract
similar numbers to its historical park, and it's
probably a battle Thailand is best off losing. Considering its location 427 km north of Bangkok, Sukhothai attracts
less visitors than the far less spectacular historical ruins of Ayuthaya, which itself can't compete with Angkor Wat.
The big difference: Angkor Wat is Cambodia's top
drawer tourist destination. In 2009, 54% of the
tourists visiting Cambodia arrived in Siem Riep. The
typical town/city to land in a foreign country is its capital,
so I'm assuming that the big draw in landing in Siem Riep from
abroad was to also depart Cambodia from Siem Riep. That is
to say, up to 54% (but probably more like 40%) came to Cambodia
only to see the ruins of Angkor Wat. Sukhothai, on the
other hand, is barely seen by foreign tourists and remains just
one more attraction among many in the Kingdom. Thais
needn't feel so bad Angkor Wat kicks Sukhothai's ass.
Thailand is still doing the last kick when you tally up total
tourism revenue figures.