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Sukhothai
A frantic bid to kick Cambodia's ass


"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."  Doug Knell, Doug's Republic


Bangkok AirwaysThailand 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

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 you 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 Sukhothai?

New Sukhothai 
     

Not much 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 Sukhothai

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.

 

Thanaburi   wat mahathat Wat Si Chum
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 conversion. 
Mahayana Theravada 
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 Matter?

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.


 

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  Sukhothai in Thailand is home to Theravada Buddhism. Come by Bangkok Airways and see Wat Mahathat or Wat Chang Rop. Stay at the Thanaburi. Say up yours to Angkor Wat.