A Tale of Two Thai Cities
On my most recent journey on the long and well-worn path between Chiang Mai and Bangkok, I decided to pay a visit to Thailand’s first ancient capital city.
Last year, on the same route, I stopped in the charming cities of Ayutthaya and Lopburi. Those remain cherished memories for me and I hoped to be similarly smitten with Sukhothai.
Sukhothai is very similar to Ayutthaya — a modern city built up around an ancient one, frequently explored by tourists on bicycles. It is broken into old Suhkhothai, where all the ruins are, and new Sukhothai, where all the accommodation and services are. After a cheap but slow pickup taxi bus between the two we arrived in the old city and rented wheels for the day.
Wat Mahathat is the largest wat in Sukhothai, and so seemed like a good spot to kick off the day. While it’s not exactly Angkor Wat, the ruins are in pretty good condition considering they date back to the 13th century.
My favorite detail of the Sukhothai Historical Park across the board were the gold-lacquered finger and toe nails the Buddhas were sporting.
Our next stop, Wat Sra Sri, is named the “scared pond” temple. It was very peaceful, but this is also where it dawned on me that I had dressed in appropriately in shorts and a tank top. Normally I am quite vigilant about covering up when appropriate but I guess on this morning I had been thinking more “ancient ruins” than “active temples.”
Wat Sorasak ranked as one of my favorite stops of the day thanks to its pachyderm heavy motif. Amazingly, once we left Wat Mahathet we rarely saw other tourists.
Little Wat Mae Chon was a good photo break stop, more so for the dilapidated spirit house nearby than for the temple itself.
Wat Si Chum was basically what brought me to Sukhothai. I had seen so many images of the oft-photographed golden right hand that I wondered if this Buddha could still wow me in person.
Between small waves of tourists I was able to have a quiet moment alone. Sitting in the presence of this Buddha, who had been sitting in that same spot for so many generations, was very humbling.
Wat Saphan Hin was our final official temple stop of the day. Riding off into what felt like the middle of nowhere, we finally came across yet another small ticket booth where we paid to enter our third temple “zone” of the day. Of course, there’s really only one show-stopper in each zone, but adding up all the various ticket fees we still only paid 320 baht each.
This one required a bit more work beyond the bike ride — we also had to hike. The hazy views and the quiet hilltop temple were worth it.
After Saphan Hin we declared ourselves templed out and enjoyed the leisurely ride back to the bike shop, stopping occasionally to take photos of small, lesser temples or the beautiful rice fields.
I often hear people debating whether to stop in Sukhothai or Ayutthaya, and with theirs many similarities they are easily comparable. While I enjoyed the ruins of Sukhothai, I found the overall experience of Ayutthaya more enjoyable thanks to better value accommodation, a more compact location, and just general ambiance. Still, with time to spare I think both are worth a look for a peek into Thailand’s past.
In order to get to Thailand’s current capital, we could have taken a bus directly from New Sukhothai. But as a train travel devotee, I was much happier to shuttle over to Phitsanulok where we could catch an overnight sleeper into Bangkok.
The guidebook listed a few minor tourist attractions as well as floating cafes and even a floating massage place, so we arrived in early to spend the day exploring.
First stop was a Buddha casting factory with an exotic bird garden in the back, I was hoping for more information or just more… something here, but hey, it was free and it was interesting to get to see a bit of the process for making one of Thailand’s most iconic images.
Next we tried to find the floating spa and cafes. What we found were some broken down boats that hasn’t looked used in years and not a soul in sight.
With hours to kill we found a small massage place with the cheapest Thai massages I’ve ever seen at 120 baht (around $4 for an hour!) and then after hours of walking around we also discovered two super trendy little bars that would have been right at home in Brooklyn or Berlin. Not bothering to cater to non-existent tourists, the bars served only beer and an amazing array of Thai whiskeys.
Phitsanulok was certainly the most Thai of any Thai city I’ve visited — Western faces were non-existent, English language was notable absent and as a blonde haired woman and a mohawked man we attracted a fair amount of attention. It was an experience and an interesting departure from the usual farang friendly spots I normally kick around in.
It was quite the weekend, staring into both Thailand’s past and present.
Have you been to either Sukhothai or Ayutthaya? Which did you prefer?
Hey, great post.
I loved visiting both towns. Although there’s more to do in Ayutthaya I would have to say I preferred my time my Sukothai simply because it was so empty. It’s wonderful walking around the old temples feeling the tranquility of being the only people there especially if you cycle to the less famous temples on the outskirts. xx
I think I was pretty lucky, I had Ayutthaya almost to myself as well. Although I think that’s because I went at the hottest month of the year and was the only person crazy enough to be cycling around!
Hey, where did the rest go?! That bar must have been serving some strong drinks… he he I’m teasing… Gorgeous photos, I haven’t been to either city but they look amazing!!!
Ugh… publishing from my iPhone FAIL! Got the rest up and working again 🙂
Finally You have found spot with cheapest thai massage around the globe….You Said 4 dollars for an Hour…That’s Incredible!
And it felt GREAT!
Just beautiful! I’m definitely adding these two cities to my Thailand itinerary.
Definitely check out Ayutthaya and Lopburi as well… very underrated destinations!
Never been to either, but I hope to someday! I just wanted to say that your photos are stunning. Thanks for sharing them!
So sweet Grace, thank you! It was a fun trip, photography-wise 🙂
You’ve never taken better pictures, these are AMAZING!!!!!!
Pick one and I’ll send you a print… seriously! It would be great to have a way to thank you for all your support over the years x
Others have said it (i thought at first maybe it was recognition that was drawing me to the pictures), but those shots are off the charts.
I am going to that bar. fact.
The first one I can’t remember the name… but I could show you the general area on a map! The second one was called Woodstock, right by the train station and even have a live band singing in Thai. Amazing!
Love how you show the details in this set of photos.
Thai massage for $4 an hour! Your lucky girl 🙂
Granted, usually I only pay around $6 🙂 But still! This was a pretty exciting deal.
Alex, your photos just get better and better. This is my favourite collection since your beautiful horses in Iceland. Stunning!
Thanks Hannah! Comments like these keep this oft-tedious feature alive 🙂
That’s a difficult choice…I loved Sukhothai’s ruins and our little guesthouse (Hang Jeng), but Ayutthaya was so much easier to navigate and had other draws in addition to the ruins. After seeing your photos, though, I wish I’d spent more time in Phits!
Funny, my guesthouse in Ayutthaya is I think a big part of why I liked it more, ha. Did you do the evening boat tour to the outer ruins? I just loved that little town.
I did do the boat tour! It was gorgeous and might be part of why I enjoyed Ayutthaya more…I loved how accessible everything was.
Ayutthaya was high on my list of places to see when we were in Thailand -we missed it the first time around because of the floodings back then and I am still disappointed (although I’m sure we’ll get there eventually) but we went to Sukothai instead and really enjoyed the ruins. We thought they must be the emptiest temples in all of Thailand, but then we went to Kampaeng Phet where we didn’t see any other tourists the whole time we were there – felt about it like you felt about Phitsanulok: the most Thai town that we’ve been to in Thailand.
Oh and I have to second Andi – your photos are beautiful!
Funny enough when I was writing this post I remembered you saying something similar about a town you had gone to, though I couldn’t remember which! Now I know 🙂
Ahhh YES photos! Keep giving me inspiration to find a way to visit all these spectacular sites one day!
That’s what I’m here for! So glad to here these photos are pushing the right buttons!