Visiting the Former Capitals of Thailand – Sukhothai and Ayutthaya

After marveling at the scale and ingenuity of the temples of Angkor for three full days, I had a mild case of a condition known among travelers in Southeast Asia as “temple fatigue”. Were any other temples even worth seeing after Angkor Wat? As it turns out, though, the Khmer Empire did not exist in a vacuum, and there are other ancient capital cities that left their own mark on the region. After a break in Bangkok and Singapore from the exhausting sightseeing routine, I headed north in Thailand to visit two other once-great cities: Sukhothai and Ayutthaya.

Sukhothai

The modern-day towns of Sukhothai, in northwestern Thailand, and Ayutthaya, just north of Bangkok, are rather mundane provincial capitals with wide streets and a slow pace of life. Sukhothai, straddling the Yom River near the foothills of Thailand’s northern mountains, was the capital of the Sukhothai Kingdom from the 13th to the 15th centuries, making it contemporary with the latter part of the Khmer Empire. The word Sukhothai means “dawn of happiness”, which seems appropriate given that the Sukhothai Kingdom is considered to be the start of the Thai nation, and Thailand is often nicknamed the “land of smiles”. At its peak, Sukhothai’s control extended over much of modern-day Thailand.

The ruins of Sukhothai are concentrated in and around a walled area a short distance outside the modern city of Sukhothai, similar to Angkor’s location outside Siem Reap. However, rather than hiding in a natural jungle setting, the Sukhothai Historical Park is beautifully landscaped and linked together with a network of tree-lined bike paths. In its day, Sukhothai was a much smaller city than Angkor, so I was able to visit most of the main sites in just a few hours. Though most of the remaining structures are religious in nature, there are also sites within Sukhothai with evidence of other structures, such as kilns and a royal palace.

Wat Sa Si in Sukhothai, Thailand
This ruin was once the assembly hall of Wat Sa Si. Buddhist temples in Thailand often have two main halls: the assembly hall and the ordination hall. In the assembly hall, lay people come to pray, and participate in ceremonies together with monks.
Chedi in Sukhothai, Thailand
This type of structure, called a chedi (or stupa), is an important type of Buddhist architecture.
Chedi in Sukhothai, Thailand with Reflection
The purpose of a chedi is to house the remains or relics of an important Buddhist person such as a monk, and to serve as a place of meditation. Some temple compounds have just one or a few chedis, while others have several hundred.
Wat Mahathat in Sukhothai, Thailand
Wat Mahathat was the most important temple in the Sukhothai Kingdom, and contains many different types of structures, including numerous chedis, an assembly hall, and an ordination hall. Though chedis of the bell shape are common in many countries, the tallest chedi of Wat Mahathat is topped with a lotus-bud shape, which is a feature unique to Sukhothai.
Wat Si Sawai in Sukhothai, Thailand
The Sukhothai Kingdom predominately practiced Theravada Buddhism, which is the form still practiced here today. As a result, most of the temples were never repurposed like those in Angkor. However, this temple, called Wat Si Sawai, was originally built as a Hindu temple, and has a much different style than the other temples in Sukhothai.
Intersection in Sukhothai, Thailand
The modern town of Sukhothai is nicely decorated (notice the Sukhothai-style lotus bud on top of the clock tower) but doesn’t seem to have much going on.

Ayutthaya

As the Khmer Empire and the Sukhothai Kingdom gradually weakened, another power rose to prominence between them. The city was built on an island at the confluence of the Chao Phraya, Pasak, and Lopburi rivers, which form a natural defence around a fairly large area. Though Buddhism was firmly established in Southeast Asia by the time Ayutthaya came to power, many elements of Hinduism were, and still are, evident in the culture and religious traditions of the Buddhist majority. For example, one of the most important Hindu texts is the epic poem Ramayana, in which the Indian city of Ayodhya is considered to be the birthplace of the god Rama. During the Ayutthaya Kingdom, the Ramayana was adapted to a Thai context and renamed the Ramakien, with Ayutthaya taking the place of Ayodhya.

As I’m used to doing by now, I explored Ayutthaya by bike. Aside from a steep bridge and a few monsoon downpours, the cycling was pretty easy because the city is flat and not very densely built. Unlike at Angkor and Sukhothai, the modern city of Ayutthaya occupies the same space as the ancient city, so the ruins are scattered throughout the city itself rather than being concentrated in a separate area.

Khmer-Style Temple in Ayutthaya, Thailand
Many of the temples in Ayutthaya feature this tower-like structure called a prang, which is derived from the Khmer style in Angkor.
Buddha in Ayutthaya, Thailand
Although they are ruins now, the ancient temples of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya are still considered to be sacred sites to Thai Buddhists. For this reason, many of the Buddha statues are decorated with robes or surrounded by flowers, and people often stop to pray before the more prominent ones.
What Phra Si Sanphet i Ayutthaya, Thailand
Ayutthaya also has many chedis. This ruin, Wat Phra Si Sanphet, features three large chedis as the primary structures.
Chedi in Ayutthaya, Thailand
The round, bell-shaped chedi is a style taken from Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a major Buddhist pilgrimage site and has played an important role in the development of Buddhism.
Buddha Head in Ayutthaya, Thailand
Over the centuries of neglect and ruin, this Buddha head somehow became separated from its body and entwined in the roots of a tree.
Reclining Buddha in Ayutthaya, Thailand
This large reclining Buddha statue, though it is outside now, was once enclosed inside a temple. Many temples in Southeast Asia have this type of statue, which depicts the Buddha at the moment of his death.
Wat Chai Watthanaram in Ayutthaya, Thailand
This ruin, Wat Chai Watthanaram, receives many Thai visitors who come dressed in traditional outfits to take photos – this is apparently related to a Thai soap opera filmed here that is set in the 1600s.
Wat Thammikarat in Ayutthaya, Thailand
The ordination hall of Wat Thammikarat; ordination halls are an important element of temple complexes in Thailand because this is where ceremonies such as the ordination of monks take place.
Ayutthaya, Thailand - Ancient and Modern
Though Ayutthaya’s power was eventually transferred to Bangkok, the city was never really abandoned, but continued to develop alongside the crumbling temples.

Visiting the remains of these ancient capital cities, I find it interesting to learn about these kingdoms that I had no idea existed before. Sukhothai and Ayutthaya are both listed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, but they are certainly not anything I learned about in school! It is also fun to see how each city had its own unique architectural style, even though they were clearly influenced by one another. Though the scale of the ruins at Sukhothai and Ayutthaya is not nearly as grand as at Angkor, these cities played an important role in the early development of Thailand. And, judging by the number of Thais I saw praying among the ruins, they still play a role in the identity of modern Thailand.


2 thoughts on “Visiting the Former Capitals of Thailand – Sukhothai and Ayutthaya

  1. Just did the Ayutthaya tour and that was the highlight of my Thailand trip! Check my blog if you have time I have posts on Thailand. BTW great pictures and the history. I did not get time to visit Sukhothai though

    Liked by 1 person

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