Central Thailand is the heart of Thai history and culture. The ruined ancient cities between Bangkok and Chiang Mai tell the stories of the empires that bred the modern Thai identity. And the most fascinating and atmospheric of them is Sukhothai. You can cover the top things to do in Sukhothai in just one day, making it a perfect stop on your north-south journey.
The Sukhothai Historical Park contains ruined temples with a remarkable sense of place. An enormous ancient Buddha stares down at tiny tourists. Stone elephants hundreds of years old guard sacred sites. It’s easy to imagine the one-time grandeur of this city.
In this post, I’ll cover the main Sukhothai attractions and some practicalities for your visit. If you’re interested in exploring more of the region, check out my Central Thailand one-week itinerary here.
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Why visit Sukhothai Historical Park?
I know, I know, you’re on holiday in Thailand and the beaches are calling. It’s hard to tear yourself away to learn about history. But trust me, you won’t regret taking the time for a Sukhothai tour.
Sukhothai was the first capital of modern-day Thailand, back in the 13th century. It was where the Thai monarchy was first established, the script first devised, and trade routes throughout the rest of the region first prospered. Today, Thai people trace their cultural origins back to the Sukhothai Kingdom, even though it was eventually absorbed by more-powerful Ayutthaya.
Today’s Old Sukhothai Park preserves the ruins of the religious center of the kingdom. It contains more than 30 temples and covers an area of 27 square miles. Here you’ll find one of the world’s most photographed Buddhas, among other incredible religious and historical monuments.
Because it’s so spread out, the park is never crowded. You can wander among the Sukhothai Buddha statues and pagodas mostly on your own. A good site museum explains what it all means. Meanwhile, the riverside setting and green landscapes are very beautiful. The things to do in Sukhothai make for a fascinating and enjoyable visit — much more so than the other popular Thailand ruins at immensely crowded Ayutthaya.
Admission to Sukhothai Historical Park
Sukothai is an enormous site, but it’s divided into five more bite-sized sections. You only have to pay for the sections you wish to visit — and everything on this list of things to do in Sukhothai is concentrated in three of the sections.
Each section has a separate admission fee of 100 baht. You don’t get a discount if visiting multiple sections. Additionally, the museum is an extra 150 baht.
Most people do a self-guided Sukhothai bicycle tour to see the ruins. It’s a great way to cover the long distances — the entire area is flat. Rent your bike right outside the entrance to the historical park for 30 baht/day. The rental agencies will give you a Sukhothai map, and if you’re doing solo travel in Thailand, you’ll meet others to team up with at the bike shops.
Things to do in Sukhothai in one day
1. The museum
Get an early start to the historical park and head straight for the Ramkhamhaeng National Museum, at the entrance to the Central Zone. The museum displays artifacts recovered from the city, all well-explained, and provides a general historical overview. You will appreciate your Sukhothai tour more if you stop here first.
The two main highlights are both replicas, but vital to understanding the importance of the Sukhothai Kingdom. First is a replica of the Ramkhamhaeng inscription, believed to be the first-ever example of written Thai.
Second is the so-called “mock-mythical-tunnel stairway example.” The real thing is in a collapsed tunnel at Wat Sri Chum, so the museum has illustrations of the bas-reliefs of Buddhist folklore. Each of the 46 panels is accompanied by the written version of the story it was supposed to tell.
You need an hour-90 minutes to see the museum in its entirety to get a good sense of Sukhothai history.
2. The Central Zone
Once you’ve gotten enough background from the museum, the next place on this list of things to do in Sukhothai is the Central Zone. This was ancient Thailand’s center of gravity, where most of the top monuments and temples are. Allow 2-3 hours to fully explore.
Upon entering the Sukhothai Historical Park, look to your left. You’ll see an enormous temple with over 200 small chedis, a standing Buddha statue, and numerous bas reliefs. This is Wat Mahathat — the largest and most important temple in the park. The Royal Palace is immediately behind it and the two blend together.
Next, take the path to your left to reach Wat Si Sawai. This is a Khmer-style Sukhothai temple built in the later years of the kingdom’s reign. The temple is most famous for its Khmer gateways and its stone Buddha footprint.
Circle around the back of the zone to reach Wat Tra Phang Ngoen, one of the best examples of Sukhothai-style architecture in the park. The seated Buddha and walking Buddha are both noteworthy.
Next, cross the beautiful little moat to reach Wat Sa Si. This is one of the prettiest temples in the park, with a bell-shaped stupa and Buddhist iconography. The setting is lovely, and makes a great place to take a snack break or just relax in the shade for a few minutes.
On your way to the Northern Zone, you’ll pass a few other religious and secular monuments. Then, you’ll reach Wat Sorasak. Its famous 24 famous elephant guardians surround the chedi.
2. The Northern Zone
Topping the list of things to do in Sukhothai is the Northern Zone. It’s smaller than the Central Zone, but it contains the most popular Sukhothai temple: the massive seated Buddha at Wat Si Chum.
The temple itself is quite small, but the Buddha enclosed in Wat Si Chum measures 15 meters high. Its fingers — with gold-plated nail polish — are taller than most people! This is one of the most photographed Buddhas in the world and a classic image of Thailand, so prepare for bigger crowds here.
Once you finish taking photos, visit the biggest temple in the Northern Zone, Wat Phra Phai Luang. It’s also one of the oldest in the Sukhothai complex. The Khmer style is evident in its prangs and chedis.
Keep following the road along the loop and you’ll pass a few other quieter, smaller temples. They may lack the magnificence of Wat Si Chum and Wat Phra Phai Luang, but they’re still beautiful and far less crowded.
3. The Western Zone
Finish up your Sukhothai tour with a walk or bike ride around the Western Zone. This area is in a greater state of disrepair, and authorities haven’t yet restored many of the temples. As a result, it has few crowds.
Coming from the Northern Zone, take a right and go first to the far corner of the Western Zone, where you’ll find the spectacular Wat Saphan Hin. The highlight here is the large standing Sukhothai Buddha, perhaps the best representation of it in the park.
As you circle back around toward the Central Zone, you’ll pass the small temples of Wat Aranyik, Wat Khao Phra Bat Noi, Wat Chedi Ngam, and the elephant-decorated Wat Chang Rob. You can also visit the more Hindu-influenced Wat Mangkorn.
And that’s it! With only one day, you can skip the other two zones — they don’t contain the top things to do in Sukhothai.
Practicalities for your Sukhothai Park visit
Sukhothai is divided into two areas — the historical park, or Old Sukhothai complex, and New Sukhothai. The latter is where most locals live, where you’ll arrive, and the center of cheap food and accommodation.
The New City is 12 km outside the historical park. Transport between the two is a rip-off 30 baht for a songthaew, but you have no real alternatives.
Where to stay in Sukhothai
Unless you want to splurge or are content with a dorm, you’ll want to stay in the New City as you check off these things to do in Sukhothai. It’s less convenient, but the prices are far better.
If you have your heart set on staying near the historical park, the best choice (although it’s a splurge) is Pottery Street House. Keep in mind that in addition to pricier rooms, you’ll also have to spend more on food — the historical park doesn’t have street food.
Where to eat in Sukhothai
The dining scene in Sukhothai is focused on the New City, as that’s where most locals live. The restaurants around the Sukhothai Park cater almost exclusively to tourists.
A night market sets up on the left bank of the river below the bridge around sunset. It’s the best place to find local food in the evenings — about $1 per meal. If you want something nicer, try the noodles at Jayhae.
If you need a coffee pick-me-up or a snack while you’re down by the historical park, Coffee Cup is your best bet. They have real espresso and reasonably decent backpacker food.
How to get to Sukhothai
The Sukhothai Old City is a bit out on a limb from the rest of central Thailand. It’s not on the main north-south train route between Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
Most travelers pass through nearby Phitsanulok first. You can take the train or bus here from anywhere in northern or central Thailand, and even from western Isaan. Stop in Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat to see one of Thailand’s most beloved Buddha figures, then grab one of the frequent hour-long buses (40-50 baht) from or to Sukhothai to Phitsanulok.
The Sukhothai bus station is in the New City. Regular buses depart from Sukhothai to Bangkok, Lampang, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and elsewhere in the north. Most trips are 5-7 hours and cost 200-300 baht. Book your ticket at least one day before.
I hope this list of Sukhothai things to do in one day has inspired you to check out this fascinating historical center. It’s the ideal way to acquaint yourself with Thai history and culture. Don’t miss it on your trip through Thailand!
What’s your favorite historical site? Leave a comment and tell me about it!
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