The ruins of Wat Si Sawai Temple are a popular stop for visitors. // © 2013 Chelsee Lowe
After a few requisite days in Thailand’s bustling urban centers, gripping the seat of a tuk-tuk in traffic and bartering through busy open-air markets, a day spent pedaling among the tranquil ponds and aged ruins of Sukhothai is the perfect reprieve.
Located in the northern Thai province of the same name, the Sukhothai ruins are what remain of Siam’s first capital. The site is protected within Sukhothai Historical Park and is a popular stop for clients traveling between Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai and Bangkok. The park was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991 and is one of Thailand’s most-visited destinations.
The Sukhothai Dynasty began in the 13th century, founded by the Khmer people and later taken over by Thais. Over a span of approximately 200 years, the dynasty saw the reign of nine kings, the most renowned of whom was King Ramkhamhaeng, credited with creating the first written Thai script and helping spread Buddhist thought. Sukhothai was eventually annexed into the kingdom of Ayutthaya, another heavily visited site in a historical park just 80 miles north of Bangkok.
Before travelers set off to explore the sites of Sukhothai they will likely stop at one of many bike rental shops outside of the park gates. Part of the attraction’s charm is that the majority of guests pedal from temple to temple rather than walk — their speedy silhouettes reflecting in lotus-dotted pools as they go. Guests may travel the grounds by foot if they choose, but the sites are spread out and a bicycle enables them to see more of the relics. Cars are not allowed in the complex, a restriction that keeps cyclists safe and the grounds serene. After paying $11 for access to all zones of the park, miles of smooth bike paths and verdant fields await.
Certain elements of the ancient city’s architectural style are apparent immediately. Reddish-orange brick and laterite temples known as chedis dot the horizon in every direction, along with majestic stucco Buddha statues. Though many are faded and worn by the elements, their presence inspires a sense of mysticism.
Most guests commence their park experience at Wat Mahathat, the religious center of the former capital and one of the park’s grandest sites. Within the area, Buddha figures rest in various postures, as do nearly 200 chedi and the remains of columns that once held up the monastery. Visitors are encouraged to walk the paths and observe the structures up close, but the collection is just as impressive from afar, encircled by a wide moat and mirrored in the calm, lotus-dotted waters.
A brief ride eastward brings travelers to the Ramkhaeng National Museum. Inside, they will find a collection of artifacts excavated from the park area, as well as a replica of the earliest Thai writing.
Biking northwest from the center of the park brings travelers to Wat Si Chum, a unique site shaded by enormous Bodhi trees. Inside the confining temple walls rests a spectacular seated Buddha that is nearly 50 feet tall. The Buddha’s right hand is downturned and golden, though the rest of its body is white. It is considered good luck to add more gold to the Buddha’s long fingers, so most guests stop by the stalls leading up to the temple and buy tiny sheets of gold leaf paper to rub on the statue’s hand.
Other highly recommended sites within the park include Wat Si Sawai and Wat Phra Phai Luang. Both temples are thought to be older than Wat Mahathat, and are built in the Khmer style as Hindu temples with three ornately carved stucco prangs. Wat Si Sawai is just southeast of Wat Mahathat, but Wat Phra Phai Luang is about one mile north of the religious center.
Guests biking through the park can work up an appetite, but culinary options within the park are limited to simple food carts just south of Wat Mahathat. It might be best to pack a picnic to eat along the tree-lined bike paths, or sit down for a meal prior to starting the journey. Sukhothai-style noodles — a sweet compilation of pork, peanuts, green beans and noodles and a signature dish of the region — is common on menus at nearby eateries.
Celebrating Loi Krathong
Though Sukhothai Historical Park hosts guests year-round, its busiest time is during the annual celebration of Loi Krathong. Also known as the Festival of Lights, Loi Krathong occurs on the full moon of the 12th lunar month, typically in November. Once night falls, revelers around Thailand light rafted candles and send them downriver or set them in ponds. In some regions, floating lanterns are released into the sky. Traditionally the glowing lights represented offerings to Buddhist gods, particularly Phra Mae Kong Ka, the goddess of water. Today some participants continue to say prayers while others consider the lanterns a symbolic release of bad luck.
Sukhothai is considered the birthplace of the festival, and as such it remains one of the more popular places for the celebration. Thousands of lanterns adorn the park’s waterways during the festivities, and the park organizes a light and sound show, parades, fireworks and cultural performances.
Regardless of the time of year, Sukhothai’s fascinating history and present-day riches will leave clients feeling like kings.
Tourism Authority of Thailand
Nestled one mile off Highway 7 in Bangkok, the Sriracha Tiger Zoo is home to more than 400 Royal Bengal tigers. Here, visitors can hold and feed tiger cubs and watch full-grown tigers play. Explore the entire exhibit featuring camels, elephants and more. Crocodile, tiger, elephant and pig shows take place throughout the day, and the entry fee is $15 for adults and $8 for children. Traditional Thai dishes are served at restaurants on site. A shuttle service runs from most hotels in Pattaya with packages consisting of ticket, transportation and meals for $24 for adults and $20 for children. Don’t forget to snap a photo for proof of your tiger adventures. www.tigerzoo.com
Patara Elephant Farm
The Patara Elephant Farm focuses on the health-care and breeding management of healthy elephants and is completely Thai-owned and managed. Visitors can participate in hands-on experiences in a special program called “Elephant Owner for a Day.” They will interact with their elephants, learning how to approach, feed them and check their health. Also included is an elephant ride through the nearby forests, waterfalls and local temples, where visitors can communicate with these gentle giants with different spoken commands and more. The focus of this program is to not only allow visitors to experience these creatures in an intimate setting, but to emphasize the importance of protecting elephants from extinction. www.pataraelephantfarm.com
A trip to the iconic floating markets, located near the water passages in the cities, is one of the most authentic and exciting additions to any Thailand adventure. The Damnoen Saduak floating market was featured in the James Bond film “The Man With the Golden Gun” and is now a major tourist attraction, but only six miles away you will also find the Kha floating market. Kha is only open six days a month in accordance with the lunar calendar, making it a much less commercial attraction. Sample local produce, fresh juice and local cuisine while haggling for good prices on artisan crafts. At Kha, the tourists are sparse, which makes for a true Thai experience. www.floatingmarketbangkok.com
New and Noteworthy
Bangkok Recognized By Readers
The city of Bangkok was recently recognized as the best city in the world for 2013 by Travel + Leisure magazine. For the first time since 2010, an Asian city took the top spot. This isn’t the first award for Thailand’s major city: MasterCard also listed Bangkok as the world’s top destination city by international visitor arrivals and TripAdvisor placed the capital city at the top of its Travelers’ Choice Asia Destinations list of 25 cities. www.tatnews.org
Thailand Welcomes All
Recently, the Thai government has begun marketing to a diverse crowd of tourists. The new campaign “Go Thai. Be Free” is aimed at gay and lesbian travelers. In fact, Thailand is the only Asian country with a government-sponsored campaign for this travel group. Although the population is predominately Buddhist, the country has also begun marketing itself to Muslims, in part by highlighting the fact that a lot of food is prepared according to Islamic codes.
New Rosewood Phuket
Rosewood Hotels & Resorts plans to expand to the city of Phuket by the end of 2014. Its new resort will include 80 villas and 32 residences on the Emerald Bay beachfront in western Phuket. The resort will feature three restaurants, rustic beachfront lounges with bar decks and a rooftop wedding pavilion, featuring outdoor gardens with plants indigenous to the area. www.rosewoodhotels.com
Four Seasons Tour of Thailand
Four Seasons now offers a “create your own” package where visitors can choose up to four destinations for a Thai vacation. Guests can find adventure in the hustle and bustle of a two-night stay in Bangkok, serenity in a three-night stay at the Tented Camp Golden Triangle and enjoy two-night stays at the cultural hotbed of Chiang Mai and the relaxing sandy beaches of Koh Samui. The package also includes a $300 gift card to be used by visitors. www.fourseasons.com
Bangkok’s Shangri-La Hotel is a great locale for a romantic getaway. For $450 a night, its latest honeymoon package includes a complimentary daily buffet breakfast for two at the Horizon Club Lounge, a complimentary bottle of house wine, high tea and a dinner cruise for two. There is also a 25 percent discount at Chi, the hotel spa. Visitors must stay at least two consecutive nights and should reserve prior to their arrival. The package is available through Dec. 31. www.shangri-la.com
Relax in Phuket
Relax at Renaissance Phuket Resort and Spa features accommodations to help visitors unwind. The focus on quan, literally translating to “a source of pure water,” is seen in the spa on site that primarily uses the restorative and healing properties of water. Rates range from $200 to $900 and include a daily breakfast, a choice of a 60-minute aroma fusion massage or deep renewal massage and a 60-minute private yoga lesson for two. This package runs through July 18, 2014. www.marriott.com
Phichit Boat Festival
This longboat-racing festival is held every year during the Thai Buddhist Lent period in September or October. This year, the festival starts in early September on the Nan River in front of the Tha Luang Temple in the Phichit province. The locals living by the river create these boats from local materials. They are then decorated with brilliant colors and designs, so visitors can watch the beautiful finished products zoom to the finish line. In addition, the festival features a boat procession, cultural processions and booths selling local products. www.tourismthailand.org
Loi Krathong Festival
The Loi Krathong Festival occurs on the evening of the full moon in the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar. The full moon shines on the flowing rivers throughout the country, setting the stage for small lotus-shaped floats known as krathong to set sail. Traditional krathong are made from layers of banana tree trunk or the spider lily plant, with candles or incense placed at the center. Locals and tourists alike ask for good luck and forgiveness as they watch their creations float away. In addition to these festivities, there are entertaining night shows, beauty pageants and grand finale fireworks. This year the last full moon occurs on Nov. 17. www.tatnews.org
Thailand International Balloon Festival
One of the most popular tourist attractions of the year, the Thailand International Balloon Festival has been held annually since 2007. This festival is held in different locations each year with new themes and activities. The ticket price for adults is about $4 and $1.50 for children ages 7-14. This year’s festival will take place on Dec. 7-8, but location and further information has not yet been released as of press time. Last year’s activities included a scientific workshop, paper hot-air balloon-making, motorcycle exhibitions, doggie dress-up competitions and a bungee trampoline. www.thailandballoonfestival.com
Colorful Phuket Countdown
Visitors who want a more exotic location to celebrate New Year’s Eve should check out the Colorful Phuket Countdown in Phuket province. This event includes mini-concerts from famous artists of the city along with dance and singing competitions. At sunrise on the final day of the festival, a countdown for the last rays of sunshine will take place on the Phromthep Cape, where a New Year’s countdown clock will display the last hours of 2013, followed by midnight fireworks at Chai Field. www.tourismthailand.org