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Sukhothai Kingdom was the first independent Thai kingdom. Located in the north of modern-day Thailand, this kingdom, centered around the city of Sukhothai, lasted from 1238 until 1583. The history of Sukhothai is an important part of Thailand’s national narrative, and its legacy is still studied and celebrated today.
Sukhothai as Part of the Khmer Empire
Before independence, Sukhothai was part of the Kingdom of Lavo, which itself was a part of the Khmer Empire. The Khmer Empire, which lasted from 802 to 1431, covered much of Southeast Asia. Sukhothai, which was located on the banks of the Mae Nam Yom River, was an important trade center.
The city and surrounding villages gradually developed a distinctive Thai culture, which set them apart from the surrounding area of Lavo. In the late 12th century, Sukhothai was ruled largely autonomously by “paternal kings.” However, in 1180 Lavo brought the region more firmly under control, which included extensive taxes.
The Formation of Independent Sukhothai
Then, in 1238 a local leader named Pho Khun Bangklanghao led a revolution against the Khmer governor, successfully expelling him. He renamed himself King Sri Indraditya (meaning “The Sun King with the Power of Indra) and established the Phra Ruang dynasty of Sukhothai. During his reign, he incorporated surrounding towns into Sukhothai. By the end of his reign, the Kingdom of Sukhothai consisted of the whole upper valley of the Chao Praya River.
Although a distinct Thai culture existed before the establishment of an independent Sukhothai, Thai people often celebrate this milestone as the beginning of a Thai kingdom.
Expansion Under King Ramkhamhaeng
The Kingdom of Sukhothai reached its peak in the 13th century under the rule of King Ramkhamhaeng, who ruled from 1279 to 1298. When Ramkhamhaeng took the throne, Sukhothai was a very small kingdom of only a few hundred miles. Through diplomacy and armed force, Ramkhamhaeng expanded the kingdom to the Indian Ocean in the west, to modern-day Luang Prabang and Vientiane in Laos in the north, and to parts of Malaysia in the south. He promoted the spread of Theravada Buddhism, which became a defining part of the culture in Sukhothai.
The invention of the Thai script is also accredited to Ramkhamhaeng. In the 19th century, King Mongkut of Siam claimed to have found an inscribed stone, called a stele, attributed to the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng. The stele describes Sukhothai Kingdom under King Ramkhamhaeng and paints a highly positive picture of his reign.
Decline And Absorption Into Ayutthaya
The alliances that kept large territories subservient to Sukhothai were built largely on the charismatic and powerful leadership of King Ramkhamhaeng. When the king passed away, the subsequent rulers were unable to keep such a large territory together.
The vassal kingdoms gradually broke away, reducing Sukhothai to approximately its previous territory in the Chao Praya River valley. In 1349, armies from Ayutthaya, the new capital of Siam, invaded Sukhothai and forced it to submit as a vassal state.
Sukhothai retained its own king, but it became a part of the kingdom of Ayutthaya. A century later, the king of Sukhothai died without an heir, and the throne passed to the king’s nephew, Prince Ramesuan, who also became the King of Ayutthaya. Therefore in 1448, Sukhothai and Ayutthaya were officially joined. In 1767 the Burmese army invaded Ayutthaya, destroying much of the kingdom and leaving formerly advanced cities in ruin.
Sukhothai went into decline with the rest of Ayutthaya. New Sukhothai was built 12 kilometers away in 1793, and the people remaining in Old Sukhothai relocated, fully abandoning the old city. Over the next few decades, stones, statues, and other decorative elements were taken from Sukhothai for use in new construction in Bangkok and elsewhere. Eventually, Sukhothai was forgotten and became overgrown.
The city of Sukhothai was rediscovered in 1833 century by King Rama IV of Siam (who went by Mongkut and traveled as a monk before taking the throne). Since then, the city has been significantly restored by the Thai Fine Arts Department, which created the Sukhothai Historical Park in 1988.
The park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991, and today it is a popular tourist destination. The park contains 193 different ruins, including 26 temples and the old royal palace. Some of the ruins have been left relatively untouched, but the more popular ones, such as Wat Mahathat, have been extensively renovated.
Tourists can walk through the sites and get a decent idea of what the temples would have looked like in their prime. The historical park is easy to see by bicycle, and tourists often stay at the new city of Sukhothai, just 12 kilometers to the east. The Kingdom of Sukhothai, particularly as represented in the Ramkhamhaeng stele, is remembered as an essential part of Thai history, which makes the sites in the historical park even more important.
Directions: Bangkok to Sukhothai
Most people start their travels in Thailand in Bangkok, the central hub in the region. You can travel to Sukhothai by mini-van, airconditioned busses or train. You can also use a taxi or take a plane. The last two options are less viable, the ride is too long for taking a taxi by yourself and too short for flying in my opinion. I took an excellent modern bus, the ride was comfortable and around 7-8 hours long. You can sleep a little and take in the scenery.
Many people start in Bangkok and first visit Ayutthaya, then Sukhothai and lastly travel further North to Chiang Mai. This option I chose my first time in Thailand and it makes the bus or mini-van rides shorter. You'll be able to visit smaller towns or nature reserves along the way. If you have lots of time you can make the trek North with as many stops as you want. Enjoy your stay!
© 2019 Sam Shepards
Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on June 30, 2019:
The history makes these places interesting and it is indeed best you read up on the history of Sukhothai, Ayutthaya and in general Siam before you visit Thailand. It will make the ruins and your stay in general much more interesting. Walking in the heat to just visit some old stones is not really worth it for most people, imagining how it was like hundreds of years ago is what makes it fascinating. I do have hopes that augmented reality improves in years to come and that people can wear some special glasses and see how it was like before that will probably make more people interested in the history Southeast Asia and other places instead of just going for the beaches and palm trees (nothing wrong with that of course).
Lorna Lamon on June 30, 2019:
I love to know the history of a place before I visit - it just makes the journey more interesting. Great article full of interesting facts and lovely photos.