Sukhothai (23 – 26 December 2015)
Proving just how unusual Isaan is as a tourist destination, my tour agent suggested that I end my trip in Sukhothai. This was in a totally different region of the country and definitely more Thai, if that is possible, than Isaan. Admittedly I had asked to be put in a nice resort for my last few days in Thailand and this might have necessitated taking me out of Isaan for the final leg. Or maybe the agent just would not know how to occupy me for the last 3 to 4 days if I were to remain in Isaan.
To get to Sukhothai from Khorat however we had to drive about six hours and a part of this journey was through the mountains. I have never been good with long drives and winding roads although on the bright side I got to see a side of Thailand that I had not really encountered before (Bangkok seemed like some distant Grimms’ fairy tale then). But quite embarrassingly I got really car sick.
We stopped for lunch at a rural restaurant (obviously I could hardly eat anything though managed to swallow some lovely tofu soup) and the owner realised that I was sick. When I asked for “something sour”, she gave me some sour mangoes and found that I could eat some of those. Then before we left the owner gave me some more sour mangoes for the road. I honestly did not expect this kind gesture and I would never have dreamed of encountering this sort of kindness in most parts of the world.
Before we reached Sukhothai we made a stop at Phitsanulok. Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat, or simply Wat Yai as the locals call it, in the city houses what many in Thailand consider to be the most beautiful Buddha image in the country. The golden image, called Phra Phuttha Chinnarat, was indeed pretty and its being cast in Sukhothai-style was a brilliant prelude to my tour of the ancient city of Sukhothai.
The construction of the temple is said to have been commissioned by one of the Sukhothai kings in the 14th century. According to legend, after the temple’s construction, the king had the Buddha image cast and this was successful because of some help from a mysterious sage who disappeared after its final casting.
The temple’s prang is built in Khmer style and is said to contain relics of Buddha.
As one would imagine, in a country as religious as Thailand, people would be a little uptight about how one behaved in a religious place. Visitors in Wat Yai are told not to stand up when taking pictures of the Buddha image. However N and I understood the rule to apply only when one was quite close to the image and in any case not when one was still near the door. I was standing near the door taking some pictures when a local lady told me, politely enough, to lower myself. I felt somewhat embarrassed and bewildered at the same time by the encounter, but then again one does not question a religious person on decorum in his or her place of worship especially if one is in a foreign land.
I was able to talk to my guide N a little about Thai people and monkhood while strolling around the temple and its compound. It is well known that boys in Indochina are expected to join monkhood at some point in their lives. Nuns however are much less encountered. And unlike for the boys, it is not much of a great honour for a lady to become a nun. Not that it is shameful at all, but for a lady to become a nun in Thailand, it may very well mean that either herself or her family has had a bout of bad luck. She may be a widow, in which case she may choose to become a nun permanently, or she may need to perform penance or thanksgiving for having some misfortune resolved or avoided. Becoming a nun therefore often means that the lady probably deserves some sympathy.
It came as a surprise to me that N had in fact been a nun for a couple of months in her youth. In her case she joined nunhood as repayment for being cured of a medical condition.
Having had my introduction to the Sukhothai style, we drove the remaining hour or so to Sukhothai. So what is Sukhothai all about? According to the official story as related in Thailand, Sukhothai was the very first Thai kingdom. There had apparently been other Thai kingdoms in the region even before Sukhothai but those were probably not too well-known or even significant. Thailand’s traditional historians therefore decided on Sukhothai as the first Thai kingdom and its founding is still celebrated today as the beginning of the Thai nation.
It must be remembered that a large chunk of mainland Southeast Asia, including much land that would become part of present day Thailand, were once under the domination of the then mighty Khmer empire. However as soon as the Khmer empire started weakening, Sukhothai began asserting itself and a new nation was born sometime in the 13th century.
The remains of the ancient kingdom can most clearly be seen in three centres: Sukhothai, Si Satchanalai and Khampaeng Phet. These three ancient cities are situated in north-central Thailand along an almost straight north-south line. Sukhothai is in the centre and Si Satchanalai is the northernmost city. It takes about an hour to drive from one site to the next nearest one. It may be possible to see all three sites within a long rushed day but I took one and a half days to do so at a decent pace. I should point out that although the region is just a little more southerly than Udon Thani, it gets typical Southeast Asian hot and humid here, even in December, especially in the late morning and afternoon.
The monuments of ancient Sukhothai, the capital of the ancient kingdom, cover quite a large area and attract quite a large crowd. There are two main areas of monuments to be visited: the Central Zone, where most of the more prominent monuments are, and the North Zone.
The most important monument in the Central Zone must be Wat Mahathat. This used to be the main temple of the kingdom and now probably still the largest of all that remains in ancient Sukhothai.
As a young kingdom developing its own style and identity, much of its earlier buildings received influences from surrounding cultures. Wat Si Sawai is a clear reminder of this with its three prangs, representing the Hindu trinity, that are very Khmer in style.
Wat Traphan Ngoen is apparently oriented so that it is illuminated during both sunrise and sunset. This was hard to see however with the cloudy sky on the day of my visit.
Wat Si Chum, in the North Zone, is the most prominent of that group. Upon approaching, my attention was quickly caught by its massive mandapa, or pavilion for rituals, and then the equally massive Buddha image inside.
The image is 11 metres wide and 15 metres high and is said to have been used by the ancient kings to cheat their people. There is a passageway in the mandapa and the kings would hide in it and address their people while pretending to be Lord Buddha himself. This would prove to be a most effective way to rally the people and boost their morale in times of difficulties.
Well, alright maybe “cheat” is too strong a word to be used here, but it was still rather dishonest of the kings.
The said passageway contains engraved images of Buddha’s life but this was not open for visits.
Now the important monuments of Sukhothai are properly fenced up so that visitors cannot avoid having to pay the required fee, 100 baht per zone, to visit them. There are however many free monuments lying around the historical park and some of them are also quite interesting.
Unsurprisingly, elephants were important to Sukhothai, and this is shown by the frequent depiction of the animal in the city’s monuments. There are at least two temples in Sukhothai that feature elephants (or “chang” in Thai) as their most prominent motif.
Wat Chang Rop lies north of the fenced Central Zone and within the walls of the ancient city.
Wat Chang Lom on the other hand lies about 2 kilometres outside of the ancient city. Today it is right outside the back gate of the Legendha Sukhothai, the resort where I stayed during my visit.
Both the elephant featured temples have stupas in the Lanka style. Wat Chang Rop is probably the first temple in Sukhothai to have such a stupa.
Just outside of the remains of the southern ancient wall is a village (quite interesting to walk though) and a few more ruined temples. One of them, Wat Chetuphon, has a moat and a mandapa on the outer four sides of which are Buddha images in four different postures: walking, sitting, standing and reclining.
Si Satchanalai was the second centre of the Sukhothai kingdom and situated about an hour north of Sukhothai by road. This site appeared to be more compact and was definitely much quieter as well.
Upon entering the ancient gate after the tourist information centre, one would immediately see the remains of Wat Nang Paya, or the queen’s temple. This monument is most famous, among the others in Si Satchanalai, for the stucco relief (or what remains of them) on the walls of its vihara.
The size of Wat Chedi Chet Thaeo suggests that it was built for the royal family. This temple is remarkable for its collection of stupas built in Lanka, Bagan and Lanna styles.
Just behind Wat Chedi Chet Thaeo lies another “chang” temple, another Wat Chang Lom. This one however features larger elephants with more of their bodies showing (as opposed to only the front half) although these are generally less well preserved than those of the other two elephant motifed temples in Sukhothai.
Si Satchanalai’s Wat Chang Lom also has niches with Buddha images encircling the stupa above the elephants.
About 2 hours south of Si Satchanalai, passing through both ancient Sukhothai and the new town Sukhothai along the way, lies Kamphaeng Phet. This was as quiet as Si Satchanalai.
Kamphaeng Phet was more a military fortress than royal residence unlike Si Satchanalai. Its name reflects the builders’ hopes that the fortress would have walls as strong as diamonds.
I would be surprised if this city did not have its own “chang” temple and I was not disappointed. Kamphaeng Phet has a Wat Chang Rop. Its stupa however is no longer complete and only its base with the elephant heads and front legs is left.
Like Wat Cetuphon, Wat Phra Si Iriyabot featured four Buddha images each in a different posture. Today only the standing image remains.
The most important temple in Kamphaeng Phet must however be Wat Phra Kaew which is situated in the centre of the ancient city.
Somehow the most distinctive features of this temple are the three Buddha images in one of its viharns. The two sitting and one reclining images, created in the Kamphaeng Phet style, were however from the later Ayutthaya period.
It would seem that most tourists visit Sukhothai for a day as a convenient stopover before Chiang Mai and hardly bothered to venture out to see the other two ancient cities. But I think it is such a waste to not at least do a quick visit.
There is an interesting museum just outside the fenced Central Zone of Sukhothai that is worth dropping in. The Ramkhamhaeng National Museum houses precious artefacts unearthed in Sukhothai and surrounding areas dating from the 13th to 15th centuries. What was most notable for me was the recreation of the engravings in the passageway of Wat Si Chum.
The museum is of course named after the Sukhothai king who ruled the kingdom during its most glorious years. Ramkhamhaeng is credited with the creation of the Thai alphabet and the establishment of Theravada Buddhism as the kingdom’s state religion. As one can imagine, this king is something of a national hero for the Thai people. There is a prominent statue of the man at the Sukhothai Historical Park. But he also appears on the more ubiquitous 20 baht note.
On the food front, Sukhothai is apparently famous for Sukhothai noodles. It got a little awkward for me when N mentioned it to me, on the assumption that I had heard about it, and my face drew a blank. It was fortunate that I had a guide on this trip then.
N took me to this shop in New Sukhothai. It was obviously owned by a Thai Chinese family and based on some of the things hanging on the walls it was the Li family. N said that the noodles served at this shop were some of the best in town.
The noodles actually looked very similar to the noodle dishes that I am so used to at home. Within the bowl, besides the noodles, were pieces of meat in various forms and a tiny bit of vegetables. N ordered for me both the dry and soup versions (just like home) to try. The soup is in fact a variety of tom yum and it worked really well in this dish. It was in fact really delicious! The dry version was a little sweet and though tasty not as satisfying as the soup version.
The locals call these noodles “kway teow”. This was quite interesting to me since at home, and indeed in any other place in the world where Teochews live, “kway teow” means flat white noodles made from rice flour. And of course the noodles served to me here did not look like the “kway teow” that I am familiar with.
I had always known that there were many people of Chinese (most Teochew) origin living in Thailand. I had however never really considered that the Thai Chinese might have influenced the country in any way. Besides giving Sukhothai noodles its name (I wonder if they call any other Thai noodle dishes “kway teow” too), here I learnt that the Thai Chinese also gave Thailand the names for grass jelly (“chao kway”) and chrysanthemum tea (“kek huay”, without the “teh” as in Teochew). How fascinating is that!
The selling point of the resort I stayed at, the Legendha Sukhothai, is I suspect its rustic setting. I did enjoy the setting although it could get a bit too rustic sometimes (I really hate mosquitoes!). One perk of staying here was having Wat Chang Lom just outside the back gate.
And so this was how I spent another gloriously unfestive Christmas last year. It was so gloriously unfestive and yet so fulfilling. How could overspending and overeating ever beat getting to know an ancient kingdom?