Sukhothai: Dawn of Happiness

Sukhothai is a small city divided into two zones – the riverside New City, where the bulk of guesthouses, shops and restaurants are located, and Old City; the site of Sukhothai Historical Park, formerly known as Dawn of Happiness. New City is rather charmless; there would be no reason to visit if not for the historical park.

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We wandered around New City on our first day here, and were intrigued by these matching T-shirts. A kinder version of “I’m with Stupid”, but with the same twist – the  wearers would need to line themselves up appropriately before heading out.

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We also discovered the answer to a question we had about a fruit we kept seeing, and finally tried – green, apple-shaped, kind of pucker-y, not that sweet. Turns out it is guava. (or farang, the Thai name, also for foreigner). I was so surprised – I imagined guava would be soft and sweet, like mango or papaya. Working our way through Thailand’s many wonderful fresh fruits – one stand at a time.

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Time for the temples! Now I’m a fan of trudging around in 36 degree heat with 90% humidity as much as the next guy. As fascinating as ancient temples can be, after a few dozen they can fall into the camp of ABC (Another Bloody Church), and our sightseeing can quickly move from being engrossing to feeling obligatory. But when the view looks like this, the temples pull us in:

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Old City is located 12 km. from New City, and is easily accessible by songthaew, a truck-like conversion with bench seats that is short on comfort, but long on local colour. Since many of these drivers eat, smoke and text while they drive, we rely on the hanging flowers and talismans to keep us safe. Plus, it’s great entertainment for $1.

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The Sukhothai Historical Park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site 25 years ago, but the ruins date back to the 14th century. It is a vast area, spread out over 70 sq. Km., encompassing the moated, walled old city and sprawling into the countryside. If you keep to the main sites, it can be done on foot, but we wanted to see as much as we could, so we rented bikes for the day. It added a lot to our visit – so much fun to cruise around and feel the wind (light breeze?)  at our backs.

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To give you an idea of the layout, this map shows the main temples (called wats) as well as the outlying areas. We stuck to the sites inside the walls, and visited Wat Si Chum, the large temple at the northern edge.

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The Park is gorgeous, but one delightful aspect of this area was the moats, the trees, lily ponds, and small lakes – all serving to soften and highlight the ruins and to provide much-appreciated shade.  Although there were great busloads of tourists, we often found ourselves alone – there is more than enough room for everyone.

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We began with the site’s largest and most important ruin, Wat Mahathat. It featured a number of chedi (the lotus-bud topped conical structures) and Buddhas and columns.

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We visited this same wat later in the day, from another angle and came upon these two gentlemen, lighting incense and praying. It is interesting to observe how Thais pray quietly and reverently in public outdoor places. Buddha provides great solace, in his many incarnations. It is a religion I know very little about and am curious to learn more.

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There were mobs of schoolchildren at the historical park. In many places in the park, they were lined up listening intently to their teachers. To our teacher friends and family – come and teach in Thailand –  these kids are a dream come true. Neat little uniforms, no acting out, very attentive.

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Whenever we ran into them, they were quite curious and friendly. “Hell-ooo”, they would call out, and then all giggle when we called back to them. Since we are finding Thai a very tricky language to get right, we were the cause of great amusement, even among the teachers. Below, the boys lined up to buy incense  to pray at the wat.

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The outer reaches of the park have both a stone wall and a moat. The moats were full of water lilies – so beautiful during the day. All that still water must bring out the mosquitoes at night.

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There were a couple of small islands with ruins, accessible by bridges. Such a painterly quality to this scene.

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Wat Si Siwai has three Khmer-style prang; a bit distinctive from the other wats.  We entered into the centre  prang and peered up inside. Nothing but a hole in the wooden roof and the unmistakable smell of bat guano.

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One photo op after another – this atmospheric shot as we pedalled past.

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And finally, we reached Wat Si Chum, just outside the gates. The 15m Buddha stares down from his perch in the square shrine. If you can see the man in the bottom right of the photo, you’ll get a sense of scale.

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One of the notable features of the Buddha are his giant, gold-fingernailed hands. I asked this young woman to pose beside them to give you an idea of their size.

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We’re into the rhythm of the road now – time has slowed to a dreamlike state and even though we may not get used to the heat, we’re figuring out how not to fight it. (Pulling at my hair and waving at my face has not worked so far.)

We’re heading north to Chiang Mai tomorrow and will spend at least a week there.