Below top: The elegant Sinhalese-style chedi of Wat Sa Si, with Khao Luang looming in the background.

Below middle: An unusually large Lagerstroemia cochinchinensis tree, near Ramkhamhaeng National Park Headquarters, attests to the former magnificence of the forest that supported the birth of the Thai nation.

Modern-day Sangkhalok earthenware, freshly painted with traditional motifs, halfway through the production process at Suthep Sangkhalok.


The most well known and revered king of the Sukhothai period was Ramkhamhaeng the Great (about 1239-1298 AD). During his reign, which began around 1275 AD, Sukhothai reached the zenith of its influence. The frontiers of the kingdom were extended to embrace much of modern Thailand and local chieftains from as far away as Laos and the Malay Peninsula paid tribute to the Sukhothai king. King Ramkhamhaeng united his kingdom under one religion, Theravada Buddhism, and he is credited with devising the modern Thai script. The reverence with which the Thai people still regard King Ramkhamhaeng can be seen at a modern shrine just inside the entrance to the historical park. Here a massive statue of the royal hero gazes down on his modern-day admirers, as they present their offerings of flowers and food and pray to his spirit for good fortune.

In addition to ruined temples, Sukhothai is famous for its ceramics, known as Sangkhalok ware. White or grey pottery was embellished with decorative swirling patterns and parallel lines in blue, black or brown (various fish motifs are the most famous) and glazed. At the height of the Sukhothai period, hundreds of wood-fired kilns produced these ceramics from clay dug from the riverbanks. Some of these original brick kilns have been excavated and can be seen to the north of the ancient city wall around Wat Phra Phai Luang. Manufacture of Sangkhalok-style pottery continues today as a cottage industry. One of the best places to see it is Suthep Sangkhalok in a small house, in a narrow lane behind the Ramkhamhaeng National Museum. This family company produces ceramics in the original Sangkhalok style, as well as various more recent variations, using a modern-day metal kiln.

After a day or two taking in the cultural attractions of Sukhothai, one ruined temple begins to look pretty much like another and, when culture saturation sets in, visitors should consider a trip out to Ramkhamhaeng National Park to take in the natural history of Sukhothai Province. Established in 1980, Ramkhamhaeng National Park comprises an isolated, 341-square-kilometre chain of mountains, running south from the ancient city. To get there from Sukhothai, a private or rented car is needed, since there is no public transport to the park headquarters. Travel 20 kilometres (12 miles) south on highway 101, to the Kirimat crossroads. Turn right and follow the signs a further 16 kilometres (10 miles).

Reminders of the importance of this mountain to the ancient Sukhothai kingdom can be seen along the way. Remnants of dams and canals, which collected the water running off the mountain and irrigated the rice fields surrounding the old city, are scattered along the eastern park boundary. In addition, the modern tarmac road to the park crosses over Thailand's first trunk road. The Phra Ruang Highway was constructed in the middle of the Sukhothai period and ran a total distance of 123 kilometres, linking Sukhothai to Si Satchanalai in the north and Kamphaeng Phet in the south.

The headquarters of the national park are set amidst towering dipterocarp trees and shaded lawns at the foot of the mountain, which provide an excellent picnic spot. The park headquarters has two bungalows (each sleeping eight people) for rent. Tents can also be hired and there are camping grounds at the headquarters and at the summit. An exhibition centre provides an absorbing introduction to the park's wildlife, as well as maps and details of the park's main attraction, the ascent of Khao Luang, although very little information is presented in English.

The summit of Khao Luang rises precipitously to 1, 200 metres above sea level, straight up from the park headquarters. It is impossible to be unaffected by the overwhelming sense of brooding dominance of this spiritual mountain. The park's main attraction is the walking trail to its summit; a tough, steep hike of four kilometres, which takes approximately four hours to complete, with stops along the way to take in the view. The journey begins at the trailhead near the park headquarters. After paying the entrance fee, most aspiring mountaineers spend a few quiet moments at a shrine, where a powerful guardian spirit is believed to reside. Here, hikers ask permission to trespass on the spirit's domain and pray for their safety during the arduous climb.

The path is steep at first and should be attempted only by fit walkers. A viewpoint after 1. 6 kilometres provides sweeping views for those who do not want to go to the top. Points of interest along the route include large Ptero-carpus macrocarpus and fig (Ficus altissima} trees, tree ferns and a grove of bamboos. Chan Back Phai (2. 7 kilometres) is a rock formation, where refugees took shelter in times of war. According to a local legend, a cave, Plong Nang Nuk (3. 3 kilometres) links the mountain with Si Satchanalai, some 70 kilometres to the north. It has never been surveyed. As walkers ascend, dense forest gives way to open degraded grasslands. These grasslands are the result of logging since ancient times. Quite likely, these slopes were cleared to provide hardwood for house building when Sukhothai was being founded. Annual fires prevent forest re-establishment by destroying tree seedlings and the soil seed bank. Birds likely to be seen along the way include Baya Weaver, Green-billed Malkoha and Stripe-throated Bulbul.