Friday 21 May 2010

Sukhothai -- Cradle of Siamese Civilisation

A trip to Sukhothai is much more than a visit to some old ruins. It is a journey to the very core of Siamese civilization ...

It was here from 1238 until 1438 that so many aspects of Thai culture were developed, such as the formalization of the Thai alphabet under Pho Khun Ramkhamhaeng. It was a turbulent period of blood-letting and empire building with ‘Thailand’s’ footprint being much larger than it is today. Then, remarkably like Angkor Wat, the vulnerable city characterized by its lotus-bud style chedis was abandoned and lost to the jungle, with Ayutthaya favoured as the new capital site for the kingdom.

The area was gazetted for protection in 1961, and restoration of Sukhothai Historical Park’s five zones commenced in earnest. Detractors claim that much of the restoration has been too well done, diminishing the aged authenticity of the Buddha figures, chedis, stupas, salas, ramparts and moats they’re viewing.

(A tip: take a bicycle and venture further than the heavily restored central zone. Temples at the rear and on the fringes of other zones are largely untouched to date. Unmarked tracks reward the intrepid with original-condition ruins, giving you an Indiana Jones feeling.)

However, if you are here around Loy Krathong festival time, you will be absolutely enchanted by the site of thousands -- yes, thousands -- of lanterns floating skyward from amid the lit ruins. That is a transformational experience in anybody's life.

It makes you believe in Father Christmas, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy all over again. Jing jing!
Otherwise, make a day trip of the 55 km journey north out to the much less trampled Si Satchanalai Historic Park, also a UNESCO-listed World Heritage site, which flourished parallel to Sukhothai. Within the 90-odd hectare old city walls adjacent the Yom River, Wat Chang Lom, Wat Chedi Jet Thaew and Wat Nang Phaya are sure to delight with their intriguingly different designs. Chang Lom for instance owes its design to a Sri Lankan design aesthetic, with 39 standing elephant buttresses around its base.

Others tilt more toward the Khmer or even Ayutthaya styles.

Si Satchanalai also has the added dimension of ceramic kiln relics at Ban Ko Noi, around five kilometers north of the town. At its peak, possibly 1000 kilns produced celadon ceramics known as Sawankhalok, showing remarkable enterprise and exporting their signature ceramics as far as Japan, China and Indonesia.

This triumvirate of Thai civilisation is completed by Kamphaengphet Historical Park, listed by UNESCO, too, though smaller in scale. However, laterite left-overs are easily accessible around this small provincial town about an hour’s drive southwest of Sukhothai (the road into town even curves around some red brick rampart relics).

So get off the time-worn track. Who knows, you might even uncover some long-forgotten ruin and be immortalized in history yourself.


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