For many visitors, Phitsanulok is little more than the place you need to pass through to get to Sukhothai. But by taking a little time to get to know this former royal outpost (and briefly capital), you’re bound to be pleasantly surprised. Within a single day, you can discover places like a folk museum, a Buddha statue foundry, and one of the most revered temples in all of Thailand. And there’s even the ruins of an ancient royal palace to explore. While it may not look it at first glance, this provincial capital has much more to offer than its train and bus stations.
Phitsanulok is surprisingly walkable, with spacious sidewalks and fairly subdued traffic for a provincial capital. If you arrive at the central bus station, the first destination on this itinerary, the folk museum, is just a 30-minute walk away.
Coming by train or bus, however, you’ll probably want to head over by taxi. In any case, you shouldn’t have much trouble getting around to all the other locations on foot from there.
Sgt. Maj. Thawee Folk Museum
For a period of over 30 years, Sgt. Maj. Thawee Buranakhat amassed a large collection of folk artifacts as part of a passionate hobby. In the beginning, the collection largely comprised of utensils like agricultural tools, baskets and earthenware. He then began collecting traditional handicrafts, musicals instruments and art such as rare Buddha images. Some of his objects were even once part of occult rituals, like sacred knives or items cast with magical spells!
Eventually, Sgt. Maj. Thawee’s collection grew large enough to justify the opening of his own museum. At only 50 baht to enter, the museum is easily one of the best of its kind in Thailand.
Situated in a traditional wooden Thai housing complex, there are 4 different buildings for various sections of the museum. Some for utensils and art, and others for a bilingual historical explanation of Phitsanulok’s past. And there’s even a small aquarium containing over 30 species of local fish.
The Buddha Foundry
Just across the street from the Folk Museum, the Buddha foundry provides a rare and fascinating glimpse into how Buddha statues are made. This particular Buddha factory deals solely with bronze images, the most common type of image over the past several hundred years.
Before visiting, keep in mind that while the foundry is open to the public, you shouldn’t expect there to be a tour guide or any signs explaining the process. I’ve outlined the main steps below to give you a better idea of what you’re looking at when you visit.
To start, the founder usually takes a hollow mold based off of a pre-existing image. These cores are made of clay with added rice husks and sand. Once the clay core of a Buddha statue has been molded, it’s left to dry in the sun for several days.
Next, a mixture of beeswax and resin is applied to the dried clay. The more intricate details of the image are finalized during this stage of the process. Another outer mold is then carefully applied before the whole thing is heated to allow the wax to melt. The space where the wax once was then becomes an empty cavity.
While the mold is still hot, the liquid metal is poured into the holes in the bottom of the statue, taking up the space left by the melted wax. Finally, once everything hardens, the outer mold is hammered off and the finished bronze statue emerges.
Imperfect Buddha images are not at all uncommon, with the metal being reused for future attempts. According to legend, Phitsanulok’s own Phra Buddha Chinnarat image required three castings in a row before they finally got it right. The end result, though, turned out to be what many in Thailand consider as the country’s most beautiful statue. As you’ll see at the foundry, replicas of the Phra Buddha Chinnarat are their most popular product by far.
Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat
Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat, one of the most famous temples in all of Thailand, dates back to 1357 during the reign of King Phaya Lithai. From afar, it’s easily recognizable for its 37-meter high Ayutthayan prang, containing important Buddhist relics inside.
Located in the temple’s viharn is the highly venerated Phra Buddha Chinnarat image, which dates back to the time of the temple’s founding. Regardless of what time you visit, you’ll likely find the temple fairly crowded, as pilgrims from around the country regularly come to Phitsanulok just to see this statue.
The image was cast in bronze, likely via a process very similar to the one outlined above. Interestingly, the outer gold wasn’t even applied until the 17th century. Having seen the statue replicated in so many different sizes throughout temples all over Thailand, I was surprised by just how big the real one is. It stands(or sits) at 3.75 meters high!
Outside, you’ll come across an outer gallery containing dozens of gold Buddha images. This will lead you to a free museum that has some old ceramics on display.
Be sure to spend some time walking around the rest of the complex. In the courtyard you can find a large Ayutthayan chedi, and then on the other side of the exterior you’ll find a towering standing Buddha. The image is referred to as Phra Attaros, and it’s very similar to ones found throughout Sukhothai. It stands amongst the ruins of what must be an earlier incarnation of the temple.
Just nearby Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat are a couple of the city’s other important temples. Notably, both were founded by King Boromma Trailokanat during the time that Phitsanulok served as the Ayutthaya Kingdom’s capital.
Wat Nang Phaya
Located just next to Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat, this temple features its own Phra Buddha Chinnarat replica. Among the Thai, this temple is fairly well known for the discovery of precious amulets dug up in its crypt in the 1950’s. It’s worth stopping by for a couple of minutes to check out the vivid murals along the outer gallery.
Wat Ratchaburana’s most notable feature is its large tiered brick chedi which is easily visible from afar. Supposedly, this is the only part of the original structure which has survived intact. Inside you can find a golden Sukhothai-style Buddha image, as well as murals depicting scenes from the Ramakien (Thai Ramayana).
The River & The City Pillar
Behind Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat, you’ll come across the Nan River. Phitsanulok’s original name was Song Kwae, which translates to “two rivers.” The other one, Khwae Noi, however, changed its course sometime in the 11th century. Today, only the Nan flows through the city. (The name Phitsanulok, by the way, is the Thai pronunciation of “Vishnu-loka,” the traditional name for Vishnu’s heavenly abode.)
Looking across the river, you’ll spot Phitsanulok’s City Pillar shrine. In Thailand, City Pillars are highly venerated, as they’re believed to help protect a city and its inhabitants. Rather than being a Buddhist tradition, the concept is rooted in Hindu and animist beliefs. This particular structure was built in the Khmer style, perhaps as a way to pay homage to the area’s ancient roots as a Khmer outpost.
The Chan Royal Palace Historical Center
Kings from Ayutthaya had long sent their heirs to govern in Phitsanulok to gain experience before taking the throne. Phitsanulok, after all, was a crucial strategic city for battles between Ayutthaya and Lanna to the north. Things got so heated, in fact, that King Boromma Trailokanat, even changed the capital from Ayutthaya to Phitsanulok in 1463!
King Boromma Trailokanat took up residence at the Chan Royal Palace, which had already been established during the reign of King Intharacha to house royal viceroys. During his 25 years ruling out of the palace, Boromma Trailokanat strengthened the regional military while fortifying walls around the city. His adversary at the time was Lanna’s most powerful king, Tilokarat, and the two sides fought directly with each other as well as over Sukhothai’s former territories.
Today, the Chan Royal Palace functions an informative museum detailing Phitsanulok’s role in the Ayutthaya kingdom days. But the main king honored here is not Boromma Trailokanat, but a later king named Naruesan who was born at the palace in 1555. By then, the capital had switched back to Ayutthaya, but Phitsanulok remained an important political and strategic center. The threats came not just from Lanna, but from an increasingly powerful Taungoo Empire of Burma.
King Naresuan remains of Thailand’s most beloved historical figures, and is most known for restoring independence for Ayutthaya after kicking out the Burmese in 1584. He did so at the Battle of Nong Sarai, which culminated in a one-on-one elephant battle against the Burmese crown prince. In one of the most retold battle scenes of Thai folklore, Naresuan caught the prince off guard and killed him, repelling the Burmese for good. Or, at least until they took over again in 1767.
Outside the museum and shrine, the grounds even contain ruins of three former royal temples: Wat Sri Sukhot, Wat Photong and Wat Wihanthong. While there’s no comparing them to the ruins of Shukhothai or Si Satchanalai, they serve as an added bonus for ruins enthusiasts who probably weren’t expecting to find them within the city center.
As one of the region’s main transport hubs, getting to Phitsanulok is easy.
The city is on the main rail line which connects Chiang Mai and Bangkok.
There are also numerous direct bus routes connecting Phitsanulok with other major cities of Thailand, including those in the Isaan region. The city has two bus stations: one centrally located, about 2km away from the train station, and the other about 5km away.
If you want to take a short ride to Sukhothai (around 60 baht, 1 hour), then you can visit the more centrally located station. Some long distance bus rides to Chiang Mai or Bangkok also depart from here. But as is common in Thailand, the more remote bus station is the one served by most long distance routes.
Phitsanulok can also be reached by plane, and is served by a couple different budget airlines. The only airport you can fly to and from, though, is Bangkok’s DMK Airport.
As most of the sites in Phitsanulok can be seen in a day, staying overnight is not really necessary. I was staying for several nights in Sukhothai, and visited the city as a day trip. However, depending on how your train or bus tickets are lined up, you might want to spend a night near one of the stations.