Nakhon Si Thammarat doesn’t appear on most people’s itineraries – even those doing extensive stays in South Thailand. But the more you learn about Thailand’s history, mentions of this ancient city will pop up time and time again. Going by names like Ligor and Tambralinga in old records, it long functioned as the premier trading port between Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. What has resulted is a fascinating blend of cultures, art and architecture that can still be witnessed today. This guide to Nakhon Si Thammarat will introduce the main things to see and do in what may very well be Thailand’s oldest city.
Nakhon Si Thammarat: Past and Present
Nakhon Si Thammarat is so old that we still aren’t sure exactly when it first emerged as a major trading port. Coins left by Arab merchants from as early as the 5th century have been found in the area. But the city probably rose to prominence from the 7th century, as part of the Srivijayan Empire based out of the Indonesian archipelago. Remnants of this Mahayana Buddhist kingdom can still be seen in the city today.
At the time, Nakhon Si Thammarat was known as Ligor. As the Malay Peninsula’s main trading port, it also became a melting pot of cultures and ideas, thus strongly influencing the religious trends of Siam for centuries. For much of its early history, the region was a hotspot for both Hinduism and a variety of Buddhist sects.
Nakhon Si Thammarat traded directly with both India and Sri Lanka, and art from various regions throughout the Indian subcontinent are now on display at the city’s museums. One 7th century Chinese pilgrim named I-Ching even stayed in Nakhon to study Sanskrit grammar before heading over to India itself.
It seems like just about every empire to have prospered in Southeast Asia wanted Nakhon Si Thammarat as part of their territory. After the Srivijaya era, Nakhon was largely controlled by the Khmer, though it likely functioned as an independent kingdom for some time in between.
An often overlooked historical fact is that a local king from Nakhon Si Thammarat even once usurped the throne at Cambodia’s Angkor, reigning over the entire Khmer Empire for a time! This short-lived king was named Jayavivarman, and he was eventually deposed by Suryavarman I in the year 1010. What likely followed was Khmer domination over Nakhon from at least the mid-11th century.
After the fall of the Khmer, Nakhon Si Thammarat would become a vassal of the Sukhothai Kingdom from the 13th century. The town was considered highly important not just economically, but culturally as well. Nakhon maintained close ties with Sri Lanka and was becoming a major center for the Sri Lankan brand of Theravada Buddhism, which was also thriving in Sukhothai.
Ayutthaya eventually took control over Nakhon Si Thammarat for a few hundred years, until its downfall at the hands of the Burmese. It was the 18th century King Taksin the Great who reabsorbed Nakhon Si Thammarat back into Siam, and it has remained an important part of Thailand ever since. Taksin even installed his own son as governor, and statues of the king can be spotted all around the city today.
If you have even a basic interest in Southeast Asian culture, religion and history, learning about this ancient southern port should fascinate you. Frankly put, however, the city may be more pleasant to read about than it is to actually visit. Outside of the historical sites themselves, your average street in modern-day Nakhon looks like any other congested and dusty city in Thailand. In other words, it’s not the nicest looking town.
But should you still visit? If you have an interest in the topics mentioned above, and plan to be doing some traveling around the South already, then yes, absolutely. The city is an easy bus ride from places like Krabi (2-3 hours) or Surat Thani. Nakhon Si Thammarat makes for a great day or two stopover if you’re craving some culture in between your days of lazing on the beach. The province is also home to some gorgeous waterfalls, one of which we’ll detail down below.
Nearly all of the noteworthy sites in Nakhon Si Thammarat are situated north-south along a single road: Ratchadamnoen Rd. Long ago, the city was actually located along the coast, though it’s not anywhere near the water now due to centuries of siltation.
Many of the locations along Ratchadamnoen are close by one another and therefore walkable. But sometimes you’ll want a vehicle. Conveniently, there are plenty of songthaews (shared taxis) which simply go up and down this road for only 10 baht a ride.
With so much to see, visiting all the sites detailed below will take you at least two days. If you only have a day to explore the city, the essentials would be Wat Phra Mahathat, the Isuan (Shiva) and Vishnu (Narai) shrines, the Phra Phuttha Sihing Hall, and either one of the museums.
In the following guide, we’ll be covering the sites from south to north, while also detailing the gorgeous Namtok Karom which is well out of town.
The National Museum of Nakhon Si Thammarat
Situated far south along Ratchadamnoen Rd. is the Nakhon Si Thammarat National Museum, one of the best places to learn about the fascinating history of the region. It’s also where you’ll find the original artifacts from other locations on this list. In some cases, the originals have been replaced by replicas at the sites themselves.
The sculptures pictured above range from the Srivijayan to the Khmer to even the South Indian styles of art. All have been discovered in Nakhon Si Thammarat itself or neighboring provinces, revealing the diverse range of art styles that the peninsula has long been exposed to.
The museum also has exhibits demonstrating traditional folk dances of the region, as well as things like agricultural tools and ceramics.
The museum costs 100 baht to enter. If you’re not incredibly interested in artifacts and mainly want to learn about the area’s history and culture, visit the free City Museum in Thung Tha Lat Park that’s mentioned at the end of this article.
Wat Tao Kot
What’s known as Wat Thao Kot today is actually made up of five former temples which once existed around the area. It’s most notable feature is easily its large brick chedi, built back during the Srivijaya era. Meanwhile, the ordination hall, or ubosot, was built while Ayutthaya reigned supreme over the region.
Wat Phra Mahathat
Wat Phra Mahathat is the most prominent as well as oldest Buddhist temple in the South. It dates back to the 13th century, though, as we’ll detail further below, the main chedi houses a tooth relic believed to have been brought here much earlier.
If you could only visit one site in Nakhon Si Thammarat, this temple should be it. The large temple complex contains a lot to explore, so expect to spend at least an hour or two looking around.
Coming from the south entrance, one of the first buildings you’ll encounter is the viharn named the Thammasala Congregation Hall. The interior contains a large standing Buddha inside, though the structure normally seems to be locked except for special ceremonies.
Exploring the outer courtyard area, you’ll come across a shrine dedicated to King Taksin (one of many in the area) and a couple of small viharns, one of which is the ‘Vihara Phra Maha Kaccayana.’ Supposedly, people come pray to the golden chubby Buddha inside to help cure backaches!
The highlight of the temple is its principle chedi, known as Phra That Borommathat. This massive chedi, which stands at 78-meters high, is believed to contain a tiny tooth relic of the Buddha himself.
According to an ancient legend, an Indian prince and a princess needed to bring the tooth relic to safety, as their town was in the midst of a war. And so they set sail for the Buddhist island nation of Sri Lanka.
But while sailing there, they got caught in a great storm, ending up in Trang on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula. Thinking they were in Sri Lanka, they walked around looking for a suitable place to bury the relic. They finally ended up at a place called Sae Kaeo beach on the peninsula’s east coast. They removed the tooth, which had been kept tightly wrapped up in the princess’s hair, and buried it in the sand. Supposedly, this is the exact spot where the Phra That Borommathat chedi now stands.
Though this particular chedi dates back to the 13th century, a previous version is also believed to have existed at the same spot. It was probably in the Srivijayan style, as opposed to the Sri Lankan bell shaped chedi we see now. Some scholars believe that the area was temporarily abandoned due to a cholera outbreak. The king then built Wat Phra Mahathat and its iconic chedi upon its resettlement.
Now, the main chedi is surrounded by no less than 173 smaller ones. Many of them have recently gotten a fresh coat of paint, while the Phra That Borommathat chedi has been under scaffolding for some much-needed renovation. Clearly, locals are hoping that this ancient temple maintains its significance for many years to come.
Around the main chedi is a large gallery area containing Buddha statues of all shapes and sizes. They all have one thing in common, though: they all look incredibly old. If ancient, rustic temples are your thing, you can probably do no better than Wat Phra Mahathat. The gallery will also take you into a museum area containing all sorts of relics from Nakhon Si Thammmarat’s storied past.
One of the most fascinating parts of the temple complex is a hall referred to as Viharn Phra Ma Ha. This is actually the base of a staircase which leads to the main chedi. Inside you can find intricate carvings of figures from Hindu and Buddhist mythology, as well statues of lions, demons and Garuda eagles.
Nang Talung Shadow Puppet Museum
If you need a break from temples for a bit, you may want to wander east to the Nang Talung Shadow Puppet Museum. Shadow puppetry has long been one of the most popular means of storytelling in Southeast Asia. The tradition has functioned as both an entertaining and economical way to see popular folktales played out in real time.
Considering Nakhon Si Thammarat’s prominence as a trading port, the town was also exposed to shadow puppets from all over the region.
In addition to locally made puppets, the museum also features puppets from Cambodia, Isaan (Northeast Thailand), and central Thailand. Other objects on display include the tools used to make the puppets, as well as some of the instruments played during performances. Everything comes from the collection of a man named Suchart Sapain, who finally decided to create a museum after a meeting with Thailand’s King Rama IX.
The museum is free to enter and the friendly family who runs it will even give you a brief explanation in English on how the leather puppets are made. Apparently, actual performances do sometimes take place here as well, though you may need to call them in advance if you want to see one.
Phra Sayom Base
Phra Sayom Base is an ancient shrine dedicated to Shiva, located on a side road near the main fruit market. It’s unclear how old the shrine actually is, especially considering the multiple phases in which Hindu traditions were brought to the peninsula.
The shiva-linga at the center is surrounded by a ruined brick structure, which is said to be how locals first found it. Today, it’s been covered with a new roof but has otherwise been left intact. The small shrine also has some Hindu and Khmer-influenced sculptures on display.
Phra Putta sihing Hall
The Phra Puttha Sihing Hall is home to the Phra Sihing Buddha image. Well, at least Nakhon Si Thammarat’s own version of it. Among the Thais, the Sihing Buddha is considered to be the second most important statue in the country after the Emerald Buddha, now kept in Bangkok’s Grand Palace complex. However, there are three different statues which all claim to be the real Sihing Buddha.
According to legend, when Nakhon Si Thammarat was under the dominion of Sukhothai, the king (possibly Ram Khamhaeng) was aware of Nakhon’s close ties with Sri Lanka. Eager to spread Sri Lankan-style Therevada Buddhism throughout the Sukhothai Kingdom, he asked the local ruler of Nakhon Si Thammarat to visit Sri Lanka and request a Buddha image.
The Sri Lankans obliged, though the ship carrying the statue got caught in a storm, with all crew members ending up dying. Miraculously, however, the statue floated on its own for days, eventually arriving at its intended destination. Since then, people have believed it to possess a powerful spirit. After staying in Nakhon Si Thammarat for a short time, the Sihing Buddha was then delivered to Sukhothai.
The Ayutthaya Kingdom gained possession of it from sometime in the 14th century. It was then taken to Kamphaeng Phet’s Wat Phra Kaew and then to Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Rai. It later stayed in Chiang Mai for a long time at a temple also named Wat Phra Singh, and it was briefly whisked away to Luang Prabang together with the Emerald Buddha in the mid-16th century.
It returned again to Chiang Mai, and then switched back and forth between Chiang Mai and Ayutthaya multiple times. Finally, it was brought to Bangkok in 1795 during the reign of King Rama I.
Though the golden statue at Bangkok’s National Museum is generally regarded as the original, numerous replicas of the statue have been made throughout its history, leaving the exact authenticity of all three famous ones up in the air. Some scholars even argue that the true original may already be long gone!
Be that as it may, Nakhon Si Thammarat’s version, which is much smaller than the other two, is still highly regarded by locals. In fact, it’s even believed to be the protector of the city. Today, the Phra Puttha Sihing Hall is in a somewhat unusual location, located just next to City Hall.
Ho Phra Isuan Shrine
Ho Phra Isuan Shrine is a small shrine dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Interestingly, the shrine is believed to date back to the Ayutthaya period, long after Theravada Buddhism had become the dominant religion in the region. Some of its sculptures, however, are far older.
The dancing Shiva statue to the right of the linga is said to be in the style of southern India’s Chola Dynasty. The original, along with the Ganesha image to the left, are now on display at the local National Museum.
Outside of the shrine is a giant red swing, very similar to the one outside of Wat Suthat in Bangkok. These swings were once part of a ceremony involving men trying to grab a bag of coins, though they eventually had to be stopped due to a number of fatalities. Just south of the building is an archaeological digging site.
Ho Phra Narai Shrine
Just across the street is the Ho Phra Narai (Vishnu) shrine. While also dating back as recently as the Ayutthaya period, the statues originally found here are much more ancient. A Lopburi (Khmer) statue from the 10th century was found here, while another could be as old as the 4th century AD.
As with the Shiva shrine, you’ll have to visit the Nakhon Si Thammarat National Museum to see the original statues. Also be aware that if you arrive at either shrine around lunch time, you may find them locked with nobody in sight. It’s best to come in the morning or later afternoon to be sure you can get inside.
Sanam Na Muang Public Park
While the central part of Sanam Na Muang Public Park may be your fairly standard park, it does contain a number of notable historical and cultural sites around its periphery. The north side of the park is where you’ll find remnants of the old city wall, which dates back to sometime in the 12th century. Nearby is a statue of King Sri Thammasokarat, founder of Wat Phra Mahathat and probably builder of said wall.
Also near the northern edge of the park is a small structure called Phra Viharn Sung which sits on top of a short hill. Supposedly, it contains some old sculptures, though entry to the hill was locked on two different days that I walked by it. Just to the east of that is Nakhon Si Thammarat’s City Pillar Shrine,
City pillar shrines are common throughout the region, as they’re believed to protect a city and its inhabitants. This one, however, is also said to be the home of an ancient spirit. Jatukam Ramathep is a local deity, considered to be an avatar of Vishnu, who has long been credited with watching over the main chedi of Wat Phra Mahathat. When this city pillar shrine was constructed in 1987, local priests invited Jatukan Ramathep to live inside the pillar to protect the city as a whole.
This has led to a rather bizarre story involving a retired police officer who created a lucky amulet featuring Jatuken Ramathep shortly after the shrine was built. He claimed that the deity helped him solve a murder case, and many now believe that these amulets bring good luck, or best of all, immense wealth. Jatukam Ramathep amulets are now wildly popular all over Thailand, with a woman once even dying in a stampede at Wat Phra Mahathat to get one!
On the east side of Ratchadamnoen Rd, you’ll find a large standalone chedi. It’s said to have been built by the same people who constructed the Phra That Borommathat chedi. It’s recently been painted over, but for many years it consisted of exposed brown brick.
Across the street is a large songthaew stop from which you can get a ride to Namtok Karom (more below).
On the same side of the street of the chedi is the Yamia Mosque. Much of southern Thailand nowadays is majority Muslim. While Nakhon Si Thammarat seems to have remained a mostly Buddhist town, it still does have a sizable Muslim population and mosques are a fairly common sight.
Wat Tang Tawan Ok
This is a collection of old houses built for monks back in 1888. The wooden structures remain good examples of traditional Nakhon Si Thammarat architecture, of which little else remains in the city nowadays. A little off of the main road, it’s fairly close to the Big C shopping center.
Wat Pradu Pattanaram
Wat Pradu must be one of the city’s most overlooked temples. In addition to those of the local ruler, the temple is believed to house the ashes of none other than Taksin the Great. Fittingly, the temple compound contains structures built in the Chinese style, as Taksin himself was half Chinese and spoke the language fluently.
According to the official story of his death, Taksin was ordered to be executed (learn more here), with his ashes now kept at Wat Intharam in Bangkok’s Thonburi district. An alternative story, however, says that a double was executed in his place, and he went down to Nakhon Si Thammarat to live out the rest of his days. Should this version of the story actually be true, Wat Pradu are where his ashes are really kept.
Thung Tha Lat Park
We are now finally finished with Ratchadamnoen Rd. A few blocks west of Wat Pradu is Thung Tha Lat Park, also known as “Princess Mother 83.” This massive park may be one of the city’s best kept secrets. Thing Tha Lat even contains a zoo, along with a museum that’s every bit as good as the National Museum at the opposite end of the city.
Coming from the south side, you’ll notice all sorts of pagodas representing famous chedis from throughout Asia. The most famous of which is probably Mahabodhi Temple from Bodh Gaya, India, the place where Buddha attained enlightenment. You’ll also come across some smaller temples and a statue to the Chinese Buddhist goddess Guan Yin.
The Nakhon Si Thammarat City Museum contains some excellent English information on the sites outlined above, including a comprehensive breakdown of the different parts of Wat Phra Mahathat temple. It also details the ancient shipping routes that brought goods and ideas to the peninsula.
While it lacks the ancient artifacts of the National Museum, it’s all around superior in terms of the historical info it provides. And best of all, it’s free!
Even if you decide to skip the zoo, there’s still an open section where you can see some peacocks. Apparently, foreign tourists are much rarer than peacocks in the region, so don’t be surprised if all eyes are on you!
Exploring further, you can check out a small island in the middle of a lake as well as some well-landscaped gardens. Though maybe not a must-visit, Thung Tha Lat park is worth checking out if you’re traveling with family or simply have a free afternoon in the city. It’s also a good alternative to the National Museum if you want to save 100 baht.
Further afield, Nakhon Si Thammarat province is home to its fair share of waterfalls. One of the most beautiful, which also happens to be relatively close to the city, is known as Namtok Karom (namtok means waterfall).
Situated about 9km from the city in Khao Luang National Park, Namtok Karom makes for an easy half-day trip that combines light hiking with swimming, should you so desire.
In total there are 19 levels to the waterfall, though visitors only have access to the first seven of them. Along the trails you’ll find some signboards with information on the local plants and wildlife. About halfway up is a place where you can take a dip in the water, so you might want to pack a bathing suit.
The seventh and highest level is also probably the most beautiful. Looking closely, you can see initials carved in the rock by both Kings Rama V and VI who visited the waterfall during their reigns.
GETTING THERE: Before my visit to the waterfalls, I read online that one of the blue songthaews on Ratchadamnoen Rd. will take you there. I then asked someone at one of the English-speaking tourist offices, who told me I needed to go to the regular bus station. It turned out, though, that neither are true!
Simply take a regular songthaew which goes up and down the main road to Wat Chedi Yak. Walk across the street and you should see a large parking area. It’s hard to tell at first, but behind some buildings to the right are dozens of songthaews lined up and waiting for passengers. Sooner or later, you’ll likely be approached by somebody asking where you’re going, and just tell them “Namtok Karom” and they’ll direct you to the correct vehicle.
I got dropped on the main road and then walked about 5 – 10 minutes uphill to the main ticket area. I was then offered a ride to the start of the trails by one of the helpful staff members, which otherwise would’ve been another 5 – 10 minutes of walking.
Entry for foreigners is 200 baht.
A few budget airlines operate direct flights between Nakhon Si Thammarat and Bangkok, such as Thai Lion Air and Nok Air.
There are also trains connecting Nakhon Si Thammarat with Bangkok that last around 12 hours. Long-distance buses last around the same amount of time.
Both regular buses and minibuses (minivans) can take you from Nakhon Si Thammarat to other parts of Southern Thailand. There are direct rides to places like Krabi, Surat Thani and Hat Yai which should only take a couple of hours each.
As mentioned above, the easiest way to get up and down Ratchadamnoen Rd., other than walking, is by hailing one of the blue songthaews. A single ride costs 10 baht, regardless of the distance.
Outside of Ratchadamnoen Rd, songthaews, as well as tuk tuks, seem to be nonexistent. That’s why it’s best to book your accommodation as close to the main road as possible.
Fortunately, the ridesharing app Grab (which has also absorbed Uber in Southeast Asia) is operating in Nakhon Si Thammarat. This is the ideal way to get between either the bus station or the airport and your hotel. Motorbike taxi drivers can also be found outside the bus station, but the language barrier is a major issue in the province.
As mentioned, you want to stay on or as close to Ratchadamnoen Rd. as possible. Nearly all the sites in the city are located along it. As songthaews can take you up and down the road, having easy access to Ratchadamnoen is more important than which landmark you’re closest to.
Before my trip, I didn’t realize the city was laid out this way. I ended up booking a hotel about a 15-minute walk east of Wat Phra Mahathat. While that meant the temple was fairly easy to get to, it also meant that I had to walk at least that far and back to get anywhere else in the city!