The part of Thailand known as the North Central Plains has a lot to offer archaeology and history lovers. It is, after all, the home of Sukhothai, widely considered to be the birthplace of Siamese culture. But about 60km away, the ruling elite also built a sister satellite city. They even connected Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai with a royal road called the Phra Ruang. Today, the two are an easy hour-long bus ride apart. As the twin cities share much of the same history and architecture, a side trip to Si Satchanalai has little to offer those looking for variety. It is worth visiting, though, for those who loved Sukhothai and crave a further taste.
Si Satchanalai: A Brief History
Like Sukhothai, Si Satchanalai also used to be a Khmer outpost in the late 12th century. But even before that, members of the Mon Dvaravati civilization inhabited the area from as early on as the 5th century AD.
Later, the two sister cities were absorbed into the Ayutthaya Kingdom together. Like in Sukhothai, the temple ruins of Si Satchanalai are renowned for their diverse mix of architectural styles, considering all the different kingdoms that once controlled the area.
The otherwise shared histories of Sukhothai and Si Satchanali diverge slightly from the mid-15th century. Si Satchanalai played a pivotal role in the Lanna-Ayutthaya War, changing hands between the two kingdoms on multiple occasions.
The conflict began when King Tilokaraj of Lanna had to put down a coup by his half-brother Soi. A governor loyal to Soi then invited the Ayutthaya army to come and attack Lanna. As the two kingdoms were already bitter rivals, Ayutthaya showed little hesitation.
One of the turning points in the conflict was when Si Satchanalai was captured by Tilokaraj in 1451. The two sides would continue to fight over the territory, and it was retaken by Lanna again in 1459.
Historical accounts on the subject aren’t entirely clear, but it would appear as if Ayutthaya would gain back the territory at some point, holding onto it until a massive Burmese invasion took place in the late 16th century. Si Satchanalai, along with Sukhothai and Kamphaeng Phet, would largely remain abandoned for a long time afterward.
Much more recently, the three ancient Siamese cities were able to celebrate together after being declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1991. Understandably, Sukhothai remains the most visited of the three by far.
Exploring Si Satchanalai
Exiting the bus from Sukhothai, you’ll get off on Highway 101 just north of the Yom River. As soon as you get off, you’ll see a bicycle rental stand which charges 50 baht for the day. Different areas throughout the city require different tickets, which we’ll go over in more detail below.
Getting around to the sites mentioned in the article below is a pretty straightforward process. You’ll want to start at Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat and then gradually make your way westward from there, before eventually heading to the Historical Park. The Historical Park is square-shaped and easy to navigate.
Behind the bicycle rental shop is a little alleyway which leads to a wooden bridge to the other side of the river. In my case, the bridge was closed for renovation. I had to bike west along the north side of the river until I reached the main road that would take me over the water (1201). I then had to bike all the way east again. While annoying, it wasn’t that big of a deal and I still managed to see everything in time.
Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat
Built in 1237, Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat is one of the oldest temples in the region and it even predates the walled city of Si Satchanalai. Though originally built by the Khmer during their reign over this part of Thailand, most of what remains was constructed by Sukhothai and later, Ayutthaya.
Bear in mind that this temple is separately managed from the other ruins in the area and has its own ticketing system. Entry here is a very reasonable 20 baht.
The first thing you’ll notice when approaching the temple is its large prang, or the Khmer equivalent of a chedi. While Khmer in style, this particular prang was actually built by the Ayutthaya Kingdom. Though they were the ones to sack Angkor in 1431, they also adopted much of the former superpower’s architecture and customs as their own.
The prang can actually be climbed, and inside you’ll find a small pillar with offerings laid out front. It may seem anticlimactic, but the climb is well worth it for the views after you turn around!
In front of the prang is the ruins of the viharn, or assembly hall of the temple. You’ll find large Buddha images here, both standing and seated, all of which were made in the Sukhothai style of art. As this temple has been converted into a modern living temple, there is actually a newer wooden viharn in the distance closer to the entrance, along with some monks’ headquarters.
Behind the main structure, you’ll find a mysterious chedi known as Phra That Muchao. Made of laterite, this chedi was once topped with a golden spire.
Supposedly, this pyramid-like chedi even predates the Khmer, dating back all the way to the Mon Dvaravati culture. The Davaravati were one of the first civilizations to bring Hinduism and Buddhism to Thailand, and they inhabited much of the region before the Khmer of Cambodia took over.
Wat Chom Chuen & Wat Chao Chan
On the way over to the Historical Park (walled city), you’ll pass by a small temple complex known as Wat Chom Chuen. Like Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat, this was probably a Khmer temple that was then built over by later ruling kingdoms. Wat Chom Chuen, however, is much smaller in size.
The principal chedi is in the Singhalese, or Sri Lankan style, and it sits on top of a stepped laterite pyramid. Next to it is a viharn in front of a mondop containing a Buddha image. You’ll see several more of these mondops once you enter the actual Historical Park.
Separate but nearby is Wat Chao Chan, an additional structure which looks exactly like the Khmer prasats you see in Cambodia. It likely goes back to the reign of Jayavarman VII, the great “builder king” who expanded Khmer territory to its zenith. In front of the prasat is a ruined viharn, probably from the Sukhothai era.
But this area has been inhabited long before the Khmer. Nearby you’ll find a small museum, which details archaeological findings in the vicinity, dating as far back as the 3rd century AD. Skeletal remains, as well as ancient artifacts, have been found from the Late Prehistoric period up through the Dvaravati era, which lasted from roughly the 5th to 10th centuries.
In addition to some signboards detailing the local history as well as the results from the archaeological digs, the main highlight of the museum is the large reconstruction of the digging site. You’ll be able to see just how far they dug, along with replicas of the skeletal remains. It’s a modern and impressive museum, but it only consists of one single room. Furthermore, it’s not free.
Why Not to Buy The Combo Ticket
During my visit, I entered the museum first. A woman at the desk implied that I should buy a combo ticket for 220 baht, which included the museum and the Chom Chuen group, along with the main Historical Park and also an area with some kilns. I asked her where the area with the kilns was, but she hardly spoke any English. She did, though, point on a map which indicated that the kilns were right near the Historical Park.
Not only did this not turn out to be the case, but the museum was not worth paying for, in my opinion. And as I would soon discover, it’s easy to check out Wat Chom Chuen and Wat Chao Chan without buying an extra ticket, as they’re basically situated in local villagers’ backyards.
It’s also worth noting that the final bus back to Sukhothai is at 15:00. The kilns are actually much farther away than you’d think, so there’s no way to see them after the Historical Park and still make the final bus.
I’ve complained about the deceptive nature of combo tickets in Thailand in the past, but somehow I managed to let myself get duped again! It’s hardly a lot of money we’re talking about here, but I suggest you just pay for things as you go, while skipping the museum entirely.
Wat Kok Singha Ram
Biking toward the Historical Park, you’ll pass by an excellent free temple that’s definitely worth exploring for a couple of minutes. Wat Kok Singha Ram predates the founding of the walled city of Si Satchanalai. In fact, it contains part of the wall from an older version of the city, then known as Chaliang.
The temple features a long viharn, the walls of which remain in relatively good condition. At the end of the long structure you can find a number of chedis. Some scholars believe these to have been directly inspired by the chedis of Ayutthaya’s royal temple, Wat Pha Si Sanphet.
Si Satchanalai Historical Park
Entering the park, you’ll encounter a few more free temples outside, such as Wat Pa Kasa, along with the ancient moat. You’ll enter the old walled city from the south side, with most of the main landmarks being in the central and eastern half.
Wat Nang Phaya
Past the Ram Narong Gate, one of the first temples you’ll see is Wat Nang Phaya. The main structure here is the large bell-shaped chedi, built in the Ayutthaya style. This one has also been clearly inspired by Wat Phra Si Sanphet in Ayutthaya.
The temple is believed to date back to the 16th century, but as it wasn’t mentioned in any of the ancient chronicles, we don’t know a whole lot about it. The main viharn contained as many as 7 different rooms, and the remaining stucco on the outside wall reveals influence from both the Lanna and even Chinese cultures.
Wat Lak Muang
This small temple consists of a Khmer prasat, very similar to the one found at Wat Chao Chan mentioned above. Its name, which translates to “town post,” was given by King Rama VI when he visited in the early 20th century.
Wat Udom Pha Sak
Wat Udom Pha Sak is a relatively small temple featuring a vihan on top of an elevated base of laterite bricks. The main chedi and the smaller chedis which once surrounded it, have mostly all collapsed.
Wat Suan Kaeo Utthayan Yai
Just nearby is Wat Suan Kaeo Utthayan Yai. Despite the elaborate name, there’s not a whole lot of it left. In front of the ruined chedi are tall columns of the former viharn, suggesting that this was likely a pretty impressive temple back in its day.
Wat Chedi Chet Thaeo
Close to the center of the Historical Park is Wat Chedi Chet Thaeo, arguably the most significant temple in Si Satchanalai. The name literally translates to “seven rows of chedis,” though there are in fact nine, adding up to a total of 33 chedis. Standing tall amongst the shorter ones is the lotus bud-shaped chedi in the typical Sukhothai style.
The temple is believed to go back to the mid-14th century during the reign of King Li Thai. Given its location along the central axis, along with its size, there’s no doubt that this was a highly significant temple. However, scholars still aren’t sure of its exact purpose. It may have been a reliquary for ashes of the royal family, or perhaps it was used to enshrine relics of the Buddha.
One side of the chedi features a detailed relief of a Buddha being sheltered by a naga. Walking around the temple complex, you may notice influences from the Khmer, Mon and Lanna cultures.
Wat Chang Lom
Wat Chang Lom is easily identifiable by its large bell-shaped chedi, the base of which is surrounded by 39 elephant statues. While unique within Si Satchanalai, this is a common design in the region as a whole. Similar elephant-flanked chedis can also be found in Sukhothai as well as Kamphaeng Phet.
The impressive temple sits at the very center of the walled city, with both the north-south and east-west axes running through it. It’s also one the city’s oldest, believed to date back to 1285. In fact, some believe it was a chedi used to house important relics that was referenced in the King Ram Khamhaeng inscription.
Other evidence suggests, though, that it may have been built at the same time as Wat Chedi Chet Thaeo. It’s also possible that the chedi was built over an older existing structure, a common practice throughout Southeast Asia.
Wat Suan Kaeo Utthayan Noi
East of Watch Chang Lom is a smaller temple called Wat Suan Kaeo Utthayan Noi. It contains a mondop in a typical style to what we’ve seen before, in addition to another lotus bud chedi.
While it looks fairly ordinary compared to other temples in the city, some scholars believe it may have been a significant royal temple, similar to Wat Phra Kaew in Kamphaeng Phet. Inside the mondop is a rare Buddha image with a wooden core.
Wat Khao Phanom Phloeng
Now it’s time to leave your bicycle aside for a moment, and climb to the top of a hill where you’ll find Wat Khao Phanom Phloeng. The elevated temple was used for special fire ceremonies. As described in the ancient chronicles, a hermit suggested to the king at the time to use the hill for such purposes. That must’ve been something to witness from down below!
At the top, you’ll find a chedi, ubosot and a well-preserved Buddha image made of laterite.
Wat Khao Suwankhiri
Don’t climb down just yet. At the back of Wat Khao Phanom Phloeng is a pathway leading to an even more impressive hilltop temple. The centerpiece of Wat Khao Suwankhiri is its massive bell-shaped chedi on top of a tiered pyramidal base. The temple dates back to the 14th century, or roughly around the same time as Wat Chang Lom.
Around the complex, you’ll find the outline of the original viharn plus some old broken laterite Buddha images. The real treat here, though, is the excellent views from the top of the hill.
And that’s pretty much all there is to see in Si Satchanalai Historical Park. If you took the 8:20 bus, you probably still have an hour or two to kill before the last bus to Sukhothai arrives. Unfortunately, the kilns, being in the opposite direction from the bus stop, are just a little too out of the way to visit without missing the bus (or so I was told by staff at the park). You might want to end your day, then, by taking it easy in the forest, or returning to the town center for a bite to eat.
Almost everyone who travels to Si Satchanalai independently does so via a local bus from Sukhothai. The bus times are as follows:
Sukhothai to Si Satchanalai: 6:40, 8:20, 9:00 and 11:00
Si Satchanalai to Sukhothai: 12:00, 14:30 and 15:00
Things could always change, but you will likely have to be back at the bus stand before 15:00. As mentioned above, seeing all the temples can easily be done as long as you take the 8:20 bus in the morning.
As you will probably be coming from Sukhothai, that’s also where you’re going to want to find a hotel.
Sukhothai is divided into two sections: Old Sukhothai, where the ruins are located, and New Sukhothai. The main bus station is located in New Sukhothai, but still some distance from the city center itself.
If you want to explore Sukhothai in addition to day trips to Kamphaeng Phet, Si Satchanalai or Phitsanulok, I’d recommend staying right across the street from the bus station.
By staying at a hotel called Ruengsri Siri Guest House, not only would you have easy access to day trips, but this is also where the daily shuttle songthaew to the ruins originates. Even if I was stuck with the same couple of restaurants throughout my stay, I was really glad to be so close to the station. It was also convenient to buy an advance ticket to Chiang Mai and board the bus first thing in the morning.
If you’re in Sukhothai and want to make one side trip, you have the option between two former satellite towns: Si Satchanalai or Kamphaeng Phet. I visited both, but if I had to choose between the two, I’d go for Kamphaeng Phet.
The temples there are more impressive and there’s more to see overall. They have a more reasonable and straightforward ticket system, and the place hardly gets any tourists. While Si Satchanalai seems to attract fewer visitors than Sukhothai, there were a number of large Thai tour groups around the Historical Park area – something I never saw in Kamphaeng Phet.
If you’re as big of a ruins junky as I am, then you won’t be disappointed by visiting all the sites in the North Central Plains region. While by no means bad, Si Satchanalai just failed to leave much of an impression on me compared to Kamphaeng Phet or Sukhothai.