The perfect trip: Thailand
The site is now a green swathe of national park, set amid the paddy fields, stilt houses and lotus-filled lakes of central Thailand. But the 200-odd ruined temples and statues that are scattered here testify to its former glories. From the 13th to the 15th centuries, Sukhothai was the capital city of what was then known as the Kingdom of Siam – and the cultural, architectural and educational achievements made during that short period continue to resonate today.
Chaiwat Thongsak, assistant director of the Ramkhamhaeng National Museum at Sukhothai, gestures to the giant Buddha, explaining that people come to stick gold leaf onto the statue’s hand in the hope it will bring good fortune and wealth in the coming year. ‘Thai people adore this place,’ he says. ‘We’re proud that we can trace back the history of the Thai people here, and that we have managed to protect 700 years of our heritage. Because many people believe that the Sukhothai kingdom was the pinnacle of our history and culture.’ Thai people flock here to pay tribute to the ‘Great King’ Ramkhamhaeng, who not only built most of this place and cemented Buddhism as the central religion, but also invented the curled letters of the Thai written language.
The dominance of Sukhothai gently faded away over the centuries, as people moved further south to be nearer the main waterways for trading, and the jungle began to reclaim the site. It was almost forgotten until 1953, when a wave of post-war nationalism led historians to turn their attention to the ancient capital, and the process of restoration began.
The contrast between this place and the hubbub of Thailand’s new capital, Bangkok, could not be greater: instead of crowded streets and beeping, buzzing tuk-tuks, a handful of cyclists silently ride past, and pools covered with sacred lotus flowers gently ripple in the breeze against a backdrop of stupas. The magnificent, crumbling conical towers of Wat Mahathat, the central temple complex, are decorated with intricate carvings of monks encircling the shrine in prayer. In the centre stands another statue of the Buddha, elegant and composed, sitting out the centuries as the world changes around him. ‘Sukhothai is now a place of peace and solitude,’ says Chaiwat. ‘I think it’s a feeling that will remain with the Thai people, deep down, no matter how big or busy the country gets.’
Pang Daeng Nai: Best for hill tribes
Morning arrives slowly in the hill tribe villages of the north. It takes a little time for the sun to gather enough strength to burn through the mist that rises up from the teak forests and hangs over the mountains. But as it clears, the Palong tribe awakens. Men and women emerge from their one-storey stilt homes that are clustered beside the quiet river that threads its way down from the mountain. A group of men enjoy a chat and a cigarette before heading to work on the rice terraces, while women sit shaking trays of corn to separate the grain from the chaff. Children mess around on rusty bikes, avoiding flocks of chicks that peck at any fallen kernels on the ground.
The Palong live in Pang Daeng Nai, in the low, forested hills that lie 50 miles to the north of Chiang Mai, and they are just one of more than 20 hill tribes who call the jungles of northern Thailand home – from the shamanistic Hmong people to the Lisu, laden with chains of silver. These peoples now live in hundreds of villages throughout the hills, but have traditionally belonged to no nation, in a similar way to gypsy travellers in Europe. Nomadic tribes, each with their own distinct culture, they have spent the past two centuries moving through China, India and Burma, chased by war or searching for new lands to farm, before finally settling in Thailand. Their decision to stop here is unsurprising: the land is fertile, abundant with banana plants, mango trees and vines of passion fruit, and bamboo grows fast and strong.