Si Satchanalai Historical Park is a widely unknown little sight in the north of the central plains of Thailand. As all the other historical places in central Thailand it has Angkorean roots and was an outpost of the Khmer empire before it was incorporated into the Thai empire of Sukothai. Presently historical Si Satchanalai is a large historical park, and has been, together with Sukhothai and Kamphaeng Phet, declared a UNESCO World Heritage in 1991.
After the downfall of Ayutthaya and the Burmese conquest of the whole of nowadays north Thailand, the place was destroyed and the inhabitants were either killed, enslaved and displaced or resettled at Sawankhalok some 20km south of here. Nowadays, Si Satchanalai is a district town. The distance to the province capital Sukhothai is about 50km. The name Si Satchanalai can be translated to 'City of Good People'.
Si Satchanalai Historical Park is separated from the contemporary town of Si Satchanalai by the Yom River (Mae Nam Yom). I personally have never visited the modern place.
Si Satchanalai Historical Park
Si Satchanalai was the spiritual center of the kingdom of Sukhothai. In the large park are many old temple ruins, some in a better shape than I have seen in Ayutthaya, Lopburi, Sukhothai or in Kamphaeng Phet. Remarkably, some buildings have roofs, what's very seldom. Probably they have been restored a long time ago already, because it looks very authentic (means old again).
The architecture shows differences to the other places in Thailand of the time (10th to 14th century). The building material was mostly laterite. The several sites are all surrounded by small laterite stone walls. The early influences of Davaravati and Khmer culture are clearly to see. Similarities to the architectonical style of Lopburi are evident. Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism were the predecessors of the later by king Ramkhamhaeng invited Theravada Buddhism from Ceylon/Sri Lanka.
As everywhere in Southeast Asia most of the ruins served religious purposes. They remained because they were built in stones, as the city wall and a few fortified buildings for military purposes. All the buildings where people lived in were built with wood and are gone, including the palaces of the aristocracy.
In total there are 278 historical monuments listed. The most important ones are Wat Mahathat, Wat Chang Lom with all the elephant sculptures around, Wat Chedi Chet Thaeo and some more temple ruins, most of them close together in the walled part of Si Satchanalai, not ot forget a number of ancient kilns in the wider area around.
Despite the size and number of ruins who are to visit here, it's still easy to make one's tours around here on a bicycle, who can be rent at several places.
It should be mentioned that there are much older traces of settlements within the Si Satchanalai site as well as in the wider surroundings of it. They reach back to stone ages.
A History of Si Satchanalai
Si Satchanalai, formerly Chaliang, was never as important as the kingdoms in early Thai history. It was never an independent political unit, but the seat of the viceroy and crownprince of the kings of Sukhothai. It came in the mid 13th century under control of the neighbouring kingdom of Sukhothai. Sometimes, Sukhothai is called a 'double kingdom', stressing the tight bonds between Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai.
However far back it's very origins might go, the place was a fortified outpost of the empire of Angkor until around 1250 CE. After Sukhothai gained independence from Angkor in 1238, a series of bloody wars between the Tai and the Khmer followed. Chaliang, what was a Tai foundation and trade post between China and Angkor, was one of the first conquests of the quickly expanding new Tai kingdom. A bit west of Chaliang, the new town of Si Satchanalai was founded then. There was a direct road, Phra Ruang Road, maintained between Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai.
Interesting is the story that king Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai established diplomatic contact with the Chinese empire of the 13th century, and the Sukhothaians received the technique of burning ceramic. There are some kilns near Si Satchanalai who date back to this time. The Sawankhalok ceramics became a famous and valuable trade good for times and were exported to countries so far as nowadays Indonesia, Borneo, the Philippines and even parts of Japan.
The first piece of Thai literature, the Traibhumikatha or Traiphum Phra Ruang, was written here by an aristocrat named Luethai.
After Sukhothai's decline, the place came for a few years under the rule of the king of Lanna, Tilokarat. It was conquered by the kingdom of Ayutthaya in 1474, and Si Satchanalai was renamed Sawankhalok then. The place became fortified in the 16th century and got a 5m high city wall, together with a mout before the wall, as a reaction to the permanent Burmese threat from the north.
A year before the downfall of Ayutthaya in 1767, approaching Burmese armees from the north havoced the place and Si Satchanalai was abandoned afterwards.
Tourism in Si Satchanalai
Si Satchanalai is in a way the most charming place of all the medieval sites in central Thailand. That's not because of it's historical importance (it is not important), but because of it's remoteness and quietness. Althought the place is prepared for tourism, most of the time one can enjoy the really big site alone. Only occasionally, particularly on holidays, a heavy busload of tourists is dropped and then they appear in (guided) groups. Their greatest pleasure is to be photographed in front of any single monument.
Anyway, it's still a great place to go, would even be worth to hang out here for a few days, hiking around on a bicycle (everywhere to rent now) and enjoying the historical site in the picturesque Thai countryside. Spending some afternoons in a hammock under trees and reading good books. Almost nobody does that, and accommodation here is very rare.
In 2007 I stayed here for two days and was the only tourist in the place. There was no entrance fee for the park. Meanwhile it changed; when crossing the long wooden suspension bridge over the Yom River near the bus stop, there is a ticket booth now as a first welcome in front of Wat Phra Si Rattanamahatath. I know, it's no easy name... Wat Mahathat, let's say.
Three kilometers north of it, at the main site of city-walled Si Satchanalai, are four entrances into the Historical Park. At the main one is another ticket booth. Westerners 100 baht (Thai 20 baht). Have a look for the input 'Fees in Thailand' for that. At the three other entrance points there is no control at all. There is also a tourist visitor center a bit left from the parallel road to the Nam Yom River, which looks a bit like a museum. It's also new. Although a 'World Heritage' is supposed to be something for the international public, the verymost captions are written exclusively in Thai script.
Well, at least the staff kept the bad dog there away from me. I am always grateful for that.
Nowadays there is a number of small restaurants at the main road parallel to the river, designed for tourists, and some shops who sell 'antiques' of all kind. They all are most of the time without any customer inside, waiting for the next tourist bus bringing potential buyers. Although the shopkeepers sometimes claim their pieces were 'very old', they all are replicas and merchandise.