Before there was Bangkok, before Ayutthaya, there was Sukhothai. The first capital city of a land then known as Siam, Sukhothai was the seat of Thai power in the 13th and 14th centuries.
The UNESCO World Heritage-listed historic ruins, more than 400 kilometres north of Bangkok, are an archaeologist's dream, filled with priceless temples, towering Buddha statues, royal relics and banyan trees that have offered their shade for centuries.
"Sukhothai means dawn of happiness," says our guide, Suree Pong. "All of the Buddhas here in the old city are perfect and smiling because the artisans weren't in a rush when they made them. Life was happy."
With almost 200 ruins (temples, Buddha statues, the remains of the royal palace), the Sukhothai Historical Park is at least as impressive as its better known Khmer cousin, Angkor Wat. And it is gorgeous.
Keen photographers are advised to visit in the hour before sunset to capture the light as it falls on standing Buddhas, lotus ponds and earth-coloured temples topped with bell-shaped chedis. Truth is, any time of the day is a treat (except, perhaps, the punishingly hot midday hours) and, with so much to see, a day trip is hardly enough.
Sukhothai offers a fascinating insight into the Land of Smiles' proud heritage and traditions. Before the Sukhothai kingdom, much of what we now know as Thailand was part of the Khmer empire. To wander the sprawling park is to feel the weight and presence of history made. The Thai alphabet was created here, the core tenets of Thai language, architecture and political system honed.
To think, it all could have been lost forever. By the end of the 14th century, the power of the kingdom began to fade and the royal family of Ayutthaya ascended, some 400 kilometres away.
Within 200 years Sukhothai was deserted, forgotten, left to the relentless reclaiming jungle. Stone Buddhas as tall as three-storey apartment buildings were completely hidden under tangles of tropical vegetation. Precious religious artefacts were looted by tomb raiders determined enough to face the dangers of snakes and poisonous weeds.
Fifty years ago, archaeologists began the mammoth job of restoration. In 1998 the park was officially opened and, three years later, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
As a popular pilgrimage trip for Thais, who outnumber foreign tourists at the historic sites, a visit to this heritage-rich region reveals a far more authentic face of Thailand than the gaudy one shown in places such as Pattaya. It's a wholesome, family-friendly scene as uniformed Thai schoolchildren pose for class pictures in front of the statue of King Ramkhamhaeng, while European tourists pedal by on rented bicycles.
A range of accommodation and dining options are available close to the park, from upscale to backpacker-budget. Don't miss the opportunity to try authentic Sukhothai noodles, a staple at most restaurants in the area. Rice noodles are mixed with green beans, crispy pork, coriander, chilli and peanuts in a soy sauce broth that is said to have been passed down by home chefs for many hundreds of years.
Thai Airways flies non-stop from Australia to Bangkok 45 times weekly. See www.thaiairways.com.au or phone 1300 651 960.
Bangkok Airways flies daily from Bangkok to Sukhothai, a 75-minute flight. See www.bangkokair.com.
Bus services leave regularly from Bangkok and Chiang Mai to Sukhothai.
Many people tour the historical park on bicycles or on foot. Local small buses (songthaews) loop around the main sites for a flat fee of less than a dollar, or private tuk tuks can be hired for about $10 for a few hours.
Le Charme Sukhothai Resort is tranquil and lovely; a low-rise village of traditional Thai pavilions surrounded by lotus ponds, tropical gardens and a landscaped swimming pool area where cheerful elephant statues spout water. Just one kilometre from the park, the resort is well located. Ask front-desk staff about bicycle hire. See www.lecharmesukhothai.com
There are dozens of good dining options in Sukhothai, from casual Thai to French fusion, wood-fired pizza and even a German pub. Ruean Thai Restaurant & Bar is rated highly by locals and visitors.
Kristie Kellahan travelled with the assistance of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.