The ancient city of Sukhothai holds a special place for Thais. It's here that Thai history says the first "Thai" kingdom was established in the 13th century. The city is much older than that. It served as a northern outpost for the Khmer empire for several centuries before the native Thais exerted their independence in the face of Angkor's waning power. It was a man who later became King Intradit who first threw off the control of the Khmer and established the kingdom of Sukhothai. Under the third king, Ramkhamhaeng, the nascent Thai culture flourished. King Ramkhamhaeng, who ruled towards the end of the 13th century, is credited with the creation of the Thai alphabet, as well as uniting the various Thai states into the first Thai empire.
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Sukhothai's power lasted only around two centuries. Around 1468, it became a vassal state of Ayutthaya. The city slowly declined and fell to ruin, until it was "rediscovered" in a way by the man who would later be King Rama IV (Mongkut). King Mongkut's main discovery was a stone stele describing Sukhothai as a veritable paradise. Modern scholars have cast doubt on the authenticity of the inscription, but it's discovery served a timely purpose: fostering a feeling of nationalism in the Thais at a time when they were facing threats on all sides from colonial powers.
Sukhothai was designated a national historical park by the Thai government, and also has UNESCO World Heritage Site status. It's sister city, Si Satchanalai, is also an historical park and should be included in any visit, while a third site, Kampaeng Phet (or Kampaengpet, or Kam Paeng Phet) was also inscribed a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the Sukhothai listing. Both Si Satchanalai and Kampaeng Phet are full - separate - day trips out of Sukhothai.