Even centuries ago, when Sukhothai was at its zenith, these forest temples were peaceful. They were where most of the monks would live and meditate, with the large temples in the city reserved for royal functions – although sometimes the king would make the journey to a hilltop forest temple, riding up on the back of an elephant, to look out over his empire. As I stand here and take in the panorama, I can see stupas and pagodas rising up from the green trees that cover the land.
There are about 200 temples in Sukhothai, with some huge complexes housing enormous statues. At Wat Si Chum, just outside the main city’s fortifications, a 15-metre-high seated Buddha looms over me as I stand at its feet. It’s enclosed within high brick walls with a secret passage on one side leading up to a hidden opening near the head. A local legend says the king once spoke through it to a nervous military commander, pretending to be Buddha and encouraging him to fight.