Thailand’s Khmer Past

Nakhon Ratchasima (21 – 22 December 2015)

We drove out of Udon Thani early in the morning and headed south. We were driving towards Nakhon Ratchasima where we would sleep two nights.

Nakhon Ratchasima, commonly known as Khorat, is at the southeastern edge of the Isaan region. The city is considered the gateway to Isaan. The main reason for my heading to this part of the world was to see some Khmer remains. Surprisingly, despite having been to Angkor twice and Preah Vihear once, I was still not done with things Khmer.

It was a long drive we took that day. The region is huge. It is not easy to imagine now that at its peak the Khmer empire controlled so much territory and the Isaan region was but a small part. It is probably easier to think that the empire covered only present-day Cambodia. Some might even consider the Khmer empire to only have the same extent as Angkor. But between the 9th and 15th centuries AD a huge, powerful and creative empire did exist on much of the mainland of Southeast Asia and the world famous Angkor Wat is merely a tiny representation and reminder of that great empire.

We arrived at Phimai shortly after lunch after almost five hours of driving. Phimai happens to mark the northwestern end of an important ancient Khmer highway linking the town to Angkor. The Phimai Historical Park in the middle of town, which was surprisingly quite a modern bustling town, contains the very well restored ancient Khmer temple of Prasat Hin Phimai.  This was built as a Buddhist temple at a time when the Khmers were officially Hindu.

Naga bridge of Prasat Hin Phimai

Naga bridge of Prasat Hin Phimai

The architecture of Prasat Hin Phimai is reminiscent of Angkor Wat and this suggests that the temple was of some importance. Instead of facing east like other Khmer temples however it faces southeast towards Angkor. The temple is in quite a good shape today and made for an interesting visit.

Approaching the main part of Prasat Hin Phimai

Approaching the main part of Prasat Hin Phimai

Main prang of Prasat Hin Phimai

Main prang of Prasat Hin Phimai

Inside the main prang

Inside the main prang

Carving on main prang

Carving on main prang

Prasat Hin Phanom Rung, located along the same ancient Khmer highway between Phimai and Angkor, was even more impressive than Phimai’s temple. This temple however was more reminiscent of Preah Vihear being itself situated on high ground, in this case on the rim of an extinct volcano, and also having this long and grand processional walkway leading to the temple’s main sanctuary. This temple was Hindu and dedicated to Shiva.

Processional walkway leading to main part of Prasa Hin Phanom Rung

Processional walkway leading to main part of Prasat Hin Phanom Rung

Entering the temple

Entering the temple

Prasat Hin Phanom Rung was at the centre of some international controversy between the 1960s to 1980s. The Phra Narai lintel, depicting a reclining Vishnu, was reported stolen in the 1960s. Around a decade later it miraculously came to public notice in the US. After another decade of wrangling between the Thai authorities and the Art Institute of Chicago, which had acquired the national treasure, the lintel was finally returned to Thailand and its original spot on the main prang of the temple.

Pediment and the famous Phra Narai lintel below it on the main prang of Prasat Hin Phanom Rung

Pediment and the famous Phra Narai lintel below it on the main prang of Prasat Hin Phanom Rung

Main prang of Prasat Hin Phanom Rung

Main prang of Prasat Hin Phanom Rung

Carving on the temple

Carving on the temple

Carved lintel inside the temple

Carved lintel inside the temple

Linga in Prasat Hin Phanom Rung

Linga in Prasat Hin Phanom Rung

A couple of kilometres away from Phanom Rung lies another ancient Khmer temple. Like Phanom Rung’s temple, Prasat Muang Tam was Hindu and mainly dedicated to Shiva although other gods were also worshipped there. It is however a smaller temple than the former and as its name suggests situated on low ground.

Prasat Muang Tam

Prasat Muang Tam

The towers of Prasat Muang Tam

The towers of Prasat Muang Tam

There are five towers in the temple and four of them have been restored. The fifth one, which is the central tower and according to historians the largest, has not been restored.

Carved lintel on Prasat Muang Tam

Carved lintel on Prasat Muang Tam

Unusually for a temple like this there are ponds between the outer and inner enclosures. There are also two barays, symbolising the ocean surrounding Mount Meru, outside Prasat Muang Tam.

One of the ponds in Prasat Muang Tam

One of the ponds in Prasat Muang Tam

One of the barays outside Prasat Muang Tam

One of the barays outside Prasat Muang Tam

I took my time to explore Prasat Muang Tam on my own and as I was walking down some steps I kicked, unintentionally, what looked to me like a twig down those steps. It was really quite insignificant. And then I noticed that the twig started wriggling away into the stones. It was another snake encounter and another reminder of how wild the Isaan region really is and perhaps how free from visitors the area was so that wildlife could be out in the open so often. But how glad I was that I was wearing shoes that day instead of my usual flip flops! I told N about the incident and it was fun to see my story sending another chill down her spine. I wonder if she likes Isaan now.

The snake that got kicked down the stairs

The snake that got kicked down the stairs

I have to say that I was a little surprised by how monumental these temples were. Of course they were not on the same level as Angkor Wat. But even then they were as impressive and significant as any of the more important Khmer temples still left in Cambodia. The authorities have also done a pretty good job in their preservation. Not too shabby for a region that has been at the back of the Thai government’s mind when it comes to tourism.

Being in the region also allowed me to visit some villages and even see a little of the countryside.

Fields near Prasat Muang Tam

Fields near Prasat Muang Tam

The village of Ban Dan Kwien (I learnt that a “ban” is a village) made pottery. This might have been the district’s OTOP product but we could not be sure. In any case the pottery made there, mostly for decorative purposes, seemed to be for sale everywhere in the village.

Compacting the clay for use

Compacting the clay for use

Making pottery using moulds

Making pottery animals using moulds

Ban Prasat was however more gruesome. It was really a lesser known and younger Ban Chiang and archaeologists had discovered the same sort of remains: pottery, bronze jewellery and human bones. The finds are left in their pits between the houses of the quiet village.

Archaeological finds in Ban Prasat

Archaeological finds in Ban Prasat

I think I enjoyed walking through the village much more than seeing the archaeological remains. N told me that it was possible to arrange home stays with some of the families there. Some work for the family may be required and the villagers usually start their day at around 6.30 am according to her. The idea of getting up before the sun every morning did not appeal to me one bit unfortunately.

On the road with the herd

On the road with the herd

In Ban Prasat

In Ban Prasat

In Ban Prasat

In Ban Prasat

Village chicken visiting the archaeological pits

Village chicken visiting the archaeological pits

Cattle wondering what the hell I was doing

Cattle wondering what the hell I was doing

Someone's home

Someone’s home

Preparing for sale flowers for religious offerings

Preparing for sale flowers for religious offerings

At the village barber's

At the village barber’s

The little village of Ban Prasat also drew my attention to the spirit house culture that exists in Thailand. The spirit houses used in Thailand come in a dizzying variety of designs of houses and temples. I am usually hesitant about going too near anywhere with spirits but the spirit houses in Ban Prasat could be quite attractive.

Spirit house in Ban Prasat

Spirit house in Ban Prasat

Spirit houses in Ban Prasat

Spirit houses in Ban Prasat

Spirit houses in Ban Prasat

Spirit houses in Ban Prasat

Spirit house in Ban Prasat

Spirit house in Ban Prasat

Spirit houses in Ban Prasat

Spirit houses in Ban Prasat

Now what about the city of Khorat? Despite having slept there for 2 nights, I hardly saw the city! I must say that it looked like it could be an interesting old city. Some portions of its city wall and moat still remain. Too bad I had asked for the itinerary with specific things to do in mind and could not give myself the time to explore. Sorry, Khorat, maybe next time!

Khorat's old entrance gate

Khorat’s old entrance gate

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