The Cham Towers of Thap Doi

On the way back to Quy Nhon town from Banh It, we stopped off a second Cham temple complex, this one located in a tidy, green park within the city of Quy Nhon itself. The so-called ‘twin towers’ of Thap Doi do not have the glorious location of Banh It, being located on low-lying land about three kilometres from downtown Quy Nhon, but the architecture is impressive enough in its own right to justify a visit here. The garden parkland setting with its lush lawns, palm trees and tropical shrubs also adds considerably to the appeal.

These twin towers are unusual in that Cham towers are not normally found together in even numbers. They are also odd in how close they are to each other: for such sizable brick monuments (they two towers are each around 20 metres tall) they appear to be sitting right on top of each other. The other unusual thing about these Cham towers is their roofs. Unlike the terraced or tiered roofs which are normally associated with Cham towers, these ones have a steeply sloping pyramidal roof.

Thap Doi
Thap Doi towers, in their parkland setting

These roofs are mostly made of red brick but traces of pale, white sandstone are also visible. This stone was used for ornamental decorations on the roof. The most impressive of these are the garudasa kind of Hindu mythological bird, which was the vehicle of the god Vishnu. The garudas are mostly located on the corners of the roof, and the birds appear to be peering down at visitors to the temple. With their exaggerated beaks and powerful , they are easily the most captivating sculptural detail, and yet more proof of the outstanding artistic talents of the ancient Cham. The outside of the temple also features stylized columns, a false door and embossed lines in the brickwork. The main entrance to the temples is also notable for its large, pointed arch over the entrance, which is a common feature of Cham towers.

The interior of the towers is not as interesting as the outside. However, one of the them has a linga and a yoni, the representation of the phallus and the womb in the Hindu religion. The linga is also a symbol of the god Shiva, whose cult was extremely widespread and powerful in the classical period of South-East Asian archaeology. In our travels we had encountered lingas within the cella of temple everywhere from Central Java to Angkor in Cambodia. A god with a warlike aspect, his cult seemed to grow in importance in South-East Asia as war and competition between various kingdoms intensified.

While Thap Doi was not as enervating an experience as Banh It, with its hilltop setting and sense of isolation, it is still a well-preserved and unusual site. It is also one of the easiest Cham towers of Vietnam to reach, being located within a modern city. It is worth checking out before heading out to the one of the beaches for which Binh Dinh is probably best known among travelers.





The Cham Towers of Bahn It

In 2017 we returned to Vietnam for the first time in 11 years, wanting to head from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi again, but this time stopping off at less-touristed places. The first stop on our trip north was the coastal city of Quy Nhon, which is said to be home to three hundred thousand people. Around twelve hours out from Ho Chi Minh City, we finally reached the train station, stepping down at a run-down provincial railway station in need of a coat of paint. From there we haggled for a taxi ride into town; we had a booking at a small, private guesthouse in the centre of town. We eventually managed to hire a motorbike from the guesthouse owner after several minutes of communicating back and forth using a translation app.

There were two different Cham towers we wanted to see that day: the Tham Doi Cham towers within the city limits and the Banh It towers out in the countryside around Quy Nhon. We decided to go to the Banh It towers first and stop back at the Tham Doi towers on our way back into town. The ride out to Banh It was fairly straightforward, leading us around fifteen kilometres from central Quy Nhon, out through its satellite communities and the country villages beyond its perimeter. There were a number of interesting traditional homes along the way, demonstrating beautiful tile-work and woodcarving on the exterior. After about half an hour, we neared a small river with an old bridge across it. This river runs down from the former citadel of the Champa kings (now little more than a memory) to Quy Nhon Bay. Crossing the river there, you will see the Banh It towers picturesquely located on a large hill overhead. As so often, we were immediately impressed by the dramatic sense of place the Cham had in choosing temple sites. The site was both aesthetically striking and strategically chosen.

Banh It is not a major tourist site, but it does attract a steady trickle of local visitors. Arriving in the car park at the foot of the hill, there were a couple of cars there, with the visitors apparently up on the hilltop. The car park was surrounded by scrubby forest and there was a tinkling sound of religious music in the air; we wondered if there were some sort of religious ceremony being conducted at the temple that day. Before climbing up the hill, we first bought tickets to the temple, which cost 12,000 dong, including motorbike parking, and were sold by guards in uniform. I asked them about the music and they said it had nothing to do with the Cham towers; there was a Chinese-Buddhist temple nearby and the music was drifting in from there.

The walk uphill is quite steep, with the hillsides now being covered in dense, thorny shrubbery. On the way up you pass one of the four towers, which serves as a gopura for the whole complex. It is one of the elaborately roofed towers for which the Cham are famous, yet it is more of an entrance gate than a focal point of the sanctuary, so we kept climbing. On a wide terrace below the peak, there is another satellite tower. Built, like most Cham towers, of red bricks, this tower is surrounded by shrubs and even has vegetation growing out of the cracks in the brickwork. There was also a lot of graffiti carved into its insidewalls, making us wonder if they would be better off fencing the tower off to the general public. Like the other towers on the hill, it was thought to have been built in the 11th century, when Binh Dinh province was the heartland of a Cham kingdom.

From there we went up to the top level of the tower, which has two impressive Cham towers, each very different from the other. The first of these was the main tower, which rises to a height of 22 metres. It features an elaborate, tiered roof with ornamental structures in the shape of pagodas in the corners. There is a large pointed arch over the door, with softens the box-like shape of the main temple. The exterior was one covered in magnificent bas-reliefs of dancers, but these have now been removed to the Museum of Cham Art in Danang. In contrast, in the corners you can still see some leaf and floral motifs, which were common to Champa Dynasty architecture of the 11th century. Inside the temple, there is a powerful stench of guano and you will hear bats squeaking overhead in the cave-like gloom of the temple interior. In the centre of the cella is a reproduction of the magnificent Hindu sculpture which was the main image at the temple; the original is now in the famous Guimet Museum in Paris. Though it is only a reproduction, the image has still been offered joss-sticks and other offerings, showing that the temples are still active places of worship today. For the visitor, it helps to evoke a former Shivaite kingdom with links to Cambodia, Indonesia and even India.

Bahn It
The repository of Banh It, with a barrel-shaped roof

Alongside the main temple is another remarkable, brick structure. In the literature, it is usually described as the repository. This is a style of temple building which was really unique to the Chams and has no obvious equivalent in the other Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of ancient South-East Asia. Its most remarkable feature is the roof, which is sometimes described as barrel-shaped. The sides of the structure are covered in reliefs and carvings, including embossed lines and stylized columns. There is a similar structure at the great Cham sanctuary of Mi Son and also at Po Klong Garai further south. It was presumably used as a storing place for ritual objects used in religious ceremonies at the site. The barrel-roofed silhouette of the structure makes it unusually photogenic and a great contrast with the more block-like main tower. Needless to say, the views from the site are expansive, giving a panoramic view over the territory of the former Champa.



The Carved Stones of Ban Kut Ngong

One of the unique historical legacies of Chaiyaphum province, a remote province in Thailand’s Northeastern region (Isaan), is two Dvaravati-era sites which date back to the ninth century. They have never been comprehensively explored by archaeologists, but if they were, there would doubtless be much to discover: a small museum in a local school contains examples of ancient bricks and pottery. Yet until such excavations are made, the best evidence of the historical importance of the village is its collection of ninth century bai sema, Buddhist boundary markers which were once used to delineate the sacred place of places of worship. No less than 29 stone boundary markers have been found in the small village of Ban Kut Ngong, making it one of the biggest treasure troves of such antiquities in the region.

This suggests that the village was once home to a sizeable community of Buddhist monks and perhaps even a workshop of skilled artisans who could make bai sema of high artistic quality. Ten of the Ban Kut Ngong bai sema feature jataka scenes which tell the life of the Buddha, and they are rendered with considerable artistic skill. Though they are not as crisp as the masterly specimens in the Khon Kaen National Museum, they predate the examples in that collection by a few centuries, making them amongst the old examples of narrative art surviving from Thailand’s Northeast. Some of the other boundary markers feature simpler motifs such as the stupa-khumba design, which is more typically associated with sites in the Chi River system.

As at Ban Khon Sawan, a similar site from Chaiyaphum province, the boundary markers are no longer placed in situ. They have been rounded up and put together under a protective shelter in the grounds of a local wat. While something has been lost in terms of historical authenticity, keeping them all in one place makes it easier to protect the stones from art thieves or merely weathering from the elements. In recent years chicken-wire has been fitted to the underside of the ceiling as well. This would stop birds nesting under the shelter and defecating on the ancient stones. It is encouraging to see that the unusual heritage of the village has been protected in this way.

A time-worn image of a seated Buddha

One of several beautiful images from the site is the image featured to the left. Though time-worn, the image of the Buddha is still very beautiful, showing an elegant head-dress,the broad nose and thick lips of the Mon people, slender, delicate limbs and a lower body folded in the lotus position, with the feet seemingly crossed Sri-Lanka style. A figure to the right is shown in a attitude of devotion. The comparatively small size of this figure emphasizes the preternatural qualities of the Buddha, who assumes a larger-than-life presence.

A standing Buddha and the banyan tree

Perhaps the greatest masterpiece of the Ban Kut Ngong boundary markers is the one featured to the left. It shows a beautifully rendered standing Buddha with a graceful form adorned with a loincloth, a towering head-dress showing the Buddha’s worldly status and a slight, almost feminine torso. To the left of the image is a highly stylized image of a tree, presumably the banyan tree beneath which the Buddha attained enlightenment. Once more, there is a second humanoid figure on the stone, and again its comparatively diminutive size appears to emphasize the particular status of the Buddha. This is the crispest of the Ban Kut Ngong bai sema and the most interesting scene to the casual visitor.

IMG_0177  A third memorable image from Ban Kut Ngong shows another standing Buddha, but this one without the banyan tree. This Buddha is demonstrating the vitarka mudra hand position, which looks somewhat like the Western ‘okay’ hand gesture. The significance of this hand gesture is that it is the delivering a sermon posture, which would be far from obvious unless it was explained to you. This beautiful carving has its eyes averted downwards and the facial features are again typically Mon and rendered with sensitivity and finesse. The Buddha has wearing a cloth about the waist which resembles a delicately draped Khmer sampot (sarung). Behind the Buddha’s head is what appears to be an ornamental wooden pavilion with a pair of lanterns hanging down from it. It is yet another example of the little-known artistic legacy of this small Thai village.




The Coral Pagoda of Khanom


Khanom is the northernmost district of the province of Nakhon Si Thammarat, and the towns of Khanom and Nakhon Si Thammarat are situated about eighty-five kilometres apart. Khanom is known as a low-key beach resort for Thais, but foreigners mostly give it a wide berth, heading straight out for the tourist hoards on the islands. If Khanom has any claim to fame at all among travelers, it is as the home of pink dolphins, which can often be seen swimming near the town jetty just after dawn. But it wasn’t pink dolphins which brought us to Khanom on our driving tour through Southern Thailand: we were in search of the Coral Pagoda of Khanom, an ancient edifice which was more proof that Peninsular Thailand’s reputation as an historical and cultural desert had been exaggerated.

One of the problems in locating the pagoda is that it is known by so many…

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Kota Belanda: Pulau Pangkor’s Dutch Heritage

South-East Asia has a wide array of historical remains, some major and some minor. While it has to be said that Kota Belanda falls decidedly into the latter category, if you find yourself on the charming island of Pulau Pangkor you might as well check out its improbable 17th and 18th century vestiges of Dutch colonialism. Variously known as the Dutch Fort and Kota Belanda, it is little-known testament as one of the earliest episodes of European colonialism on the Malayan Peninsula.

The trip to Pulau Pangkor begins at the unusually named seaside town of Lumut: in English, the word is translated as either ‘moss’ or ‘mould’. There are a number of attractive interwar-years shop-houses in the town, many of which are now painted in pastel colours. While the town is certainly not a tourist attraction its own right, it is worth a quick walk long the main street, especially if you are waiting for a ferry across to Pangkor.  It retains much of its colonial-era appearance. We also stopped by a small informal eatery here for a cup of coffee and a plate of noodles.

From the port in Lumut, a ferry goes across to Pulau Pangkor once an hour or so and the trip out through the sleepy harbour is peaceful. Within about half an hour, you approach the island of Pulau Pangkor, stopping first at the jetty in the little village of Sungai Pinang Kecil. From there, you continue on to Pangkor village, which is where most tourists disembark. Pangkor’s largest settlement is a quaint town of one and two-storey timber shop-houses, a few cheap noodle-shops and a modest Chinese shrine. You can hire motorbikes here for RM 40 a day, which is highly recommended if you want to do a tour of the island.

The interior of the island is heavily forested and particularly diverse in terms of birds, frogs and reptiles. Birdwatchers can look forward to seeing magnificent sea-eagles circling above the coastline, some of them with truly impressive wingspans. If you are lucky you may also see hornbills, which sometimes fly down out of the forest and perch themselves on the trees and electrical cables in the villages. There are also a number of small beaches at which you can float for an hour or so while looking out of the islands offshore or the jungle on the headlands. Furthermore, there are said to be walking trails across the island which take you deep into the jungle. However, our experience was limited to driving through the forest by bike, which is still a worthwhile adventure. On the mountain at the far end of the island, we encountered a couple of troops of macaques which had come out of the forest to feed by the roadside.

Pangkor Fort.jpg
The scant remains of Kota Belanda on Pulau Pangkor

However, this is not a natural history blog, but one dedicated to historical heritage, so we should speed on to Kota Belanda, which is located about three kilometres from Pangkor village. Once you have done a complete circuit of the island, a small side-road will take you down to the modest archaeological site, which has now been transformed into a minor tourist complex. It is not very large or prepossessing- we almost drove right past it- but if you take it slowly and keep your eyes open, you can easily see it from the main road. It is here you will find the remains of an 18th century fortress (the original 17th century wooden one was burned to the ground in an attack from the Sultan of Perak in 1690).

Anyone expecting a ‘castle’ with grand bastions is going to be disappointed. What remains is a small, roofless brick structure of no great size. Architecturally speaking, there is little to get excited about. The floor of the walled area stands only a couple of metres high and is reached by a metal ramp with wooden floorboards. Some of the brickwork looks suspiciously modern and even perfunctory research revealed that it was heavily restored in 1973, at which point it had been just a pile of bricks abandoned to the jungle. There are still some broken bricks visible, half-buried in the dirt, which can show you what it would have looked like pre-restoration.

The walls around this area are crenellated and there are numerous embrasures and look-holes in the brickwork. These give some sense of a fortified building but the whole structure struck me as somewhat incongruous with the usual historical accounts.. According to the records of the Dutch East India company (VOC), during the 1743-1748 period, there were 60 guards stationed at the fort, made up of 30 Dutchmen and 30 Bugis (an ethnic group from Indonesia). In addition, the fort was used as a warehouse for tin ore. It was these mineral ores which were what had generated Dutch interest in Perak in the first place. The Dutch had been trying to get a monopoly in tin in the Straits. Being only a few metres wide, it seemed impossible that the ruins at Kota Belanda could have served as a fortress for 60 men and a warehouse at the same time. I was left with the impression that the ruin on the site today was only a small part of the original building. Perhaps the warehouses had originally been built from timber and there was only one fortified section. However, this was a mystery which none of available information has entirely cleared up for me.


Wat Satingpra’s Unique Chedi


Situated in the north of Songkhla Province, the Satingpra Peninsula is a sandy spit of land which encloses the Thale Sap Songkhla, the lagoon system in South-East Asia. Situated at the top of the northern end of the peninsula, Satingpra is a remote Southern backwater of around 6,000 souls, which precious few tourists ever trouble themselves to visit. Yet between the years of approximately 650 to 1350, it was home to an urbanized population of some size and economic importance. There is ample evidence that not only did Chinese ships from the port-city of Quanzhou regularly frequent this part of the country, trading Chinese ceramics for local products such as exotic gharu wood, but that it was also home to a local ceramics industry which made kendis (a sort of pot) for export to the islands of the Indonesian archipelago. In this era Satingpra produced kilns, canals, religious architecture and…

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Candi Kembar Batu: The Temple of the Chinese War Gong


There are seven main temple complexes at Candi Muara Jambi that are still in reasonable repair; one of these is Candi Kembar Batu (literally “The Twin Rocks/Stones temple”). Overall, it is not a particularly impressive ruin, which is probably why it is much less photographed and written about than the two ‘star’ candis here: Candi Tinggi and Candi Gumpung. In articles or blog posts about Candi Muara Jambi, it is usually passed over or discussed perfunctorily; even the most detailed posts rarely do more than give its measurements and then move on to the next temple. But there are really precious few ancient candi (Hindu/Budhdist temples) left in Sumatra, so each one offers valuable clues as to the past. It is worth raking over this temple for as much information as we can get about it.

Like the other major remains at Candi Muara Jambi, this one is surrounded…

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