Phetchabun Sights: Wat Mahathat and Wat Traiphum

We checked out of the hotel and paid our bill. Seeing Cameron’s leg in a cast, the hotel owner asked where we heading next. We told him that we going to the provincial capital, Phetchabun. Taking pity on us, he offered to drive us into the centre of Si Thep town, where we would find it easier to get a bus. We thanked him warmly and Cameron remarked that he could never recall meeting friendlier people anywhere else in Thailand. I surmised that the lack of a commercialized tourist industry in this part of Thailand meant that attitudes towards farang were at lot less jaded than those found elsewhere in the kingdom.

The owner let us out at precisely the spot we had got off the bus two days before. The same woman who had helped us to find a samlor came out and told us to sit down, motioning at a wooden bench. She asked where we were going and when we said Phetchabun, she nodded eagerly and said that there would be one stopping there soon. Although we were generally suspicious, we took her at her word and a bus did come by after about fifteen minutes. We climbed onto the bus, with the driver looking at Cameron with a rather incredulous look. I got a window seat, hoping for scenic views.

As it turned out, however, the scenery wasn’t as good as I expected; it had been better in the region to the south of Si Thep. The lack of mountain peaks or other dramatic features notwithstanding, the green fields and quiet villages of wooden houses were an improvement on the concrete sea of Bangkok, and the two hour bus trip to Phetchabun passed by agreeably enough. We arrived at the small Phetchbaun bus station around eleven o’clock and immediately clambered off the bus, the challenge of finding a cheap hotel suddlenly emerging into sharp focus. I told Cameron to just sit on a concrete wall and wait while I went off looking for a room- I didn’t want him walking on his sore foot.

Finding a room turned out to be a bit more of a challenge that I expected. These days many of the newer hotels are located out on the highways; after all, most middle-class Thais now drive their own cars. The challenge was to find one of the older places which was stil running in the centre of town. I set off pretty much at random, walking slightly downhill along the streets lined with nondescript rows of shops. There was nothing much of historic or cultural interest I could see, with the minor exception of a traditional market housed in a timber building. After about ten minutes I still hadn’t found anywhere, so I asked a young woman in a pharmacy if she spoke English. She said in halting English that she thought there was one straight ahead past the next intersection. I followed her instructions and found that she right.

There was a small, no-name hotel just a bit further along, and the attendant behind the front counter even greeted me in English. After some brief formalities, he showed me a room, which was right next the main ‘lobby’. It was a typical concrete bunker, with an air-conditioning unit on the wall, a thin, pink, polyester quilt on the bed and a small, even more bunker-like, bathroom inside. What was more, it even had free wifi! For three hundred baht a night, it seemed like a good find. I told him we would take it, then walked back to the bus station. Once there I haggled with a motorized samlor driver (probably paying far too much) and finally climbed into it with Cameron. Though travel seems a very romantic thing in the abstract, in reality, it consists mostly of practicalities. As per usual, when we finally closed the door on our new hotel room, it was with a considerable feeling of relief.

After a midday siesta, we set off to explore the city’s list of sights, none of them of any great renown. As in much of Thailand, the list of city attractions consisted mostly of wats (Thai temples), and we didn’t harbour any great expectations for them. But we hoped, at least, to get some sense of history of the history of the city and to fill in the afternoon. We started off by taking a samlor to Wat Mahathat (a very common name for a temple in Thailand), whose name means something like ‘Great Relics Temple’. It was only a few minutes drive away and we paid the driver a mere 30 baht for his trouble. With that we walked into Wat Mahathat, which had a sleepy, almost deserted feel on that quiet afternoon, with only a couple of monks visible on the temple grounds.

The main stupa with the modern viharn behind
The main stupa with the modern viharn behind

With its glitzy decoration and Bangkok-style roof, the main hall was no different from the standard wat you see anywhere in Thailand. The main claim to fame of this temple was not the viharn, however, but the brick stupas in the yard of the temple, at least one of which was said to be in a Sukothai-style or possibly even to date back to the Sukothai kingdom. The largest and most noteworthy of these was a large, solid chunk of masonry with a kind of slender but broken pillar emerging on top of it. It now consisted of nothing but bare bricks, but in its original conception, it would probably have been covered in white stucco and gold-leaf. Its time-worn state notwithstanding, it was clearly still venerated by locals; hundreds of translucent threads attached to the peak of it, forming a sort of delicate spider’s web above the monument. They rippled constantly in the soft breeze, creating a somewhat pretty effect. But there was clearly nothing to divert us here for long. We shared our impressions, took a couple of happy snaps and then headed off towards the second stop on our itinerary: the slightly more engaging Wat Traiphum.

Wat Traiphum was situated on a quiet city-street, which neither traffic nor pedestrians seemed to pass along very often. It was set on the opposite side of the road from the Pasak River, which, in that part of Phetchabun, was not a very prepossessing affair. Before going into the temple grounds, we crossed the road to finally get a look at the Pasak River. The river bank had been encased in a series of concrete steps (a common move in provincial Thailand), giving a very drab appearance to a river I had idealized in my mind as one of the main thoroughfares of ancient Thailand. At the time of our visit, the river was nothing but a dismal city canal, with a bare amount of sluggish brown drain-water trickling between its concrete walls. Yet as we were soon to learn at Wat Traiphum, the river cast a considerably more dramatic figure in the mythology of Phetchabun city.

The wat itself was fairly unprepossessing. There was a broad paved area in front, interspersed with some small shade trees, and there were some unimpressive, modern, monastic buildings behind it. One of these contained bas-reliefs which told the story of a famous image which was housed there; I had read about it in advance, so I understood what the scenes were depicting. I fully intended to see it, but was first drawn by an older-looking, brick and timber structure at the edge of the compound; it had a dilapidated, even an abandoned, look but was aesthetically the most attractive feature of the wat. Unfortunately, a lock and chain had been fastened on the door; it probably hadn’t been opened in years.

That left only the pinkish, concrete shrine in the shape of an elaborate Thai stupa to occupy us; as we had already guessed, it housed the Phra Phuttha Maha Thammaracha, the locally venerated Buddha image we had seen in the bas-reliefs. We went across to this modern-looking structure, climbed a short set of stairs to the main terrace and went inside. A fairly familiar scene greeted us within: there were flower votives set in front of the Buddha, a pair of statues depicting kneeling attendants and some ostentatious locals gold-coloured tiles on the back walls. This, of course, was all in honor of the main attraction- the Phra Phuttha Maha Thammaracha.

Housed in a glass cabinet for protection, the gilded statue was a highly ornate, princely-looking Buddha seated in the lotus position, with his hands placed upwards in his lap. He had a large, ornamental crown on his head, which rose to a fine point, and his regal appearance was reinforced by the other jewelery that he wore: heavy gold ear-rings, a thick necklace, arm-bands and bracelets. There was the suggestion of a sheer, diaphonous robe clinging to his torso. The image was said to be in the Lopburi style, which is what Thais say when they want to say Khmer; the fact that much of Northern and Northeastern Thailand was part of historic Cambodia is still a somewhat sensitive point in the kingdom. According to tradition, the image was over 400 years old, which seemed to me on the young side; the Khmers had been driven out of this part of Thailand by the kings of Sukothai in the fourteenth century. But clearly tales about this statue were much more a matter of mythology than history, a fact which the tall tales surrounding this image made clear.

Inside the shrine at Wat Traiphum
Inside the shrine at Wat Traiphum

Recalling what I had read online and mixing it with the scenes from the bas-relief, I told Cameron the basic outlines of these tale. The legend started with some fisherman out in a boat on the Pasak River one day. Miraculously, they lifted up the golden image in their nets, and decided to place it for safety at Wat Traiphum. However, after a period of time the statue went missing from its cabinet at the wat. It was eventually rediscovered by a Buddhist monk who was scooping water out of the Pasak River, and returned to the wat. After a period of some years, it went missing again, and was again recovered from the Pasak River. At this point ceremonies commenced to try and ensure that the image was never tempted to wander off again. Once a year the statue was taken to a pier on the Pa Sak River, carried out onto the river on a throne atop a wooden boat and then submerged in the river waters three times. In recent decades, it had been the governor of Phetchabun province who was responsible for bathing the statue. According to villagers, the statue has rain-making properties, and they fear that if the statue is not venerated with a ritual bathing, drought may occur. Minor as the charms of Wat Traiphum are in terms of architecture, this story was sufficiently intruiging to make a trip here the most memorable of the sights in the city of Phetchabun.

After viewing the image, we went outside and were greeted by a middle-aged Thai couple who spoke good English. They told us that were from Bangkok but had come up to Phetchabun on a road trip. As it turned out, their itinerary was very similar to the one we had planned for this week. The day before they had stopped at Si Thep Historical Park and now they were having a look at the sights around Phetchabun city. From there they were going to take the scenic drive down to Phitsanulok, stopping off at some national parks along the way. We told them that we were Australian but had been living in South-East Asia for many years and they seemed surprised but also pleased that Western tourists were interested in seeing this lesser-travelled part of Thailand. After a few minutes we said goodbye and they started up the steps to see the Phra Phuttha Maha Thammaracha, that wily rain-maker.

From there we started off towards the City Pillar Shrine and along the way we speculated about where the image had really come from. Assuming that you don’t believe it miraculously emerged from the Pa Sak River, its real place of origin had still not been accounted for. Considering its Khmer appearance, the obvious guess was that it was a relic of the Ankgorian Empire, which had controlled Phetchabun as late as the fourteenth century. This date was still a couple of hundred years older than the locally accepted age of the the image, but it was more in line the established history of the region. Hazarding a guess, I thought it may have come from Si Thep, which still had a pair of Khmer prangs and which was easily the predominant ancient settlement in the region. Of course I had no idea how it made its way from Si Thep to Phetchabun, a distance of some 125 kilometres, but there was at least one other major relic which had made that journey, so it wasn’t entirely unprecedented. Perhaps, I speculated, the Thais had not wanted to acknowledge that foreign origins of the beautiful statue so they had ‘localized’ it by creating a supernatural-tinged origin myth for the statue. Whatever the true story about the statue was, it did raise interesting questions about the transition between Khmer and Thai control of Phetchabun.