Wat Ratchaburana, Phistanulok: Where a Capital Once Stood

As one of the major pilgrimage spots in Thailand, Wat Yai attracts a continuous stream of visitors. In contrast, Wat Ratchaburana appears on few travel itineraries, even though it is right across the road from its famous neighbour. Yet this neglected wat can help to illuminate Phitsanulok’s long and interesting history, so we were glad that we stopped in for a quick look before heading back to our hotel.

Wat Ratchaburana is situated on the banks of the Nan River right in the centre of town, which only made its low profile all the more curious. People were constantly passing by it on their way to Wat Yai or in crossing the Naresuan Bridge to the other side of the river. Yet even from a distance you could see that this was a run-down and neglected temple. The shade trees had a shaggy, untrimmed look, and there were even banana palms growing on the grounds. This gave the complex an overgrown, unkempt look, as if it were a plot of land in a village rather than a major city wat. Once we entered the compound, we saw that the buildings were even less maintained, with the paint peeling off some of the structures and mould spreading on the walls of others. However, this actually increased the appeal of the place for me. In contrast to the overly tidy and prettified temples you find in Bangkok, it had a seedy, tropical charm, more like a rustic, village shrine. Furthermore, there were no tourists about, which made it a relaxing place to just wander around, checking out the intriguing ensemble of religious buildings.

Belied by its ramshackle appearance, the temple is actually of considerable historical importance. In 1463, King Boromma Trailokanat of Ayutthaya moved the capital of his empire to Phitsanulok, and ordered the establishment of new temples. This move was probably to stamp his authority over a region that had been the heartland of the rival Thai kingdom of Sukothai, which was then only newly conquered. Wat Ratchaburana contains the only surviving structure(s) from the era when Phitsanulok was the capital of Thailand. According to some sources, it was only the chedi that dated from this first phase, though at least one source named the nearby shrine as belonging to the same period. (It was known to contain an ancient Sukothai-style Buddha, which lent some support to the case for it being very old too). Wanting to save these more substantial attractions for last, we started by checking out the rest of the compound.

The main chedi at Wat Ratchaburana
The main chedi at Wat Ratchaburana

This consisted of a quick tour of some of the lesser buildings, which are attributed to a renovation by King Rama IV, about a hundred and fifty years ago. The pick of these for us was a decorative tower known as Hor Rakhang. Put simply, this translated as the Bell Tower. It was raised on rows of masonry columns in the shape of stylized lotus buds. The second floor consisted of wooden columns and a rickety balustrade and there was an elaborate Thai style roof on top, all topped by a dramatic finial. Its dilapidated state notwithstanding, the tower had a certain flair. The large temple bell was no longer hung inside the tower itself but mounted on a smaller structure alongside it. We were less impressed by a newer shrine, which had obviously been built at some expense. It expensive exterior notwithstanding, the dignity of the monument was diminished by a flock of kitschy concrete swans which had been installed as temple guardians.

Much more attractive was the temple’s ubosot on the eastern side of the compound. Reputedly dating back some 150 years, it consisted of whitewashed walls and a traditional wooden roof. Inside there were some hundred-year-old murals on the walls, which would once have been used for pedagogical purposes. At the back of the ubosot was a large seated Buddha at the back of the wall, draped in a bright yellow robe. For us, however, the main interest of this building was in the roof. There was an unusual triple naga (water-dragon) motif used to decorate the roof, with the intriguing serpents all standing up together at the corners of the eaves. In addition, there was some colorful mosaic work glittering beneath the eaves, notably a yellow floral motif on an emerald green background. But these were minor attractions; it was time to see the main sight, the temple’s chedi.

The monument had an interesting shape. The brick base was in the form of a hexagonal pyramid which was both tiered and truncated. In other words, it was a sort of step-pyramid, but one with a hexagonal instead of a square base. On top of the pyramidal brick base was a bell-shaped Sri Lankan-style chedi, topped with a finial. There were a few lush weeds sprouting out of the masonry, but overall it was in pretty good repair. Said to date for the early years of King Trailokanat’s time in Phitsanulok, it was over five hundred years old. Most of the Thai sources claimed the chedi continued a few hairs from the Buddha, but this was highly improbable. Not only had the Buddha died two-thousand years before it was constructed, but their quite simply weren’t enough hairs on the Buddha’s head to fill all the ancient structures said to contain some. A less-repeated but more plausible tale was that the chedi contained hairs from King Boromma Trailokanat himself.

Our last stop from to duck into the viharn (main hall) which was situated alongside the chedi. With its whitewashed walls and simple roof, it had a rather modest look. Most sources said that it dated from the time of King Rama IV’s restoration project, during the second half of the nineteenth century, but it had a celebrated Sukothai era Buddha inside, which lent some credence to the claim that it was much older than that. Perhaps it was a modern replica of an older structure dating back to the Ayutthaya or even Sukothai era. We had a look at the murals, the lotus-shaped columns and most of all the gleaming statue, keeping out of the way of local devotees. We then returned outside, pleased with our quick visit to this overlooked shrine. It was, for us, an introduction to a little-discussed period when Phitsanulok was the capital of the whole Thai kingdom.