Wat Aranyik: A Forlorn Relic of the Sukothai Kingdom

One of the less celebrated sights of Phitsanulok is Wat Aranyik, which is today a neglected but fascinating ruin. Despite its fairly central location, it rarely seems to attract a tourist, and you are most likely to only share it with a few roaming animals. As soon as we arrived in the parking lot, a very basic dirt affair strewn here and there with gravel, a pair of chickens came walking by. Before we had wandered more than ten metres further on, the chickens were joined by a pack of emaciated stray dogs. Buddhist teachings about compassion to animals means that stray dogs are rarely destroyed in Thailand, particularly in the vicinity of Buddisht temples. However, the sickly condition of these underfed animals once again made us question the wisdom of this policy.

Wat Aranyik was said to date back to 1357 and was a relic of the Sukothai kingdom, the first major Thai kingdom in history. This link to Sukothai was instructive because it shared a number of features with the site of the former capital, most notably in its use of broad moats to delineate the temple grounds. All of the ruins of Wat Aranyik are located within a wide moat, which was partly full of muddy brown water at the time of our visit. The building of these moats must have been very labour intensive, which suggested that this wat must once have enjoyed royal patronage. (This impression was later confirmed when I read that the temple had been granted a bai sema, a royal boundary stone).  Apart from the main chedi, these broad moats were perhaps the single most impressive relic which we encountered at the site.

Despite the presence of modern monastic and temple buildings around the perimeter of Wat Aranyik, it is the ancient ruins which are the only reason to go there, and even so the grassy, overgrown plot of land they occupy makes for a rather forlorn sight. There are banana and coconut palms growing up amongst the ruins as well as knee and waist-high weeds. There was little sense of any preservation or conservation efforts in progress. The many minor ruins, crumbling walls, terraces and temple bases were in an advanced state of disrepair. Wat Aranyik consisted of one large ruin- the chedi which is its primarily claim to fame- and the rest of it was low-lying ruins in red brick and laterite which rarely reached more than a metre or two in height.

Even the most substantial of these lesser ruins, the vestiges of the former ordination hall, consisted only of brick foundations, a couple of raised platforms and a few stubby column bases. This devastated structure was clearly the ruins of a Sukothai-era temple, and it retained a Buddha statue (seated in the lotus position) on a platform at the back of the temple. There were about a dozen smaller Buddha figures that had been left here by devotees, but at the time of our visit, there were only a few stray dogs about. They eyed us hopefully and I wished I had something to feed them. In walking back out we noticed what appeared to be a lichen-covered bai sema, an ancient boundary stone. These stones were used to separate the sacred space of the ordination hall from the surounding area.

The forlorn ruins of Wat Aranyik, Phitsanulok
The forlorn ruins of Wat Aranyik, Phitsanulok

From there we proceeded to the main chedi, which is by far the most impressive relic at the site, even though it is in a rather dilapidated condition today. This Sukothai-era chedi dated back to the fourteenth century and is said to display strong Sri Lankan influence. Like some of the ancient chedis on Sri Lanka, it is a massive brick construction, though here the uppermost tip of the ‘bell’ had long since fallen off. What remained was a kind of brick tower which was mounted atop three low terraces of gradually decreasing size. Along one side of the chedi base there was a stucco statue of a tusked elephant which protruded outwards from the body of the monument. Presumably the entire structure had been covered in stucco and the base of the monument had been decorated with an entire procession of ornamental elephants. (I later learned that the elephants now in place were mere replicas produced by the Thai Department of Fine Arts).

Above the base, the chedi ascended like a brick tower; the superstructure was circular and was of impressive girth and heft, especially compared to the low piles of shattered bricks which were all that remained of the other structures. A second tier of smaller width was mounted on top of the lowermost, but it was broken off partway up. This red-brick chedi in the midst of various low-lying walls and temple bases reminded me not only of Ayutthaya but also of the Mahayana Buddhist sites of Sumtra: Candi Takus and Candi Muara Jambi. The site might have been little more than a ruin, but it was a most evocative one.

Like these other sites, Wat Aranyik was a reminder of the spread of the Buddhist faith from India and Sri Lanka into South-East Asia. In the heyday of Wat Aranyik, Phitsanulok would have been another link in a vast network of Buddhist monasteries and temples which spread all the way from Sumatra to Malaysia, Northern Thailand and beyond. The particular temple would have been a peaceful forest wat, situated about a kilometre beyond the city walls of Phitsanulok. Then as now, it would have offered the possibility of tranquility in close proximity to a major town. It is certainly worth the attention of travelers with a little more time on their hands.