Wat Chulamani: The Swan Among Phitsanulok’s Wats

The earliest of the historic wats in Phitsanulok is Wat Chulamani, which is now a lone reminder of the city of Song Khwae, the original Khmer settlement in the region. The predecessor of Phitsanulok, Song Khwae was situated about five kilometres from the centre of modern city. The name means ‘two rivers’ in Thai, a reference to the fact that Song Khwae was set near the confluence of the Nan River and a small tributary called Khwa Noi. After Sukothai drove the Khmers out of this part of Thailand, the new Thai-dominated city shifted to its present location around Wat Yai. Nonetheless, Wat Chulamani remained a place of worship for there is still an active monastery on the site.

Unable to work out the local transport routes, we decided to just get a tuk-tuk out to the site. The tuk-tuk driver seemed pretty relaxed on the issue of how long we needed to look around, so he seemed like an appropriate choice. If there was one thing neither of us could stand on day-trips, it was pushy transport guys who tried to hurry you straight back to town. The trip down there took little more than ten minutes and brought us to an entirely typical-looking Thai wat set on the east bank of the Nan River.

As at many of Thai’s historic wats, there was a mixture of modern and ancient structures. Often stone and brick chedis prove much more durable than timber structures such as viharns, so it is the temple itself is a modern construction but some of the outer buildings date back centuries. This had been the case at a couple of the wats we had visited over the past few days, notably at Wat Mahathat in Phetchabun and Wat Ratchaburana in Phitsanulok itself. At Wat Chulamani there were two main antiquities to see: a Khmer-style prang and a mandop with links to Thai royalty.

It is the Khmer-style prang which gets most of the attention from art lovers; and rightly so, for this is a singularly elegant structure. Most sources describe it as being a Khmer (or Lopburi) prang, though there are some which date it to the later Sukothai kingdom. Considering the tendency of the Thais to renovate and extend ancient Buddhist monuments, it is also very likely it is a Khmer prang with Sukothai-era renovations. Whatever the story, it is now an elegant ruin built of laterite blocks, with a beautiful stucco overlay. Remarkably, the stucco work is still intact over some of the doorways and around parts of the base it features a beautiful swan motif, which is exquisitely rendered in plaster. As we climbed up onto the laterite platform on which the structure was built, we noticed that weeds were sprouting from between many of the bricks. In rainy Thailand, this was a common occurrence, however, and overall the structure was in a reasonable state of repair.

In addition to the prang, there were many lesser ruins in the area, including the foundations of other temples or prangs, and some boundary stones that were still intact. The other main sight, however, was the ruins of a large mandop, a three-walled receptacle that often enclosed monumental Buddha figures. There was no Buddha image remaining in this mandop, but there was a Buddha footprint (a regular feature of the Thai spiritual landscape), as well as an inscription from King Narai of Ayutthaya. This was not the only link that this wat possesed with Thai royalty either. According to tradition, the original ordination hall had been commissioned by King Boromtrailokanat. Furthermore, Boromotrailokanat was the first Thai king to be ordained as a monk, beginning an increasingly tight binding of the notions of royalty and piety in Thailand- a feature of Thai life which had continued until the present day. Part of the legitimacy of the monarchy was its role as the ‘protector of the faith’.

There was also one modern building at the sight which was worth visiting. While the structure itself was little different from any other modern wat, it housed one of the main historic Buddha images from the site, Luang Pho Phet. We went into the airy temple hall and looked at the elegant sandstone Buddha, seated in the lotus position. It had been shattered and clumsily repaired with concrete in several places, but it was still a handsome statue overall. It was said to date back to the Sukothai era, from around the time when King Boromotrailokanat had been ordained there. There are said to be a number of other historic Buddha figures stored in other parts of the modern monastery.

Wat Chulamani’s famous ‘swan-shaped’ prang