King Naresuan and The Wang Chan Palace Ruins

One of the ‘newer’ sites to visit is Phitsanulok is the Wang Chan Palace Ruin and Naresuan Shrine, which is located on the opposite bank of the Nan River from the town’s main pilgrimmage site, Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat, more commonly known as Wat Yai. It is rarely promoted in tourist literature, and this is understandable- there certainly are more worthwhile places to see in Northern Thailand- but if you are in Phitsanulok for a second day, you might as well stop by to check it out.  We stumbled across it by accident when we were looking for our hotel for our second night in town. We were given wrong directions from a couple of guys, who were just sitting by the road beside the Narusean Bridge. Instead of proceeding straight to our hotel, we ended walking along the riverside perimeter of the site, and ended up being intrigued by the large area of low-lying brick ruins within. Realizing that the town had been the capital of Thailand for a few decades in the fifteenth century and had remained an important frontier town between Thai kingdoms for many centuries, we guessed that what we were seeing was the ruins of an ancient palace complex, and this turned out to be correct. It didn’t look like the foundations of a temple complex, so what else besides a palace would have been conceived on such a scale?

Apparently the site had long been covered by a school, which had prevented proper excavations from being made, but archaeologists had finally convinced authorities to move the school and the walls and foundations of the palace had then been unearthed. Taking advantage of the situation, we had a long inside, wandering around the extensive sight and trying to make sense of the walls, foundations and occasional gateways were still extant. Undoubtedly, archaeologists have gained valuable information from the excavations, but the ruins will not prove overly stimulating for the average traveller. For while they were spread over a large area, there was little that was above one metre high. The riverside location was low-lying and swampy and water had pooled in various sections. It must have been prone to inundation for much of the year. There were trees and shrubs clustered in some areas, including a few coconut groves, but the palace ruin was mostly covered by grass.

After about twenty minutes ambling through the site, we happened upon a cluster of buildings just outside the walls of the palace ruin. These were clearly ancient too but they were more substantial than those of the palace itself. It appeared that as so often in Thailand, the religious buildings had survived better than the secular ones. This cluster of stupas and wats, which would probably have been the religious centre of the palace grounds, were badly weathered and worn away, but they gave some hint of their former glory and made a more interesting sight than the palace ruin itself.

The restored Wat Sri Sukot, near the palace grounds
The restored Wat Sri Sukot, near the palace grounds

We spotted one large structure consisting of a broken columns on a large, brick base- presumably this had once been a wat. When we drew nearer we found a sign named it as Wat Viharn Thong. There was also a stupa and other remains nearby, suggesting that this must once have been an important temple complex, probably enjoying royal patronage. From there we headed to Wat Pho Thong, which was another rather evocative ruin. The largest structure there may once have been a mahastupa (‘great stupa’) and even in its diminished state it was an impressive lump of masonry.

The third worthwhile ruin in the area was known as Wat Sri Sukot. A small hemispherical stupa of the ‘upturned rice bowl’ style, it was perhaps the most graceful of the ruins there. There was a seated Buddha at the site, and he was flanked by three attendants in flowing robes. This was probably a clumsy restoration by the Fine Arts Department, but at least it gave us a hint what the original had looked like. Judging from the restoration attempt, in the late Sukothai era, many centuries after the Dvaravati kingdom had collapsed, the Thais still owed a strong debt to Mon art. They were still building brick stupas, covered with stucco figure in relief, just like the Mon had been doing a thousand years before. From this ruin, we also got a glimpse ahead of the main modern addition to the site, the gleaming white walls of the Naresuan Shrine.

The Naresuan Shrine was built on the site in 1961 to mark the birthplace of one of Thailand’s most revered kings, King Naresuan. His place within the affections of Thais was very much in evidence as even on that weekday morning, as the entrance to the shrine was approached by red carpet, and there were a large number of devotees who had come to pay their respects. The building was a Thai style pavilion with an elegant roof, and it was fronted by a large platform, decked with numerous pieces of sculpture. There were a number of large, kitschy roosters, which the locals liked to have their pictures taken with. On a more  solemn note, there was also a bronze of King Naresuan, who was shown pouring water out of a jug. This image was said to represent the king liberating the Thai people from their subjugation to the Burmese, who had defeated Ayutthaya in 1555 and taken the young Naresuan prisoner.

According to royal legend, when he had reached maturity he had escaped back to Thailand and led the Thai people to drive out the Burmese invaders. As always in Thailand, it is hard to know where history ends and myth begins, but the surrounding ruin, reduced to its mere foundations, was a reminder that the Burmese had laid waste to ancient Phitsanulok and that the very centre of royal power in Thailand, the palace complex, had not been exempt.This made the shrine a potent place to contemplate the role that Phitsanulok had played in Thai history. It also made us mindful of  the violent struggles the kingdom had gone through in order to maintain its independence.