The Coral Pagoda of Khanom

Khanom is the northernmost district of the province of Nakhon Si Thammarat, and the towns of Khanom and Nakhon Si Thammarat are situated about eighty-five kilometres apart. Khanom is known as a low-key beach resort for Thais, but foreigners mostly give it a wide berth, heading straight out for the tourist hoards on the islands. If Khanom has any claim to fame at all among travelers, it is as the home of pink dolphins, which can often be seen swimming near the town jetty just after dawn. But it wasn’t pink dolphins which brought us to Khanom on our driving tour through Southern Thailand: we were in search of the Coral Pagoda of Khanom, an ancient edifice which was more proof that Peninsular Thailand’s reputation as an historical and cultural desert had been exaggerated.

One of the problems in locating the pagoda is that it is known by so many different names. I had first heard it under the name Chedi Pakarang, which is the title favored by the historian Nicolas Revire. Yet it also goes by the names of Wat Chan Thattaram, Wat That Tha Ram and Wat Khao That. Overall, I prefer the name the Coral Pagoda, partly because it is easy to remember but also because it is more poetic and mythical. It has gained this name because it is fashioned from coral stone; the chedi is located only a few kilomtres from the sea, and mythology ties it to an ancient sea-pilgrimage. According to Thai legend, it was founded when pilgrims from the town of Chaiya were heading towards Nakhon Si Thammarat at the time the famous shrine in that town was being built. A sea-storm forced them to come into port for the night, and the locals then told the pilgrims that the temple in Nakhon Si Thammarat had already been completed. The pilgrims decided to donate their gold relics to a new chedi instead, and they built the Coral Pagoda on top of nearby Khao That, a small mountain.

There are a couple of reasons that this myth appeals to me. Firstly, it provides a narrative link between the Coral Pagoda with the sea, which is most suitable for a pagoda made out of coral. The second reason is because it provides an origin myth for the chedi which links its to ritual deposits. These myths were given some credence when excavations were done in 2006 at the site and a large cache of ritual items was found underneath the chedi, including Chinese porcelain, golden artifacts and a large number of Buddhist metal amulets stored in a Yuan Dynasty jar. Whether or not these items were really placed there by pilgrims who were forced ashore in a storm, there was at least some congruence between the myth and reality.

Now restored, the Coral Pagoda is locally venerated

As recently as 2007, the Coral Pagoda of Khanom was still in a ruinous condition, with the finial of the chedi broken off an the bricks of the base cracking and coming apart. However, it has now been fully restored and it is now an impressive site. The chedi is 7 metres tall, 5.40 meters wide and 3.60 meters in diameter. Situated at the top of the mountain on a railed terrace, with an aged frangipani tree nearby, it is surrounded on all sides by forest cover, giving the site an excellent view. It is now topped by a finial again but the overall dignity of the ancient monument has not been compromised by over-restoration and the Coral Pagoda still has a patina of great age. It is thought that this Sri-Lankan style bell-shaped chedi dates to the Ayutthaya period, so it may probably dates to around the 15th century. In providing a narrative link between the important Southern religious centres of Chaiya and Nakhon Si Thammarat, it is one of the more interesting religious monuments in a part of the country better known for beaches and pink dolphins.



Phong Tuek: Home of a Famous Oil-Lamp and Vishnu

Kanchanaburi province’s premier ancient site is undoubtedly Meuang Singh Historical Park, located in Sai Yok district, out towards the border with Myanmar. However, there is another site which is of some historic importance, especially for those interetsed in the Mon-Dvaravati culture, and that is Phong Tuek. Located in the small village of Ban Phong Tuek on the banks of the Mae Khlong River, Phong Tuek Archaeological Park contains the scant remains of what was once a medium-sized Mon-Dvaravati settlement. After being briefly explored by the famous French archaeologist George Cœdès in the 1920s and by the British archaeologist Quaritch Wales in the 1930s, the site was largely forgotten by the outside world. However, in recent years it has began to receive a little more interest from academics, especially in terms of its Hindu cultural features, so it may be worth a little more attention from travellers too. It can be explored on an interesting half day-trip from the provincial capital Kanchanaburi.

Ban Phong Tuek is situated 37 kilometres from Kanchanaburi city, and there are local buses and songthaews which ply the route in under an hour. You get off in town- more of a village really- at the police kiosk, and the main attractions are right alongside that. These amount to two main sites: the Phong Tuek Archaeological Park and Wat Dong Sak. However, really this is a place of memory; the sights aren’t as interesting as the archaeological finds and the knowledge of what this place once was.

Phong Tuek was one of dozens of ancient sites related to the Mon-Dvaravati culture, which was the earliest historical culture from the land now known as Thaiand, reaching its peak between the 6th to 11th centuries. Its capital was thought to be at Nakhon Pathom, which was today a neighbouring province of Kanchanaburi. That placed the historical settlement of Phong Tuek well within the heartland of the Dvaravati kingdom; it would have enjoyed easy access with other Dvaravati settlements, including the capital, along the Mae Khlong River. Yet if Phong Tuek was in some ways one among many, it was its distinctive features which have attracted most of the attention.

Its early claim to fame was the fact that a so-called Mediterranean lamp had been found at the site. This little, metal oil-lamp was originally dated to the 1st or 2nd century, which inspired the notion that Phong Tuek was the first of the Dvaravati settlements. This date was based on the idea that the lamp was of Graeco-Roman origin. However, later analysis found that the Mediterranean lamp was in fact Byzantine, and hailed from either the fifth or sixth centuries. This was still early for a Dvaravati site, and it was still unique evidence of Dvaravati’s early links with the Western world, but it was more within the usual time span ascribed to the kingdom.

Another peculiarity of Phong Tuek is that the settlement did not have a moat. Of all the Dvaravati settlements discovered to date, all but three of them are moated. These earthworks and moats and considered one of the trademark signs of a Dvaravati settlement. It is not known why this site did not have a moat whereas most of its contemporaries did. One possible reason is that Phong Tuek is situated in a rain shadow and hence surrounded by unusually dry and infertile agricultural land. Perhaps they did not build a moat around Phong Tuek simply because there was not enough water to keep it filled. Yet even more than this mystery, it is the Hindu identity of its most celebrated sculpture which has kept the minds of historians exercised.

At Wat Dong Sak there are a number of terracotta plaques and statues from the excavations in the village, by far the most famous of which is the Vishnu of Phong Tuek, which was excavated alongside a cart trail in the 1950s, restored with concrete and then enshrined in the wat. The 80 centimetre tall stone statue is now set on a marble base in an old assembly hall (ubosot) at the village wat, and it remains actively venerated, with floral votives much in evidence. It is now covered in various layers of gold leaf, but these, like the concrete backing slab of the statue are a recent accretion. When the statue was unearthed in the 1950s, it was a plain stone statue carved in the round. The four-armed Vishnu has two upraised arms, one holding a cakra wheel, the other holding a conch. His lower arms appear to hold a pair of maces. He wears an elaborately draped sampot around his waist and there is a high mitre on his head. Art historians who have studied the image find a lot of Khmer artistic influence and argue that it is evidence that Khmer art styles had permeated as far as Western Thailand by the eighth century.

The  head of the Phong Tuek Vishnu

Just as intriguingly, it is proof that there were Hindu elements within the religious life of Dvaravati, a civilization which is almost always described as being Buddhist. It has even been argued that Phong Tuek might have been a ritual centre for Hinduism within the Dvaravati realm. This particular Vishnu image would probably have been enshrined in a small temple and devotees would have performed puja before the beautiful image. There were other Hindu elements found in the vicinity such as a Shiva lingam which support this view. I also recall that many of the gold coins I have seen from the Dvaravati kingdom featured a conch, one of the main symbols of Vishnu. Certainly the idea that Vishnuism was alive in Dvaravati does not seem hard to accept.

From Wat Dong Sak, the second site worth looking at is the Phong Tuek Archaeological site. This site preserves the remains of a pair of two former stone monuments, known as Monuments 1 and 2. They are both rectangular monuments made of laterite blocks which have badly eroded. Nothing more than the foundations now remains, but I presumed that the remains would have been religious structures related to a Buddhist monastic community. Possibly they were the vihara and ubosot of an ancient wat. Today the site is overgrown with weeds and creepers. Vines climb over the remaining blocks of stone and the trees add a thick level of leaf-litter, which crunches underfoot. These natural settings add to the appeal of the place, but you will be hard pressed to make much of the scant offerings here unless you are a trained archaeologist. Nonetheless, a trip out to Phong Tuek does open a window on an enigmatic settlement from the Dvaravati kingdom, one which few outsiders will ever visit.

Monument 1 at Phong Tuek Archaeological Site

Mueang Singh: The City of the Lions

Kanchanaburi province is one of Thailand’s most popular historical destinations, especially with Western tourists, due to its World World Two-related monuments and museums. Yet the province has a rich history stretching back to the Angkor and Dvaravati civilizations, and the most satisfying testament to this history is Mueang Singh, the City of the Lions, one of Thailand’s ten officially recognized ‘historical parks’.  Despite this designation, it retains a low profile with tourists, so you are likely to have this isolated site largely to yourself.

I visited Muang Sigh Historical Park in November 2006 when travelling alone to Thailand for a five-day visit. Basing myself in Kanchanaburi town for a couple of days, I decided to take day trips out to Mueang Singh and Erawan National Park, famed for its numerous beautiful cascades. It was part of a long-term goal to visit all of the historical parks and major Khmer ruins of Thailand. I hadn’t got there earlier because of its reputation as being somewhat inconvenient to reach. The former city was located 43 kilometres out of Kanchanaburi, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. There was apparently a railway station nearby but there was only one service a day in either direction, so I decided to go by tuk-tuk, and wrangled a return trip to 500 baht including two hours waiting time. It was perhaps too much but I had never been a hardnosed haggler.

Situated in the rural district of Sai Yok, which boasted a variety of crops, many stands of trees and lush bamboo groves, Muang Singh had an attractive natural setting. There no large towns in the vicinity, which has preserved the bucolic atmosphere of the district. Accentuated by the comparatively cool weather at that time of year, the landscape had a rather European feeling, which was not something I had experienced elsewhere in Thailand. Many of the hills retained the original forest cover, adding to the cool, green appearance of Sai Yok.

After about an hour or so on the road, the tuk-tuk driver entered the car park, let me out and then went off to park. I bought my ticket to the park- a very reasonable 50 baht back then- and then went towards the massive outer walls. According to the brochure I received from the ticket office, the walls enclosed the former city on three sides, the fourth side being the natural barrier of the famous River Kwai. These laterite walls, dating back to the Angkor era, enclosed a massive area of 736,000 square metres. These sturdy fortifications, probably highly restored at the point of entrance gave a sense of a large, well-defended settlement of considerable importance. It was immediately clear that such a project could only have been conceived and implemented by a ruler of great wealth and power, with a large amount of labour at his disposal. It was not a big leap to imagine that these walls and moats were an imperial project by a people looking to maintain their control over disputed territory, and with the rise of Thai kingdoms at the time of the construction of Mueang Singh.

Prasat Mueang Singh, the central sanctuary

It is presumed that Mueang Singh is the remains of Singhapura, one of twenty-three Khmer cites mentioned in an inscription from the reign of Jayavarman VII, the late 12th century Angkorian king who built Angkor Wat. It is the westernmost known Khmer ruin, suggesting that it was a frontier or border city. To the west were various Mon kingdoms and various rising Burmese kingdoms. Even today, the modern border of Myanmar is a mere twenty kilometres or so away.  As often when travelling in the west of modern Thailand, I was struck by how much more dynamic this region could become if Myanmar was ever normalized politically and overland trade and travel were possible. In ancient times, it had perhaps been an ‘interface’ zone between different peoples; it is possible it could one day become so again. Some historians have suggested that Mueang Singh was a trading post as well as garrison, situated on one of four main overland roots from Cambodia to Burma. The famous Three Pagodas Pass is within striking distance of this ancient settlement.

Within the laterite walls is a large area in which only four monuments are still recognizable, only one of which is in good condition. The two smallest monuments, known as Monuments 3 and 4, are nothing more than brick foundations. Judging from these scant remains, these monuments- possibly stupas or chedis- were unlikely to have been large constructions even in their prime. That left only the main two monuments as a fitting testament to the former importance of this site. Nonetheless, even the open spaces of the former city, planted with shade trees, flowering shrubs and wide lawns, are an attractive parkland, and in wandering among them, you can imagine how many timber palaces, houses and pavilions once filled this space, all of them now lost without a trace. It was only the sacred architecture, built in stone and brick, that had survived.

Monument 2 was a considerably more rewarding. Its roof has vanished, because it consisted of timber pillars with tiles or thatching on top, but the base has survived and it is an impressively broad and solid structure. The thin, parallel lines which are inscribed on the exterior have given the temple a strangely modern, minimalist look. There is also a broad staircase on the front, which has a rather stately appearance. There are trhee well-preserved receptacles in the middle, which were once yonis. These strongly suggests that this temple once was once a Shivaite shrine. Perhaps the shiva lingams had been removed to a museum for safekeeping. It was quite typical of Khmer sites in Thailand that they combined both Buddhist and Hindu elements.

After Monument 2, I went across to the imaginatively titled Monument 1, better known as Prasat Meuang Singh. This is a beautiful temple which is undoubtedly the highlight of a trip to Meuang Singh. This laterite temple is crowded around with trees and shrubs, which gives it an unexpected woodland setting. During my visit, yellow leaves were dropping off the trees, giving the whole scene a rather autumnal feel. The vivid color of the stone against the green grass made quite an impression, as did the wonderful profile of the temple. Its central feature was a large lotus-bud tower in the shape of those at Phimai and Angkor Wat. It is a shape which Thai tourists love, which is probably why this place has been made into a historical park. Not that there were many takers during my visit- just a single party of Thais numbering about half a dozen people.

There is nothing in the way of lintels, pediments or antefixes here, which makes it less of an artistic treasure than Phimai or Phanom Rung, but there are two impressive statues in situ, which add considerably to the mystical aura of the place. The first is a large statue of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara that is located in the main sanctuary. The bodhisattva has facial features which resemble Jayavarman VII himself, showing the influence of the idea of the Khmer deva-raja even here at the very edge of the Khmer empire. At the time of my visit, gold leaf had been applied to the torso of the statue, enhancing the sense of Mueang Singh as a living place of worship. While the Angkorian Empire had crumbled 600 years old, its iconography still captivated the Thai people, and this temple remained a place of veneration, not merely a ruin. The second statue in the temple is that of Prajñāpāramitā, the female embodiment of Buddhist wisdom. This statue reinforced the Buddhist nature of the shrine, and also helped to make the temple more than just a museum piece. It is said that many other fine sculptures from here had been carted off to Myanmar by Myanmarese invaders, so in that sense the two statues are also a reminder of a lost artistic legacy.

From there, I walked down to the famous River Kwai, down which traders and tradespeople must once have rowed in approaching the former settlement. The curving banks of the river made a lovely backdrop to the site and reinforced the point of how important rivers were to human settlement in early periods of Thai history. From there I walked along the length of the city walls and found one splendid city gate that was in good condition. It gave me visions of travellers entering it on the long, arduous overland route from Angkor to Yangon. Clearly many episodes of history had taken place there which had been forever forgotten. While Sai Yok is now a forgotten corner of Thailand, it had once been a site of some historic importance. Meuang Singh’s mighty walls and moats are a reminder of this little-known period of history.