Songkhla National Museum and the Ban Kok Moh Kendis

The southernmost part of Thailand has long had a distinct identity and history from the Thai heartland of the Chao Phraya River basin. One of the best places to get an appreciation of this history is in the charming coastal city of Songkhla, the modern successor of the ancient port city of Satingpra. This city was already linked to international maritime trade as early as the first millennium, with canals, kilns and the ruins of sacred architecture serving as a reminder of this period of history. One of the most intriguing cultural relics on this ancient port-city are the Ban Kok Moh kendis. The best place to see them is at the beautiful Songkhla National Museum.

Situated on Chana Road in the city’s old quarter, this museum is located inside what is arguably the city’s finest monument, the magnificent former home of the city’s governor. The home was built by the influential Na Songkhla family, who ruled the city for many generations. They were one of many trading families in the city who could trace their ancestry back to the southern Chinese provinces of Fujian and Guangdong. Their rambling mansion dates back to 1878, and is built in a Chinese-style building with timber floors, red window-shutters painted fire-engine red, airy courtyards, ornate balustrades on its balconies and an elegant roof-line reminiscent of a Chinese temple. The modern gateway brings you to what was originally the back of the mansion; head around the back of the museum to see the original facade. It is fronted by a courtyard and flanked by a pair of long, low buildings with sloping roofs. The most impressive feature, however, is the the grand curving staircase at the front. It is guarded by a pair of lion guardian-statues which attest more than anything to the Chinese heritage of the original owners. The Chinese style of the building reflects not only the city’s mixed ethnic heritage but also the city’s location on the Gulf of Siam, with its ready access to the South China Sea. Songkhla is a bit of a backwater today but it had a surprisingly cosmopolitan past. International merchants had long gone there, interested in both its manufactured products, such as its kendis, and the agricultural and forest products of its hinterland.

The rear of the museum, with its beautiful staircase

The exhibits of the museum are somewhat provincial in their layout and labelling, but a visit here will provide you with considerable insight into the city’s past. Even the grounds contain a few interesting pieces. Apart from the pruned hedges, lush lawns and expansive shade trees, there are a collection of cannons and anchors outdoors, many of them salvaged from shipwrecks. This usefully introduces the maritime theme, which runs through many of the exhibits inside as well. There are displays on the city’s various ethnic groups and their material culture. You can see some period Chinese furniture, including beautiful wood-carved screens, tables, chairs and cabinets. There are also dioramas of daily life. There are also some exhibits from the province’s archaeological sites. The most remarkable of these is an 11th century Vishnu state recovered from the south of the province, right near the border with Malaysia. The stone statue of the benevolent god shows him holding a mace, cakra wheel, conch and lotus, and he exudes an aura of beneficence. During the 11th century Satingpra was probably part of the Hindu kingdom of Tambralinga, whose capital was to the north in Nakhon Si Thammarat. This early Hindu heritage indicates the importance of early links with both India and Cambodia. At that early stage of history, there were probably few ethnic Thais in the South and the area was predominantly Khmer, Mon and Malay. Further insight into this little-known epoch can be gained from the wealth of ceramic finds, which are probably the museum’s highlight. You will find the usual range of Chinese trade porcelain, some of which is exquisite, but the real treasure is something much rarer- the locally produced Ban Kok Moh kendis, fine examples of which can be found here.

Kendis are a kind of spouted, earthenware water-container, which were widely used through Asia in the early historical period. The local kendis, also known as Satingpra wares or Kok Moh kendis, show considerable technical skill and they are worth seeking out on cultural tour of this far part of Thailand. These kendis were produced during the elevent and twelfth centuries at Ban Kok Moh, a small village which was connected to the Gulf of Siam by an ancient canal. This arrangement already suggests the importance of the kendis to the export trade of ancient Satringpra/Songkhla, as the kendis were shipped off from the kilns to the islands of the Indonesian archipelago. 1100 very similar kendis to those fired at Ban Kok Moh have been found in the 10th century Cirebon shipwreck off the North Coast of Java, suggesting that an ancestor of the excavated Ban Kok Moh kilns might have been active in the Satingpra area. Satingpra-style kendis have also been found in the pond in front of Candi Gumpung, the main temple at Muara Jambi, Sumatra’s premiere archaeological site. This suggests that ancient Songkhla had found a market for its kendis in both Java and Sumatra, illustrating an outward-looking orientation to the coastal city. Though it was probably part of the Tambralinga empire, Satingpra may have exerted a considerable degree of economic independence nonetheless.

The kendis are between 22 and 30 centimetres tall. They are finely potted and their shapes are beautiful to look at. They have a long, thin, beaklike spout and a small opening at the top. Most of them are white, a result of the high quantity of kaolin in the mix, but others are more of a buff or beige color. The color variations were also a result of  uneven firing temperatures. Apparently, the Ban Kok Moh potters were more noted for their technical skills at potting than the technological advancement of their kilns. In all likelihood, there were more kilns in the area that have been lost over the centuries. This only makes the unique kendis on display at this museum all the more valuable though. They are a distinctive artefact of this part of the country, which are particularly worth your attention on a trip to Songkhla.



Ban Thung Tuek: A Hindu Trader’s Port

Most visitors who come to Thailand for history and culture will start in Bangkok and head north to the ancient capitals of Ayutthaya, Sukhothai and Chiang Mai. In contrast, the south of Thailand is seen as the preserve of beach-goers and party-seekers; its Full Moon parties are the stuff of traveller legend. Once a mere backpacker’s favorite, Thailand’s islands and beaches now attract tourists in the tens of millions. Yet the association of Southern Thailand with beaches and islands has given the impression that there is nothing cultural or historical to do there. While ancient sites are rarely visited by tourists to the region, they do exist: it is quite possible to get a fix of culture in Thailand’s South.

One very infrequently visited site is Ban Thung Tuek on the island of Ko Kho Khao. Its low profile is understandable considering the modest remains on offer, but it played an important role in the early history of the region. Situated in Takua Pa district of Phang-Nga province, an area of the country on very few tourists’ radars, Ban Thung Tuek is only a short longtail ride across the strait from the mainland, but the need to hire a boat to get across is another impediment to a visit here, and it has probably contributed to the obscurity of the site. Yet if you come here, you will learn that Takua Pa is the modern name for Takola, the most important port of call for ancient Indian traders to the Isthmus of Kra. Here, towards the end of the first millennium AD, Indian traders would come for access to the region’s plentiful tin deposits as well as fragrant woods and other rare jungle products from the hinterland. It was then a comparatively short trek across to the mountains to the Gulf Coast, dominated then by the Hindu kingdom of Tambralinga. Tambralinga had access to the riches of the maritime trade in the South China Sea and probably acted as an intermediary for Chinese traders wanting access to Indian products. Takola was the most important Andaman Coast port of the era, boasting a large community of Indian traders.

The archaeological remains at Ban Thung Tuek are modest and hardly suggestive of a grand historical legacy on their own. The impression I got was of a small religious complex on the edge of a vibrant trading port. In all probability, religious worship was not the mean reason for being of ancient Takola; this was a commercial community in which Brahmanical rites playing an important but not central role. Set in a rather rural setting, the site is surrounded by scrubby woodland and clumps of bamboo, with wildflowers also in evidence. These natural surroundings considerably add to the appeal of the place, making it a pleasant location for a leisurely stroll. The site has sandy soil but it can also get very muddy in place, the area being subject to frequent rain showers.

Little remains of the ancient shrines at Ban Thung Tuek but their foundations. The largest ‘monuments’ are in a grassy clearing but it is not possible to gain much sense of them besides their dimensions. They were possibly not very impressive temples even in their prime, consisting of brick foundations and a timber and superstructure. There are a few pedestals about which would once have housed images of Vishnu or perhaps Shiva lingams; both Vishnuism and Shivaism were well-established in Southern Thailand during that period. There is another small brick monument (pictured below) which may also have housed the image of a Hindu deity.

The Hindu nature of the site emphasizes its deep links with India, a marked contrast to the Dvaravati kingdom to the North, which was predominantly Buddhist. It is often suggested that Indian settlers established a permanent town here, attested to not only by the shrines but also large quantities of Indian coins and clay tablets bearing the image of Hindu gods. Sanskrit inscriptions have also been found in the area.You can read about this aspect of the area’s history at the small, dimly-lit site museum. It also reveals that a large number of glass beads were found here, which are thought to have been manufactured in Persia. Visitors to the site sometimes report finding ancient beads in their wanderings. These beautiful beads are another sign of the importance of Takola to ancient traders, and part of the little-known history of this remote corner of Thailand.

A small brick shrine at Ban Thung Tuek

Khao Kha Archaeological Site: The Shrine of Panpan

If you go to museums in Thailand, you will commonly see the term Sriwijayan Art used to describe any piece of art from the Southern Thailand from before the thirteenth century or before. This term is not entirely without historical foundation. The famous Ligor inscription of the late 8th century is proof that much of Southern Thailand was within the Sumatran sphere at that time, but it has seemed increasingly unlikely that this influence remained strong after the end of the tenth century. From the turn of the millennium to the end of the 13th century, this part of a Thailand probably enjoyed considerable independence as a Hindu kingdom called Tambralinga. But there is also evidence that Tambralinga was not the first Hindu kingdom in Southern Thailand. We know that there was a very early South-East Asian kingdom called Panpa

It is assumed that the centre of Panpan was on the Bay of Bandon, in the present-day Thai province of Surat Thani. It would have extended to the south, taking in much of the current province of Nakhon Si Thammarat. Traces of as many of fifty archaeological sites have been found in the current districts of Tha Sala and Sichon, suggesting that this must have been an important ritual site for Panpan.

Panpan had asserted its independence from Funan by sending several embassies to China during the fifth century. The Chinese writer Ma Duanlin recorded that on one mission the envoys of the king of Panpan brought a tooth of the Buddha, miniature stupas and leaves of the bo tree. Ma Duanlin also tells us that the king of Panpan ruled from a capital inside a wooden palisade. Apparently he received visitors on a gilded dragon-couch in the presence of kneeling vassals. Evidently, Panpan was already a stratified society which had incorporated Indian ideas of kingship. And indeed we learn that Panpan was a kingdom highly versed in Hindu scriptural texts. Yet at the same time Duanlin tells us that there were many Buddhist monasteries in the kingdom, attesting to a mixed religious identity.

For the traveller in search of Panpan, the physical remains can be dauntingly hard to find. None of the main guidebooks promote any sites associated with Panpan. In fact, none of them even mention its existence. Even an online search about the kingdom is likely to turn up precious little information. Yet that doesn’t mean there is nothing to see from this early kingdom, though it has to be said that the remains which have survived to the present day are scant and off the beaten trail. The most impressive of the sites associated  probably Khao Kha, which is located on top of a 70 metre tall hill in Sichon District. It was partially restored- perhaps even over-restored- by the Thai Fine Arts Department in 1997 and it is one place where you can get a sense of Southern Thailand’s little-known Hindu heritage.

This site was once remote but is easily accessible on sealed road today. When the archaeologist Stanley O’Connor visited Sichon in the late 1960s, the roads were so bad that the district was only accesible by jeep, preferrably one which was capable of driving on sand! Today it is situated off the main road from Nakhon Si Thammarat to Surat Thani and is well signposted from the main road. It is still worth taking your time along this stretch of coast, however, because there are gorgeous white-sand beaches all along the Gulf of Siam however, many of them very undeveloped. We stopped off at one almost deserted beach with just a single cafe at one end and there were only a couple of people on the entire beach. This part of Southern Thailand remains very undeveloped compared to places like Phuket and Krabi, and luxuriant forests cover the hillsides making the entire area worth a leisurely visit.

Having a car, we were able to reach Khao Kha with little effort, but it may be a tricky place to come if you are only using public transport. The best way would probably to take a local bus from Nakhon Si Thammarat to Sichon town and then organize private transport, such as a tuk-tuk, from there. The site is located in a beautiful hilltop position, showing the genius of the ancients for planning important religious sites. There are a number of remains, the most important of which is a large brick terrace 49 x 37 metres, which supports the main sanctuary. This structure was 22 x 18 metres, which suggests that this would have been a large and important shrine within Panpan. The main sanctuary has stone pillar bases set at regular intervals, which suggests that there would have been a wooden superstructure. This design will be familiar to those who have visited the temple sites on Mount Jerai in Kedah, Malaysia. There is no statuary still extant at the sanctuary but there are some artifacts in the site museum, and these indicate that Khao Kha was a Shivaite temple. You can see some lingas at the small but informative site museum, which you should definitely also visit before you leave. Apart from the terrace and the main sanctuary, there is also a large water-tank on the hilltop. It may have been used to help the ancient Hindus perform their religious rites.

Khao Kha
A brick terrace with floral votives on top

One thing that strongly impressed us was that there is nothing remotely ‘Sriwijayan’ about these ruins. The Palembang-centred trade network was Mahayana Buddhist in nature, but there are no stupas, chedis, viharas or any other buildings associated with the Buddhist tradition at Khao Kha. This is very much a purely Hindu temple; tellingly, the only site in Thailand it bears much resemblance to is Ban Thung Tuek on the little island of Ko Kho Khao, which is a 9th century Hindu shrine with links to Tamil Nadu. It is this distinctiveness which makes Khao Kha worth seeking out. This shrine was the product of a kingdom which was quite unlike the Sriwijayan realm, the Dvaravati cultural zone or the kingdom of the Khmers either.

Situated in the isthmian tract of Thailand, which is only a comparatively short trip across the Andaman Sea from Southern India, the kingdom of Panpan had absorbed a lot of Indian cultural influence. Visiting Khao Kha, with its hilltop sanctuary and collection of Shiva lingas, you will quickly gain a sense of ancient Hindu practices, and realize that you are glimpsing an under-explored and little known part of Thailand’s complex past.