It is sometimes said that there are more than thirty archaeological sites in the districts of Sichon and Tha Sala in Nakhon Si Thammarat province. These are the vestiges of former Hindu sanctuaries, mostly Shivaite, built from the fifth to the seventh centuries. This description might lead you to suspect that this part of southern Thailand offers very rich pickings for history buffs, but in reality the ruins on offer are meager. Many of these sites are mere findspots for Hindu antiquities, small piles of crumbling bricks or even places where piles of bricks once stood. The great age of these temples combined with the fact that they were made from clay bricks has ensured that almost nothing remains of these structures.
Of course, the fact that this part of the country was once home to a thriving Shivaite culture is interesting enough in itself, and the polity which produced it, the Hindu kingdom of Panpan, deserves much more attention in histories of the region than it has usually received. But perhaps the most impressive testimony to this little-known kingdom are its magnificent statues and lingas, not its architectural remains. Still, there are two sites where the remains are a little more substantial. The first of these is Khao Kha, set on top of a forested knoll in Sichon District. The other is at Wat Mokhlan, set amidst a modern wat in a largely Muslim community. Though it is often attributed to the Tambralinga kingdom, the dates do not support this. Tambralinga was a later Hindu kingdom, in some ways a successor state to Panpan. During the fifth to seventh centuries, the predominant kingdom in this part of the world was a Panpan. It even sent a number of trade missions to China. Wat Mokhlan offers a rare opportunity to see ruins from Panpan.
Wat Mokhlan Archaeological Site is named after the modern Buddhist wat its ruins are located amidst, but the ruins are all former shrines from the cult of Shiva. The main remains are some walls and door-frames from these shrines, some of which are carved. It has been said that the doorjambs are designed in imitation of wooden models, which gives us a clue as to what some of the timber architecture of Panpan may have looked like. It is likely there were many more shrines built from organic materials than brick ones. There are also pedestals were lingas and yonis, which would have been focal points for veneration at the site. You may be tempted to think that most of the ruins have disappeared but perhaps they were not very big to begin with. The inner space or ‘cella’ of the shrines from the earliest examples of Hindu architecture in South-East Asia are often tiny: one example would be the eighth-century stone temples on the Dieng Plateau in Java. A Hindu temple did not have to hold a congregation after all, but was merely a place where certain rites had to be performed, such as bathing the linga in water. The lack of a roof to the structures probably suggests that the roof was built of perishable materials such as a wood or thatch. It is one the lowermost portions of the the shrines that we can see today.
Apart from the ruins at Wat Mokhlan, the settlement it is located in offers glimpses of workaday Thai village life. If you are interested in souvenir hunting, there is a pottery village just fifty metres from the site. In all likelihood, it was designed to attract visitors coming to the ruins, but Wat Mokhlan is not on many travellers’ itineraries yet, and you are liable to have the ruins to yourself. Though they are not expansive, with some background knowledge of the history of Panpan, and its marginalization in Thai narratives of the South, a visit here can be rewarding.