Peninsular Thailand- the narrow part of the country between the Isthmus of Kra and the Malaysian border- is blessed with two coasts. Today both coasts are a playground for international tourists, with some travelers favouring the West Coasts island of Phuket or Ko Phi Phi and others preferring the East coast islands such as Ko Samui and Ko Tao. However, in ancient times, it was the East Coast which attracted far more attention for foreigners, with the maritime trade being focused on the Gulf of Siam littoral from the Bay of Bandon down to region of the present Thailand-Malaysia border.
This part of the country threw up at least three different kingdoms of some significance: Panpan, Tambralinga and Langksuka. They were known by different names during different periods of history: during the Sriwijaya era, for example, the territory of the former Panpan was often known as Ligor. They may also have been known by different names by Chinese, Arab and Indian sources, which can make the whole discussion dizzying for the newcomer. It is also worth noting that these ‘countries’ were pre-modern states in which there were no clearly marked boundaries. Moreover, the degree of control which the ruler of these proto-states were able to exert over the peripheral settlements was probably highly tenuous. Nonetheless, there were a number of early polities in this part of the world and they left a substantial artistic testimony to their cultural life in the form of statues, religious shrines and votive tablets.
The southernmost of the three main kingdoms is usually known by the name Langksuka, and it is, in many ways, the most enigmatic of the three. It was not until the 1990s that its capital was definitively located in the modern Thai province of Pattani. The current political troubles in that part of the world have made it difficult to produce with archaeological investigations and few new studies have appeared in the past few years. Nonetheless, at least several structures from its capital have been unearthed, and these provide some material proof of the existence of the kingdom of Langkasuka. The most substantial of these can be found today in the small village of Ban Yarang, about fifteen kilometres from the modern town of Pattani.
According to the Chinese sources, Langkasuka was founded in the second century. This used to seem like an extremely early date, as no remains on the Gulf of Siam littoral date back before the fifth century, but it is not without regional parallel. Recent investigations in South Kedah have pushed the beginning date for that region to the earliest years of the first millennium and the Buni culture of the North Coast of Java and Bali may have been trading with India as early as the second century. Therefore, it may be possible that Langkasuka was already an Indianized kingdom some eighteen or nineteen centuries ago, making it one of the earliest kingdoms of South-East Asia.
The Chinese sources also said that it was to the south of Tambralinga, which would place it in the southernmost provinces of current Thailand. It was said that it took thirty to forty days to walk across, which means that its broader territory may have continued into Malaysian province of Kelantan. The Chinese also inform us that its capital was surrounded by a nine-kilometre long wall topped with towers and pavilions. There had long been historians who argued it must have been located near the modern town of Pattani but archaeologists had a hard time finding the site. This was largely because the Pattani River estuary had changed so much over the centuries, with many canals and water courses along its edge silting up. The site of Ban Yarang is now fifteen kilometres inland, which was not where people in search of a maritime port expected it to be. The discovery of temple ruins at Ban Yarang has now convinced almost everybody that this was the city of the Langkasuka capital, however.
In recent years, there has been a lot of unrest in the Deep South of Thailand, with several thousand people killing in a long-running, low-level conflict. That has ensured that Pattani remains one of the least visited parts of Thailand today. However, there is no reason you can’t visit Ban Yarang should you wish. On our trip, coming from the Malaysian border post at Sungai Golok, we passed a couple of military roadblocks, but they were low hassle and the bus was soon waved on.You would have to be very unlucky to caught up in any sort of trouble. Still, the military presence makes the atmosphere of this part of the country very different. It is a reminder that you are in Malay-majority part of the country, and one with a very different history than the rest of Thailand. Not only was it part of Langkasuka, and latter the Sultanate of Pattani, but also it was owned by the British at one point and did not become part of Siam permanently until 1909. Perhaps some memory of this separate history informs the simmering separatism of today.
There are three mains sites in the area. Easily the most impressive of them is Ban Chalae Ancient Town, which is sometimes referred to as Ban Jalae in the tourist literature. This site preserves an ancient pond and traces of some moats, which provide a hint of its its former life as a waterside city. This estuarine site was once connected to the sea by small canals, much like some of the settlement zones of Satingpra to the north. It also reminded us of ancient Funan, whose presumed capital, Angkor Borei, was connected to the sea by long canals across the Mekong Delta. Funan and Langkasuka were trading partners, so there may even have been some cultural influence. But these remnants will not hold your attention for long; the real draw-card here is an ancient brick monument which is housed beneath a protective modern shelter. Modest as it is, this is the most substantial surviving relic of a kingdom which lasted for over a thousand years.
The monument is a squat brick structure on a large square base. It may once have been much more massive than it is today. It is difficult to imagine its original form, though it definitely looks more like a Buddhist religious monument of some kind. Unlike many monuments in the region, which have been over-prettified, this one has been left more as it was found and the uneven lines of brick make it clear that this is an authentic ruin. Apart from some simple patterns in the brickwork, there is little to speak of in the way of decoration. Some websites describe it as a chedi, and it may have been a stupa or chedi of some sort; certainly, the sculptural finds suggest that Mahayana Buddhism was practiced there between the fourth and eighth centuries. It is also said that crumbled pieces of hundreds of thousands of clay tablets were found around the site, so clearly it was an object of veneration by the locals of ancient Langkasuka. In that sense, it is a forerunner of the hundreds of revered chedis and stupas which attract devotees around modern Thailand. Yet in some ways, it reminded us more of the large brick monuments of the Taruma civilization in West Java, which were of a similar age.
Apart from Ban Chalae, it is worth heading out to Ban Prawae, where there are some other minor remnants, including some time-worn canals and fortifications. The fortifications are in a square shape here, and traces of a double gate remain. These are nowhere near as old as the monument at Ban Chalae, which could date back to the middle of the first millennium AD. They appear to be a late Ayutthaya-era restoration of walls that date back much further. But even if they were not original fortifications of Langkasuka, they do bring to mind the reports from the Chinese sources that the capital of Langksuka was surrounded by nine-kilometre-long walls. Digs at Ban Yarang suggest that the total archaeological site covers some nine square kiloemtres, which make it easily the largest south of Chaiya. In coming out here, you do get a sense that you have glimpsed the crumbled and time-worn ruins of one of Southeast Asia’s vanished capitals.