Khao Ngu: The Forest Monks of Snake Mountain

Considering its proximity to the Thai capital, the modern Thai province of Ratchaburi is surprisingly sleepy and rural. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact it gets so few visitors from Bangkok. Apart from the floating market of Damnoen Saduak, none of the attractions of this province are big crowd-pullers. However, for anyone wanting to get a glimpse of Dvaravati, Thailand’s earliest historical kingdom, it makes sense to add Ratchaburi to an excursion to the monuments of nearby Nakhon Pathom. Here you will find monuments and carvings that attest to the early spread of the Buddhist faith in Thailand. The largest of these sites is Khu Bua, but another easy day-trip are the caves of Khao Ngu, which provide an interesting contrast to the urban ruins of Khu Bua.

From Ratchaburi, it is only eight kilometres to Tham Ruesi Khao Ngu, which takes its name from the Khao Ngu Mountain on which it is located. To be the extent that it has been promoted, it is been as part of Khao Ngu National Park, with its original historical context being very much forced into the background. But, in my opinion, it is only by considering this context that the site can really come to life. Nonetheless, its setting among a landscape of white karst is attractive in itself, even if the widespread quarrying of the region has somewhat dimmed its aesthetic appeal. At one point in the 1990s, they were quarrying within 30 to 40 metres of the carvings, causing them to be coated in limestone dust, but the remains are now well-protected as a cultural site. If anything, it is only over-commercialization, in the form of a sort of Thai Disneyland approach, which is a threat. There is already a huge concrete Walking Buddha coated in gold paint outside the original caves. Hopefully, no further modern additions are made so that the area can retain some of its atmosphere of a quiet mountain retreat.

Your first experience will be being accosted by troops of monkeys in the open area outside the caves, sometimes joined by that other Thailand favorite, packs of mongrel dogs. Unless you have spent very little time in Thailand, neither of these are likely to hold your attention for long and you will be ready to move onto the antiquities. There are two main sights within the Tham Reusi complex, both protected in small limestone caves within the walls of Khao Ngu itself. The most revered of these is Phra Buddha Chai. This imposing, larger-than-lifelike figure reaches a height of 2.5 metres and is found on the back wall of the cave. He is shown in the position of preaching the first sermon, with his feet placed on the ground ‘European style’ and his right hand in the position of vitarkamudra, which is joining the tips of the thumb and the index fingers together while keeping the other fingers straight. The other hand is placed in the lap. This posture recalls that of the monumental statues of Wat Phra Men in Nakhon Pathom, suggesting close links between religious ideas here and Nakhon Pathom, which is usually presumed to have been the ‘capital’ of Dvaravati. Along the walls of the cave, there are many small statues in the round, many of them coated in gold leaf, and the cave does retain an air of spirituality, taking you back to the earliest days of Buddhism in the region.

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The Phra Buddha Chai of Khao Ngu

The second sight, Tham Fa Tho, is situated higher up on Khao Ngu (Snake Mountain). You will have to climb 200 steps to reach this second rock shelter. However, you will be rewarded of views all the way back to Ratchaburi town, with many temples dotting the landscape. This lush area along the banks of the Mae Khlong River was one of the cradles of the Dvaravati civilisation, and it would once have been much closer to the sea, the coastline have receded several kilometres since the eighth century. Inside the narrow cave you will find Tham Fa Tho, a wonderful carving of a reclining Buddha which is about 2.5 metres long. It would once have been covered in stucco but traces of the stucco can only be seen on the halo now and on the bodhi tree, itself a symbol of Buddhism. The reclining Buddha posture is known as mahaparinirvana posture and it was also extremely common in mountain-top hermit’s retreats in the northeastern part of the former Dvaravati.

In fact, it is this carving of the Buddha in mahaparinirvana which made me realize what this place originally was. The archaeologist Stephen Murphy has written extensively about the Isaan zone of the Dvaravati realm, including the numerous mountain-top locations where Buddhist monks renounced the world . These were forest monks who had withdrawn from Dvaravati society to pursue spiritual enlightenment in the forest. They formed small, isolated communities, so they did not have the necessary manpower to built the sorts of large monuments associated with larger settlements on the lowlands. Instead, they carved figures of the Buddha into overhanging rock faces, especially figures in the posture of mahaparinirvana. Murphy’s essay is confined to the communities in Isaan but it is clear that these forest communities were not restricted to that part of the Mon-Dvaravati realm.

There was, I realized, one such community on the mountain-top at Khao Ngu. In fact, the only inscription retained at the site mentions ‘hermits’ from Gupta,providing further evidence for this conclusion. Once you realize that Khao Ngu preserves the traces of a formerly thriving community of forest monks, it becomes a much more interesting site. You see the carvings not just as single works of art but as testimony to a vanished cultural tradition. Perhaps the forest monks of Khao Ngu once stood there and looked all the way to the nearby coastal settlement of Khu Bua, which traded with people from India and the Middle East. This isolated community would once been the place of choice for monks wanted to withdraw from the major  settelments of this ancient civilization to pursue more spiritual ends.

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The Inscribed Stone of Terengganu

Malaysia is not blessed with the large array of archaeological and sculptural finds that we associate with some regions of South-East Asia. In truth, it cannot compare with the lowlands of Laos, let alone areas such as Cambodia, Java and Myanmar. That makes the finds which do turn up all the more important; they help us to understand a part of South-East Asia which is not as rich in temples, statues and inscriptions as some of the better-studied parts of the region. One of the most interesting finds from the Malaysian Peninsula is the Terengganu Stone, an inscribed stone which looks like a Hindu prasasti but is actually proof of the early penetration of Islam into the Malay world.

The Terengganu Stone (also known as the Batu Bersurat)  is now displayed at the Terengganu State Museum, and a replica can be seen at the National History Museum in Kuala Lumpur. However, its findspot was in the small riverside town of Kuala Berang, about forty kilometres upriver from the modern capital of Kuala Terengganu. The town is a bit of a backwater today, but it is thought to the original seat of the Sultanate of Terengganu. The stone was discovered in 1887 after rain had heavily eroded the steep banks of the Terset River, exposing a stone which was inscribed on four sides with an ancient form of the Jawi script, an archaic form of Malay. In 1902 it was spotted outside a local mosque by an Arab tin and gold prospector by the name of Syed Husin bin Ghulam Al-Bokhari and his Terengganuan nobleman friend, Pengiran Anum Engku Abdul Kadir bin Engku Besar.

At first glance it looks like the prasastis (inscribed stones) that many Indonesian kingdoms had produced, notably Tarumanegara, Kutai, Mataram and Sriwijaya. However, this one was the product of a new religion. It marked the conversion of a local ruler to the Islamic faith, making him the earliest convert to the religion on the peninsula. Indeed, dating to the year 1303, the stone provides one of the earliest records of the Islamic faith in all of South-East Asia. This early date of conversion helps to explain the strict brand of Islam that is practiced on the East Coast today. The Islamic faith was disseminated long ago in this region and all trace of earlier religious practices have long since been wiped away. The use of certain Sanskrit words on the Terengganu stoneTerengganu Stone (mixed with Jawi, Arabic and Javanese) hint that some Indian religious influences had been felt in the region, but the stone marks their replacement with a strict new code: it imposes Islamic (sharia) law on the ruler’s subjects and spells out punishments for anyone who breaks these laws.

After its ‘discovery’ in 1902, the stone was taken to the Sultan of Terengganu, who mounted it on Bukit Puteri (Princess Hill). The hill, with its pleasant views over Kuala Terengganu harbour, makes a pleasant place to visit until this day. It remained there until 1923, at which time it was sent to the Raffles Museum in Singapore to be analyzed by experts. It remained there until 1960, when it was returned to Malaysia. In 1991 it finally found its way back to Terengganu, where it remains as the prized exhibit at the Terengganu State Musuem. In 2009 it was registered as one of the world’s cultural treasures with UNESCO.

Chaiya’s Charming Indonesian-Style Chedi

The first time I went to Southern Thailand, my highest priority in terms of historic sites was Chaiya, which was often described as Sriwijaya’s ‘capital’ in the Isthmus of Kra. It was also known as the home to the only intact monument from Southern Thailand’s early kingdoms, namely Panpan, Langkasuka, Tambralinga and Sriwijaya. Indeed, it was sometimes said that the ‘Sriwijayan’ chedi of Chaiya was the most complete monument from the entire Sriwijayan empire. Therefore, we stopped off there for a flying visit on the way between Bangkok and Krabi in 2006.

We got off the train at Surat Thani station, along with scores of other backpackers. The rest of them were on the so-called train-bus-boat tickets which were sold all up and down Bangkok’s Khao Sahn Road. They were mostly heading out to the islands of Ko Samui or, more likely, Ko Pha-Ngan, known for its drug-laced Full Moon parties and general air of substance-fueled revelry. There were local tour organizers who were waiting with mini-vans and they immediately started ordering the backpackers to form queues. The whole scene was reminiscent of a school excursion with the exception that the school ‘uniform’ was an odd mix of torn-off army pants, sarongs, tie-dyed shirts, beach smocks and hippie beads. It was amazing to think how many people’s experience of Thailand consists of this: being herded off to a famous beach where they would lie around drinking and conversing with other people from their own countries and thinking that this is somehow an authentic travel experience. Glad to get away from this cliched tourist circus, we immediately started down the road to the bus-stop to wait for the next bus to Chiaya.

We got on a bus after about twenty minutes and started off down the road to Chaiya. Apart from us, there were only a couple pf other people on board. The road was in good condition, so we covered a lot of distance quickly. We arrived at the turn-off into Chaiya town and they let us down by the side of the road. From there we wandered into town, surprised that the town seemed little more than a country village these days. We stopped at a noodle shop along the way, which was housed in a rundown timber building surrounded by banana palms. Coming from Bangkok, we were struck by how lush, green and tropical the whole area was, reminding us somehow of a quiet, backwoods town in Malaysia. After a cheap bowl of noodles, we continued on to Wat Phra Borommathat Chaiya, which, despite its out-of-the-way location today, is one of the two most revered temples in the entire south of Thailand.

With its brilliantly white walls, glossy red and green roof tiles and gilt decoration, at first glance this temple resembles a well-patronized Bangkok wat. It was better maintained than many regional wats but its ancient heritage was not immediately obvious. The chedi which is its main claim to fame is contained within the courtyard of the wat. On the way there you will see some minor chedis, some of them possessing interesting shapes. You will also find a long colonnaded area with dozens of Buddhas wrapped in yellow robes. There are also three Sriwijaya-style Buddhas set on a platform out in the courtyard, though these are almost certainly replicas or imitations. These features all add to the appeal of the wat, though the true reason everyone comes here is to see Phra Borommathat, the magnificent chedi in the courtyard of the temple.

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The chedi before its recent restorations

Dating to the eighth or ninth centuries, the chedi is Thailand’s finest surviving monument of the Sriwijaya era, and it looms large in any discussion of Southern Thailand’s religious architecture. Set on a square base, the chedi has a box-like shape but it is typed by an elaborate, multi-tiered roof. This gorgeously proportioned roof is full of elaborate detail, including miniature stupas placed in the corner of each tier. Despite some Thai additions in the form of gold-leaf figures and a gold finial, the Indonesian style of the design is quite apparent. Some writers have noted that it bears a striking resemblance to some of the temples carved on the bas reliefs of the sides of Borobodur, the mighty Buddhist monument in Central Java. While it has certainly been restored a number of times, it is thought to preserve its original Sriwijayan profile. There are a number of other monuments from the era which can be found in Chaiya, but none of them have survived intact. In having come down to us in one piece, this magnificent chedi is utterly unique.

Before leaving Wat Phra Borommathat Chaiya, we visited the branch of the National Museum which is located right nearby, It has a remarkable collection and is another must-see for anyone interested in Thailand’s early kingdoms. However, its collection deserves a special post all of its own, so we return to it in a future post.