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.
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.