The Mon Buddha of Prang Ku

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After a visit to the temples of Buriram province, we headed north to the little-visited province of Chaiyaphum. We were advised at the bus station in Nang Rong that there was no direct service from Buriram. The bus station touts were all agreed: we should go back to Nakhon Ratchasima first and then get a bus onwards to Chaiyaphum from there. This turned out to be not such a hardship as the connections were quite good and we made it to Chaiyaphum after a few hours on the road.

img_0165 A Thai-style pavilion at the Siam River Resort

Chaiyaphum was off the main highways, so it seemed a particularly sleepy town even by Isaan standards. There were few cars or pedestrians around as we wandered through the middle of the city towards our pre-booked hotel, the Siam River Resort. It was a sprawling complex with a swimming-pool, a Thai restaurant and…

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Prasat Hin Muang Tam: The Temple of the Lily Ponds

Prasat Hin Muang Tam is certainly less celebrated than its neighbour, Prasat Phanom Rung, but it is still a magnificent temple in its own right. If this temple were located anywhere in Central or Northern Isaan, it would be the premier historical attraction in the province. However, it is located in Southern Isaan, where it competes with both Phanum Rung and Phimai. As a result, it is usually viewed as an add-on to Phanom Rung rather than a destination in itself. This led us to underestimate how impressive this temple would be. Set amongst attractive parkland in the vicinity of an enormous baray, it is a beautifully presented temple which evokes the majesty of the Angkorean era in Isaan.

When we arrived at Muang Tam, we immediately received a couple of surprises. The first of these was the size of the baray (reservoir) alongside the temple. Almost a kilometre long and more than half a kilometre wide, it is compares with some of the great barays of Angkor itself. Of itself, this suggests that the area was once home to a significant population, and the archaeological evidence backs this up: it was the area around Muang Tam which was the population centre. Phanom Rung, a mere eight kilometres away on the rim on an extinct volcano, was more of a ceremonial centre; the major settlement was around Prasat Hin Muang Tam. This is also reflected in the modern name of the temple, Prasat Hin Muang Tam, which translates as the Temple of the Lower Town.

The second surprise was that a local fair was underway just outside Muang Tam. As far as we could tell, it was something like an Agricultural Machinery Fair: various tractors, winnowers and other machines were on display. As part of it, there was a street market set up opposite Muang Tam selling snacks, clothes and knick-knacks. We bought a pair of sandals for a hundred baht and also some Isaan-style sausages. The ones for ten baht were quite good but the one for twenty-five baht was excellent; it had a rich garlicky taste. As we snacked on sausages and shopped for shoes, a modest crowd assembled on the grounds of the compound behind. Some local bands and dancers were about to start their performance. Not being overly fond of Thai music, we continued on our way to the temple.

The entrance to Muang Tam was via the baray end of the temple site.We went into the temple grounds and immediately spotted part of an exquisite gopura which was sitting on the ground alongside the path. The restorers must have been unable to incorporate it into the renovated temple. Depicting the god Indra atop his vehicle, the three-headed elephant Erawan, it was the first indication of the artistic treasures within. From there we followed the path to the outer walls of the temple, which are believed to be an eleventh century addition enclosing an earlier tenth century temple. At each of the compass points there was an impressive and elaborately decorated stone gateway, with stone bars on the windows and beautifully carvings on the gables. This included the much beloved Khmer motif of the five-headed naga and also striking examples of kalas, a kind of demon. The foundation of the outer walls is made of laterite, which has a dark reddish colour, but the walls themselves are made of sandstone of a soft pinkish hue. The gorgeous colour of the temple enhances the intricate carving to give an impression of softness and sensuality.

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One of the gopuras in the outer walls of the temple complex

Once you have passed through the entranceway, you enter the inner courtyard. It is here that perhaps the greatest surprise of the temple is to be found: there are four L-shaped ponds which encircle the central sanctuary, creating what is sometimes referred to as the ‘moat’. These ponds are filled with water lilies, which brought to mind two incongruous images: first of all, the late canvases of the French painter Claude Monet, and secondly the Buddhist religion, with its extensive use of the lotus blossom as a symbol for the enlightened mind of the Buddha. In truth, neither of these things had anything to do with Prasat Muang Tam; it was a Hindu temple which was devoted to Shiva, with the cult of Vishnu also being represented. Nonetheless, the lily pond leant the temple a lyrical charm which was rare for a Khmer temple.

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One of the lily ponds at Prasat Hin Muang Tam

In the centre of the complex is the main temple, which may predate the outer walls by a century or so; there are no inscriptions which can confirm its date of construction. The main temple consisted of five brick towers on a low base, four of which are still extant; it is only the central tower which has not survived to the present day. The most noteworthy feature of these towers is the crisp lintels which remain above the doorways. These include some of the finest Khmer lintels in all of Isaan (though they are only replicas, with the originals being stored in museums now). One of the most impressive depicts Shiva and his consort Uma atop Nandin, the sacred bull. A more common scene shows the god Vishnu seated with bended knee atop kala heads. The backgrounds are filled in with intricate foliage and scrolls which are in astonishing condition considering they are a thousand years old. On the backs of some of the towers are false doors, a common feature on Khmer temples dating back to their earliest years of Khmer monumental architecture.

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This lintel depicts Shiva and Uma atop their vehicle, Nandin

Overall, the impression we got from Prasat Hin Muang Tam was of a small but exquisite temple which rated as amongst the picturesque of the Khmer temples in Thailand. With its lily ponds, pink sandstone walls and remarkable lintels depicting scenes of Hindu mythology, it is one of the prettiest temples you will encounter in your wanders through Isaan.

Phanom Rung: The Temple on the Volcano’s Rim

Of all Thailand’s major temple complexes, the last one we got around to visiting was Prasat Phanom Rung Historical Park, a Hindu temple complex set atop an extinct volcano in the southern part of Buriram Province. This delay was not due to any doubts about the temple itself- all of the guidebooks assured us that Phanom Rung was one of Thailand’s premier historical attractions. It was because of the isolation of the site which made visiting it by public transport such a chore. However, in September 2016 it finally made it onto our itinerary. We had decided to see it after a trip to Khao Yai National Park and the Reclining Buddha of Sung Noen, using the growing town of Nang Rong as our base. The steady improvement of tourist facilities in the town had now made it a superior option to the comparatively distant town of Buriram. The trip from Nakhon Ratchasima (formerly Khorat) took us a couple of hours. From the bus terminal in Nang Rong, we were able to negotiate day-long car hire from an retired man who scouted business there. He agreed to a price of 800 baht for the day, including long stops at Phanom Rung and Muang Tam.

We first went to Phanom Rung Puri Hotel, which was reputed to be the best in Nang Rong, with tourist-quality rooms, a swimming pool, a restaurant, karaoke rooms and Khmer-style bas on the walls of the hotel lobby; we had decided to give ourselves a decent night’s rest after roughing it in Khao Yao National Park. We checked in, put our bags in the room and then set off towards Prasat Phanom Rung. In very little time, we were out of Nang Rong and on our across the rice-growing plains of Southern Isaan. About twenty minutes from town, we turned off the main road and proceeded along a quiet country road. Eventually we started ascending the lower slopes of the extinct volcano on which Phanom Rung temple was located. They were were covered by scrubby undergrowth. There was no traffic on the road at all, which led us to discuss how difficult it would have been to get out there by public transport.

However, when we arrived at the car park, we saw that there were a fair number of visitors who had made it on their own steam. Increasingly, as Thailand is becoming more of a middle-income country, there is less public transport on the country’s back-roads, and it is more challenging to get around without private transportation. From there, we went to the ticket office, bought joint tickets for Phanom Rung and Muang Tam for 150 baht each, and then set off to tour the temple. By perusing some tourist literature, we were reminded of the basic facts about the site. Prasat Phanom Ring Historical Park was often referred to as the greatest Khmer temple in Thailand, with only only Prasat Hin Phimai being in the same league. Both of these sites were connected to the core of the Angkorean Empire by a royal road, also known as the Dharmasala Route, which had featured an incredible 102 small stone ‘hospitals’ along its course. This meant that Phanom Rung was well-connected with the capital of Angkor Thom.

Yet this part of the empire may have maintained a degree of independence, perhaps functioning as a vassal state of Angkor. This status may have owed something to its pedigree as an important early kingdom, perhaps one with links to the Khmer royal family. Certain inscriptions from the area around Phimai and Phanom Rung refer to a kingdom called Mahidharapura. Mahidharapura was probably an important pre-Angkorean kingdom which was eventually incorporated into Angkor. The magnificence of Phimai and Phanom Rung suggest that the area maintained immense ceremonial significance through the centuries of Angkorean overlordship, with magnificent monuments being built as a recognition of its significance.

The surviving remains at Phanom Rung span at least three hundred years, from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries. However, it has been argued that the site may have had religious significance as far back as the Chenla era,  a time which stretches back to the middle of the first middle of the first millennium BC. Like Wat Phu Champasak in Southern Laos, it appears to have been one of the key sites of the region, one which successive rulers and even kingdoms continued to venerate. Most of what remains today is a Khmer-style sanctuary in pink sandstone, dedicated to the powerful Hindu god, Shiva. However, there is one extent tower which was probably the product of the former Mahidharapura, and one depicting a scene of war elephants may belong to an earlier epoch again. However, it is the Angkorean-era monuments which make it so stunning, and like all great Angkorean temples, what they provide is sublime drama.

The first stage of the Phanom Rung experience is the processional walkway but before following this path, it is worth diverting off the main pathway to examine a remarkable building called The Hall of the White Elephant, which is located off to the right among the frangipanis. Known in Thai as Phlab Phla, it is thought that this building was a changing pavilion for the royal family before they participated in ceremonial rites. Made of laterite, the walls of this temple have a rust-red colour, suggesting the stone contains a high iron content. The window frames are made of sandstone and have bars across them which are  made in the style of turned wood. This evocative ruin is thought to date back to the 12th century and is an interesting hint of royal involvement in religious ceremonies.

Beyond the Hall of the White Elephant, the visitor follows the processional walkway towards the main sanctuary. Constructed of pitted laterite, the walkway is comparatively plain but with extensive gardens on either side, it is here the parkland appeal of the temple complex is most obviously felt. The walkway is also notable for a series of seventy sandstone posts which are positioned along the edge of the walkway. These elegantly tapered posts delineate the boundary of the path and guide the visitor onwards towards the main sanctuary. Shaped like lingas, they are a reminder that one is approaching a Shivaite temple, the phallic linga being the symbol of the war god, Shiva. Those who have visited Wat Phu Champasak in Laos will be reminded of a similar walkway there.

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The first naga walkway, with the top of the main sanctuary visible

At the end of the processional walkway is the first of three naga bridges. These bridges symbolize the transition between the temporal and immortal realms. Once you have reached this point, you are about to ascend a staircase to the sanctuary of Shiva. Fittingly, the bridge features five-headed nagas of exquisite quality. These nagas rise at the corners of the bridge, their bodies forming  a sort of railing for it. They are in an excellent state of preservation, with incredible detail on their bodies and the whole of the hood. In recent years it has been argued that the iconography of the five-headed naga may have entered Cambodia via the kingdom of Dvaravati, with the area around Phanom Rung serving as a gateway. Whatever the truth of this theory, the naga bridges are a reminder of the importance of the five-headed naga in the history of the region.

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The lintels and gopuras of Phanom Rung are exquisitely carved

 

Having climbed the main staircase, you come at a stone terrace which marks the entrance to the temple proper. The terrace has some small lawns, some shade trees and four small pools. This beautiful terrace is backed by the outer walls of the sanctuary, which are covered in a sensuous mass of carvings, including some superb lintels. Immediately in front of the entrance is another smaller naga walkway. This marks the point of your immediate entrance into the realm of Shiva. However, before proceeding it is worth taking some time to peruse the galleries of Khmer religious art here. Of especial note is a scene of a multi-armed Shiva doing a cosmic dance of creation on the eastern entrance. This is a wonderfully vivid rendering of this scene. Below it is one of the most famous lintels in all of Thailand: the Phra Narai Lintel. This remarkable lintel depicts a sensuously rendered Reclining Buddha asleep atop a long naga figure. A former victim of an art theft, it has was finally returned from the United States in 1988.

From here you passage through into the inner courtyard, where the main temple to Shiva is located. The pink-hued temple is arguably the finest Khmer temple extent within Thailand it is certainly worth viewing from multiple angles. The gopuras, antefixes, lintels and colonettes ensure that every facade of the detail is a wealth of sculptural detail. Even look at the bases of the colonettes and you will see small carvings of bearded holy men set in decorative niches, each of which is surrounded by a flaming nimbus. No effort has been speared in making the temple an overwhelming spectacle. Of particular interest to us was the dwarapala door guardian outside one of the entrances. We were to meet another similar statue at Khon Kaen National Museum a few days later. Once past the guardians you will find that the interior of the temple enshrines a Shiva linga and a beautiful statue of Nandi, his vehicle.

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Prasat Phanom Rung is dedicated to Shiva, the Hindu God of war, death and birth

Before descending from the sanctuary, it also worth seeking out Prang Noi, a smaller sandstone sanctuary on the grounds. Though comparatively plain and unadorned, it predates the main tower by a couple of hundred years, suggesting that this may have been part of a pre-Angkorean sanctuary which was associated with a smaller kingdom, later reduced to vassalage to Angkor. Apart from Prang Noi, the site also has a small stone library, where sacred palm leaf manuscripts may once have been housed. This library dates to the thirteenth-century, indicating that the site was still occupied after the peak of Angkor. It is another part of the complex history of this incomparably rich and fascinating temple site.