Wat Phra That Khao Noi: Nan’s Hilltop Wat

In a town as richly steeped in history and art as Nan, it seems strange to recommend what is, architecturally speaking, a rather undistinguished wat. However, if there is one comparatively modern temple complex in Nan you should visit, it is undoubtedly Wat Phra That Khao Noi, primarily because of its spectacular location 800 feet above Nan town. The best way to go there is by rented motorcycle, because it will be a long and demanding walk on foot.

The trip by bike took us no more than about ten minutes from downtown Nan, heading out towards Khao Noi, the mountain on which the mountain was situated, past a number of historic wats and at least a couple of beautiful, old teak houses. At the outskirts of town, we suddenly entered a patch of hillside jungle, beginning the climb towards the hilltop wat. Suddenly we were in the midst of dipterocarp forest, with huge trees rising up along the roadside, wrapped in a dense mesh of lianas. Suddenly the lush greens of tropical forest were all around us and the shirr of insects could be heard on every side.

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The ceremonial staircase up to Wat Phra That Khao Noi

We wound higher up the mountainside, eventually coming to a vast ceremonial staircase with balustrades in the form of nagas. This reminded me of the magnificent naga staircase at the World Heritage site of Khao Phra Vihaan on the Thai-Cambodian border, though this one was obviously a concrete construction of much more recent vintage. Even so, the sight of hundreds and hundreds of stairs ascending the mountainside was an impressive sight in its way- a reminder that in the past Buddhist pilgrims would have seen toiling up to the peak of Khao Noi as an act of Buddhist devotion. I noticed that on the left hand side of the staircase there was a small Chinese style temple complex with pavilions and statues; evidently, Nan’s small ethnic Chinese population also revered this remote forest temple site. The motorbikes continued past the staircase, climbing to the peak of the hill, where Wat Phra That Khao Noi was located.

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The main chedi at Wat Phra That Khao Noi

Accoding to local legend, there had been a wat on the site since the late fifteenth century. Whatever the truth of this claim, most of the current ensemble of buildings were clearly no more than a few decades old. If any of them had a sense of age, it was the chedi (or thaat), which was a white spire rising up in the centre of the complex. Though it had clearly been renovated in recent decades, having a well-maintained exterior of white plaster, in its shape it resembles many historic chedis from Thailand. There is a history of temples being renovated and repaired many times over the centuries in this part of the world, so it did not seem impossible that an ancient brick core still existed within the modern incarnation of the chedi. The other extremely noticeable construction on the site was a large Walking Buddha in the Sukothai style which stood on an enormous lotus pedestal, looking out towards the Nan Valley. Though this statue only dated back to 1999, it did recall the classic Walking Buddha sculptures of the past, and it was certainly worth a couple of photos.

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However, really the attraction of this wat are the views. Descending to the terrace of the Walking Buddha statue, you will gain a view across the entire city of Nan, with steeply forested hills rising in the background. Somewhere in the middle of town is the Nan River; you are able to make out some of the bridges across it. This 750 km-long river is the third longest which is entirely within the territory of Thailand, eventually draining south into the Ping River, which later joins the Chao Phraya and flows into the Gulf of Siam. The fertility of the Nan River Valley is various obvious from up on Khao Noi, with lush alluvial river lands spreading along its banks. Apart from the city, the entire landscape consisted of various shades of green. It was this river which had nurtured and fed the city for the past thousand years. In addition, to the views, the surrounding forest adds to the appeal, with butterflies drifting past and a large, blue-headed lizard sitting on the tiles and looking up at us. After we taken it all in, we set off down that long ceremonial staircase, starting the walk back towards town.

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The views of Nan city from Khao Noi
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Wat Phumin: The Temple of the Whispering Lovers

Nan is a Thai town with a very unusual history. Though it is counted as one of the northern provinces of Thailand, it is located much closer to the Lao border than the former Lanna capital of Chiang Mai, and it has a distinct identity to match its isolated location within Thailand. It was long an autonomous principality which drew as much influence from Xishuangbanna in China as from the Lanna settlements of Northern Thailand. This history of seclusion and separation is very much reflected in its arts and architecture. While the artistic heritage of Lanna is clearly in evidence, you will also see the influence of the Tai Lü, a group whose ancestral homeland is Xishuangbanna district of Yunnan Province in China. There influence is best appreciated by visiting Wat Phumin, which is often regarded as the most extraordinary of Nan’s outstanding collection of wats.

The history of Wat Phumin dates back to 1596 when the wat was first built. It has a highly unusual form; indeed, it is utterly unique in all of Thailand. The wat is designed with a cruciform shape and staircases extend out on all four sides with elaborate nagas for balustrades. This makes it seem as if the entire wat is riding on the back of two gigantic nagas. Besides the staircase sit two even larger guardian figures- a pair of brick and stucco lions which guard the temple from malign spirits. Apart from that, it is has a multi-tiered roof but this does not sweep low down to the ground like those from Luang Prabang and Chiang Mai, remaining a series of horizontal lines. The other unmissable thing is the entrance doors, which are masterpieces of Lanna woodcarving. Every inch of the doors is filled in which intricately carved motifs, many of them floral. Yet its beautiful form notwithstanding, it is the interior of the temple which has earned it such widespread fame within Thailand.

The visitor to a Thai wat will usually expect to see one main Buddha image inside the hall. If it is a famous historic wat, these images will usually be of great artistic or historic value, often dating back to one of the great historic kingdoms of the Thai past. However, in Wat Phumin there are not one but four main Buddha images, with one oriented towards each of the four entrance doorways. Each of the four Buddhas are seated on a high pedestal in the bhumisparsha posture, which is also known as the ‘earth-touching’ position. They are surrounded by four enormous teak pillars which support the roof. The whole tableau is very impressive and atmospheric, with the seated Buddhas dominating the central space of the wat. However, it is also not this central tableau which is Wat Phumin’s main source of fame. That distinction goes to the folksy murals which decorate the walls of the wat in such vivid detail.

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The famous ‘whispering lovers’ scene

The murals of this temple are very famous in Thailand, and entire books have been devoted to describing and commenting on them. In this blog post I have no intention of analyzing, classifying or describing them in any detail. All I intend to do here is offer the broadest of overviews or introductions. Basically, the murals were painted during the second half of the nineteenth century by a Tai Lü artist, and they represent one of the finest examples of extant mural art surviving in Thailand. Rendered in vegetable pigments, they have lovely, rich, earthy colours which are a marked contrast with the more fluorescent colours of modern Bangkok wats. But what really makes them so special is the way they depict nineteenth century village life in a quietly observant way.

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Walled city and people courting

Though there are scenes from the royal court, with all its elaborate rituals, it is the scenes of village life which are most memorable. You will find people playing musical instruments, studying, engaged in scenes of courtship, smoking cigarettes and working in the fields. In other words, unlike the typical jataka scenes we often find on murals, the ones at Wat Phumin are often much more secular, depicting life in Nan in the village and the fields. Often an earthy humour is evident in the murals. In one scene two (gay?) men seem to flirt with their eyes as they go promenading with their supposed girlfriends. There is even the famous ‘monkeys copulating’ panel in which a male monkey flaunts an erect penis at the rather unhappy looking female! The most famous of the scenes, however, is undoubtedly the ‘whispering lovers’ panel, in which a tattooed Tai Lü man in a sarong whispers to his lover, a Tai Lü woman dressed in beautiful traditional textiles. The subtle coloring of this mural and the atmosphere of quiet intimacy make this scene very memorable. Wat Phumin could easily  detain the art lover for much longer than they expected.