The War-Ravaged Town of Muang Khoun: Wat Si Phum

Our final stop in Muang Khoun was the little-known temple of Wat Si Phum, which had been the renowned as the most beautiful in Xieng Khouang province before the Vietnam War. Strangely, none of the blogs about Muang Khoun offer coverage of this temple, perhaps wrongly presuming that nothing had survived the war years. However, before we visited Wat Si Phum, we stopped off at one of the simple eateries on the main street of town for a bowl of noodle soup. The house alongside it had a very good example of UXO (unexploded ordinances) being used for ornamental purposes, a practice which is quite common in the region.

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UXO used as ornaments in Muang Khoun

From there we went to Wat Si Phum, which is actually located just behind the main street of Muang Khoun. The approach to the wat was via a back lane and there was a heavy metal gate drawn most of the way across. We walked parked the motorbike in the lane and walked onto the grounds of the temple. It turned out that most of the buildings were new, including the main prayer hall, which was locked anyway. The modern replacements to the historic structures were wooden buildings which looked like the sorts of temples you would find in small villages by the side of the highway. Still, it was a shame that these buildings were locked, as we would have liked to look inside and see if they housed any historic statues. However, there was not so much as a single monk around at the time of our visit. Fortunately, the grounds of the wat contained one historic relic for us to look at: That Si Phum, a Lao-style brick chedi which was beautiful even in its ruinous state.

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Wat Si Phum’s badly damaged exterior

The brick chedi consisted of a broader base with a thinner, gradually tapering body. There are niches in the body in which standing Buddha figures may once have stood, faced with stucco, but now only the niches remain. There are portions of stucco which remain on the uppermost portions, but most of it has peeled off, leaving only the brick skeleton. Here and there small plants have sprouted between the bricks, undoubtedly destabilizing the whole structure. In one corner there is an ornament on the base which is reminiscent of the ornaments on That Luang in Vientiane, but obviously on much smaller scale. The top of the chedi had broken off, though judging but what remained, it would probably have been some kind of finial, perhaps with a golden parasol on top.

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This portion shows portions of stucco and a decorative niche

The following day when we visited the Plain of Jars Museum, we were to see a display about That Si Phum. It was an architectural sketch of the thaat from before the war, and it was obviously an exquisitely designed and decorated structure. The sketch confirmed that it was originally an exceptionally beautiful example of a Lao chedi. Hopefully, it will one day receive a sensitive restoration which will return to its original beauty.

 

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The War-Ravaged Town of Muang Khoun: That Foun and That Chom Phet

After a visit to Wat Phia Wat, we went off in search of the town’s other sights: a pair of ancient thaat (the Lao name for chedi) which were said to perch on a hill above town. I had expected to be able to see them from the main street of town, but we had to ask directions. It turned out they were very easy to find; it was just that they were hidden by the buildings on the main street. However, on the way there we noticed what looked like a ruin on a small hill behind the main road, so we went there first to see what it was.

It turned out that it was the town’s the last French colonial building in town, though in truth it too was a ruin. The bombs of the US-led Secret War in Laos had destroyed the city’s colonial heritage along with its pre-colonial temples. The roof of the building was missing, as were the upper portions of the walls, and the plaster was peeling off most of the brickwork which remained. Yet even its ruinous state, it was an elegant example of French architecture, with a porch and staircase extending from the main structure. There was a sign on the site which informed us that this was the former town hospital; apparently not even hospitals had been spared the devastation which rained down from the sky during the Vietnam War.

From there we road up to the hill overlooking town and soon got our first glimpse of That Foun, which is the largest and most imposing of the town’s surviving chedis. It was once abandoned in a field of long grass, but in recent years, some attempt has been made to repair the structure. There is now a ticket office at the city, where the obligatory 10,000 kip entrance fee is requested. There is also a shop here selling traditional textiles made on a loom- more on this in a moment. We parked the motorbike, bought our tickets and walked around the soaring thaat, said to date back to 1576.

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This shows the side of the hole which has been bricked in

The top part of the thaat is in better shape than the base, retaining some of its stucco. This portion makes it clear that the thaat would once have been very beautiful; even in its damaged present state, the elegant proportions of the structure are clear. However, the lower portion of the structure shows considerably more damage. Very little of the stucco remains, some portions of the brickwork have crumbled away and there is even a large hole which was burrowed through the base by Chinese bandits during the late nineteenth century. However, at the time of our visit, repairs were underway. Bamboo scaffolding had been erected around the lower part of the thaat and the hole in the base was finally being filled in after 130 years. The restoration seems to be aimed more at stabilizing the thaat than restoring it to its former glory, but at least this is a start. To get an idea of what it make once have looked like, its shape is similar to the That Dam Stupa in Vientiane.

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The upper part of the structure retains some stucco

From That Foun, we continued further up the hill to the site of That Chom Phet. This structure has a better location than That Foun, commanding a spectacular view of the town and its surroundings, right across to the hills in the distance. However, time has been especially cruel to this structure. Like its nearby neighbor, a hole has been tunneled through the base of the thaat, but that is far from the biggest problem. That Chom Phet is now just a block of brickwork, with the top broken off and no decoration remaining. It is very hard to an even get a sense of what it once looked like. Overall, it is another casualty of Xieng Khoung’s violent history and one that may be beyond the furthest skill of restorers. Still, it is worth coming over here for the panoramic views.

From there we went back to the ticket office to look at the textiles. Most of them were hand-woven Lao textiles, some of them using vegetable dyes. Being fans of traditional South-East Asian textiles, we bought one off the woman who was enthusiastic and knowledgeable about Lao textiles. She was also well-informed about the renovations at That Foun, telling us that a Swiss benefactor had paid for them. She also had a collection of photocopies of Muang Khoun before the war. She showed us how Wat Phiawat had looked before the war- much like the sort of historic wats you can still see in Luang Prabang- and also the original vihaan of That Foun which had once stood in front of the thaat. She said that that town wanted to rebuild the vihaan but there were no funds available. Finally, she showed us pictures of the Wat Si Phum, which had once been the most beautiful of the town’s temples. She suggested that there was still some relics there. We decided to check it out as our next and final stop before leaving town.

The War-Ravaged Town of Muang Khoun: Wat Phiawat

In recent years the Lao province of Xieng Khouang has found itself the overland route for backpackers in South-East Asia. Travellers moving between the Lao and Vietnamese capitals might stopover in Xieng Khouang’s biggest city, Phonsavan, before getting a bus on to Vinh in the north of Vietnam. As novel as this route may seem, it is probably just the re-opening of an ancient trade route which linked the coast of Vietnam with the highlands of the Annamite Cordillera. One legacy of this ancient trade route may have been Xieng Phounag’s famous Plain of Jars. Another was the ancient royal capital of Muang Khoun.

Muang Khoun was once one of Laos’s richest settlements in terms of cultural heritage, with its wats such as Wat Phiawat and Wat Si Phum being renowned for the beauty of their old-world architecture. However, the province of Xieng Khouang was subject to saturation bombing from the United States in Laos, causing not only massive loss of human life but also the destruction of much of the country’s built cultural heritage. This loss was especially pronounced in the former royal city of Muang Khoun. In fact, not a single building was left untouched by the bombing and for many years, Muang Khoun was a ghost town. However, it is now coming back to life, with a few guesthouses and restaurants on the main street and many residents in the area. These signs of life notwithstanding, its wats are now either erased or in ruins.

Like most travellers, we decided to visit Muang Khoun from Phonsavan, which is the new capital of Xieng Khouang province. You can rent a Chinese motorbike from one of the businesses on the main street of town for 100,000 kip a day. The distance from Phonsavan to Muang Khoun is only thirty kilometres along a paved route, so it is an easy day-trip on a motorbike. However, we visited the area in early February and the weather was cold and cloudy. With the wind-chill factor added, we soon felt that it was too cold to continue without gloves and hats. So we started looking for these in the general stores which appeared intermittently along the roadside between the two towns, and found some gloves and beanies at the third shop we stopped at. While it was still cold even with gloves and beanies, we made it on to Muang Khoun with only one more stop along the way.

Muang Khoun is set in a valley in the highlands, with a river running along one side of the town and hills surrounding the town on all sides. The main street has a few local guesthouses, restaurants and shops; it is far from the desolate ruin which is sometimes described in the guidebooks. Within a few more years, it may even have backpacker-oriented guesthouses and cafes and be established as a destination in its own right. In the meantime, it is increasing in popularity with tourists on day trips from Phonsavan and we were to encounter a few on our tour of the town’s pre-war ruins. In fact, the first encounter happened a few minutes later at Wat Phiawat, the town’s best-known sight. There was an older English woman being shown around the wat by a local tour guide.

Like many tourist attractions in Laos, there is a 10,000 kip entrance to the wat, which was located by a group of ladies at the entrance gate. We quickly learned that the wat had been renovated, with some new wooden buildings having been built on the grounds and some monks in residence. However, none of these buildings are of any real distinction. The reason to come here is still because of the ruins of the former vihaan. It consists of the original brick foundation of the structure, which has emerged relatively unscathed from the war. On top of the base are the broken remains of a few brick columns, with many missing entirely. The timber roof which it once supported is now gone without a trace. Then at the end of the platform is a large seated Buddha which somehow survived the bomb largely intact.

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The Buddha seated in the touching the earth posture

This monumental, 14th century Buddha is seated on a lotus pedestal, which is made of bricks covered with a few extant patches of the original plaster. It is flanked on either side by the final two of the brick columns. The Buddha is seated in the bumisparshamudra, or the touching the earth posture, with his long, elegant fingers reaching down to the ground. Its legs are folded in the lotus position and its body has a solid, substantial look. There is considerable damage to the left knee area, which has been partly blasted away. The head is noteworthy for its elongated ear-lobes, with their suggestion of royal lineage, its clearly drawn features and its hair, which is rendered in a series of cylindrical spikes. Its hair is mostly intact though there is a large ‘bald’ patch at the back, where the spikes have been destroyed. Its right eye is also badly damaged, forming a sharp contrast with the relatively intact left eye. Finally, some weeds are growing from a missing portion of the Buddha’s forehead.

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The Buddha is still revered, even in its badly damaged state

 

Overall, the Buddha makes a melancholy impression, as you admire its evident beauty but also reflect on the damage which has befallen it, and indeed the people of the province. It is actually very reminiscent of the ruins of Ayutthaya, a former Thai capital which was destroyed by Burmese cannons in 1767. There too you find temple bases, broken columns and time-worn Buddha statues exposed to the elements. It is also worth mentioning that at the time of our visit, the whole base was being covered in modern, terracotta tiles which are very unsympathetic to the historic nature of the ruin. Hopefully, funds will eventually be found for a more sensitive conservation of the town’s surviving monuments.

The Eclectic Long Khanh Pagoda

After a day exploring the Cham towers of Quy Nhon’s hinterland, we thought we try and find something in town to see. After all, Quy Nhon was a city of 280,000 people, with three hundred years of history behind it; it had to have something to show from all those years. A brief search online suggested that the city did a few pagodas, the most venerable of which was called Long Khanh Pagoda, dating back to the early eighteenth century. Being centrally located it was easy to find, and we found that even on a weekday it was quite popular with locals.: there were a number of cars and motorbikes parked out front and devotees heading in and out.

The pagoda is said to have been built in 1715 by a Chinese merchant to the city, which was during the reign of Emperor Nguyen Trinh Tuong. The temple is sometimes claimed to be typically Southern Chinese in style, but it reminded us just as much as other Vietnamese pagodas we have seen as those from Guangdong or Fujian. The other complicating factor is that it was largely destroyed during the early 1950s during the First Indochinese War- in other words, the one against the French. However, a few treasures from the imperial period remained, justifying its inclusion on a blog about South-East Asia’s pre-colonial history.

When you arrive the first thing you will see is a 17-metre high statue of the Buddha in an elaborately draped robe. This statue was commenced in the 1964 and finished in 1972. Both in its size and style it is rather garish structure, but it is a fair representation of the eclectic nature of this city pagoda, which mixes together buildings from a variety of different cultures and time periods. The other very modern feature of the pagoda is a  nine-storied tower in a Chinese style. Unfortunately, it is made from concrete and looks very much like the recent addition that it is. More worthwhile are the colourful mosaics which decorate the grounds of the temple and make for excellent photographs. They may not be of any great age but they are more sympathetic with the historic character of the temple. The same can be said of the bonsai garden, which is situated in the front of the main hall.

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The interior of the main hall at Long Khanh Pagoda

For history lovers, a better bet is the larger bronze bell which survived the war. It is said to date from the reign of Emperor Gia Long and have been cast in 1805. The temple also has a silver seal from 1813 which states that the name of the pagoda was also Long Khanh at that time. There is also a bronze gong which dates back to 1739. More controversial is the main hall: most of the accounts state that it was destroyed or at least badly damaged during the Indochina war, while at least one claim that it is mostly original. Based on my observation, it reminded me of other early Chinese temples from South-East Asia. Unlike modern temples, it is quite small and simple, amounting to little more than a large room. It also has a red-tiled roof with ceramic ornamentation, which is typical of many older temples from the port cities of South-East Asia. Some of the woodwork on the temple also have an antique look, being delicate and subtle, quite in contrast with the kitschier elements on the shrine. If it is not an historic building, it is an unusually good imitation of one.

While Long Khanh is certainly not a major sight of Vietnam, it is Quy Nhon’s most important pagoda and well worth seeing if you are in the neighbourhood. An eclectic combination of modern and historic buildings, it combines kistchy elements with a few historical genuine treasures. Its mixture of Chinese and Vietnamese features also evoke the mercantile history of this coastal city.

The Cham Towers of Thap Doi

On the way back to Quy Nhon town from Banh It, we stopped off a second Cham temple complex, this one located in a tidy, green park within the city of Quy Nhon itself. The so-called ‘twin towers’ of Thap Doi do not have the glorious location of Banh It, being located on low-lying land about three kilometres from downtown Quy Nhon, but the architecture is impressive enough in its own right to justify a visit here. The garden parkland setting with its lush lawns, palm trees and tropical shrubs also adds considerably to the appeal.

These twin towers are unusual in that Cham towers are not normally found together in even numbers. They are also odd in how close they are to each other: for such sizable brick monuments (they two towers are each around 20 metres tall) they appear to be sitting right on top of each other. The other unusual thing about these Cham towers is their roofs. Unlike the terraced or tiered roofs which are normally associated with Cham towers, these ones have a steeply sloping pyramidal roof.

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Thap Doi towers, in their parkland setting

These roofs are mostly made of red brick but traces of pale, white sandstone are also visible. This stone was used for ornamental decorations on the roof. The most impressive of these are the garudasa kind of Hindu mythological bird, which was the vehicle of the god Vishnu. The garudas are mostly located on the corners of the roof, and the birds appear to be peering down at visitors to the temple. With their exaggerated beaks and powerful , they are easily the most captivating sculptural detail, and yet more proof of the outstanding artistic talents of the ancient Cham. The outside of the temple also features stylized columns, a false door and embossed lines in the brickwork. The main entrance to the temples is also notable for its large, pointed arch over the entrance, which is a common feature of Cham towers.

The interior of the towers is not as interesting as the outside. However, one of the them has a linga and a yoni, the representation of the phallus and the womb in the Hindu religion. The linga is also a symbol of the god Shiva, whose cult was extremely widespread and powerful in the classical period of South-East Asian archaeology. In our travels we had encountered lingas within the cella of temple everywhere from Central Java to Angkor in Cambodia. A god with a warlike aspect, his cult seemed to grow in importance in South-East Asia as war and competition between various kingdoms intensified.

While Thap Doi was not as enervating an experience as Banh It, with its hilltop setting and sense of isolation, it is still a well-preserved and unusual site. It is also one of the easiest Cham towers of Vietnam to reach, being located within a modern city. It is worth checking out before heading out to the one of the beaches for which Binh Dinh is probably best known among travelers.

 

The Cham Towers of Bahn It

In 2017 we returned to Vietnam for the first time in 11 years, wanting to head from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi again, but this time stopping off at less-touristed places. The first stop on our trip north was the coastal city of Quy Nhon, which is said to be home to three hundred thousand people. Around twelve hours out from Ho Chi Minh City, we finally reached the train station, stepping down at a run-down provincial railway station in need of a coat of paint. From there we haggled for a taxi ride into town; we had a booking at a small, private guesthouse in the centre of town. We eventually managed to hire a motorbike from the guesthouse owner after several minutes of communicating back and forth using a translation app.

There were two different Cham towers we wanted to see that day: the Tham Doi Cham towers within the city limits and the Banh It towers out in the countryside around Quy Nhon. We decided to go to the Banh It towers first and stop back at the Tham Doi towers on our way back into town. The ride out to Banh It was fairly straightforward, leading us around fifteen kilometres from central Quy Nhon, out through its satellite communities and the country villages beyond its perimeter. There were a number of interesting traditional homes along the way, demonstrating beautiful tile-work and woodcarving on the exterior. After about half an hour, we neared a small river with an old bridge across it. This river runs down from the former citadel of the Champa kings (now little more than a memory) to Quy Nhon Bay. Crossing the river there, you will see the Banh It towers picturesquely located on a large hill overhead. As so often, we were immediately impressed by the dramatic sense of place the Cham had in choosing temple sites. The site was both aesthetically striking and strategically chosen.

Banh It is not a major tourist site, but it does attract a steady trickle of local visitors. Arriving in the car park at the foot of the hill, there were a couple of cars there, with the visitors apparently up on the hilltop. The car park was surrounded by scrubby forest and there was a tinkling sound of religious music in the air; we wondered if there were some sort of religious ceremony being conducted at the temple that day. Before climbing up the hill, we first bought tickets to the temple, which cost 12,000 dong, including motorbike parking, and were sold by guards in uniform. I asked them about the music and they said it had nothing to do with the Cham towers; there was a Chinese-Buddhist temple nearby and the music was drifting in from there.

The walk uphill is quite steep, with the hillsides now being covered in dense, thorny shrubbery. On the way up you pass one of the four towers, which serves as a gopura for the whole complex. It is one of the elaborately roofed towers for which the Cham are famous, yet it is more of an entrance gate than a focal point of the sanctuary, so we kept climbing. On a wide terrace below the peak, there is another satellite tower. Built, like most Cham towers, of red bricks, this tower is surrounded by shrubs and even has vegetation growing out of the cracks in the brickwork. There was also a lot of graffiti carved into its insidewalls, making us wonder if they would be better off fencing the tower off to the general public. Like the other towers on the hill, it was thought to have been built in the 11th century, when Binh Dinh province was the heartland of a Cham kingdom.

From there we went up to the top level of the tower, which has two impressive Cham towers, each very different from the other. The first of these was the main tower, which rises to a height of 22 metres. It features an elaborate, tiered roof with ornamental structures in the shape of pagodas in the corners. There is a large pointed arch over the door, with softens the box-like shape of the main temple. The exterior was one covered in magnificent bas-reliefs of dancers, but these have now been removed to the Museum of Cham Art in Danang. In contrast, in the corners you can still see some leaf and floral motifs, which were common to Champa Dynasty architecture of the 11th century. Inside the temple, there is a powerful stench of guano and you will hear bats squeaking overhead in the cave-like gloom of the temple interior. In the centre of the cella is a reproduction of the magnificent Hindu sculpture which was the main image at the temple; the original is now in the famous Guimet Museum in Paris. Though it is only a reproduction, the image has still been offered joss-sticks and other offerings, showing that the temples are still active places of worship today. For the visitor, it helps to evoke a former Shivaite kingdom with links to Cambodia, Indonesia and even India.

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The repository of Banh It, with a barrel-shaped roof

Alongside the main temple is another remarkable, brick structure. In the literature, it is usually described as the repository. This is a style of temple building which was really unique to the Chams and has no obvious equivalent in the other Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of ancient South-East Asia. Its most remarkable feature is the roof, which is sometimes described as barrel-shaped. The sides of the structure are covered in reliefs and carvings, including embossed lines and stylized columns. There is a similar structure at the great Cham sanctuary of Mi Son and also at Po Klong Garai further south. It was presumably used as a storing place for ritual objects used in religious ceremonies at the site. The barrel-roofed silhouette of the structure makes it unusually photogenic and a great contrast with the more block-like main tower. Needless to say, the views from the site are expansive, giving a panoramic view over the territory of the former Champa.

The Carved Stones of Ban Kut Ngong

One of the unique historical legacies of Chaiyaphum province, a remote province in Thailand’s Northeastern region (Isaan), is two Dvaravati-era sites which date back to the ninth century. They have never been comprehensively explored by archaeologists, but if they were, there would doubtless be much to discover: a small museum in a local school contains examples of ancient bricks and pottery. Yet until such excavations are made, the best evidence of the historical importance of the village is its collection of ninth century bai sema, Buddhist boundary markers which were once used to delineate the sacred place of places of worship. No less than 29 stone boundary markers have been found in the small village of Ban Kut Ngong, making it one of the biggest treasure troves of such antiquities in the region.

This suggests that the village was once home to a sizeable community of Buddhist monks and perhaps even a workshop of skilled artisans who could make bai sema of high artistic quality. Ten of the Ban Kut Ngong bai sema feature jataka scenes which tell the life of the Buddha, and they are rendered with considerable artistic skill. Though they are not as crisp as the masterly specimens in the Khon Kaen National Museum, they predate the examples in that collection by a few centuries, making them amongst the old examples of narrative art surviving from Thailand’s Northeast. Some of the other boundary markers feature simpler motifs such as the stupa-khumba design, which is more typically associated with sites in the Chi River system.

As at Ban Khon Sawan, a similar site from Chaiyaphum province, the boundary markers are no longer placed in situ. They have been rounded up and put together under a protective shelter in the grounds of a local wat. While something has been lost in terms of historical authenticity, keeping them all in one place makes it easier to protect the stones from art thieves or merely weathering from the elements. In recent years chicken-wire has been fitted to the underside of the ceiling as well. This would stop birds nesting under the shelter and defecating on the ancient stones. It is encouraging to see that the unusual heritage of the village has been protected in this way.

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A time-worn image of a seated Buddha

One of several beautiful images from the site is the image featured to the left. Though time-worn, the image of the Buddha is still very beautiful, showing an elegant head-dress,the broad nose and thick lips of the Mon people, slender, delicate limbs and a lower body folded in the lotus position, with the feet seemingly crossed Sri-Lanka style. A figure to the right is shown in a attitude of devotion. The comparatively small size of this figure emphasizes the preternatural qualities of the Buddha, who assumes a larger-than-life presence.

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A standing Buddha and the banyan tree

Perhaps the greatest masterpiece of the Ban Kut Ngong boundary markers is the one featured to the left. It shows a beautifully rendered standing Buddha with a graceful form adorned with a loincloth, a towering head-dress showing the Buddha’s worldly status and a slight, almost feminine torso. To the left of the image is a highly stylized image of a tree, presumably the banyan tree beneath which the Buddha attained enlightenment. Once more, there is a second humanoid figure on the stone, and again its comparatively diminutive size appears to emphasize the particular status of the Buddha. This is the crispest of the Ban Kut Ngong bai sema and the most interesting scene to the casual visitor.

IMG_0177  A third memorable image from Ban Kut Ngong shows another standing Buddha, but this one without the banyan tree. This Buddha is demonstrating the vitarka mudra hand position, which looks somewhat like the Western ‘okay’ hand gesture. The significance of this hand gesture is that it is the delivering a sermon posture, which would be far from obvious unless it was explained to you. This beautiful carving has its eyes averted downwards and the facial features are again typically Mon and rendered with sensitivity and finesse. The Buddha has wearing a cloth about the waist which resembles a delicately draped Khmer sampot (sarung). Behind the Buddha’s head is what appears to be an ornamental wooden pavilion with a pair of lanterns hanging down from it. It is yet another example of the little-known artistic legacy of this small Thai village.