Lopburi: Prang Khaek and Prang Sam Yod

We visited Lopburi in 2006 on our umpteenth trip to Thailand. Thinking back to that trip now, I am left wondering why we never made it earlier. It really wasn’t that the town was obscure; it had always been mentioned in the guidebooks as a possible stopover between the former royal capitals of Ayutthaya and Sukothai. It was perhaps that I thought we would already be seeing an awful lot of temples in Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Sukothai and Chiang Mai, so I hesitated to add Lopburi, a town whose main claim to fame seemed to be another temple, and a rather touristic, monkey-infested one at that.

But in 2006, the situation was rather different. We were between jobs in Indonesia and South Korea and were killing time. We had decided to spend it in Thailand as it was a good place to travel on a budget. After stopping off for a leisurely three-day exploration of Ayutthaya, we had proceeded by bus to Lopburi, with the seventy-three kilometre trip taking a mere hour and a half. From the bus station we had taken a songthaew into town and quickly found a cheap hotel in the centre of town. It would have been regarded as a smart mid-range place once, but it probably hadn’t been renovated for decades and was now not so much neglected as old-fashioned. At 350 baht a night, it seemed a bargain to us. There was one oddity though: to keep all the foraging monkeys at bay, the whole window was encased in a large cage.

After checking in, we went down to the street and sought out street food, which was plentifully available as usual. We bought a cheap and tasty plate of laab gai from a street vendor, washed down with sweet tea. The vendors were very friendly and cheerful, which isn’t the case in the major tourist spots of Thailand, whatever the advertising hype would have you believe. We observed then, as on many other occasions during that trip, that the friendliness of Thai people seems to be inversely in proportion to the number of Western tourists around- the more farang tourists about, the more jaded the locals are. Despite the best efforts of its crab-eating macaques, Lopburi really saw few travellers, which explained the warmth of the locals.

The next morning we set off to see the famous towers of Prang Sam Yod, usually known as The Monkey Temple. But before we got there we found another monument situated outside of the local 7-11 of all places. I was dumbstruck to see three red-brick towers set in a row on a traffic circle in the middle of town. Judging from their appearance, they were also Khmer, meaning they were probably at least eight hundred years old, but their inauspicious location amidst a row of strip shops made it hard to believe what I was seeing. Yet closer inspection revealed that these temples, known as Prang Khaek, were indeed ancient monuments. The signboard alongside them said that they were thought to date back a millennium or more to the Koh Ker period of tenth century Cambodia. This dating was, however, based on stylistic features, as there were inscriptions that could pinpoint its age.

The middle tower is the tallest but all three have basically the same shape. They are all in the lotus-bud shape which is associated with Phimai and Angkor Wat. However, some of the construction methods are different. These temples are built of bricks and mortar and were once covered all over with stucco, only some of which now remains.The most complete portion is the top half of the ‘false doors’- a common motif in Khmer art as far back as the Chenla kingdom. The stucco here is partly intact, giving some sense of how the exterior of the temple may once have looked. It would once have been covered all over in pale stucco, much of it decorated with delicate friezes. These false doors are featured on three out of four facades, with the four side having a real entrance, now locked up with a metal door.

The traffic circle was covered in grass but the footsteps of visitors had worn a makeshift path around the base of the temples. It also ran across to the two subsidiary buildings located on the traffic circle. These were later structures added to these Khmer temples during the Ayutthaya period, probably by King Narai. One of these was a brick viharn, which is aligned with the main tower. Though the facade remains largely intact, the roof and side walls had long since collapsed. The second structure was a brick pavilion located at the southern end of the site. It is typical of the historical sites at Lopburi to combine Khmer and Thai religious structures, bearing out its reputation as a crossroads of culture in ancient Thailand. From there, we continued on our way towards its more famous neighbour, Prang Sam Yod.

Even before you reach Prang Sam Yod, you will be made aware of its proximity by the troops of crab-eating macaques which infest the area. They are everywhere in the streets around the temple: they prowl among the cars and rubbish bins, they stroll along shop awnings in the central business district and they hang off lamp-posts, electrical cables and traffic lights. Basically, they have transformed the entire district into a sort of informal monkey circus, and it is hard to see how the locals weren’t fed up with it years ago. Yet it appears that the depredations of these famous simians are accepted stoically by the people of Lopburi; no one besides us seemed to pay them any mind.

The three towers of Prang Sam Yod

Actually, it wasn’t the first time we had seen Prang Sam Yod. The complex is situated right alongside Lopburi Railway Station, so we had seen the stone towers out of the train when we had been travelling between Ayutthaya and Sukothai in 1999. But this was to be our first opportunity to see them up close- with the monkeys doubtless doing their best to steal the show. We paid out 50 baht entrance ticket (which was the usual ‘farang’ price) and walked into the grassy field which surrounded the venerable edifices. The site was surrounded on all sides by the typical rows of shops you will find in the centre of any provinicial town in Thailand. This ‘downtown’ location made the site somewhat unique: most other Khmer temples we had experienced in the country were located in villages or even isolated sites out in the countryside. It seemed odd that these Khmer temples had lasted here since the reign of King Jayavarman VII, best known as the builder of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, when nothing else in sight looked more than a few decades old.

In spite of my reservations about this over-hyped temple, it was an impressive site. The Khmers had an impressive aesthetic sense and in their somewhat bare and denuded state, the beauty of the sanctuary is obvious. Its name literally means ‘Three Towers Temple’, and like the famous site of Prasat Hin Phimai near Nakhon Ratchasima, it has three lotus-bud towers in a row. What makes it unique, however, is the interconnecting galleries which link all three towers. These give the temple a different profile to any other Khmer temple we had seen, highlighting again the inventiveness of Khmer architects in designing and building temples. Each of these prangs (towers) bears the name of the diety they were devoted to: the central tower is the Buddha Tower, the southern tower is devoted to the Boddhisatva Avalokitasvara, and the norhern tower is named for Prajnaparamita (the Buddhist goddess of wisdom). We set off to view all three while eyeing the troops of monkeys which sat about on the grass or clambered over the facades of the ancient structures.

While the silhouette of the temples is impressive, it lacks the sort of detail which makes a major temple, such as Prasat Hin Phimai or Phanom Rung, worth lingering over in such detail. There is very little sculptural detail in the lintels or the pediments, though there is a intact carving of a holy man at the base of one the colonettes on the south side. Higher up on the towers, there are some antefixes in place on the corners, which adds some attractive detail, but by and large the temple is quite bare. There are little scraps of stucco decoration on some of the surfaces, some of which show signs of intricate decorative friezes. Possibly the Khmers of Lopburi had borrowed something from the Mon, who were the original occupants of Lopburi, and whose stupas and chedis were decorated with beautiful stucco-work. It was just these sorts of cross-cultural exchanges which had much Lopburi such an important part of the art history of Thailand.

We then through the one open entrance and had a look at the somewhat tomb-like interior of the sanctuary, connected by a series of narrow passages. The walls were covered with pale stucco in parts, but in many places it had peeled away to reveal the bare brickwork. As was common at Angkor, the linking galleries were built of a narrow corbelled arch, which was largely responsible for the claustrophobic atmosphere. The other interesting feature was the wooden ceiling. I decided it couldn’t have been original and presumed it was a Thai renovation from no more than a century or so ago. What the interior of the temple does not have is a collection of impressive statues. The central tower might be called the Buddha Tower, but there was no Buddha image when we visited, only a pedestal on which an image would once have been enshrined . Nor was there a statue of the Boddhistava Avalokitsvara in the southern tower. There was however a headless staue in the northern tower. Whether it was Prajnaparamita,  the goddess of wisdom, we had no idea of knowing.

When we came out of the temple, an aggressive monkey took a swipe at Cameron, trying to take the camera out of his hand. Had it perhaps thought it was food? We hissed at it and swung our arms about, scaring the creature off. I am fairly sure we both felt the same way about these animals: they were nothing but a pest, and it was hard to see what the appeal of them was to most tourists. While the sight of  baby monkey with its mother was cute, these animals have been so emboldened by years of giveaways that they had lost all fear of people and were now liable to scratch and bite. It was hard to see that they were a good idea. In spite of the monkeys, we had found the temple appealing though, with the unexpected pleasure of having viewed a second set of Khmer temples on out way there. Lopburi is still a place which turns up unexpected discoveries.