The Mystical Hill of Phu Po

Our final stop in the little-visited province of Kalasin was Phu Po, a hill situated about twenty-eight kilometres to the north of Kalasin city. With the site receiving very few visitors, there was no hope at all of getting there by public transport, so we went by hired car. Still, even that did not remove all difficulties, as the site was set off the main road and was extremely poorly signposted. While Google Maps may work very well in major cities, it is far from accurate on the backroads of Kalasin province, and we took a few wrong turns. We had to keep stopping to ask for directions, which was not always easy as there were so few people around. However, in the end we made it to Phu Po (sometimes referred to as Phu Por), a sandstone mountain which rises to a height of 336 metres above sea level. Though certainly not one of the world’s great peaks, it almost looked like one in the generally flat terrain of Kalasin.

Alongside the hill, there was a large parking lot with very few parked cars. Our driver brought the car to a halt and told us he would wait for us there. We got out and headed straight toward the hill, ignoring the obviously modern religious buildings which had been built at the foot of the hill. On the far side of the parking lot, there was a deep rock shelter (not really a cave), which was home to one of the two relics of the Dvaravati era which had survived at Phu Por. As usual we were a little nervous in approaching a religious site in a foreign country, but the caretaker was a friendly, laid-back soul who just waved us in with a laugh and told us there was no need to remove our shoes first.

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The Reclining Buddha at the bottom of Phu Por

Carved into the sandstone wall of the rock shelter was a mahaparinirvana scene, otherwise known as a Reclining Buddha scene. The English translation of the name is somewhat misleading in that it merely suggests a recumbent Buddha; in fact the mahaparinirvana pose is the scene of the Buddha’s death bed, which gives it a deeper emotional impact. The scene depicts the moment when the Buddha left the world and entered Nirvana. The version at Phu Por dates from either the eighth and nineteenth century and belongs to the Mon-Dvaravati artistic tradition. The image here is about five metres long and the carving is still crisp despite its great age. It was now covered in gold paint of no great vintage, but in spite of this we still had the sense of being in the presence of an ancient example of Mon art.

It is believed that the carving is the product of Buddhist monks who had retreated to Phu Por to live the spartan life of the forest monk in a small community there. In all likelihood, they hoped to reach Buddhist enlightenment away from the temptations of the world. Apart from meditation and other ascetic pursuits, they had turned their hand to the making of Buddhist artworks. Without the resources to build large stupas, chedis or wats, they merely carved Buddhist art into the sandstone walls of the hill itself. It was a tantalizing hint of a vanished culture and tradition, a crisp evocation of a world of Mon monks seeking enlightenment in remote forests, centuries before either the Khmers of Thais arrived in this part of the world.

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The trail up Phu Por, a sacred hill in Kalasin

From the lower rock shelter, we began our ascent of the hill. A well-maintained staircase led up the face of the hill, passing through spindly trees, clumps of bamboo and rock formations. I found myself wondering how similar it was to the environment the monks of Phu Por had encountered twelve centuries ago. Apart from the staircase and a single tin-roofed pavilion about halfway up the hill, the rest of the hill appeared to be in a natural condition. Perhaps the shrubs and trees on the hill had been much the same when monks had first made the hill into a forest retreat, bringing the Buddhist faith to a remote part of ancient Thailand.

When we got near the top of the hill, there was a second rock shelter. This one was being visited by a group of Thai children, who started back down the hill when we approached. At this point I was partly drawn by the impressive views which had opened across the surrounding countryside and also curious to see the second of Phu Por’s ancient Buddha carvings. The rock shelter here was much smaller than the one at the foot of the hill, but it also had a potent aura of mysticism. This was partly a product of the votives and intense sticks which had been left in the shelter and also of the prayer flags which had been strung around the site. But, as below, the main attraction was the Buddhist carving which had been carved into the rock face. Artistically, this one is viewed as even better than the one below. Like its brethren from the foot of the hill it depicts a mahaparinirvana scene, but the treatment of the face and the robes is ever more artful here. Furthermore, the Buddha has a soft, dreamy expression which suggests a state of spiritual bliss. The carving was also a reminder of the importance of religion in Thailand from the earliest periods of history.

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A close-up of the Buddha near the top of Phu Por

From the second rock shelter, a wooden ladder went up the rock face to the very top of the hill. We climbed up it and found ourselves on top of Phu Por. From there we walked on through the forest on top of the hill, which was denser than the forest and scrub on the slopes. We wandered for about ten minutes along a clear trail. At some points there were beautiful purple wildflowers alongside the trial. I was curious to see where it lead and wanted to keep going, but my travelling companions reminded me that our driver was waiting and that the trail might descend down another face of the hill. Agreeing with this logic, we headed back from the top of Phu Por and began our journey back to Kalasin.

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The view from the top of Phu Por

The Mon Buddha of Prang Ku

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.

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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 bar, a fitness centre, a carp pond and children’s playground. The leafy grounds were very pleasant and the timber architecture gave it a low-key, country feel, though other guests were conspicuous by their absence. We had a late lunch at the airy Thai restaurant (typical Isaan fare such as laab gai) and then set off to see Prang Ku, the city’s one surviving monument from its long history.

This was our first trip to Isaan since 1999, and my memory of the region was of an unusually dry and arid land. But that trip had been towards the end of the Dry Season and our impression this time was completely different. It was raining lightly as we set off for Prang Ku and the river alongside the resort was flowing quickly. The children’s park  near our park was completely inundated with rainwater. As you would expect, the town was full of green trees and flowering shrubs, giving it a completely different look to parched cityscape I had expected. Deciding to brave the light rain, we went straight to Prang Ku, which was only a short walk from our hotel.

Prang Ku is situated about three kilometres from Chaiyaphum’s central market, which places it in the suburbs of the small city. The descriptions we had read in advance made it seem like it was out in the countryside, but this is not the case. There were houses and shops all around the temple; in fact, it is located in a field by the side of a suburban road. However, that did not detract from the appeal of the place; somehow it was an atmospheric ruin in spite of its rather humdrum surroundings.

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A spirit house on the grounds of Prang Ku

 

Prang Ku was set alongside a small accompanying baray (tank), which clearly marked it out as a Khmer construction. This accompanying pond enhanced the appeal of the temple, as did the spreading tamarind tree which was growing behind the temple. There was a small white spirit house beneath it, with floral garlands hanging off it. The rest of the site was covered with grass and creepers, which gave it a shaggy, overgrown look. Though it was in the middle of the small city, it had the look of an archaeological site out in the countryside. Similarly, the temple itself was mostly a ruin, though a modicum of repair work had been done.

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The crumbling laterite ruins of Prang Ku

Most sources on Prang Ku describe it as a 13th century Khmer temple but the signboard at the site offered a different view. It said that Prang Ku was in fact one of more than a hundred Angkorean era hospital chapels (arogayasala) from the current territory of Thailand. Whatever  the case, the only part of the structure which has survived intact is the main tower or prang. While far from complete- it may once have been covered by beautiful stucco work- you do get a sense of lotus-bud shaped tower, giving some sense of its original appearance. The tower also has sandstone lintels over the door- the only part of the structure which is not built from laterite. There were  carved figures visible on the these lintels, but they were rather damaged, so we could not identify any particular mythological scene. The surrounding colonnades had mostly collapsed, leaving a jumble of slabs of pitted laterite. This reddish stone was deeply pitted, giving it a look of great age. A few sandstone and window-frames and door-frames remained intact, but the laterite portions had given way.

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The Mon Buddha in the cella of Prang Ku

However, perhaps the most interesting feature of the temple was the surprise hidden inside. In the cella of Prang Ku you will find a beautiful, little Buddha image of Mon provenance, perhaps dating back to the eighth or ninth century. This seated Buddha has a serene expression, and the carving is still relatively crisp after twelve centuries or so. Still venerated by locals today, the image was covered in gold-leaf during and cloaked in a golden robe during our visits, revealing that this image- first carved by ancient Mon during the Dvaravati period- is now fully assimilated as a part of Thai religious life. Votives to this sandstone Buddha deck the interior of the shrine. This adoption of Mon culture into mainstream Thai religious practice- here via the Angkorean empire- is one of the most intriguing undercurrents in Thai history. It is rarely so easy to appreciate as at Prang Ku, where Mon, Khmer and Thai culture are all represented in a single shrine.