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 Walled and Moated City of Muang Fa Daet Song Yang

Even by Isaan standards, the province of Kalasin is way off the tourist radar and tourist infrastructure is basic. Still, the area is not particularly difficult to access; the big Issan centre of Khon Kaen is just seventy-five kilometres down the road. But here, in the northeastern part of Thailand’s Northeast, life is much slower-paced than in somewhere like Udon Thani or Khon Kaen, let alone Bangkok. There is not so much traffic on the roads and the cafes and restaurants have fewer customers than most other places in Thailand. Kalasin is a town that feels sleepy even in the middle of the day and it is all but deserted of a night time. Still, while Kalasin is a bit of a backwater day, in the Dvaravati era it was home to possibly the largest and most artistically sophisticated city in the Northeast, Muang Fa Daet. The ruins of this city were on our itinerary in coming here and so was Phu Po, a mystic hill which has been attracting Buddhist pilgrims since at least the ninth century.

Arriving from Khon Kaen at the Kalasin bus terminal, we found that there were a number of tuk-tuk drivers waiting there who were keen to do business. We told one we wanted to do a day trip out to Muang Fa Daet and Phu Po and he quickly agreed. However, he said that his tuk-tuk was a little slow for so long a trip. He dropped us off at our hotel first and said he would come back with a car. It turned out to be a particularly old and decrepit car which struggled to get to sixty kilometres an hour, but it was still a much faster-moving mode of transport than the tuk-tuk, so we were pleased.

The driver was an affable sort of fellow who didn’t speak much English but who was keen to try out the few phrases he did know. We learned that he was a native of Kalasin  who had lived there all his life. He was a family man with two children, the eldest of two was a six-year-old boy who he had to pick up after school by three-thirty that afternoon. We said that we didn’t anticipate that would be a problem, knowing it was only nineteen kilometres out of Muang Fa Deat and about fifty kilometres further to Phu Po.

From Kalasin we headed south into Kamalasai District, which was located at the southernmost tip of the province. After about eleven kilometres, we came to Kamalasai town centre. It was a small town set on the banks of a river; whether it was the Chi itself or one of its tributaries we were unable to determine. As luck would have it, it was a busy day in town because, as our driver reported, it was the day of the dragon boat races. There were large crowds lining the bridges over the river and in the grandstands along the banks, all waiting for the races to begin. He said that the races were not due for another hour or so, so we continued on our way, passing through the town centre, which consisted of a modern of modern concrete shopfronts and older timber ones. Its riverside location and the larger number of timber shop-houses made it a more attractive rural town than most.

About eight kilometres further on again, we came to Ban Sema village, which is located within the territory of the ancient settlement of Muang Fa Daet Song Yang. According to legend, the ancient city had been established in the year 621. It was strategically located near the confluence of the Pao and Lan Pham Rivers, both of which were major tributaries of the Chi. The first trace we glimpsed of its former grandeur was the deep moat which runs along the edge of the village. This moat was full of dark, black water, and the embankments were choked with thick, weedy growth. Its neglected state notwithstanding, we could easily see that this had once been a major construction project. It has been estimated that even if the moats of Muang Fa Daet were only one metre deep, they would have required over one million man hours to complete. Clearly, the ruler who commissioned the project must have had a large workforce at his disposal. Of course, the moat may have been progressively extended at various points, as the heyday of Muang Fa Daet was half a millennium or more, but it still would have been a huge project during each phase.

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The ruins of Muang Fa Daet Song Yang

From the highway, we noticed road-sign to Phra That Yahku (the main monument at the site) and turned onto a side-road. There was another section of moat down this road, which emphasized how expansive this former city had been. A few hundred metres down the road, we arrived at the focal point of the site, the main chedi and its surrounding ruins. The car stopped at a sort of impromptu parking area, where there were a couple of stalls selling Buddhist paraphernalia for visiting pilgrims. Due to the modest size of the ruins and the fact they were still an active site of worship, there was no entrance charge. We got out of the car and scanned the surrounding area. Apart from the nearby brick ruins, we could see some earthworks, which were a few hundred metres away across an overgrown field.

We decided to walk over and inspect these earthworks, which were a couple of metres high and quite extensive. These were the vestiges of the former city walls, which, according to legend, had once extended for five kilometres. Though you might guess that these had served a defensive purpose, there is no real evidence to support this view. Archaeological investigations have turned up no hint that they were ever topped with a wooden palisade or other structures that would have strengthened their defenses. In truth, they may have been little more than the place to store the soil which was displaced by the creation of the moats.Like the walls, it is thought that the shallow moats did not serve a defensive purpose but rather were used for water storage. Whatever their original function, substantial areas of the city wall remained, reinforcing the impression that this was once a large and important settlement.

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Phra That Yahku, a revered chedi

Having seen the surviving earthworks, we turned our attention to the main ‘sight’: Phra That Yakhu. This chedi is locally famous, being featured on the seal of Kalasin province. It is a graceful, octagonal chedi on a redented square base. The base would once have been covered with stucco, but it is mostly a bare brick structure today. It is presumed that the square base is a Dvaravati original, the octagonal body of the chedi is an Ayutthaya-era reconstruction, and the lotus bud peak is a comparatively modern reconstruction, dating only  from the Rattanakosin period.

No one knows whose remains the chedi enshrines, but it has been suggested that they belonged to a highly revered monk. This could explain why the chedi survived when all the other structures at Muang Fa Daet were destroyed- probably in a war in the early twelfth century. According to legend, a rival kingdom by the name of Muang Chiang Som fought at least two different wars with Muang Fa Daet. It is also possible that the city was finally destroyed by the Khmers, who waged many military campaigns in Isaan during this era. However, there are signs that the site of Muang Fa Daet remained a site of religious devotion even after its destruction, as ceremonial burial continued at the site in subsequent years.

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A boundary-marker with a floral votive

The chedi is surrounded by a number of small boundary markers, which were produced more numerously at Muang Fa Daet than anywhere else in Isaan. Most of the them have been moved to either nearby Wat Po Chai Semaram or the branch of Khon Kaen National Museum, but a few minor ones remain in situ. In the area around the main chedi, there are also a number of smaller brick structures, some of which may have been the bases of subsidiary chedis or stupas. No effort has been made to restore these, but at least the vegetation has been cleared away to create a sort of ‘historical park’ in the vicinity of Phra That Yahku. These lesser ruins hint at the wealth of other monuments which the city must once have boasted. After all, the boundary stones delineated the outer sacred space of former temples, and at least one-hundred and seventy-two of these stones have been found at Muang Fa Daet; the city must once have claimed a very large monastic population, with all manner of Buddhist religious architecture present. However, these vestiges can merely hint at former glories, because it is only Phra That Yahku which has survived intact. For the most part, the visitor to Muang Fa Daet will need to use their imagination.