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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A few years ago, this temple used to receive very little attention from travelers. The few people who made it there described it as an unsatisfying jumble of stones in a field. The only detailed attention it received was from French archaeologists, some of whom had written field reports that were sadly opaque to me. However, in recent years the temple has been full restored by the Department of Fine Arts, making it a worthwhile destination for anyone passing through Nakhon Ratchasima Province. While the architecture is neither as dramatic as that of Phanom Rung nor as lyrical as Muang Tam, it is still an impressive 11th century Khmer shrine. What adds considerably to the mystery of the site is a small tower, one of several traces of an early temple on the site, perhaps dating back as far as the 7th century.
Prasat Phnom Wan is located around fifteen kilometres out of the city of Nakhon Ratchasima (formerly Khorat), on the road to Khon Kaen. Even though it has been fully restored, it is still not seem to be on many tour bus itineraries, and we had it to ourselves when we visited during the middle of the week. When you arrive, you will see that the temple is set in an open, grassy area, with shade trees set around the edge of the temple today. There was once a moat around the temple, but only the barest traces of it remain today- a sort of minor depression which you could easily overlook. The outermost part of the complex is the rectangular outer gallery. These consist mostly of a red laterite base, though there is also extensive use of white and pink sandstone, especially in the door jambs and window frames. Even following the restoration, the gallery is far from complete: parts of the walls and the entirely of the roof is missing. Nonetheless, you get a clear impression of the outermost walls of a sacred space.
There are gopuras in each of the outermost four walls, which lead into the inner courtyard. Here you can get your best sense of the gallery, with its narrow passageway and slender sandstone columns. These galleries were notoriously unstable in Angkorean temples, as the ancient Khmers had only invented the corbelled arch, which was very unstable. Therefore, it is not surprising that the gallery here is roofless, bringing to mind the many collapsed galleries at Angkor Archaeological Site, yet it is still an evocative structure, somehow bringing to mind ancient robed figures and smoky Brahmanical rites.
The focus on the inner courtyard is the central sanctuary, which has been extensively renovated over the past few years. It is very easy to distinguish between the original stonework and the modern reconstruction because the new portions were deliberately rebuilt from a very pale sandstone. This has enabled the Department of Fine Arts to restore the original lotus-bud shape of the temple- something which is highly esteemed by Thai visitors- but at the same time it enables visitors to immediately distinguish between the eleventh and twenty-first century stonework.At first I was a little startled by the mottled appearance of the restored temple, but in retrospect I see that the project was well-conceived and executed.
The main is 25 metres tall. While not quite as massive as the main tower at Phimai or Phanom Rung, it is still a monumental structure which rates among the tallest Khmer towers in Thailand. In addition to the main tower, it also consists of a mandapa and connecting antarala, a configuration which also brings to mind the more famous temples of Phimai and Phanom Rung, though the architecture here is a much more modest scale. Perhaps the best position from which to appreciate the whole of the sanctuary is from the southeast: in the foreground is the mandapa with its arched roof, pinkish walls and balustraded windows, and behind it is the pale prang (tower), with its characteristic lotus shape, drawing to mind Angkor Wat. This is perhaps the most impressive silhouette the temple has to offer.
Where this temple absolutely does not compare with Phimai or even Muang Tam is in terms of carving. There is not the wealth of carving on lintels, pediments and gopuras which are associated with some of the finest Khmer temples. This is perhaps because the temple was never completely finished. Nonetheless, there are a few carvings worth looking out for, such as some beautiful floral motifs on the pilasters and a half-done lintel on the north face which shows a kneeling figure, garlands and a crude kala head. There are also a number of Buddha statues inside the temple, which are thought to date back to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries- though they have since been heavily restored. They suggest that Prasat Phanom Wan, originally a Hindu construction, was later repurposed as a Buddhist wat.
But for me, perhaps the most intriguing part of Prasat Wat Phanom is not the main temple but the minor ruins of an earlier temple which can be found in the inner courtyard. The most substantial of these is a simple one-and-a-half metre high temple with no roof. It is thought to date back to somewhere between the seventh and ninth centuries. The foundations of other temples of this type can still be seen in the southwest corner. It is believed that there were once three small temples in a row, including one where the central tower now stands. Excavations during the restoration of the prang revealed the vestiges of an earlier soil-filled tower.
We know that the area around the modern city of Nakhon Ratchasima was once home to an early polity called Sri Canasa or Canasapura. Originally Buddhist, it later converted to Hinduism, perhaps indicating the influence of nearby Angkor. Eventually the kingdom was to disappear from the records as an expansionist Angkor extended its control ever deeper into modern Thailand. It is often presumed that the political centre of Sri Canasa was Muang Sema, but the traces of very early temples at Prasat Phanom Wan suggests that this may have been another urban and religious centre. In building a new Khmer temple over the site of the earlier one, the Khmers may been attempting to merge the beliefs of the local Mons with their own, thereby assimilating the locals into their growing empire. These unanswered questions add to the enigmatic pull of the site.
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.
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…
Prasat Hin Muang Tam is certainly less celebrated than its neighbour, Prasat Phanom Rung, but it is still a magnificent temple in its own right. If this temple were located anywhere in Central or Northern Isaan, it would be the premier historical attraction in the province. However, it is located in Southern Isaan, where it competes with both Phanum Rung and Phimai. As a result, it is usually viewed as an add-on to Phanom Rung rather than a destination in itself. This led us to underestimate how impressive this temple would be. Set amongst attractive parkland in the vicinity of an enormous baray, it is a beautifully presented temple which evokes the majesty of the Angkorean era in Isaan.
When we arrived at Muang Tam, we immediately received a couple of surprises. The first of these was the size of the baray (reservoir) alongside the temple. Almost a kilometre long and more than half a kilometre wide, it is compares with some of the great barays of Angkor itself. Of itself, this suggests that the area was once home to a significant population, and the archaeological evidence backs this up: it was the area around Muang Tam which was the population centre. Phanom Rung, a mere eight kilometres away on the rim on an extinct volcano, was more of a ceremonial centre; the major settlement was around Prasat Hin Muang Tam. This is also reflected in the modern name of the temple, Prasat Hin Muang Tam, which translates as the Temple of the Lower Town.
The second surprise was that a local fair was underway just outside Muang Tam. As far as we could tell, it was something like an Agricultural Machinery Fair: various tractors, winnowers and other machines were on display. As part of it, there was a street market set up opposite Muang Tam selling snacks, clothes and knick-knacks. We bought a pair of sandals for a hundred baht and also some Isaan-style sausages. The ones for ten baht were quite good but the one for twenty-five baht was excellent; it had a rich garlicky taste. As we snacked on sausages and shopped for shoes, a modest crowd assembled on the grounds of the compound behind. Some local bands and dancers were about to start their performance. Not being overly fond of Thai music, we continued on our way to the temple.
The entrance to Muang Tam was via the baray end of the temple site.We went into the temple grounds and immediately spotted part of an exquisite gopura which was sitting on the ground alongside the path. The restorers must have been unable to incorporate it into the renovated temple. Depicting the god Indra atop his vehicle, the three-headed elephant Erawan, it was the first indication of the artistic treasures within. From there we followed the path to the outer walls of the temple, which are believed to be an eleventh century addition enclosing an earlier tenth century temple. At each of the compass points there was an impressive and elaborately decorated stone gateway, with stone bars on the windows and beautifully carvings on the gables. This included the much beloved Khmer motif of the five-headed naga and also striking examples of kalas, a kind of demon. The foundation of the outer walls is made of laterite, which has a dark reddish colour, but the walls themselves are made of sandstone of a soft pinkish hue. The gorgeous colour of the temple enhances the intricate carving to give an impression of softness and sensuality.
Once you have passed through the entranceway, you enter the inner courtyard. It is here that perhaps the greatest surprise of the temple is to be found: there are four L-shaped ponds which encircle the central sanctuary, creating what is sometimes referred to as the ‘moat’. These ponds are filled with water lilies, which brought to mind two incongruous images: first of all, the late canvases of the French painter Claude Monet, and secondly the Buddhist religion, with its extensive use of the lotus blossom as a symbol for the enlightened mind of the Buddha. In truth, neither of these things had anything to do with Prasat Muang Tam; it was a Hindu temple which was devoted to Shiva, with the cult of Vishnu also being represented. Nonetheless, the lily pond leant the temple a lyrical charm which was rare for a Khmer temple.
In the centre of the complex is the main temple, which may predate the outer walls by a century or so; there are no inscriptions which can confirm its date of construction. The main temple consisted of five brick towers on a low base, four of which are still extant; it is only the central tower which has not survived to the present day. The most noteworthy feature of these towers is the crisp lintels which remain above the doorways. These include some of the finest Khmer lintels in all of Isaan (though they are only replicas, with the originals being stored in museums now). One of the most impressive depicts Shiva and his consort Uma atop Nandin, the sacred bull. A more common scene shows the god Vishnu seated with bended knee atop kala heads. The backgrounds are filled in with intricate foliage and scrolls which are in astonishing condition considering they are a thousand years old. On the backs of some of the towers are false doors, a common feature on Khmer temples dating back to their earliest years of Khmer monumental architecture.
Overall, the impression we got from Prasat Hin Muang Tam was of a small but exquisite temple which rated as amongst the picturesque of the Khmer temples in Thailand. With its lily ponds, pink sandstone walls and remarkable lintels depicting scenes of Hindu mythology, it is one of the prettiest temples you will encounter in your wanders through Isaan.
Of all Thailand’s major temple complexes, the last one we got around to visiting was Prasat Phanom Rung Historical Park, a Hindu temple complex set atop an extinct volcano in the southern part of Buriram Province. This delay was not due to any doubts about the temple itself- all of the guidebooks assured us that Phanom Rung was one of Thailand’s premier historical attractions. It was because of the isolation of the site which made visiting it by public transport such a chore. However, in September 2016 it finally made it onto our itinerary. We had decided to see it after a trip to Khao Yai National Park and the Reclining Buddha of Sung Noen, using the growing town of Nang Rong as our base. The steady improvement of tourist facilities in the town had now made it a superior option to the comparatively distant town of Buriram. The trip from Nakhon Ratchasima (formerly Khorat) took us a couple of hours. From the bus terminal in Nang Rong, we were able to negotiate day-long car hire from an retired man who scouted business there. He agreed to a price of 800 baht for the day, including long stops at Phanom Rung and Muang Tam.
We first went to Phanom Rung Puri Hotel, which was reputed to be the best in Nang Rong, with tourist-quality rooms, a swimming pool, a restaurant, karaoke rooms and Khmer-style bas on the walls of the hotel lobby; we had decided to give ourselves a decent night’s rest after roughing it in Khao Yao National Park. We checked in, put our bags in the room and then set off towards Prasat Phanom Rung. In very little time, we were out of Nang Rong and on our across the rice-growing plains of Southern Isaan. About twenty minutes from town, we turned off the main road and proceeded along a quiet country road. Eventually we started ascending the lower slopes of the extinct volcano on which Phanom Rung temple was located. They were were covered by scrubby undergrowth. There was no traffic on the road at all, which led us to discuss how difficult it would have been to get out there by public transport.
However, when we arrived at the car park, we saw that there were a fair number of visitors who had made it on their own steam. Increasingly, as Thailand is becoming more of a middle-income country, there is less public transport on the country’s back-roads, and it is more challenging to get around without private transportation. From there, we went to the ticket office, bought joint tickets for Phanom Rung and Muang Tam for 150 baht each, and then set off to tour the temple. By perusing some tourist literature, we were reminded of the basic facts about the site. Prasat Phanom Ring Historical Park was often referred to as the greatest Khmer temple in Thailand, with only only Prasat Hin Phimai being in the same league. Both of these sites were connected to the core of the Angkorean Empire by a royal road, also known as the Dharmasala Route, which had featured an incredible 102 small stone ‘hospitals’ along its course. This meant that Phanom Rung was well-connected with the capital of Angkor Thom.
Yet this part of the empire may have maintained a degree of independence, perhaps functioning as a vassal state of Angkor. This status may have owed something to its pedigree as an important early kingdom, perhaps one with links to the Khmer royal family. Certain inscriptions from the area around Phimai and Phanom Rung refer to a kingdom called Mahidharapura. Mahidharapura was probably an important pre-Angkorean kingdom which was eventually incorporated into Angkor. The magnificence of Phimai and Phanom Rung suggest that the area maintained immense ceremonial significance through the centuries of Angkorean overlordship, with magnificent monuments being built as a recognition of its significance.
The surviving remains at Phanom Rung span at least three hundred years, from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries. However, it has been argued that the site may have had religious significance as far back as the Chenla era, a time which stretches back to the middle of the first middle of the first millennium BC. Like Wat Phu Champasak in Southern Laos, it appears to have been one of the key sites of the region, one which successive rulers and even kingdoms continued to venerate. Most of what remains today is a Khmer-style sanctuary in pink sandstone, dedicated to the powerful Hindu god, Shiva. However, there is one extent tower which was probably the product of the former Mahidharapura, and one depicting a scene of war elephants may belong to an earlier epoch again. However, it is the Angkorean-era monuments which make it so stunning, and like all great Angkorean temples, what they provide is sublime drama.
The first stage of the Phanom Rung experience is the processional walkway but before following this path, it is worth diverting off the main pathway to examine a remarkable building called The Hall of the White Elephant, which is located off to the right among the frangipanis. Known in Thai as Phlab Phla, it is thought that this building was a changing pavilion for the royal family before they participated in ceremonial rites. Made of laterite, the walls of this temple have a rust-red colour, suggesting the stone contains a high iron content. The window frames are made of sandstone and have bars across them which are made in the style of turned wood. This evocative ruin is thought to date back to the 12th century and is an interesting hint of royal involvement in religious ceremonies.
Beyond the Hall of the White Elephant, the visitor follows the processional walkway towards the main sanctuary. Constructed of pitted laterite, the walkway is comparatively plain but with extensive gardens on either side, it is here the parkland appeal of the temple complex is most obviously felt. The walkway is also notable for a series of seventy sandstone posts which are positioned along the edge of the walkway. These elegantly tapered posts delineate the boundary of the path and guide the visitor onwards towards the main sanctuary. Shaped like lingas, they are a reminder that one is approaching a Shivaite temple, the phallic linga being the symbol of the war god, Shiva. Those who have visited Wat Phu Champasak in Laos will be reminded of a similar walkway there.
At the end of the processional walkway is the first of three naga bridges. These bridges symbolize the transition between the temporal and immortal realms. Once you have reached this point, you are about to ascend a staircase to the sanctuary of Shiva. Fittingly, the bridge features five-headed nagas of exquisite quality. These nagas rise at the corners of the bridge, their bodies forming a sort of railing for it. They are in an excellent state of preservation, with incredible detail on their bodies and the whole of the hood. In recent years it has been argued that the iconography of the five-headed naga may have entered Cambodia via the kingdom of Dvaravati, with the area around Phanom Rung serving as a gateway. Whatever the truth of this theory, the naga bridges are a reminder of the importance of the five-headed naga in the history of the region.
Having climbed the main staircase, you come at a stone terrace which marks the entrance to the temple proper. The terrace has some small lawns, some shade trees and four small pools. This beautiful terrace is backed by the outer walls of the sanctuary, which are covered in a sensuous mass of carvings, including some superb lintels. Immediately in front of the entrance is another smaller naga walkway. This marks the point of your immediate entrance into the realm of Shiva. However, before proceeding it is worth taking some time to peruse the galleries of Khmer religious art here. Of especial note is a scene of a multi-armed Shiva doing a cosmic dance of creation on the eastern entrance. This is a wonderfully vivid rendering of this scene. Below it is one of the most famous lintels in all of Thailand: the Phra Narai Lintel. This remarkable lintel depicts a sensuously rendered Reclining Buddha asleep atop a long naga figure. A former victim of an art theft, it has was finally returned from the United States in 1988.
From here you passage through into the inner courtyard, where the main temple to Shiva is located. The pink-hued temple is arguably the finest Khmer temple extent within Thailand it is certainly worth viewing from multiple angles. The gopuras, antefixes, lintels and colonettes ensure that every facade of the detail is a wealth of sculptural detail. Even look at the bases of the colonettes and you will see small carvings of bearded holy men set in decorative niches, each of which is surrounded by a flaming nimbus. No effort has been speared in making the temple an overwhelming spectacle. Of particular interest to us was the dwarapala door guardian outside one of the entrances. We were to meet another similar statue at Khon Kaen National Museum a few days later. Once past the guardians you will find that the interior of the temple enshrines a Shiva linga and a beautiful statue of Nandi, his vehicle.
Before descending from the sanctuary, it also worth seeking out Prang Noi, a smaller sandstone sanctuary on the grounds. Though comparatively plain and unadorned, it predates the main tower by a couple of hundred years, suggesting that this may have been part of a pre-Angkorean sanctuary which was associated with a smaller kingdom, later reduced to vassalage to Angkor. Apart from Prang Noi, the site also has a small stone library, where sacred palm leaf manuscripts may once have been housed. This library dates to the thirteenth-century, indicating that the site was still occupied after the peak of Angkor. It is another part of the complex history of this incomparably rich and fascinating temple site.
Muang Sema is certainly not a well-known site among travellers. Like most of the other major Dvaravati sites, it is ignored or glossed over by the major guidebooks. It has been visited by a few plucky bike-riders and bloggers, who have raised its profile (at least a little) on the Internet, but they have mostly not been excited about what they have seen either. Without any of the soaring architecture of Khmer temples such as Phimai, it was not an obvious drawcard. Nonetheless, it remained somewhere that we wanted to see, if only for its important role in history. After all, it has been suggested that (along with Si Thep) Muang Sema was one of the two main settlements through which the Buddhist culture of Dvaravati had permeated the Khorat Plateau. The region had long been the ‘gateway to Isaan’.
The site is set about 32 kilometres from the capital of Nakhon Ratchasima province. It is on the banks of the Lam Takhong River, with is one of the major tributaries of the Mun River. As is typical of ‘Dvaravati’ sites in Thailand, Muang Sema is an oval-shaped moated settlement. For archaeologists, these egg-shaped moats are one of the identifying features of a Mon-Dvaravati city. This moated area is especially large, being three kilometres wide and four kilometres long. This was a particularly massive for a city of that era, marking out the site as a former centre of some importance.
This moat is still visible today; in fact, it is possibly the single most prepossessing feature of the site. In coming from the Reclining Buddha- our first stop in Sung Noen- the moat was the first part of the city that we saw. Filled with dark water and partly choked with water-weeds, it has a swampy, frog-accommodating look. There was a man out in a small a wooden boat, fishing in its waters. As so often in Thailand, modern village existed right alongside the ancient past. We also talked about the logistics of building the moat. In terms of the work hours involved, it would have been a sizable project at the time, attesting to the power of the local ruler. Judging from the important Buddhist religious structures in the area, he was probably also a protector of the faith.
Our driver pulled up inside the moat and we wandered towards the largest of the ruins, a mere, low-lying jumble of bricks. Here we found a metal signboard which announced the site and gave a brief overview of its history. It suggested that the site had been founded in the Dvaravati period, around the 7th to 8th centuries, and had later been occupied by the Khmers. One inscription from the site mentioned the overlord of a kingdom called Sri Canasa, and a later one mentioned King Jayavarman V, who ruled Angkor around the end of the first millennium AD. It mentioned that most of the excavated material was similar to that was other Dvaravati sites, but there was a Khmer overlay. This mixed Dvaravati and Khmer heritage was also evident in the moats; while the larger egg-shaped moat was Mon, it contained a smaller, rectangular moat that was attributed to the Khmers.
With this overview in mind, we set off to explore the monuments of the moated city- as meager as we expected them to be. As it turned out there really was very little above ground level, with only the barest outlines of the original monuments remaining. The largest of them, known as Monument 1, must have been an impressive structure in its day, as it measured 46 by 50 metres. It has been suggested that this was the vihara of a monastery. The second largest ruin was known as Monument 4 and it was probably the ubosot, where the monks performed religious rites. A short staircase was discernible at the front. There were also some leaf-shaped bai sema (Buddhist boundary markers) outside this structure, which had helped archaeologists to discern its original function. However, unlike in Central Isaan, the bai sema here were very plain and did not contain any narrative art.
Apart from these main two monuments, there was five more minor ruins scattered around the area. These were much smaller in size, and are presumed to have been stupas on the grounds of the monastery. Some of them were square-based, and some of them were octagonal, but so scant are the remains that they barely rise above the grass today. Overall, the site showed the value of doing some research in advance: If we hadn’t read something about Muang Sema beforehand, it would have been hard to make anything at all of the slight remains. Having read Steven Murphy’s essay about the place, we at least got the sense of a ruined monastery.
This religious area was only a tiny corner of the ancient city, but it was the only part with any remains at all. Presumably the rest of the city had been built in perishable materials such as timber, which had left no trace at all. Having quickly surveyed the abandoned site, we climbed back into the van and headed back to the main road. From there we got on a bus heading into Nakhon Ratchsima, which turned out to be the same one which had been waiting in Sung Noen market early that day.