The Coral Pagoda of Khanom


Khanom is the northernmost district of the province of Nakhon Si Thammarat, and the towns of Khanom and Nakhon Si Thammarat are situated about eighty-five kilometres apart. Khanom is known as a low-key beach resort for Thais, but foreigners mostly give it a wide berth, heading straight out for the tourist hoards on the islands. If Khanom has any claim to fame at all among travelers, it is as the home of pink dolphins, which can often be seen swimming near the town jetty just after dawn. But it wasn’t pink dolphins which brought us to Khanom on our driving tour through Southern Thailand: we were in search of the Coral Pagoda of Khanom, an ancient edifice which was more proof that Peninsular Thailand’s reputation as an historical and cultural desert had been exaggerated.

One of the problems in locating the pagoda is that it is known by so many…

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Kota Belanda: Pulau Pangkor’s Dutch Heritage

South-East Asia has a wide array of historical remains, some major and some minor. While it has to be said that Kota Belanda falls decidedly into the latter category, if you find yourself on the charming island of Pulau Pangkor you might as well check out its improbable 17th and 18th century vestiges of Dutch colonialism. Variously known as the Dutch Fort and Kota Belanda, it is little-known testament as one of the earliest episodes of European colonialism on the Malayan Peninsula.

The trip to Pulau Pangkor begins at the unusually named seaside town of Lumut: in English, the word is translated as either ‘moss’ or ‘mould’. There are a number of attractive interwar-years shop-houses in the town, many of which are now painted in pastel colours. While the town is certainly not a tourist attraction its own right, it is worth a quick walk long the main street, especially if you are waiting for a ferry across to Pangkor.  It retains much of its colonial-era appearance. We also stopped by a small informal eatery here for a cup of coffee and a plate of noodles.

From the port in Lumut, a ferry goes across to Pulau Pangkor once an hour or so and the trip out through the sleepy harbour is peaceful. Within about half an hour, you approach the island of Pulau Pangkor, stopping first at the jetty in the little village of Sungai Pinang Kecil. From there, you continue on to Pangkor village, which is where most tourists disembark. Pangkor’s largest settlement is a quaint town of one and two-storey timber shop-houses, a few cheap noodle-shops and a modest Chinese shrine. You can hire motorbikes here for RM 40 a day, which is highly recommended if you want to do a tour of the island.

The interior of the island is heavily forested and particularly diverse in terms of birds, frogs and reptiles. Birdwatchers can look forward to seeing magnificent sea-eagles circling above the coastline, some of them with truly impressive wingspans. If you are lucky you may also see hornbills, which sometimes fly down out of the forest and perch themselves on the trees and electrical cables in the villages. There are also a number of small beaches at which you can float for an hour or so while looking out of the islands offshore or the jungle on the headlands. Furthermore, there are said to be walking trails across the island which take you deep into the jungle. However, our experience was limited to driving through the forest by bike, which is still a worthwhile adventure. On the mountain at the far end of the island, we encountered a couple of troops of macaques which had come out of the forest to feed by the roadside.

Pangkor Fort.jpg
The scant remains of Kota Belanda on Pulau Pangkor

However, this is not a natural history blog, but one dedicated to historical heritage, so we should speed on to Kota Belanda, which is located about three kilometres from Pangkor village. Once you have done a complete circuit of the island, a small side-road will take you down to the modest archaeological site, which has now been transformed into a minor tourist complex. It is not very large or prepossessing- we almost drove right past it- but if you take it slowly and keep your eyes open, you can easily see it from the main road. It is here you will find the remains of an 18th century fortress (the original 17th century wooden one was burned to the ground in an attack from the Sultan of Perak in 1690).

Anyone expecting a ‘castle’ with grand bastions is going to be disappointed. What remains is a small, roofless brick structure of no great size. Architecturally speaking, there is little to get excited about. The floor of the walled area stands only a couple of metres high and is reached by a metal ramp with wooden floorboards. Some of the brickwork looks suspiciously modern and even perfunctory research revealed that it was heavily restored in 1973, at which point it had been just a pile of bricks abandoned to the jungle. There are still some broken bricks visible, half-buried in the dirt, which can show you what it would have looked like pre-restoration.

The walls around this area are crenellated and there are numerous embrasures and look-holes in the brickwork. These give some sense of a fortified building but the whole structure struck me as somewhat incongruous with the usual historical accounts.. According to the records of the Dutch East India company (VOC), during the 1743-1748 period, there were 60 guards stationed at the fort, made up of 30 Dutchmen and 30 Bugis (an ethnic group from Indonesia). In addition, the fort was used as a warehouse for tin ore. It was these mineral ores which were what had generated Dutch interest in Perak in the first place. The Dutch had been trying to get a monopoly in tin in the Straits. Being only a few metres wide, it seemed impossible that the ruins at Kota Belanda could have served as a fortress for 60 men and a warehouse at the same time. I was left with the impression that the ruin on the site today was only a small part of the original building. Perhaps the warehouses had originally been built from timber and there was only one fortified section. However, this was a mystery which none of available information has entirely cleared up for me.


Wat Satingpra’s Unique Chedi


Situated in the north of Songkhla Province, the Satingpra Peninsula is a sandy spit of land which encloses the Thale Sap Songkhla, the lagoon system in South-East Asia. Situated at the top of the northern end of the peninsula, Satingpra is a remote Southern backwater of around 6,000 souls, which precious few tourists ever trouble themselves to visit. Yet between the years of approximately 650 to 1350, it was home to an urbanized population of some size and economic importance. There is ample evidence that not only did Chinese ships from the port-city of Quanzhou regularly frequent this part of the country, trading Chinese ceramics for local products such as exotic gharu wood, but that it was also home to a local ceramics industry which made kendis (a sort of pot) for export to the islands of the Indonesian archipelago. In this era Satingpra produced kilns, canals, religious architecture and…

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Candi Kembar Batu: The Temple of the Chinese War Gong


There are seven main temple complexes at Candi Muara Jambi that are still in reasonable repair; one of these is Candi Kembar Batu (literally “The Twin Rocks/Stones temple”). Overall, it is not a particularly impressive ruin, which is probably why it is much less photographed and written about than the two ‘star’ candis here: Candi Tinggi and Candi Gumpung. In articles or blog posts about Candi Muara Jambi, it is usually passed over or discussed perfunctorily; even the most detailed posts rarely do more than give its measurements and then move on to the next temple. But there are really precious few ancient candi (Hindu/Budhdist temples) left in Sumatra, so each one offers valuable clues as to the past. It is worth raking over this temple for as much information as we can get about it.

Like the other major remains at Candi Muara Jambi, this one is surrounded…

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Phu Phra Bat Historical Park

Even though Phu Phra Bat Historical Park ranks as one of the greatest historical sites of both the Dvaravati civilization and the entire Isaan region, it is a site which attracts few foreign visitors. The reason for this is fairly simple to discern: the site occupies a remote location in the forests of the Phu Phan Mountains. It requires a fair bit of determination to get here, but if you make the effort, you will find a strange and alluring cultural landscape which combines ancient rock art,  Buddhist shrines and bizarrely weathered sandstone rock-forms. If a traveller only had time to see one Dvaravati-era historical site on their holiday, I would recommend either this one or Si Thep in Phetchabun Province.

If you have your own car, finding your way here is an easy day trip from either Udon Thani or Nong Khai. However, even not having our own transport, we managed to visit Phu Phra Bat Historical Park an a long but not overly rushed day trip. Songtheaws run hourly throughout the day from Udon Thani to Ban Phue (บ้านผือ), the closest town to the historical park. They leave from Rangsina Market, which is about six kilometres from the centre of Udon Thani. Ban Phue is pronounced something like baan per (say per with your clenched together and it should work). The trip will take around an hour but the rural countryside you pass through makes for a pleasant enough trip. When you arrive in Ban Phue, a town with a few markets and an obligatory branch of 7-11, you are now within about 10 kilometres of the historical park. I walked up and down the main street of Ban Phue asking every tuk-tuk driver if they wanted to take me out to the park, but a few of them turned me down. The fourth driver I asked finally agreed to go to Phu Phra Bat, quoting me a price of ฿400 including two hours’ waiting time.

The park is located in a sizable forest reserve, which you enter a few kilometres before reaching the tourist centre. It is not the lush, wet rainforest associated with popular parks such as Khao Yai, however; the forest here is classified as dry evergreen forest and it has a sparser, scrubbier feel. It certainly makes a peaceful, beautiful surrounding for the cultural relics of the area. It would be worth coming to the site just to hike through the forest here alone.

At the main trail-head there is a small car park, which is completely surrounded by forest. The ranger station is here. The sight of foreign tourists is still rare enough that the rangers seemed surprised and pleased to see us. One of them seemed to view it as an opportunity to practice his English by asking about Australia and telling us a little about the history of the site. He also gave us a map of the site: it contained 21 different cultural objects which could be seen on a long loop. He said that the full loop would take us about two hours to walk, including a diversion up the cliff-tops to see the views from the top of the hill. We paid our ฿100 (foreigner price) each and set off on the walking tour.

Phu Phra Baht Historical Park could best be described as a cultural landscape: a natural landscape which contains many marks and vestiges of traditional land use. However, at Phu Phra Baht this is not related to the economic use of the landscape. This area seems mostly to have been used for ceremonial or religious purposes. These connections happened both in Thailand’s prehistoric past, when earlier peoples used the rock shelters of the hill as a site for paintings, and in the Dvaravati era when Mon peoples transformed rock formations into religious monuments demarcated by carved stone boundary stones. In both cases the attraction is a combination of the striking features of the natural environment and human creative endeavours at the site. Exploring these cultural relics in such a beautiful setting is what makes Phu Phra Baht special.

Everywhere along the main loop you will encounter strangely weathered rock formations. These are most often large rocks which are balanced on small ‘stems’. Despite their unearthly shapes, they are natural forms, created when a glacier carved its way through the hill a couple of millions of years ago. These rock formations which provided the inspiration for cultural activity at the hill during two distinct periods of history: first, during the prehistoric era, when the natural rock shelters beneath the formations provided an ideal place for primitive artworks; and secondly during the Mon period, when the rock temples were transformed into Buddhist temples by the addition of boundary stones. This combination of cultural relics at Phra Phra Baht is utterly unique in South-East Asia.

We set off on our walk, heading towards an area of the site known for its caves; not far along the walking trail are the two best rock art sites at Phu Phra Baht. They are both thought to date back between two and three thousand years ago. One is called Tham Wua (the Cattle Cave) and the other is known as Tham Khon (the People Cave), both of which are named after the rock paintings within. We visited Tham Wua first. It consists of a row of cattle-like creatures which are rendered in a reddish-brown ocher. Perhaps they represent the banteng, a form of wild cattle which still exists in the remote forests of South-East Asia. The next stop was Tham Khon, which is probably the most impressive of the rock art sites at Phu Phra Baht. It consisted of a row of stylized figures in reddish-brown hues. They have a strange stance, almost as if they are performing a dance, which may suggest some kind of spiritual aspect to the painting. However, my interpretation could easily be off the mark.

The humanoid figures in Tham Khon at Phu Phra Baht Historical Park

In this part of the site, the forest is very close to the relics, closing around the rock forms on all sides. The sound of insect life and bird-life is always audible, and at one point there even came a loud whoop, which sounded very like a gibbon calling in the forest canopy. I later checked later to see if there were any primates in the forest park and was unable to find any mention of them: perhaps it was just an unusual bird call, after all. Nonetheless, the closeness of the natural world at Phu Phra Baht makes it unique among Thailand’s ten great historical parks. We looked around the caves and the rock formations, the only people in the vicinity. From there, we began the climb up towards the cliff-tops, the walking trail occasionally passing by rock forms of greyish-pink rock.

A strangely weathered rock formation along the side of the walking-trail

At the top of the ascent is a flat area of stone with the best views at the whole site. These cliff-tops are known in Thai as Phra Sadej, and they are for the more scenically inclined, a bigger attraction than the historical relics. From here you have views down in a small valley outside the edge of the forest reserve, some of which is under cultivation. Yet there is no settlement in view and the area is lushly green and very peaceful. It reminded me very much of Phu Por, the Buddhist mountain in Kalasin province, which also combines hilltop views and Buddhist history, but there was no doubting the superiority of the views at Phu Phra Baht.

The views from the cliff-top of Phra Sadej

From Phra Sadej, the trail curves down to the largest cluster of historical sites, which was presumably any area of great ritual significance in the Mon era. It is so rich in Buddhist antiquities that to try and describe them all would be tiresome for even the most patient blog reader. So I will just give an overview of what struck me as the most eye-catching and remarkable parts of its Buddhist heritage. And the first thing that comes to mind is Bo Nang Usa, a roughly square-shaped ‘well’, which is carved straight down into the sandstone of the hill, reaching a depth of several metres. It must have been a truly painstaking feat to carve this ‘well’ out of solid rock, and it exemplified better than anything else I saw at Phu Phra Bat the patience and dedication of Buddhist monks who used the hill as a retreat. Happily, Bo Nang Usa has lasted to the present day, still serving as a receptacle for rain water in an area which no supply of fresh water.

In the tourist literature about the site, it is sometimes stated that Phu Phra Baht is an enigma. While it may seem mysterious and unexplained to the casual visitor, the original function of the site is well-established. It served as a Buddhist ritual centre for forest monks during the Mon-Dvaravati period. The Buddhist religious elements of the site are readily apparent. The most noteworthy of these are collections of bai sema (beautifully shaped stone boundary markers), which are typically placed in a circle of eight. This was the number often used to mark the boundary of an ubosot, one of the main buildings in a Buddhist temple complex. The twist at Phu Phra Baht is that the stones enclose some of the fantastic rock formations, creating a kind of stupa out of the natural rock-forms. One of the most famous groups in this category is known as Kou Nang Usa. Seven beautifully tapered boundary markers surround a jagged sandstone formation, creating one of the most memorable silhouettes at the site. It is only somewhat fancifully referred to as the Thai Stonehenge in the literature. Another very famous Buddhist relic is the monument known as Hor Nong Usa. This column of stone has a small cell beneath its mushroom dome, which is partially walled in with bricks. Perhaps it was originally a monk’s cell. However, it is now associated with a mythical princess who was said to have lived inside this tower. This myth is a later Thai invention which has been used to explain the unusual collection of Mon relics on the site. It is featured prominently in Thai tours of the site, but there seems to be no historical basis for any of it. The site was associated with forest monks, not Thai princesses.

A mushroom rock at Phu Phra Baht, surrounded by boundary markers

Apart from circles of stones, there are some other interesting vestiges in this area. At Tham Chaang you can see some more paintings from the prehistoric era, these ones of prehistoric elephants. They are quite faint but still worth checking out for a glimpse of the prehistoric fauna of the area. Another very memorable attraction is Tham Phra, where you can see the best preserved Buddha image at the site. Set a little nook between two rock faces, it has a typical elaborate head-dress and long, elongated lobes. It is suggested in some of the sources that this was a Khmer addition to the landscape. Either way, it is perhaps the most obvious reminder of all of the religious significance of the remains. Finally, it is worth mentioning Wat Louk Khoei, which is perhaps the most modern addition to the site. Here a rock shelter has been walled in with pale stone in comparatively recent times, creating a sort of rock temple with a roof of natural rock. An ancient, lichen-blotched boundary marker stands watch outside. Inside a collection of Buddha images, some with a historic look, remain the object of veneration to the present day.

Overall, Phu Phra Baht is a hybrid of man-made and natural structures  which is utterly unique. It is its unusual mixture of landforms and relics which makes it one of Isaan’s most compelling attractions. You see that for thousands of years the landscape also had ritual and spiritual significance for the inhabitants of the area, and they incorporated it into their religious architecture. A visit to the Phu Phan Mountains is not particularly easy but travellers there are rewarded with one of Thailand’s most unusual and distinctive historic sites. Hopefully, UNESCO will eventually award it World Heritage status.

Wat Phaya Wat: Hints of Haripunchai

From Khao Noi, the two-hundred-and-seventy-metre-high hill which overlooks the town of Nan, we headed back towards town on foot. Situated on the road out towards jungle-clad Khao Noi was Wat Phaya That, another one of Nan’s intriguing historic wats. Just by chance, I had actually got a glimpse of it when we were flying into town a couple of days before. The flight-path had taken us right over the temple grounds, so we had glimpsed Wat Phaya Wat’s famous chedi out the window of the plane. But unsatisfied with so fleeting a look, we were now determined to see this renowned edifice up close.

Arriving at the wat, we found the temple grounds to be largely deserted. There were no cars in the car park, nor any pilgrims or tourists about. But there were a few shade trees and lots of flowering shrubs, which gave the area an attractive appearance. All in all, the grounds were not large and we had soon come up to the viharn (ordination hall) of the temple. Though it was not a very old structure by all accounts, it had been well-constructed (reconstructed?) in a classic Lanna style, so it turned out to be unexpectedly interesting to visit.

The approach to the temple was a naga staircase. These naga staircases seemed to be something of a Nan specialty: we had already encountered them at Wat Phumin and Wat Phra That Khao Noi. The one here was not especially distinguished looking; we were more impressed by the timber architecture inside. The side walls had been decorated with gold stenciling of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac- the Year of the Rabbit, the Year of the Monkey and so on- which was not something we usually expected to see in a Thai vihaan. There was also the more traditional feature of jataka murals telling the life of the Buddha.

Even better than the painted decoration were the ceremonial textiles which hung down from the ceiling. Decorated with elephants, temples and other auspicious symbols of the Buddhist faith, they were clearly had a religious significance. Yet the stylized, geometric look of the motifs also reminded us of the hill-tribe textiles of Northern Thailand, giving the display a very local feel. For Thai pilgrims, however, the focal point of the building would not have been the textiles of stencils but rather the Phra Chao Naikong, an elegant Thai Buddha which was set before the equally lovely altar.

The interior of the vihaan features ceremonial textiles and jataka panels

But as attractive as the vihaan is, the real reason to come to Wat Phaya That is to head around the back of it and check out its extremely rare chedi. This is what we did next. This five-tiered pyramidal chedi is built in classic Mon style. More exactly, it bears a very close resemblance to the early thirteenth century brick chedi at Wat Kukut in the town of Lamphun. Lamphun was the then-capital of Haripunchai, the greatest Mon kingdom in the northern part of Thailand. It is also home to some of the few extant Mon monuments in the whole of Thailand. The one here at Wat Phaya Wat is very similar. Its brick tower is inset on each tier with rows and rows of niches. Inside them stand diminutive Walking Buddha figures which are covered in stucco; traces of decorative stucco can also be found on the arches above the niches.

A standing Mon style Buddha with robes rendered in stucco

This combination of brick monuments with stucco facing is one of the hallmarks of the Mon ethnic group, who were once widely dispersed across the territory which is now Thailand. As their were assimilated into Thai culture over the centuries, their sculpture and architecture was to prove influential on the Thai kingdoms such as Sukhothai and Ayutthaya. However, rarely did Thai architecture bear so marked a Mon influence as at Wat Phaya That. It is true that the elongated ear-lobes, long parrot-like nose and elegantly draped robes of the Walking Buddhas show the influence of Sukhothai art but the overall conception of the chedi owes a heavy debt to Haripunchai . What makes this even odder is the fact that this chedi was not built until the seventeenth or eighteenth century- or at least that is what the signboards at this temple claim. It raises the question of why a Haripunchai-style chedi would have been built here four centuries after the fall of Hairpunchai to the Lanna kingdom.

The brick chedi of Wat Phaya Wat

Was there perhaps a small Mon community which took refuge in Nan after the fall of Haripunchai to Lanna? As a still independent principality, Nan offered an alternative to submission to rule from Chinag Mai. Or was the chedi a simple case of imitation? After all, Lamphun remains an important pilgrimage town until the present day. Had the builders of this more recent chedi merely copied it upon returning from a pilgrimmage? Whatever the answer, this chedi remains one of very few Mon-style monuments in all of Thailand. And it is another element in Nan’s unusually mixed artistic heritage, which includes Lanna, Thai Lu, Lao and Mon influences.

Wat Phra That Khao Noi: Nan’s Hilltop Wat

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.

The ceremonial staircase up to Wat Phra That Khao Noi

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.

The main chedi at Wat Phra That Khao Noi

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.

The views of Nan city from Khao Noi