On our two-day trip to Nan, we managed to get to four historic wats. The early fifteenth-century Wat Phra That Chang Kham was the first Nan wat we visited, and it turned out to be representative of this remote Thai city’s rich historical heritage. Wat Phra That Chang Kham is located in the historic core of Nan, where you will find Nan National Museum (the former palace of the King of Nan) and the nationally famous Wat Phumin. While not quite as unusual or unmissable as Wat Phumin, it is certainly one of the city’s most important monuments, and we spent more time here than we had anticipated.
The first of the wat’s three main ‘sights’ is the vihaan (assembly hall). Flanked by a pair of guardian figures, it features an elaborate portico with slender, white columns and ornately decorated woodwork. However, it is the interior which deserves most of your -attention. Sadly, the original nineteenth-century murals have been whitewashed, though traces of them can be glimpsed through the white paint. More satisfying are the traces of richly ornamental stucco which decorate part of the interior. Equally appealing are the teak columns which are painted in red and black and decorated with golden motifs. However, the real draw-card is the huge seated Buddha in the centre of the vihaan. The Buddha is performing the bhumisparshamudra, or touching the Earth posture. This represents the moment the Buddha attained Enlightenment. There are other Buddha figurines standing on the platform on which the Buddha sits, as well as a curving pair of elephant tusks.
Behind the wat is the oldest and most historically significant part of the complex: the fifteenth-century chedi known as Phra That Chang Kham, or the Elephant Chedi. It gets its name from the fact that a frieze of twenty-four elephants appear to support the golden chedi which rises above it. This style of ‘elephant chedi’ was popular in the Sukhothai period and a few other examples exist, notably at Kamphaeng Phet, Chiang Mai and Sukhothai itself. Though there are some plants growing in the cracks in the lower part of the structure, the golden spire of this chedi is well-maintained, revealing that it is still held sacred by the people of Nan and religious visitors from elsewhere in Thailand. Moreover, a large group of robed monks were visiting the complex at the time of our visit. Not wanting to make any cultural faux pas, we mostly tried to keep out of their way.
The final major sight to see at this wat is a beautiful statue of a Sukhothai-era Walking Buddha which is housed in the former hor trai, or manuscript library, of the wat. Until 1955 it was believed that this was a crude, plaster statue but whilst being moved, the plaster cracked to reveal a solid gold statue beneath. It was common in Thailand during periods of war or invasion for monks to disguise priceless antiquities in this way to make them less attractive to foreign looters. Today the statue is encased by a glass display cabinet, which keeps it safe from art thieves: the graceful, flowing lines of the statue are another reason to spend a little more time at this historic Nan wat.
Albay is a name of a province in the Bicol region of Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines archipelago. We decided to visit it after our trip to Catanduanes, another island located off the eastern coast of the province of Albay. Our main goal was to see the Mount Mayon, reputed to be the most beautiful island in the Philippines, but we also thought we would stop off in the cities of Tabaco and Legazpi along the way, thinking that these might be a good place to try some of the famously spicy Bicol food. We also presumed that they might have some historical sights to show for their long history of colonization, though we were uncertain about this as the sights mentioned in our guidebook were all situated outside of town.
From the Virac, the largest town on Catanduanes, we caught a minivan around the southwestern tip of the island to the small port town of San Andres. The coastal scenery was unexpectedly attractive, with impressive hill country rising up in the hinterland. San Andres, a nondescript town with the usual straggle of shops along the dusty main street, was a much less prepossessing affair. Fortunately, we did not have to wait all that long before catching the morning ferry across to the mainland at the port city of Tabaco.
It was raining when we arrived in Tabaco, so we quickly climbed into a pedicab to take us to a hotel. There were a number of small hotels near the centre of town, most of them offering basic rooms for around 1000 peso, or about $22 a night. We chose the best of the two hotels we viewed and then asked at the hotel about the possibilities of visiting the Mayon Volcano from town. According to our guidebook, it was possible to visit an abandoned motel high up on the slopes of the volcano, from which point the views were said to be spectacular. However, the hotel worker assured us that the road up to the motel was now closed due to increased geothermal activity. Those monitoring the volcano reported an increase in emissions of poisonous gases. Disappointed to find our plans disrupted, we waited for the rain to stop and then set out to explore Tabaco City on foot. While now of its sights were of the ‘unmissable’ category, the town did have a few historical buildings of note, most of them concentrated around the town plaza.
Tabaco City dates back to the early days of Spanish colonization, though its built heritage has been devastated over the centuries by repeated eruptions from Mount Mayon. However, the main plaza, laid out in Spanish colonial style is very pleasant. There are two main buildings of historic note in this area The first is Tabaco City Hall, which is an especially good example of the American colonial style in the Philippines. With its brilliant white facade and its two prominent Doric columns in the centre, it achieves a sense of monumentality for such a small building, recalling the National Museum in Manila.
The other notable building in the city is its grand historic church, St. John the Baptist Church on the main plaza. This church is an outstanding example of the so-called Earthquake Baroque style of the Philippines, in which stone churches were built with wide, low facades to increase their structural stability in the earthquake-prone nation. Here, the elegant stone facade is embellished by column pinnacles and decorative urns at the top of the structure and six false columns across the front. However, its greatest beauty is its four-storey belfry, which is possibly the most beautiful in Albay. It features ornamental niches edged with columns, an elegant balustrade around the terrace on each level and a dome on top. A local legend says the ghostly sound of its former pirate-warning bell can sometimes still be heard in the wee hours. The interior of the church is also worth checking out: the solemn, dark stonework and slender, decorative columns lend it an aesthetic appeal which few modern Filipino churches could equal.
The following day we headed to Legazpi, which provided some ample opportunities to try Bicol food, which is a pleasantly spicy change from the usual bland Filipino favorites such as pancit and tapsilog, and we also welcomed the chance to enjoy some beers along the waterfront at the Embarcadero. But we soon realized that there the city had very few buildings which seemed to be more than a few decades old. Eventually we heard that the more historic part of the city was known as Old Albay District. Therefore, we hopped on a jeepney up to Old Albay to see if we could spot any historical vestiges there. As it turned out, there were also sparse in Albay but at least there was one major monument we could visit: St. Gregory the Great Cathedral.
There was apparently a wooden church on the site as early as the 1580s and several extensions over the coming years but the original church was completely destroyed in the eruption of Mount Mayon in 1754. It wasn’t until 1834 that funds were to be found to construct a new church, and the cathedral built then is still the one we see today. It is made of coral stone with the most decoration on the facade. Here we find a pair of niches housing statues and a portico on two columns. There is a coat of arms over the door and a bell-tower on top of the facade. The inclusion of the bell-tower in the facade is a kind of local variation of the typical Catholic church of the Philippines, with another noteworthy example of this style being found at Bato in nearby Catanduanes. The front of the church has been covered in plaster, which had been painted blue. This gave the building an unusually bright and lively look.
The interior of the church was typical of other historical churches of the Philippines. There were rows of heavy wooden pews, metal lights hanging down from the wooden ceiling, minimal use of coloured glass in the windows and a rather simple altarpiece showing Jesus in a white robe. There was no one else around when we visited, and we found that a short visit was enough to satisfy our curiosity. But there was one question which still bothered us: Why was this the only major historical monument which had survived in a city with more than four centuries of recorded history? Apart from ravages of nearby Mount Mayon, it turned out that there was another interesting reason for this mystery.
We visited Catanduanes on our third trip to the Philippines in 2009. The island was certainly not one of the more famous destinations in the country, but if anything we were attracted by the island’s off-the-tourist radar status; we were looking for an alternative to the well-known beach resorts such as Boracay and Puerto Galera. Catanduanes was said to have fine beaches that were yet to be discovered by foreign tourists. Travellers were likely scared away by the island’s reputation as one of the country’s most typhoon-prone islands. We too had our reservations: mostly we like to see historical sights on our travels; Catanduanes had so often been battered by typhoons that little of its built heritage had survived the centuries. Nonetheless, we took some solace in the fact that there was at least one historic church to see- the St. John the Baptist Catholic Church of Bato, often just known as the Bato Church.
We flew into the island from Manila on the now-defunct PAL Express. We had got the fare for a bargain basement price of around $40 each, which had also factored into our decision to choose Catanduanes as a destination. The flight took us across Luzon and the Maqueda Chanel to the mid-sized island, which was positioned right at the westernmost edge of the Pacific Ocean. We touched down at the island’s main airport at Virac, the largest city on the island. Virac Airport was a very low-key affair; it was one of those airports at which they wheel the luggage-trolley onto the apron and you collect the luggage yourself. Having done that, we simply walked into town, the outskirts of which stretched right to the airport.
Having checked into our hotel, we immediately set out to explore the centre of town. In terms of sightseeing, the picking turned out to be pretty meagre. It was easy to believe that the city had been repeatedly hit by typhoons, as despite it’s considerable age- Virac was already established by the middle of the eighteenth century- there was very little to show for its two and a half centuries of history. This was perhaps not all the fault of the typhoons: apparently the depredations of Moros (Muslim pirates) had also taken a heavy toll at times. Anyway, the end result that we saw was an underwhelming settlement of cinder-block houses with little grand public architecture to speak of. There were a couple of small churches which seemed to combine cinder-block renovations with older portions. Perhaps these had incorporated the ruins of older more elegant structures into themselves, but really were clutching at straws. Virac had little to recommend it to the history buff; it was time to head out to the Bato Church.
We hired a motorized tricycle out to the church, which was located about ten kilometres out of town. The road took us through pretty, green scenery with steep hills rising up behind the road. After several kilometres we stopped at a small cascade which had been promoted in the tourist literature. It was certainly not a breathtaking sight, but the water was clean and cool and it was very peaceful, surrounded only by shrubs and grasses. After a quick dip in one of the larger pools, we climbed back into the carriage of the tricycle and continued on towards Bato. As we neared our destination, we crossed the Bato, a swift-flowing river which was coming down from the hills, and I was reminded that the scenery of the interior was supposed to be wild and rugged, with many beautiful falls. Unfortunately, I realized that such adventuring was beyond the scope of our flying visit to the island.
Soon thereafter we came to the church. Made of coral rock, it has a solid, weighty look, almost as it it were hewn right out of a mountain. The heavy blocks of stone, beautifully fitted together, had doubtless helped it to weather almost two centuries of island’s turbulent weather. Began towards the end of the eighteenth century as the replacement of an earlier wooden church, it had not been completed since 1830. This suggested that it was difficult to marshall much in the way of manpower and resources during the early history of the island. Nonetheless, the Spanish had persisted and it had stood intact in that spot ever since.
The appearance of the church was in some senses rather plain. There was nothing in the way of sculpture or reliefs to speak of on the exterior, but there were some domes and cupolas, a large one on top, mounted by a cross, and smaller ones on the corners of the facade. There was also an empty niche and some small windows along the side. The focal point of the front was a bell which hung above the main door, which was locked when we visited. (Apparently access to the belltower was gained by an internal staircase). There were also two simple colonettes on either side of the door and a further one at each end of the facade. These were not free-standing columns but rather ornamental ones which were worked into the design. At various points, vegetation sprouted out of the grey stonework, giving it a look of considerable age, or even something like a ruin from Angkor, overgrown with jungle foliage. This perception was reinforced by the lush, jungle-like growth which was covering the hill behind the church. Overall the structure had a certain grandeur in spite of its plain design.
Heading down the side, we found that there was a side door, which was open. Stepping inside, we gained a look at the interior. It was again a fairly simple affair, but it was did have a certain rustic appeal. There were rows and rows of wooden pews and a modern altar at the front. Though none of this was as original as the stone interior, it still had its charm. The front wall was decorated with simple but stately columns and a couple of chandeliers hung down from the ceiling. The altar was certainly not original but the later additions were not too ostentatious and did not greatly compromise the historical character of the church. Overall, we thought it was quite well-suited to a church of its historical stature. We agreed that it was easily the most impressive monument we had seen on our first day in Catanduanes.
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.
The history of Isaan is complex and multi-layered and varies considerably depending on which part of the region you are travelling through. Southern Isaan, the part along the border with Cambodia, was under the control of the Angkorean Empire from an early period of history and boasts a wealth of Khmer temples from between the seventh and thirteenth centuries. Central Isaan contains a larger number of Mon moated settlements, some of which contain carved boundary stones, but it eventually came under the vassalage of Angkor as well. In contrast, Northern Isaan has a comparative paucity of Khmer monuments. Its main foreign influence was always Laos and the Isaan dialect spoken there is much closer to the language of Vientiane than classical Thai. These linguistic links are a reflection of earlier political control, first from the Laos-based kingdom of Lan Xiang (The Land of a Thousand Elephants) and the later Kingdom of Vientiane.
These Lao kingdoms have left an architectural legacy in the form of the beautiful Lao-style chedis which are found in Northern Isaan and along both sides of the Mekong River. One of the most striking of these chedis can be found at Wat Phra That Choeng Chum in the modern city of Sakhon Nakhon. This slender Lao-style chedi is said to represent an angled lotus bud. Measuring twenty-four metres in height, the lower portions are a brilliant white and the upper parts are gold. Its elegant proportions make it a singularly lovely chedi in a country full of such structures. It has become a symbol of the province of Sakhon Nakhon, being featured on its official seal. It is also featured on the tails side of the ten satang coin. The current design of this elegant structure dates to the eighteenth century, making it a likely product of the kingdom of Vientiane, but this is only the latest incarnation of the chedi. Its earliest history extends back as far as the tenth century with the arrival of the Khmers in the area.
It is thought that Phra That Choeng Chum was built over a 10th century Khmer prang (tower). The original structure was built to cover footprints of four Buddhas, namely Phra Kakusantha, Phra Konakom, Phra Kassapa, and Phra Kodom. Nor are the vestiges of the original prang the only Khmer relic within the city of Sakhon Nakhon; a number of stupas are also scattered around town. Therefore, we can assume that Sakhon Nakhon was once a major Khmer city. The wealth of temple remains indicates that it was also a religious centre of some kind. A trace of this religious heritage can still be felt in the city today: the modern temple of Wat That Choeng Chum remains a site of veneration for Thai pilgrims.
In the vihaan of the wat, there is a further hint of the great antiquity of the site. Here you can find perhaps the most celebrated Buddha image of the entire province, Luang Por Oen Saen. Said to date back to the middle of the thirteenth century, it is cast in the Chiang Saen style, indicating the earliest arrival of Thai or Lao culture in the area. Behind the statue is another small room with a number of small Buddhas and other religious relics on display. Clearly, the site was of symbolic significance to a number of kingdoms over many centuries. The Khmers, the Lao and the Thais have all come to worship at this important place.
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…