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…
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.
From Pak Chong, we got on the Nakhon Ratchasima bus, which we had learned passed right through Sung Noen: the town which was home to both Wat Dharmacakra Semaram and Muang Sema Historical Park. After leaving Pak Chong, the bus made good time, and after about forty minutes the conductor signaled for us to get down by the side of the road. It was at this point that our illusions of a trouble-free trip to Muang Sema ran into difficulties. It seemed that the highway passed along the edge of Sung Noen but didn’t head right into the centre of town.
As it turned out, there was a songthaew waiting at the turn-off but this was one of the times when my attempts to communicate in Thai failed completely. The songthaew driver couldn’t recognize my pronunciation of either of the places we wanted to go to, so we were stranded. Instead of renting something there, we decided to hop onto the next kind of public transport that was heading towards town and try and rent something there. After about twenty minutes another songthaew came along that took us the final couple of kilometres into town.
It turned out that Sung Noen was a sleepy country town of two-storey, timber-fronted shops, with few signs of modernization besides the obligatory branch of 7-11. We looked around the street near the railway station but couldn’t find any public transportation for rental. There was a public bus waiting in the street but apparently it just did the run into Nakhon Ratchasima a few times a day. By this point our frustration was mounting and we really didn’t know what else to do. We confronted the possibility that we just have to wait around until the bus to Nakhon Ratchasima left. But fortunately, it didn’t come to that. Cameron eventually found the name of the sights we wanted to see in Thai and a songthaew pulled up just down the road from the bus. It turned out that it was the same vehicle and driver we had met on the main road, but this time he understood where we wanted to go, or at least claimed to. He said he would take us there and back for three hundred baht. It was probably an exorbitant price but we had no other options.
But then the driver took us to a small wat on the outskirts of town, which was clearly not Wat Dharmacakra Semaram. There was simply nowhere that a colossal Reclining Buddha could have been housed. However, there was some sort of community meeting or function happening in one of the halls at the temple, so there were a lot of people around. Fortunately one of the guests could understand my Thai pronunciation and he gave our driver directions to the right place. We set off again and this time there was no more confusion; we pulled up at the historic wat some five minutes later.
It was in most respects a very modest temple which you would not have glanced twice at if you passed it along the road. However, it was home to one extraordinary antiquity, which was now preserved in a custom-built hall. The hall was an open-sided structure consisting of a metal roof on brick pillars. It was really just a protective shelter for the 11-metre long, sandstone Reclining Buddha which was the temple’s main claim to fame. We signed into the visitor’s book, made a 20 baht donation and then went into the hall to get a closer look at the monument.
It was a seventh century Dvaravati Buddha seated in mahaparinirvana, or the ‘sleeping’ posture. The English name of the Reclining Buddha gives a somewhat misleading impression, as the posture is actually a representation of the Buddha’s death scene- literally, the Buddha entering Heaven. The facial features of the figure are somewhat degraded, making it impossible to get a clear sense of his expression; the nose in particular is very damaged. The tight curls of his hair are quite obvious however and these have a typically Mon appearance. In addition, there were traces of gold leaf evident on the face of the statue; however, they were probably not recent. A smaller model of the Buddha had been made in front of the historic statue for devotees to apply gold leaf to. This was presumably so the locals could continue making offerings to the Buddha without damaging the original statue.
It was difficult to get a clear view of the entire statue because of the rather cramped building it has located within. However, he had particularly massive feet which reminded us of the very famous Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok. By going around to the rear of the statue, you get a sense of how the statue consists of many interlocking blocks of sandstone. It would once have had a stucco coating- the Mon were masters of using stucco to face monuments- but the stucco has now mostly peeled off. Nonetheless, sections of it still remain on the head and the arm on which it rests. Originally, the entire statue would have been housed in a timber building which was twenty-six metres long; archaeological work at the site had revealed faint traces of this original structure.
As we looked at the statue, which discussed its extraordinary age: some thirteen or fourteen centuries old. If this date is even close to correct, it is by far the oldest Reclining Buddha statue in the country. As such, it bears testimony to the earliest penetration of Buddhism into Thailand, especially Isaan. It is presumed that Buddhism must have entered Isaan (Northeastern Thailand) via this part of the country, as there is a relatively narrow passageway between the mountains wilds of the Khao Yai area and Cambodia to the South. It is worth noting that there are many carvings of the Buddha in the mahaparinirvana posture from rock shelters in Isaan.
It is possible that this image the precursor or ancestor of the later images from across the Isaan region. It has been speculated that the Sung Noen area was actually the site of the capital of the early Buddhist polity of Sri Canasa. Perhaps Buddhism spread first to Sri Canasa from the Chao Phraya River basin and the art and religion of Sri Canasa was later to influence that of the entire Isaan plateau. Whatever the full story, the Reclining Buddha of Wat Semaram Dharmacakra proved a rare and unique example of the monumental arts of the Dvaravati period.
Apart from the hall of the Reclining Buddha, there is a building known as the Temple Museum. This one-room museum is worth a quick look for visitors to the site. There are a number of Dvaravati antiquities on display, most of them in a highly fragmentary condition. There is a very large lotus pedestal which may once have supported a Buddha statue, but it is only the base which now survives. Behind it on the wall is a pastel-colored painting of a seated Buddha, which may serve as a representation of what the whole statue may have looked like.
There is also what appears to be a headless and armless standing Buddha, as well as various other stone fragments, few of which are very prepossessing. Easily the most interesting exhibit is a magnificent and complete dharmacakra which dates back to the 8th or 9th centuries. With a diameter of 1.41 metres, it closely resembles ‘wheels of the law’ from other Dvaravati sites such as Nakhon Pathom and U Thong. The artefact represents the first sermon of the Buddha at Sarnath, where he set the wheels of a new religion in motion, preaching about the eightfold path to Enlightenment.
The dharmacaka of Sung Noen is now encased in a plastic box to protect it from over-zealous devotees, who would doubtless love to stick gold leaf to its exterior. In front of this protected dharmacakra is another one (perhaps a replica?) which Thai visitors are free to hang floral votives off and make incense offerings to. There is a ceramic pot before this dharmacakra in which incense sticks were burning. It gave the whole place the atmosphere of a smoky village shrine. For me, the most interesting detail of the dharmacakra was perhaps the small lion’s head at the bottom, a common feature on Dvaravati ‘wheels of the law’. You can see a similar motif on the famous example from the Guimet Museum in Paris. Having seen this little museum-cum-shrine, we went in search of our songthaew driver, ready to move on to Muang Sema Historical Park.