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.
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.
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.
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.
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.