The Multi-Layered Heritage of Wat Phra Yuen

Even among the select group of visitors who include Lamphun on their itineraries to Northern Thailand, the temple of Wat Phra Yuen is likely to be passed over. This is a shame because it is arguably one of the oldest temples in the region and one which has vestiges from three different kingdoms: Haripunchai, Sukothai and Lanna. In this it can be seen as a composite of a millennium of different political and cultural influences in this small part of the world. Yet in spite of these claims, it retains a very unassuming appearance.

Unlike most of Lamphun’s sights, it is nowhere near the walled and moated core of the old town. Instead, it is a few kilometres away, amidst the rice-fields which surround the small city. When we arrived around lunchtime on a Sunday, we found no one else around. Parking the motorbike on the leafy grounds of the wat, we wandered around, taking a look at the ensemble of temple buildings. There are two main structures at the site: a comparatively modern vihaan and an ancient stupa. Though you will see both as soon as you enter the compound, we decided to examine the vihaan first and save the stupa for last.

While the vihaan is relatively modern, probably dating to within the last few decades, it is a colourful example of a Northern Thai temple which is worth at least a few minutes of your time. On the outside you can see wooden naga finials on the tips of the eaves, stone temple guardians crouching on the balustrades of the staircase and elaborately decorated windows with coloured glass inlay. The inside of the temple is even more lively; the focal point is a large Buddha depicted in the touching-the-earth posture. Seated at the far end of the hall, before it are a row of slender, wooden columns with lotus-bud capitals. Both the columns and architraves are painted red and decorated with gold stencil work. The overall effect is surprisingly elegant. There are also some beautiful carvings in the window panels, most of them depicting standing Buddhas with flowing robes. However, a brief look around will probably suffice as the wat’s greatest treasure is outside in the yard.

On the grounds of the wat is a large, white stupa which is one of Lamphun’s links back to the kingdom of Haripunchai, an ethically Mon kingdom which, it is claimed, ruled the region between the seventh and thirteenth centuries. The prevailing mythology about Haripunchai also propounds that the kingdom was founded by a legendary ruler by the name of Queen Chamadevi. A statue of her graces the centre of town to the present day. In truth, the surviving monuments and statues of Haripunchai go back as far as the tenth century but no earlier, so the kingdom may not be quite as old as legend would have it. Nonetheless, Lamphun is certainly an ancient city which was founded and ruled by the Mon ethnic minority for many centuries before it was incorporated into the dominant Northern Thai kingdom of Lanna. And recent archaeological work at Wat Phra Yuen has confirmed that the lowest level of the stupa at the temple (consisting of the foundations and some monk’s prayer cells) are, indeed, of Haripunchai heritage. This monument has more than a thousand years of history behind it. On the other hand, its present form bears scant resemblance to how it would have appeared in the days of Queen Chamadevi.

A standing Buddha in one of the prayer niches

Its first major renovation was when a huge Sukothai-style mondop was built over the original Mon monument. It was at this point that it first attained its current monolithic proportions. In this Sukothai-era reconstruction, it would have had a large, pointed roof on top. Local residents suggest that this may have been extent as late as the early twentieth-century when the crumbling monument was reconstructed again as a squarish stupa. This third version shows a clear influence from the Pagan style of Burma. It is worth noting, however, that, apart from these three major renovations, numerous minor adjustments would also have been added over the centuries.

In its current form, it has a monumental square base with four, grand staircases, one located in the centre of each side. A low parapet runs around the edge of the upper terrace, clearly demarcating the upper portions from the base. On the terrace (which is not admissible to visitors), you can see a couple of lesser stupas. In the centre of the terrace is a large block of masonry, which is patchily whitewashed. On each side there is a long, deep niche, where a large, Sukothai-style standing Buddha can be found. While most of the monument shows signs of dilapidation, these images are well-maintained. If anything, their brilliant gold coats of paint might look too clean and bright for some tastes. On top of the monument is an ornate, tiered roof, topped with a golden parasol. The signs of deterioration notwithstanding, this is still a venerable monument, whose mixed heritage makes it worth the time of any historically-minded passerby.

One of the ornamental staircases of the main stupa

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.

The Ancient Mon Chedi of Roi Et


The town of Roi Et has never attracted more than the odd traveller passing through but for the art history fan or Mon-Dvaravati period relic-hunter, it has one treasure. On the grounds of a wat called Wat Neua there is a most unusual chedi, which is one of the few surviving Mon-Dvaravati-era structures in the whole country. Its value is only increased by the fact that it quite distinct from the other extant Mon monuments in Thailand. Whereas there are at least eight Dvaravati stupas, this is the only surviving Dvaravati chedi; its closest cousins are a number of Haripunchai chedis from North Thailand.

Unlike the Mon-Dvaravati ruins of Nakhon Pathom, Sri Thep or the Mon-Haripunchai ruins of the North of Thailand, this chedi has a square base but a bell shape overall. This cornered bell shape is unique to this one location. The stucco has peeled almost entirely off, exposing…

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Ban Kut Ngong

The province of Chaiyaphum is one whose main claim to fame among Thais is assuredly the quality of its home-made silk. The few Western visitors who make it to this remote part of Isaan are likely to be fans of Thai silk who are coming to see the silk production process or to buy samples for their connection. There is, however, another reason why the cultural tourist might visit this quiet, rural province and that it is track down its considerable array of relics from its Mon-Dvaravati history. From approximately the 6th to the 13th centuries, the inhabitants of this part of the country were ethnic Mon who practiced Buddhism. The best place to get some sense of this little-known period of history is at Ban Kut Ngong, a small village about twenty kilometres from the centre of downtown Chaiyaphum, such as it is.

In one sense, it makes senses there was an ancient Buddhist kingdom in the area, as the name Chaiyaphum has a rather grand meaning in Sanskrit/Pali. ‘Chaiya’ is a Thai variant of the word ‘jaya’, which means ‘great’ or ‘glorious’ through the Malay world. ‘Phum’ is derived from ‘bumi’, meaning soil or land.The name of the province means ‘glorious land’ then, which would hint at least some importance in history. The earliest trace of any kingdom in this area was during the Mon period, when Buddhist scriptures brought knowledge of Sanskrit to what is now Thailand, serving as the state religion of small local kingdoms whose capitals were in oval-shaped, moated settlements. These settlements are one of the trademarks of a major Mon city or proto-kingdom.

The village of Ban Kut Ngong was never the capital of a Mon proto-kingdom. We will discuss where that might have been in a later post. What we can find in this village is an amazing collection of bai sema, the carved boundary stones which another one of the hallmarks of the Mon period. They are collected beneath a galvanized iron roof on the grounds of a temple. There are about twenty of them in total, making this little village home to an extremely valuable collection of artefacts, each more than a thousand years old. These bai sema have been rounded up and relocated to this one site but they were found from a variety of sites around the village, suggesting there was once a sizable Mon-Dvaravati settlement there.

In terms of their function, you could think of them as talismans, which were thought to have magic power that would protect the structures nearby, typically monastic ordination halls (ubosots). Therefore, in moving them to a single shed, violence has been done to the intentions of the ancient Mon, as their placement was highly meaningful. Nonetheless, it does have the advantage of making them easier to guard and protect.

A bai sema telling a jataka tale
A bai sema telling a jataka tale

There are many beautiful carvings in shallow relief on these stones, and the art historian could probably spend hours analyzing the stylistic features of the carvings. For the casual visitor, there are a couple that particularly stand out. One remarkable one features a Buddha seated in the lotus position on what seems like a towering throne, with the bodhi tree over his head. Perhaps the most beautiful of all is of a very graceful and feminine standing Buddha with a robe tied around his waist and his torso naked. There is a huge cloud around his head, which represent his aura of mystical power. This reminded us of other bas reliefs from the Mon period in Isaan, including those beaten into gold foil at Sri Thep. The artwork here is certainly extraordinary, making this one of the finest Mon sites in all of the Northeast.

The Slow Train to Ku Bua

Until the middle of the twentieth century, the main mode of transport through Thailand was boats, with regular services running along the Chao Phraya and its tributaries. But by 1950 the growth of the Thai railways had led to a sharp drop-off in the number of boat services, and cities, such as Nakhon Sawan, whose lifeblood had been river-borne trade, went into a long period of decline. A country that had for centuries used its rivers as highways now travelled overwhelmingly on land. By the start of the twenty-first century, car ownership was becoming increasingly widespread in Thailand, which meant that it was the turn of the railways to become outmoded. The speed with which rail was being rendered obsolete was brought sharply home to us on our trip out to Ratchaburi and Nakhon Pathom, key provinces in the history of Dvaravati.

When we had first visited Nakhon Pathom in 2000, we had travelled out there from Thonburi Railway Station, which was situated on the opposite side of the Chao Phraya from the Royal Palace. The service we too out there was an economy-class, all-stations train which was heading out to the “Bridge on the River Kwai” town of Kanchanaburi but it was clearly not in a hurry to reach its destination. It crawled along in the intense heat and humidity, stopping at every spot where more than a few houses were clustered together. It might only have been fourteen years ago, but it already seemed like an experience from another era. The train had been full of working-class women going to and from market, and some of them had even brought fresh produce along. There were noisy groups of schoolchildren, and the occasional Buddhist monks and nuns travelling alone. The train stopped a long time at the stations and sidings as people got on and off with their bags of rice and boxes of vegetables.

By 2014, Thonburi Railways Station had been out of service for over a decade. The original station building can still be seen there, just back from the Chao Phraya River, but it is just an abandoned relic of the earlier time. If you want to travel to Nakhon Pathom by rail, you still can, but you have to leave from Hualamphong on the other side of the river, and there are no longer any “economy” services either. The only train available was a modern, long-distance one going all the way to the Malaysian border. According to our research, just after Nakhon Pathom it veered off the old line to Kanchanaburi, passing through the little-visited town of Ratchaburi on the way to the Isthmus of Kra and Thailand’s Deep South.

We turned up at Hualamphong a bit after nine o’clock and found that the next train to Ratchaburi wasn’t until one o’clock that afternoon. I asked Cameron if he minded waiting, and he calmly assured me that we had nothing else planned and nowhere else to be. As he saw it, we might as well be flexible and pass the time until the train came. Agreeing with this plan, I bought tickets for the one o’clock service, and then we set off for a wander through Bangkok’s nearby Chinatown. Our first stop was a grimy food-stall serving chicken and rice in an alleyway and then we wandered between a couple of historic temples that we had seen years before. The time-filling got off to a pleasant enough start. But then Cameron was struck by that most typically Bangkok of ailments, “street food belly”, prompting an urgent search for a bathroom. He hurried into the lobby of the nearest hotel and Donal and I took a table in the hotel coffee-shop.

As we drank our cups of ‘milk coffee’ and waited an interminably long time for Cameron to emerge from the bathroom, I scanned the coffee-shop and hotel lobby, thinking about all the other places like this I’d seen in our travels. It was from an earlier generation of business hotel, aimed at traders and salesmen from the Chinese community. Featuring tanks of carp, branches of plastic cherry-blossom and other dated decorations, it had probably hadn’t changed much in thirty years, and it seemed to attract very few guests these days. Bored by his long wait in the empty coffee-shop, Donal did his usual routine of annoying the waitresses by demanding extra napkins, toothpicks and anything else he could think of, until I eventually told him to leave them alone. Eventually Cameron emerged and pronounced himself unfit for further wandering. So we stayed in the coffee-shop ordering drinks and snacks for the best part of two hours, and then finally went over to Hua Lamphong for our train.

As it turned out, the train was late leaving Bangkok, and I complained that it was going to take us the whole day to get to Ratchaburi, a town a mere eighty kilometres away. Cameron reminded me again that this was our week off, and I should just take it easy- wise advice I was obviously struggling to take. But by the time we were moving out of Bangkok, I started to feel the romance of the journey. It seemed like we were on “the slow train to Ku Bua”, which was appropriate for an obscure, backwoods destination.

We reached Nakhon Pathom just before four, and then there was another delay before we turned onto the line heading south. From this point, we gathered speed, moving quickly through lush, green countryside dominated by clumps of bamboo and emerald rice-paddies. There were few large villages along the route, making it surprisingly bucolic and attractive. The late afternoon sun was sinking in the West, in which direction lay the Myanmar border, and in that hour the whole scene was softened by a lovely golden hue. The unexpectedly beautiful scenery made me feel that our day of waiting had not been entirely with compensation.

Just before we reached Ratchaburi train station, we crossed the Mae Khlong River, the most important in that part of Thailand. Having risen in the hills along the border with Myanmar, it then crossed the lowlands of Ratchaburi province on its way towards the Gulf of Thailand, just as it had done since the time of Ku Bua. The Mae Khlong River, I considered, had been one of the main waterways of Mon civilization, and we were now in a little-known but important corner of Dvaravati.

But before there was time for the contemplation of history, there were practicalities to deal with. We got off at the station and went in search of a hotel, expecting there to be a cluster of them around the train station; after all, the town was a provincial capital. But the provincial capital appellation didn’t mean as much in Thailand as it did it most countries, because the nation had a super-abundance of provinces. China, with its 1.4 billion people, has only seen fit to create twenty-seven provinces, but Thailand with a mere sixty-five million now has ninety. For the corruption-prone nation, this has meant a vast proliferation of government offices, all with their hands out, and Bangkok has long had a problem effectively supervising officials in the provinces. For the traveler, it means that provincial capital status does not guarantee much in the way of services and amenities. And so it proved in Ratchaburi; we wandered all around the centre of town and found only a single hotel in any price-range. Clearly few visitors, local or domestic, ever spent the night in town. The only lodgings we found were a compound of brick villas on a large, bare block of land down a side-street. Still, they were big enough to sleep three people comfortably, and the asking price was only six-hundred baht.

With our bags stowed in the room, we set off to explore the parts of Ratchaburi we hadn’t seen in searching for a hotel. This mostly involved the parts along the Mae Khlong River, which also promised to be the most attractive part of town. But before we got there we stopped at a street-stall for lunch. Cameron and I ordered a plate of pork mince on rice while Donal looked around for chicken or seafood. Though he drank beer, womanized, never observed the Ramadan fast for more than a day or two each year, and was very rarely seen in the vicinity of a mosque, Donal was very insistent on never eating pork. I’d come to suspect that he was fastidious in this one respect of religious observance in order to allay his guilt about his failure in all the others.

From there we walked on, passing an old yellow clock tower and coming at last to the Mae Khlong riverfront, which was, as expected, easily the most attractive part of town. Unexpectedly, it also proved to be the town’s diminutive ‘Chinatown’, with a large number of ethnic Chinese doing business in the street along the river. Perhaps, we discussed, Chinese traders had originally established their shops here in the days of river-borne transport, trading in goods that had been brought downriver from the hinterland, selling some of them in town and passing others on to traders in the nearby Gulf of Thailand. Whatever the story, they had picked a lovely spot to set up shop.

The Ratchaburi clock tower, a minor landmark in town
The Ratchaburi clock tower, a minor landmark in town

In the distance were low-lying hills, revealed in that hour in the soft light of sunset. I’d read that there was still a fair amount of forest remaining in the hilly interior of Ratchaburi province. It was there, along the border with Myanmar, that the waters of the Mae Khlong River rose. By the time it had reached Ratchaburi, only a short distance inland from the sea, it was a broad, brown waterway that would have been easily navigable by smaller vessels. The town was located at a bend in the river, with a pontoon and a couple of small jetties along the banks of that side, and a glitzy wat occupying extensive grounds on the far bank. Against this attractive backdrop of water, hills and sky, young lovers courted, boys flew kites and people did the last of the day’s shopping in a small street market. Ratchaburi was not one of the country’s most compelling destinations by any measure, but it did have a little charm.

The next day we set out for Ku Bua, which different websites had reported as being either six, eight or twelve kilometres outside town. In looking for a hotel the day before, we’d passed a road sign to the ruins. According to this source, Ku Bua was a mere six kilometres away. It was to this sign that we headed the next morning because, I reasoned, it was at least pointing us in the right direction. We had no idea about local transport, but it seemed a fair bet that any vehicle heading out to Ku Bua would be passing by that way. When we got to the sign, there were a few locals waiting too, and one of them assured us that this was a good place to wait for a bus to Ku Bua.

After about fifteen minutes a local bus came past. We climbed aboard and the bus headed out along its route, carrying a small contingent of passengers. The town straggled for a while and then we seemed to be in a more ‘village’ environment of wooden houses, green fields and grazing goats. It wasn’t long before the bus driver came to a stop and gestured for us to get out. The three of us got off and the bus continued towards its unknown destination.

In front of us was a modern Thai wat of the Bangkok school, which was also known as Wat Ku Bua. Perhaps, I guessed, the name Ku Bua had been taken from the modern Thai village, and it had nothing to do with the ancient Mon settlement on the site. Trying to get my bearings, I asked a couple of local ladies where the ruins were, and they helpfully gestured to go straight past the wat and then veer around to the left, With nothing else to go on, we accepted their advice, hoping for the best. We had soon past the wat and there was no sign of the museum or any ancient monuments, so we continued on down a sort of country lane, with dense shrub growing along the roadside. Then after about five minutes, we came to a small monument which we hadn’t been mentioned on any of the websites we’d visited.

Set in a small clearing on a piece of boggy, low-lying land, it was a rectangular, brickstupa about five metres long. The clearing was surrounded by thick undergrowth and the whole place had a neglected, overgrown look. It had clearly been excavated at some point, as there was now a ditch around the monument. We walked around it and saw that there was no longer any trace of terracotta; only the underlying brickwork had survived. If any traces of the stucco exterior had lasted, I concluded that they had been moved to the Ku Bua museum.

There was a small sign at the site which indicated that this was indeed a Mon-Dvaravati stupa and that it was now a protected monument of the Kingdom of Thailand. In addition, it explained that the Mae Khlong River had changed its course over the centuries; during the Dvaravati era, it had flowed right by Ku Bua, but it had now shifted several kilometres to the north. In light of this information, I considered maps I’d seen of the former coastline of the region. It has often been suggested that due to river sedimentation, Thailand’s coast around the head of the Gulf of Thailand has advanced many kilometres forward over the centuries. Perhaps, I considered, this site had once been set near the coast, the Mon establishing a settlement at the mouth of the Mae Khlong River to facilitate trade with the outside world.

From this obscure little stupa we continued onwards in search of the main monument and the museum, and we came upon it about five minutes later. There was a large car-park and a visitor’s centre here, as well as a modern Thai wat and monastery. While the site was almost unknown to Western tourists, some awareness of Ku Bua clearly existed among locals. Consulting Cameron, we decided to see the monument first and come back to the visitor’s centre at the end. As it turned out, Wat Khlong, the most important monument in the province, was only a short distance ahead through the trees.

The front section of Wat Khlong at Ku Bua
The front section of Wat Khlong at Ku Bua

Ku Bua was once a moated Mon settlement about two kilometres across. In this it resembled the other major settlements of Dvaravati. But though traces of the moat and ramparts still existed, there was only one major surviving structure from the site and that was Wat Khlong, a surprisingly massive chunk of masonry. Yet despite its massive size, it is not, perhaps, the most photogenic of monuments and it is easy to understand why this great slab of brickwork has not seized the imagination of tourists.

Wat Khlong is not completely without ornamentation. Along the southern side there are a series of pillars running from top to bottom, and these are part of the original stucco casing. These are the only remaining hint of how the monument would have been decorated; elsewhere the stucco has crumbled away, and it is only possible to appreciate its bulk. The stupa was some twenty-five metres long and fifteen metres high, forming a great rectangular platform. It is possible that a superstructure of some sort, probably some kind of tower, would have stood on top of this platform, but no hint of it remained now. Only the lowermost tier had survived. At the front a staircase rose up to the top of this level, but you were not permitted to go climbing on it these days. In its original conception, I imagined, Wat Khlong must have been a Buddhist temple-mountain, attesting to the Mon’s early embrace of the Indian religion.
The final stop on our visit to the site was a trip to the visitor’s centre. It had been modelled, somewhat clumsily, on Wat Khlong, we now saw, with colonettes running down the sides. Inside were the typical dioramas of Thai village life, and a collection of local material culture such as baskets, fish-traps and textiles. But the main interest was its impressive collection of terracotta art from the Dvaravati era. It appeared that terracotta art had been plentiful at the site, and there were panels and statuary showing Buddhas, animals and even figures that were thought to be foreign traders to the region. This was a reminder that the stupas we had seen would not originally have consisted of ‘naked’ brickwork. They would once have been encased in terracotta art friezes, making them much more appealing aesthetically.

Content with our visit to the obscure site, feeling I had ventured deeper than ever before into Dvaravati than ever before, it was now time to contemplate the next phase of the journey. But before moving on we decided to have something to eat. The options were limited in that out-of-the-way place, but there was a woman across the road selling noodle soup for twenty baht a bowl. We took a risk on it, and found that it made for a perfectly fine breakfast. With something on our stomachs, we flagged down a bus and quickly found ourselves in town. With train services now infrequent, we decided that the best option for making the short jump back to Nakhon Pathom was just to take the bus. These left every half an hour or so, so it didn’t take long to find one and get on our way.

The Ancient Mon Chedi of Roi Et

The town of Roi Et has never attracted more than the odd traveller passing through but for the art history fan or Mon-Dvaravati period relic-hunter, it has one treasure. On the grounds of a wat called Wat Neua there is a most unusual chedi, which is one of the few surviving Mon-Dvaravati-era structures in the whole country. Its value is only increased by the fact that it quite distinct from the other extant Mon monuments in Thailand. Whereas there are at least eight Dvaravati stupas, this is the only surviving Dvaravati chedi; its closest cousins are a number of Haripunchai chedis from North Thailand.

Unlike the Mon-Dvaravati ruins of Nakhon Pathom, Sri Thep or the Mon-Haripunchai ruins of the North of Thailand, this chedi has a square base but a bell shape overall. This cornered bell shape is unique to this one location. The stucco has peeled almost entirely off, exposing the underlying brickwork, and it has now been topped with a gilded finial in the form of a ceremonial umbrella. This wat is also a good place to see a sema, one of the most important Dvaravati art-forms from the Khorat Plateau. This sema is also a relic of an early Mon polity in the region. But this raises the question which Mon polity built this monument. Situated far in Thailand’s arid Northeast, the chedi at Wat Neua is far from the more famous Mon-Dvaravati centres of the Chao Phraya Basin. Do we know of any Mon kingdoms which flourished in this part of the country?

The bell-shaped chedi of Roi Et

Roi Et province is part of the Chi River basin. The neighbouring province of Yasothon to the south is also on the Chi River system and both provinces have produced similar archaeological finds in the form of bai semas with a stupa-khumba design depicted on them. This homogenity of design suggests that they were all the product of a similar cultural tradition or polity. It appears that some sort of Mon kingdom thrived on the lower Chi River floodplain towards the end of the first millennium. This kingdom has yielded relatively scant traces of itself but there is one inscription from Yasothon province which refers to a kingdom called Sankhapura. Perhaps the bell-shaped chedi of Roi Et is the largest surviving monument from this elusive kingdom.