Phimai is one of the most celebrated Khmer temples in Thailand, and rightly so. With its magnificent lotus-bud tower made of sensuous, pink-tinged sandstone, it is one of the most beautiful temples in the country. We visited this temple in 1999 on our first trip to Thailand, but still remain strong memories of our trip there. Said to be one of the prototypes for Angkor Wat itself, Prasat Hin Phimai predates the world-famous Cambodian temple by some one hundred and fifty years, making this not only one of the most beautiful temples in the country but also one of the most culturally influential. This importance of this temple in the history of Angkor is reinforced by a number of other features as well, notably its Buddhist imagery and iconography and the royal highway linking the two cities.
Like Angkor Wat itself, the sanctuary at Phimai was originally Buddhist. It is interesting that both were Buddhist monuments within a culture where Hindu temple-building was more pronounced. The lotus-bud imagery of the main tower embodies one of the most significant symbols in the Buddhist faith: the purity of the Buddhist consciousness flowering above the muddy waters of worldly ignorance. Angkor Wat, however, has five buds, while Phimai, the earlier temple, has only three. Phimai’s Buddhist provenance is also evident in the five lintels in the main sanctuary at Phimai, four of which surround the central cella. The southern lintel, for instance, features a naga-enthroned Buddha in the centre, flanked by worshippers on one side and seated Buddhas on the other. The northern lintel shows five Buddhas sitting cross-legged, some of them with crowned heads. Meanwhile, on the eastern lintel we probably see the tantric deity Cakrasamvara (or Trailokyavijaya), with three heads and eight arms, dancing on an elephant head. The presence of Tantric Budhdist motifs here is interesting, because Tantric Buddhism was later made the state religion by Jayavarman VII, the builder of Angkor Wat. As in so many other ways, Phimai appears as a forerunner for the greatest of Khmer monuments, Angkor Wat. These links between the two monuments are made even clearer when you consider the existence of the imperial highway linking the two settlements.
A thousand years ago, an ancient imperial highway- the so-called Dharmasala Route- ran directly from here to the Khmer capital of Angkor, a mere 225 kms away. There is no doubt that Phimai must have been an important ceremonial centre as the whole road to Angkor from here is lined with other Khmer sanctuaries and even hospitals. This was one of the main thoroughfares of the Angkorian Empire, linking the Cambodian heartland with its newly conquered territories in what is now Thailand. This route passed not only the ancient Dvaravati moated site of Ban Fai but also Phanom Rung, a magnificent Khmer sanctuary set on top of an extinct volcano, and Muang Tam, another architecturally impressive Khmer religious site. The whole route and its major associated monuments has been proposed as a tentative World Heritage site by the Thai government. Emphasising even further the link between Phimai and Angkor, Prasat Hin Phimai is oriented to the south-east: it is facing directly towards Angkor, the capital of the Khmer empire.
That is an overview of the history. But while Phimai can be approached from this perspective, for the traveller it is also an experience, and it is when it is approached as an experience Prasat Hin Phimai comes into its own. For, like many of the Khmer temples, its designers and builders had a dramatic flair. The way it is slowly revealed to the pilgrim (or traveller) creates a sense of wonder, with each phase of the visit creating a fuller and more sensuous impression than the last. Located right in the centre of Phimai town, the temple arrives in view more quickly than you expect it to. No sooner have you arrived in town than the outer world of the temple appears in front of you, and this teetering, lichen-covered structure has a strikingly ancient look; it is easy to believe that the pitted blocks of laterite stone have stood there for a millennium. The great length of the wall also makes an impression- so long a wall surely encloses an uncommonly large sacred space. The site of the wall instantly raises expectations about what is contained within.
Today entry into the historical park is from the south, which is the same approach that the ancients would have used. After buying a ticket- a momentary distraction from the drama of the site- you enter the park, which is beautifully landscaped with shade trees, lawns and hedges, all of which frame the monument in a vivid green. Like the other major archaeological sites of Thailand, it is today a historical park, with a great deal of care being taken to maintain the parkland appearance atmosphere.
The first major surprise comes when you arrive at the long raised platform known as the ‘naga walkway’. In front of it are a pair of stone lions, which guard the base of the steps. These lions closely resemble those at Prasat Tao at Sambor Prei Kuk, the former capital of Chenla kingdom. Like all temple guardians in the Hindu-Buddhist world, the purpose of these was to ward off evil spirits, which obviously had no place within the sacred space of the sanctuary. From here you step up onto the ‘naga walkway’, which reminded us very strongly of the causeways at Angkor Wat. This elegant platform has balustrades in the form of nagas, a seven-headed serpent which was said to have formed an umbrella to shelter the Buddha from the rain. It is a very common and important motif in Khmer religious art. There are two nagas behind the lion and more at each of the other compass points. This walkway is meant to represent the transition from the temporal world to the celestial sphere, which is embodied by the central sanctuary. In walking along this terrace, you are ascending from the worldly realm onto a higher plane.
After the ‘naga walkway’ you arrive at the beautiful outer southern gopura, which is flanked by a pair of elegant colonettes and topped by a sensuous sandstone lintel. Beyond this you enter a large roofless building which is made of red and white sandstone. Numerous solid sandstone columns rise on each side but you walk through on a wooden walkway, which is presumably meant to protect the beautiful, original stonework. Once you emerge from here, you get a view across from parkland to the inner enclosure ahead. In the foreground is an attractive grassy terrace which is inset with four ancient pools that are rimmed with rose-hued sandstone. Once you have crossed this terrace, you arrive at the inner southern gopura, which is in more ruinous state than the outer gopura but which retains its original lintel overhead. Inside you will find many stone-walled rooms with windows of white sandstone. The size and solidity of the structure gives the impression that it would once have accomodated a sizeable monastic community.
Once you are through this structure, you arrive at the inner sanctuary, with the main prang (tower) rising up suddenly in the middle of a grassy courtyard and a line of sandstone and laterite buildings forming the perimeter. But before you look at the main prang, you will see Prang Brahmadat, one of the two secondary prangs in the inner sanctuary. Built during the reign of King Jayavarman VII, this 13th century laterite tower is in poor condition compared to the main tower, but the general lotus-bud shape is still intact. There is little decorative detail present on this tower however, so you are probably better off continuing to the main tower, where every surface is bursting with detail. On the main tower, there are things worth looking at each of the compass points.
The southern facade of the main tower is the most unusual, because here there is an antechamber which extends out from the body of the main temple. This structure, known as a mandapa, is a beautiful piece of sacred architecture in its own right, with stone bars on the windows in the shape of turned wood and delicate stone friezes carved along the sides. It also has a highly elaborate roof in the shape of the shape of an arch. The mandapa has side entrances on the left and right, and both of these are topped by beautiful lintels and pediments. Like elsewhere on the exterior of the temple, it offers Hindu scenes- notably from the Ramayana- on both the lintel and the pediment. There are magnificent scenes of the exploits of Rama.
Moving on to the north façade, you will find an exquisite lintel of a God (probably Vishnu) dancing. As elsewhere at Phimia, the quality of the carving is extraordinarily high here, showing that this was an important temple within the empire; the best talented sculptors and carvers were employed in the construction. Above the lintel is a pediment which is in worse condition than the lintel. The pieces have been shattered and jumbled but some scenes from the Ramayana are evident. At the top Garuda, the mount of Vishnu, is present and the main tower soars above it, with many standing figures, as well as multi-headed nagas, set in antefixes on the exterior.
Another extraordinary lintel can be found on the western side but inside the temple in the antechamber. It depicts a Buddhist scene, in contrast to the Hindu scenes on the outside of the temple. In the centre of this panel is a standing Buddha, flanked by two lovely trees, and all sides his disciples listen to him preach. Some of them are seated in reverential postures and others appear to be dancing. Sadly the face of the Buddha has broken off but most of the other figures remain crisp and intact, though a large crack splits the lintel to the right of the Buddha. If you continue inside, you will come to a magnificent statue of a seated Buddha with an ‘umbrella’ of a multi-headed naga protecting it from the rain, but this statue is now a reproduction. Exiting on the western side, you will find more scenes from the Ramayana on both the lintel and pediment, with the carvings of the monkeys especially crisp. Such is the attention to detail on this temple, you will find carvings all over, even on the bases of the colonettes.
Once you have fully examined the main sanctuary, there is still one more prang to have a look at. This one is called Prang Hin Daeng- the Red Temple- and it is the final of the three main prangs at the site. It is by far the most ruinous of the three prangs, with its lotus-bud shape being much less evident. Its dilapidated state notwithstanding, its deep red colour makes a bit of an impression, and it is certainly a marked contrast with the whiter stone of the main tower. Alongside it is another rose-hued ruin; this one a narrow, roofless structure with lichens spreading on some of its stones. Apparently this structure was originally a Buddhist library, a fact which reinforces your sense of this place as the site of an active monastic community.
Once you have finished seeing the main towers, you can wonder back outside the inner enclosure and view the temple from many different angles. You can also check out all the outer gopuras, most of which will reward you with carvings or sculpture of some sort. But when you have had finally seen enough of the Phimai Historical Park, there is a choice to be made: you can either head back to Nakhon Ratchasima or you can get a room at one of the guesthouses in town and perhaps make a side trip out of one of the other sites in the area, such as the prehistoric burial site of Ban Prasat. If you do decide to stay in town, you will probably find yourself in one of the low-key guesthouses along the river. This might lead you to make a discovery that most visitors to Phimai will never make.
The town of Phimai is set on the Mun River, and it is quite possible to go swimming in it while you are in town. Though it isn’t especially prepossessing at first glance, at 750 kilometres long, it is the second longest river entirely within Thailand, being only 15 kilometres shorter than the Chi. It is worth pointing out that river systems were the main ‘highways’ of ancient Thailand, with much of the land being covered by impenetrable jungle. Many historians and writers have made a great deal about the highway leading from Phimai to Angkor, but it is also worth remembering that there was another highway in town, in the form of the Mun River. It is obviously not coincidence that Prasat Hin Phimai had been built so close to this river. It had been one of the main thoroughfares of the Mon-Dvaravati realm, with a number of major settlements built along it. It is very likely that claiming control of it was a major strategic goal of an expansionist Angkor. Perhaps the decision to build Prasat Hin Phimai here was to mark the passing of the Mun River and all its associated settlements from Mon to Khmer control.