The Lao Chedi of Wat Phra That Choeng Chum

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.

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The white and gold Lao-style chedi

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.

The Walled and Moated City of Muang Fa Daet Song Yang

Even by Isaan standards, the province of Kalasin is way off the tourist radar and tourist infrastructure is basic. Still, the area is not particularly difficult to access; the big Issan centre of Khon Kaen is just seventy-five kilometres down the road. But here, in the northeastern part of Thailand’s Northeast, life is much slower-paced than in somewhere like Udon Thani or Khon Kaen, let alone Bangkok. There is not so much traffic on the roads and the cafes and restaurants have fewer customers than most other places in Thailand. Kalasin is a town that feels sleepy even in the middle of the day and it is all but deserted of a night time. Still, while Kalasin is a bit of a backwater day, in the Dvaravati era it was home to possibly the largest and most artistically sophisticated city in the Northeast, Muang Fa Daet. The ruins of this city were on our itinerary in coming here and so was Phu Po, a mystic hill which has been attracting Buddhist pilgrims since at least the ninth century.

Arriving from Khon Kaen at the Kalasin bus terminal, we found that there were a number of tuk-tuk drivers waiting there who were keen to do business. We told one we wanted to do a day trip out to Muang Fa Daet and Phu Po and he quickly agreed. However, he said that his tuk-tuk was a little slow for so long a trip. He dropped us off at our hotel first and said he would come back with a car. It turned out to be a particularly old and decrepit car which struggled to get to sixty kilometres an hour, but it was still a much faster-moving mode of transport than the tuk-tuk, so we were pleased.

The driver was an affable sort of fellow who didn’t speak much English but who was keen to try out the few phrases he did know. We learned that he was a native of Kalasin  who had lived there all his life. He was a family man with two children, the eldest of two was a six-year-old boy who he had to pick up after school by three-thirty that afternoon. We said that we didn’t anticipate that would be a problem, knowing it was only nineteen kilometres out of Muang Fa Deat and about fifty kilometres further to Phu Po.

From Kalasin we headed south into Kamalasai District, which was located at the southernmost tip of the province. After about eleven kilometres, we came to Kamalasai town centre. It was a small town set on the banks of a river; whether it was the Chi itself or one of its tributaries we were unable to determine. As luck would have it, it was a busy day in town because, as our driver reported, it was the day of the dragon boat races. There were large crowds lining the bridges over the river and in the grandstands along the banks, all waiting for the races to begin. He said that the races were not due for another hour or so, so we continued on our way, passing through the town centre, which consisted of a modern of modern concrete shopfronts and older timber ones. Its riverside location and the larger number of timber shop-houses made it a more attractive rural town than most.

About eight kilometres further on again, we came to Ban Sema village, which is located within the territory of the ancient settlement of Muang Fa Daet Song Yang. According to legend, the ancient city had been established in the year 621. It was strategically located near the confluence of the Pao and Lan Pham Rivers, both of which were major tributaries of the Chi. The first trace we glimpsed of its former grandeur was the deep moat which runs along the edge of the village. This moat was full of dark, black water, and the embankments were choked with thick, weedy growth. Its neglected state notwithstanding, we could easily see that this had once been a major construction project. It has been estimated that even if the moats of Muang Fa Daet were only one metre deep, they would have required over one million man hours to complete. Clearly, the ruler who commissioned the project must have had a large workforce at his disposal. Of course, the moat may have been progressively extended at various points, as the heyday of Muang Fa Daet was half a millennium or more, but it still would have been a huge project during each phase.

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The ruins of Muang Fa Daet Song Yang

From the highway, we noticed road-sign to Phra That Yahku (the main monument at the site) and turned onto a side-road. There was another section of moat down this road, which emphasized how expansive this former city had been. A few hundred metres down the road, we arrived at the focal point of the site, the main chedi and its surrounding ruins. The car stopped at a sort of impromptu parking area, where there were a couple of stalls selling Buddhist paraphernalia for visiting pilgrims. Due to the modest size of the ruins and the fact they were still an active site of worship, there was no entrance charge. We got out of the car and scanned the surrounding area. Apart from the nearby brick ruins, we could see some earthworks, which were a few hundred metres away across an overgrown field.

We decided to walk over and inspect these earthworks, which were a couple of metres high and quite extensive. These were the vestiges of the former city walls, which, according to legend, had once extended for five kilometres. Though you might guess that these had served a defensive purpose, there is no real evidence to support this view. Archaeological investigations have turned up no hint that they were ever topped with a wooden palisade or other structures that would have strengthened their defenses. In truth, they may have been little more than the place to store the soil which was displaced by the creation of the moats.Like the walls, it is thought that the shallow moats did not serve a defensive purpose but rather were used for water storage. Whatever their original function, substantial areas of the city wall remained, reinforcing the impression that this was once a large and important settlement.

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Phra That Yahku, a revered chedi

Having seen the surviving earthworks, we turned our attention to the main ‘sight’: Phra That Yakhu. This chedi is locally famous, being featured on the seal of Kalasin province. It is a graceful, octagonal chedi on a redented square base. The base would once have been covered with stucco, but it is mostly a bare brick structure today. It is presumed that the square base is a Dvaravati original, the octagonal body of the chedi is an Ayutthaya-era reconstruction, and the lotus bud peak is a comparatively modern reconstruction, dating only  from the Rattanakosin period.

No one knows whose remains the chedi enshrines, but it has been suggested that they belonged to a highly revered monk. This could explain why the chedi survived when all the other structures at Muang Fa Daet were destroyed- probably in a war in the early twelfth century. According to legend, a rival kingdom by the name of Muang Chiang Som fought at least two different wars with Muang Fa Daet. It is also possible that the city was finally destroyed by the Khmers, who waged many military campaigns in Isaan during this era. However, there are signs that the site of Muang Fa Daet remained a site of religious devotion even after its destruction, as ceremonial burial continued at the site in subsequent years.

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A boundary-marker with a floral votive

The chedi is surrounded by a number of small boundary markers, which were produced more numerously at Muang Fa Daet than anywhere else in Isaan. Most of the them have been moved to either nearby Wat Po Chai Semaram or the branch of Khon Kaen National Museum, but a few minor ones remain in situ. In the area around the main chedi, there are also a number of smaller brick structures, some of which may have been the bases of subsidiary chedis or stupas. No effort has been made to restore these, but at least the vegetation has been cleared away to create a sort of ‘historical park’ in the vicinity of Phra That Yahku. These lesser ruins hint at the wealth of other monuments which the city must once have boasted. After all, the boundary stones delineated the outer sacred space of former temples, and at least one-hundred and seventy-two of these stones have been found at Muang Fa Daet; the city must once have claimed a very large monastic population, with all manner of Buddhist religious architecture present. However, these vestiges can merely hint at former glories, because it is only Phra That Yahku which has survived intact. For the most part, the visitor to Muang Fa Daet will need to use their imagination.