The Mysterious Site of Prasat Phanom Wan

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.

A panorama of Prasat Phanom Wan before the restoration

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 restored main prang in the background and one of the original towers in front

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.



Muang Sema: The City Among the Moats

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.

The modest remains of Muang Sema, located in a parkland setting

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.

The restored base of an octagonal stupa

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.

The Reclining Buddha of Sung Noen

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.

A view from the front of the Reclining Buddha

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.

The 11 metre-long Buddha’s colossal feet, with traces of gold leaf

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.

The Buddha’s head and the upturned fingers of the supporting hand

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.


The Elusive Kingdom of Sri Canasa

There were doubtless many early polities in Thailand that we do not even known the names of. Furthermore, historians have sometimes found inscriptions bearing the name of kingdoms which we know next to nothing about. For example, you will have to work hard to find more than a few fleeting references to Sankhapura, Sambuka or Mahidharapura. The number of polities may have been especially large in the Mon-Dvaravati realm, because the Hindu cult of the god-king (devaraja) played a less prominent role there. It has been argued that Mahayana Buddhism, the religion practiced by most of the Mon, placed less emphasis on strong kingship than Hinduism. Consequently, this led to a certain decentralizing tendency. The Mon tended to rule themselves in city-states which shared a common culture, but not a strong central government. This made them much less prone to the practice of empire-building than their (mostly) Hindu cousins from Cambodia. However, in the small polity of Sri Canasa, we may see an exception to this general tendency.

It is arguable at least one strong Mon kingdom called Dvaravati existed around the seventh to eighth centuries, the capital of which was located at Nakhon Pathom. Based on archaeological discoveries and the number of monuments, it seems that the largest of all Mon settlements. But it is not realistic to believe that it could exercise anything like direct control over the small polities of the Khorat Plateau. The settlements of Thailand’s Northeast must have governed themselves in some fashion, and it is highly unlikely that they were reporting on a regular basis to Nakhon Pathom. While the rulers and states of this area largely remain an enigma, there is at least one of which we know the name, its location and a little about its rulers. That polity is Sri Canasa, and it is worth sharing an overview of what he do know. It provides an example of what the earliest kingdoms of the Mon-Dvaravati realm may have looked like.

Sri Canasa is mentioned on a very important stele found among the ruins of the tenth century temple of Bo Ika, located near the important archaeological site of Muang Sema. On one side of the stele is a Sanskrit and Khmer inscription dating to the year 868. It commemorates the foundation of a gold linga, clearly indicating the rulers of the kingdom were Shivaites, as well as a gift of slaves by a ruler by the name of Ansadeva. On the other side there is an earlier seventh century inscription in Sanskrit which commemorates donations of buffalo, cattle and both male and female slaves to a Buddhist community by the lord or ruler (known as the isvara) of Sri Canasa. This gives us some interesting insights into the history of this enigmatic kingdom.

It would seem that in the seventh century it is was a Mahayana Buddhist kingdom, just like Dvaravati in central Thailand. The legitimacy of the ruler was partly based on his support of the sangha (Buddhist monks). We also learn that the economy of Sri Canasa was partly based on slave labour, with the slaves having been captured from unnamed weaker polities. Yet by the ninth century the kingdom had been both Khmerized and Hinduized, with Shiva worship being practiced and Khmer language being used in the inscriptions of the Sri Canasa governing elite. In using the same stele for both inscriptions it is if the later rulers of Sri Canasa were emphasizing both continuity and change. They were acknowledging that their ancestors were Mahayana Buddhists but they were making clear that the main religion was now Shivaism. This probably shows the strong influence of nearby Cambodia in the culture of Sri Canasa; the area is situated not far from the present Thai-Cambodian frontier. It appears likely that this part of the country was one of the first parts of Isaan to be absorbed more into the Khmer cultural realm. By the eleventh century, it appears that much of Isaan and even central Thailand was under control of the kings of Angkor.

Prasat Phanom Wan is a Khmer site that contains possible remains from Sri Canasa-era temples

It has been argued that Muang Sema may have been the capital of Sri Canasa (also known as Canasa and Canasapura). The other site which may be associated with this kingdom is known as Hin Khon, a site which has yielded inscriptions in mixed Mon and Khmer. There is also evidence of earlier temples having been built in sandstone and laterite beneath later Khmer temples from the area. For instance, the Khmer temple site of Prasat Phanom Wan contains traces of earlier monuments which may have been a sanctuary of Sri Canasa. All these sites are found within the modern province of Nakhon Ratchasima, which may be considered the heartland of this former polity. Some people have suggested that the polity may have extended as far as Sri Thep in Phetchabun, but there is no firm evidence for this.

It makes sense that this kingdom should have had a somewhat different history than the Mon-Dvaravtai city states of central Thailand when we consider the role that river systems played in the history of early Thailand. While the rivers of central Thailand are mostly tributaries of the Chao Phraya and all flow into the Gulf of Thailand, the area around Nakhon Ratchasima is part of the uppermost reaches of the Mun River system. Muang Sema itself is situated on the Lam Takhong River, which is a tributary of the Mun. The Mun flows in an easterly direction towards the Mekong, creating links with the Isaan plateau rather than the core of the Dvaravati realm. It appears likely that Sri Canasa was something of a buffer zone between the central and Northeastern part of the Mon world, also absorbing strong influence from nearby Cambodia. It is another example of how complex and fascinating the early history of Thailand was.


Prasat Hin Phimai: The Rose-Hued Temple on the Mun

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 three prangs of Prasat Hin Phimai

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.