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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Wat Phra That Khao Noi: Nan’s Hilltop Wat

In a town as richly steeped in history and art as Nan, it seems strange to recommend what is, architecturally speaking, a rather undistinguished wat. However, if there is one comparatively modern temple complex in Nan you should visit, it is undoubtedly Wat Phra That Khao Noi, primarily because of its spectacular location 800 feet above Nan town. The best way to go there is by rented motorcycle, because it will be a long and demanding walk on foot.

The trip by bike took us no more than about ten minutes from downtown Nan, heading out towards Khao Noi, the mountain on which the mountain was situated, past a number of historic wats and at least a couple of beautiful, old teak houses. At the outskirts of town, we suddenly entered a patch of hillside jungle, beginning the climb towards the hilltop wat. Suddenly we were in the midst of dipterocarp forest, with huge trees rising up along the roadside, wrapped in a dense mesh of lianas. Suddenly the lush greens of tropical forest were all around us and the shirr of insects could be heard on every side.

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The ceremonial staircase up to Wat Phra That Khao Noi

We wound higher up the mountainside, eventually coming to a vast ceremonial staircase with balustrades in the form of nagas. This reminded me of the magnificent naga staircase at the World Heritage site of Khao Phra Vihaan on the Thai-Cambodian border, though this one was obviously a concrete construction of much more recent vintage. Even so, the sight of hundreds and hundreds of stairs ascending the mountainside was an impressive sight in its way- a reminder that in the past Buddhist pilgrims would have seen toiling up to the peak of Khao Noi as an act of Buddhist devotion. I noticed that on the left hand side of the staircase there was a small Chinese style temple complex with pavilions and statues; evidently, Nan’s small ethnic Chinese population also revered this remote forest temple site. The motorbikes continued past the staircase, climbing to the peak of the hill, where Wat Phra That Khao Noi was located.

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The main chedi at Wat Phra That Khao Noi

Accoding to local legend, there had been a wat on the site since the late fifteenth century. Whatever the truth of this claim, most of the current ensemble of buildings were clearly no more than a few decades old. If any of them had a sense of age, it was the chedi (or thaat), which was a white spire rising up in the centre of the complex. Though it had clearly been renovated in recent decades, having a well-maintained exterior of white plaster, in its shape it resembles many historic chedis from Thailand. There is a history of temples being renovated and repaired many times over the centuries in this part of the world, so it did not seem impossible that an ancient brick core still existed within the modern incarnation of the chedi. The other extremely noticeable construction on the site was a large Walking Buddha in the Sukothai style which stood on an enormous lotus pedestal, looking out towards the Nan Valley. Though this statue only dated back to 1999, it did recall the classic Walking Buddha sculptures of the past, and it was certainly worth a couple of photos.

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However, really the attraction of this wat are the views. Descending to the terrace of the Walking Buddha statue, you will gain a view across the entire city of Nan, with steeply forested hills rising in the background. Somewhere in the middle of town is the Nan River; you are able to make out some of the bridges across it. This 750 km-long river is the third longest which is entirely within the territory of Thailand, eventually draining south into the Ping River, which later joins the Chao Phraya and flows into the Gulf of Siam. The fertility of the Nan River Valley is various obvious from up on Khao Noi, with lush alluvial river lands spreading along its banks. Apart from the city, the entire landscape consisted of various shades of green. It was this river which had nurtured and fed the city for the past thousand years. In addition, to the views, the surrounding forest adds to the appeal, with butterflies drifting past and a large, blue-headed lizard sitting on the tiles and looking up at us. After we taken it all in, we set off down that long ceremonial staircase, starting the walk back towards town.

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The views of Nan city from Khao Noi