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.

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.

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.


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.

The views of Nan city from Khao Noi

Two Early Boundary Markers from Muang Fa Daet

During the Dvaravati period (from the 8th to the 11th centuries) Muang Fa Daet Sung Yang emerged as one of the leading artistic centres of Isaan (Northeastern Thailand). Set in Kamalasai District of the modern province of Kalasin, the moated city produced a very large number of carved boundary markers (bai sema in Thai), which served to delineate the sacred area of an ubosot in a Buddhist monastery. While these boundary markers have been found from many different parts of Isaan and Laos, Muang Fa Daet Sung Yang has yielded them in the greatest quantities. The Muang Fa Daet Sung Yang boundary markers are also notable for the artistic skill with which they were composed, suggesting that the city was home to a stonemason’s workshop where high-quality bai sema were commissioned.

We can surmise, without indisputable proof, that this workshop enjoyed royal patronage, as most of the boundary markers were found in the immediate vicinity of the city itself, with numerous examples being located inside the moats. Also, many of them display royal personages or occasionally even palace grounds, which is a further hint of royal associations. A large number of these bai sema have now been relocated to the Khon Kaen National Museum in the city of Khon Kaen. This post will be dedicated to two damaged, lesser-known bai sema from the museum, which, despite their fragmentary condition, remain impressive examples of Dvaravati art.

Sema 13 from Muang Fa Daet Sung Yang

The first of these two boundary markers (bai sema) is the one which the historian Stephen Murphy has classified as S13. This bai sema is located on the ground floor of the Khon Kaen National Museum. The top of it is broken off and the section which he do have is cracked across the middle. Nonetheless, it presents an enigmatic scene which has proven impossible to identify. At the bottom of the fragment are four seated figures, the ones on the right being rather more distinct. Above the crack are two larger, seated figures, one of which has a Mon style conical head-dress and the other has a rounded halo. At the centre of the scene is an altar with three triangular objects on top. Perhaps they represent some kind of votive offerings. Based on stylistic features, it has been suggested that they date to the early period of Muang Fa Daet Sung Yang, from the eighth or ninth centuries.

S16 features a Buddha with a flaming nimbus

The second bai sema,  otherwise known as S16, is also thought to date from this earlier period of Dvaravati art history. Unlike S13, it is located in a small courtyard garden to the rear of the ground floor. It is one of a small subset of Muang Fa Daet boundary markers which depict a standing Buddha with a flaming nimbus around his head. This pointy nimbus suggests a supernatural aura, which would have been an important feature for monks trying to win new converts to the Buddhist faith. Though S16 is cracked, with the bottom section missing, the main features of the scene are clear. The standing Buddha has curled Mon hair, full lips, closed eyes which suggest a blissful spirituality and a richly draped robe. There is a much shorter figure standing beside him, looking up in an attitude of reverence. Despite its damaged condition, this is a very graceful carving, indicating that Muang Fa Daet Sung Yang was an artistic centre as far back as the 8th or 9th centuries.

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.

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.

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.

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.



Wat Aranyik: A Forlorn Relic of the Sukothai Kingdom

One of the less celebrated sights of Phitsanulok is Wat Aranyik, which is today a neglected but fascinating ruin. Despite its fairly central location, it rarely seems to attract a tourist, and you are most likely to only share it with a few roaming animals. As soon as we arrived in the parking lot, a very basic dirt affair strewn here and there with gravel, a pair of chickens came walking by. Before we had wandered more than ten metres further on, the chickens were joined by a pack of emaciated stray dogs. Buddhist teachings about compassion to animals means that stray dogs are rarely destroyed in Thailand, particularly in the vicinity of Buddisht temples. However, the sickly condition of these underfed animals once again made us question the wisdom of this policy.

Wat Aranyik was said to date back to 1357 and was a relic of the Sukothai kingdom, the first major Thai kingdom in history. This link to Sukothai was instructive because it shared a number of features with the site of the former capital, most notably in its use of broad moats to delineate the temple grounds. All of the ruins of Wat Aranyik are located within a wide moat, which was partly full of muddy brown water at the time of our visit. The building of these moats must have been very labour intensive, which suggested that this wat must once have enjoyed royal patronage. (This impression was later confirmed when I read that the temple had been granted a bai sema, a royal boundary stone).  Apart from the main chedi, these broad moats were perhaps the single most impressive relic which we encountered at the site.

Despite the presence of modern monastic and temple buildings around the perimeter of Wat Aranyik, it is the ancient ruins which are the only reason to go there, and even so the grassy, overgrown plot of land they occupy makes for a rather forlorn sight. There are banana and coconut palms growing up amongst the ruins as well as knee and waist-high weeds. There was little sense of any preservation or conservation efforts in progress. The many minor ruins, crumbling walls, terraces and temple bases were in an advanced state of disrepair. Wat Aranyik consisted of one large ruin- the chedi which is its primarily claim to fame- and the rest of it was low-lying ruins in red brick and laterite which rarely reached more than a metre or two in height.

Even the most substantial of these lesser ruins, the vestiges of the former ordination hall, consisted only of brick foundations, a couple of raised platforms and a few stubby column bases. This devastated structure was clearly the ruins of a Sukothai-era temple, and it retained a Buddha statue (seated in the lotus position) on a platform at the back of the temple. There were about a dozen smaller Buddha figures that had been left here by devotees, but at the time of our visit, there were only a few stray dogs about. They eyed us hopefully and I wished I had something to feed them. In walking back out we noticed what appeared to be a lichen-covered bai sema, an ancient boundary stone. These stones were used to separate the sacred space of the ordination hall from the surounding area.

The forlorn ruins of Wat Aranyik, Phitsanulok
The forlorn ruins of Wat Aranyik, Phitsanulok

From there we proceeded to the main chedi, which is by far the most impressive relic at the site, even though it is in a rather dilapidated condition today. This Sukothai-era chedi dated back to the fourteenth century and is said to display strong Sri Lankan influence. Like some of the ancient chedis on Sri Lanka, it is a massive brick construction, though here the uppermost tip of the ‘bell’ had long since fallen off. What remained was a kind of brick tower which was mounted atop three low terraces of gradually decreasing size. Along one side of the chedi base there was a stucco statue of a tusked elephant which protruded outwards from the body of the monument. Presumably the entire structure had been covered in stucco and the base of the monument had been decorated with an entire procession of ornamental elephants. (I later learned that the elephants now in place were mere replicas produced by the Thai Department of Fine Arts).

Above the base, the chedi ascended like a brick tower; the superstructure was circular and was of impressive girth and heft, especially compared to the low piles of shattered bricks which were all that remained of the other structures. A second tier of smaller width was mounted on top of the lowermost, but it was broken off partway up. This red-brick chedi in the midst of various low-lying walls and temple bases reminded me not only of Ayutthaya but also of the Mahayana Buddhist sites of Sumtra: Candi Takus and Candi Muara Jambi. The site might have been little more than a ruin, but it was a most evocative one.

Like these other sites, Wat Aranyik was a reminder of the spread of the Buddhist faith from India and Sri Lanka into South-East Asia. In the heyday of Wat Aranyik, Phitsanulok would have been another link in a vast network of Buddhist monasteries and temples which spread all the way from Sumatra to Malaysia, Northern Thailand and beyond. The particular temple would have been a peaceful forest wat, situated about a kilometre beyond the city walls of Phitsanulok. Then as now, it would have offered the possibility of tranquility in close proximity to a major town. It is certainly worth the attention of travelers with a little more time on their hands.

Khao Klang Nok: A Mon Temple Mountain

After leaving behind Si Thep, I told the samlor driver I wanted to go to Wat Khao Klang Nok, a name which he immediately recognized, somewhat to my surprise. I hopped on the back and we set off, driving out of Si Thep Historical Park and down a series of back roads. In truth, I didn’t have much faith that he knew where he was going, but I was to be proved wrong. A few minutes later we were approaching a monument which was set in a rather dry-looking landscape of grasses, shrubs and only occasional trees. Off to one side were a couple of ramshackle-looking street stalls built of wooden poles, canvas and galvanized iron. The whole had a dusty, forsaken look; overall, it seemed a very inauspicious setting for the largest Dvaravati monument still in existence.

It was a hot day, so I went over the stall-keeper and her sidekicks to buy a bottle of water. As so often happens in out of the way places, the people were very friendly and warm. We agreed on a price for the bottle of water and they laughed and had a lot of fun with it all. They asked me a few questions but I had no idea what they were saying and looked to my samlor driver for assistance; he had been lingering in the background the whole time. He gave a long answer using vigorous arm movements, the thrust of which was probably that he had been hired to take me around the historical relics in the area. They seemed to consider this very pleasing and there was more smiling and nodding. Eventually I thanked them and took my leave, oddly cheered by the friendly dispositions of the drinks sellers at Wat Khao Klang Nok .

The monument was a very considerable chunk of masonry, especially considering how slight the architectural record is for Dvaravati generally. This temple was on a square base of 64 x 64 metres, reaching a height of 20 metres. In the photos I had seen before going there, it was a mass of pitted laterite with only a scant brick coating on some parts, but a restoration of the monument was now well underway and in some portions the laterite core was now encased in reddish bricks again. But the restorers had not been over-zealous. It still had a somewhat decayed look, with laterite showing through the brickwork in many sections and the top of the monument having a great knob of weathered masonry protruding above the rest of the structure. Presumably, this had been intended as a kind of temple-mountain, and it would once have had a flat terrace on top. Part of the main staircase had now been restored and it was particularly broad and grand, projecting out from the main body of the temple with tall sections of wall on either side. This dignified staircase would once have led right to the top of the monument, which would have commanded a good view over the scrubby plains thereabouts.

The monolithic remains of Wat Khao Klang Nok
The monolithic remains of Wat Khao Klang Nok

You were not allowed to clamber up on the ancient stupa these days, so I decided to circumambulate the monument instead, getting a look at it from all sides. Unlike at its sister stupa at Si Thep, there was no terracotta art, which struck me as curious. Why had the Mon not applied terracotta decoration to this monument when they had not only done so at the other stupa at Si Thep but everywhere else throughout their culture zone too? Did it have something to do with the encroachment of Land Chenla, the neighbouring Khmer state, whose Hindu artistic influence is very evident in the sculpture from Si Thep? Had the Khmer not only influenced Mon art at Si Thep but Mon architecture as well? It certainly seemed possible. Instead of relying on terracotta for its decorative impact, this stupa used beautiful, understated motifs in its brickwork. What exactly these motifs represented was not clear, but to me the resembled some kind of stylized temple or shrine.

A detail from the walls of the stupa
A detail from the walls of the stupa

By the time I had done a complete lap, I was certain that the most impressive vantage point was the initial one. The broad staircase had a majestic look, emphasizing the great weight and dignity of the ancient monument. Yet incredibly, the stupa had only been dug out of the earth less than a decade ago; as late as the earliest twentieth-century, it was still an unexcavated mound that was merely presumed to contain a temple. Archaeologists had been right, of course, and now a massive 8th or 9th century ruin was slowly being restored to something approaching its original grandeur. It was easily the largest surviving Dvaravati monument in existence, and its size and grandeur hinted not only at the prosperity of ancient Si Thep but the cultural richness of the entire Mon-Dvaravati realm. It was now one of the best surviving windows on this enigmatic kingdom.



Dvaravati (6.5) The Capital of Dvaravati?

  From Nakhon Pathom Station we headed straight towards the famous chedi, which was in the Sri Lankan bell-shaped style, though with the addition, in Nakhon Pathom, that it was covered all over in yellow ceramic tiles. Though it was only a few hundred metres away, the air was so polluted that our first look at it was through a greasy layer of exhaust fumes: South-East Asia sometimes makes the romantic sensibility work pretty hard these days. To be honest, this chedi had not been towards the top of our Thailand to-do list. Sure, it was famous in Thailand as the nation’s tallest Buddhist monument, and it was a major Buddhist pilgrimage site as well, meaning its image was ubiquitous in that country, but the country abounded in stupas and chedis and I snobbishly didn’t feel that its supersized proportions were any real reason to become excited. After all, most of the ‘giant Buddhas’ which had started to pop up around the Thai countryside were eyesores, lacking the grace and refinement of classical Thai sculpture. If we had found those ugly, perhaps we wouldn’t enjoy Thailand’s biggest stupa either.

      What finally drew us there in 2003 was the realization that Nakhon Pathom’s current identity as a medium-sized Thai city was just an overlay of an ancient Mon settlement. It was the city’s and furthermore the chedi’s links to Dvaravati which finally made it a must-see site. As we walked down from the station towards the city’s landmark yellow bell, we discussed these links in particular and the mystery of the kingdom of Dvaravati in general. I told Cameron there were so few historical sources for the kingdom of Dvaravati that many historians argued that it didn’t even exist. These historians contended that Dvaravati was more of an art-style or culture-zone than a true kingdom and that there was very little proof that it ever had a ‘capital’ or an integrated political organization. It may have just been a series of moated Mon settlements which shared a language, the Buddhist faith, common artistic traditions and similar technologies.

Yes, some coins had turned up with the name Dvaravati on them and the Chinese seemed to have believed that there was a Mon kingdom at some point in the region too, but the traditional notion that Dvaravati had been Thailand’s first historic kingdom between the seventh and tenth centuries was much criticized. For one thing carbon dating had shown that some of these settlements stretched back well before this traditional range of dates, beginning by at least the year 400. Furthermore, the word Dvaravati had seemed to disappear from the scant, historical record after about the year 700. Still even the staunchest of Dvaravati sceptics acknowledged that Nakhon Pathom had been the major centre of this mysterious Mon culture and that if it ever was a kingdom, this had probably been its centre and capital.

   “What happened to the Mon people though?” worried Cameron.

   “Well there are still some around,” I suggested, “There are still a few Mon language communities in Thailand. I think the largest one is in Lamphun in the North with twenty-thousand people, but there are far more of them in Burma than Thailand today. I think in Thailand they were mostly assimilated and the Thais absorbed a lot of their art and culture. Probably there is a lot of Mon ancestry hidden away in the Thai race.”

     After crossing a moat into the ‘old city’, which was part of the layout of the ancient Mon city, we finally arrived at Wat Phra Pathom Chedi. Once inside we enjoyed it more than we had expected. This was partly due to the excellent people-watching opportunities. The national reputation of this wat meant that even on a workday it had attracted a large number of devotees. There were nuns and monks circumambulating around the main chedi and everyday Thais kneeling before sacred images in the many halls about the site. In the one of these prayer halls or ubosot was a four-metre stone Buddha from Dvaravati, which was thought to date back to the seventh century. It reminded us of the one we had seen at Ayutthaya thought art-historians detect important differences between the two colossi. We later read that this Buddha was thought to hail from a ruin on the edge of Nakhon Pathom called Wat Phra Men- just like the name of the wat we visited in Ayutthaya- and that it was thought to belong to a group of four massive stone Buddhas which had faced out at all cardinal points at this monument. It had later been moved here, where it was still an object of veneration to this very day. A number of Thais, mostly women, were kneeling before the image with their hands clasped together. This sense of a living religion was interesting to us as outside of Sunday mornings most churches in Australia are dreary, deserted places. And yet in spite of all these people, there was that sense of peace and tranquillity which can often be experienced at Buddhist pilgrimage sites: the chedi seemed to exist on a different plane to the hectic, congested city outside.

    As we circumambulated about with the monks, more to see the chedi from all angles than from a desire to imitate the Buddhist rituals, we discussed the unusual history of this monument. Though the present 127-metre tall structure dated from 1857, this stupa was a kind of Russian doll, with a series of smaller stupas hidden inside, one after another. Remove the outermost layer and you will find its historical predecessor. If you peeled off the 1856 version, you would have found a much smaller ruin, with the roots of shrubs prying the bricks apart. Take off another layer again and you would have found an Ayutthaya-era restoration, reaching to about half its present height. This Ayutthayan temple would have enclosed a thousand-year old ‘Brahmin prang’ of Khmer origin, which had reached a mere thirty-seven metres in height. Yet ancient as this prang would have been, predating Angkor Wat by more than a century, right in the middle was the original, dating from the period traditionally known as Dvaravati. This would have been a seventh or eighth century Mon-built brick structure of brick faced with stucco that had probably housed a hair or two of the Buddha, at least according to legend. This would have been the holiest of holies in the Mon-Dvaravati world and the centrepiece of its largest urban centre, Nakhon Pathom.

There is a small but fascinating site museum to visit there too, but which has one of the best collections of Mon sculpture you will find in the country. Wondering about we saw large quantities of stucco figurines and fragments. This was one of the media in which Mon-Dvaravati artists excelled and the cabinets of the museum contained many of these sandy-coloured heads and figurines. There was also one wonderful shallow stone-relief of a Maitreya Buddha seated with his legs hanging down ‘European style’ and his right hand raised in the teaching position, a relief version of the Buddha we had viewed in the ubosot. In seeing this we felt that we were making our first recognitions in the particular art-style of this mysterious kingdom.

After we went outside, we were confronted by the giant yellow bell that dominates every vista in Nakhon Pathom. Like the Mon people themselves, we saw, this ancient chedi had gradually been assimilated into Thailand. It might have started life as a symbol of Mon Buddhism and identity, but by the time Rama V ordered its restoration in 1856, it was ready for rebirth as a Theravada Buddhist monument and a unifying symbol of Thai identity. As we were later to find in Southern Thailand when looking at the Sriwijayan sites there, Thailand is unique in South-East Asia in that it encases the remains of early non-Thai civilizations. There are no similar sub-strata in the sites of Cambodia, Malaysia or Indonesia. The earliest monument-building cultures there were also the last. But as the Thais came down from the North they encountered historic kingdoms in full bloom and gradually, over the centuries, absorbed and assimilated them until they actually became symbols of all things Thai. This is the fascinating secret which you find by patiently peeling back the layers of time in Thailand.

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Dvaravati Vishnu of Si Thep

If you want to see a fine collection of early South-East Asian art, one of the best places you can go, surely, is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They have some of the finest pieces of sculpture from the Mon-Dvaravati period of Thai art history.

This head below bears striking resemblance to the Phnom Da images from the period of the Chenla conquest-absorption of Funan, and like those images this one dates to the seventh century. Like the Vishnu images from Phnom Da, this one has a high miter. It has been said though that the treatment of the facial expressions is more typically Mon than Khmer, making this stone figure a striking hybrid. The statue is evidence that the Mekong Delta-based Funan culture had artistic influence as far away as the Pa Sak River Valley, in the centre of Thailand.

The head comes from the important site of Si Thep in the current province of Phetchabun, which was once a transition zone between the Mon settlements of the Chao Phraya basin and the Khmer-influenced Khorat Plateau to the east. Though the Mon people are generally regarded as Buddhists, the presence of Hindu sculpture at Si Thep shows that they were religiously diverse. Again the influence of ancient Cambodia is felt here; Hinduism was the dominant religion of the Khmer Funan-Chenla. The Mon of Si Thep were probably much more Hindu-Buddhist than their compatriots in the Chao Phraya River, a fact which reflects their proximity to the Khmers.

The site is little visited by foreign tourists, but it remains one of the best places to see some remains of the Mon-Dvaravati culture and to see what happened to the Mon settlements after the rise of the Angkor empire. A crossroads of culture in ancient South-East Asia, the site produced some hybrid architecture and sculpture which is entirely unique.

The Dvaravati Vishnu of S Thep, showing Funanese influence