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Bastion Of The South
Nakhon Si Thammarat
No city in South Thailand has as much to offer the visitor in terms of history and culture as Nakhon Si Thammarat. Buddhist and Hindu temples, relics from the thousand year old civilisation of Srivijaya, impressive city fortifications still resisting the scourge of time – this city has them all, as well as a fine selection of fresh seafood restaurants to make the mouth water.
Undoubtedly the most important and sacred monument in South Thailand is Wat Phra Mahathat Woromaha Vihara. Built at a place called Hat Sai Keo, or Beach of Crystal Sands in the heart of the old city, the temple's chief feature is the great chedi, Phra Borommathat, whose gold-covered spire rises high above most other structures in the town.
Legend has it that in the fourth century of the Buddhist era, or about two thousand years ago, two Indian cities disputed the possession of a Buddha tooth relic. An Indian prince and princess of the city which lost, called Tontaburi, fled with the relic to Sri Lanka. Their sampan was wrecked, but the sea, anxious to conserve the relic, cast them up on the Beach of Crystal Sands in Nakhon Si Thammarat. Wat Phra Mahathat was subsequently established to mark the site of this miraculous event, and the sacred Buddha tooth enshrined at its heart.
The chedi as it now stands is of the Sri Lankan style, towering 78 metres above the city. On top of the bell-shaped base is a square platform with gilded figures of eight of the followers of the Lord Buddha, with, above this, a spire covered in gold leaf. Estimates put the weight of gold used in decorating the chedi at just under a thousand kilograms, or one metric tonne!
Continuing restorations have maintained the monument, preserving it as one of Thailand's most important temples. It covers a huge area – some 25 rai – and is distinguished not only by the chedi, but by the Phra Rabieng, a series of galleries or cloisters with numerous Buddha images, 158 lesser chedis, and related satellite structures.
In front of Wat Mahathat, the original “Beach of Crystal Sands” is today symbolised by a simple sandy area, complete with model sampan to commemorate the ship on which the sacred Buddha tooth arrived. Two caste bronze statues stand in front of this vessel depicting the Indian Prince and Princess responsible for the founding of Wat Phra Mahathat – Nakhon Si Thammarat's pride and the enduring symbol of Buddhism in south Thailand.
Also important, and quietly impressive, are the city's surviving fortifications. Just a part of one of the shorter sides of Nakhon's long, original rectangle of walls is still standing, but this section has been carefully restored. These impressive remains still gives a clear impression of what the fortifications must have been like when they stood within defensive moats, resisting first King Taksin, and then the invading Burmese, during the early Rattanakosin period.
The remains of the ancient brick-built walls of Nakhon Si Thammarat are topped with crenellated battlements in the familiar shape of Buddhist bai sema. The imposing structure is broken by part of the only surviving city gate, the northern one, which boasts a strongly fortified gate house and a wide, high arch. In times past the walls of Nakhon Si Thammarat were defended by four strong corner-forts, but these, alas, have totally disappeared.
Originally the wall enclosed an area measuring about half a kilometre from East to West, by just over two kilometres from North to South. Today only the north gate, Pratu Chai Neua or Pratu Chai Sak, still survives – at least, in part. The former south gate has completely disappeared and is today only remembered in the nearby road named Thanon Pratu Chai Tai, or “South Gate Road”.
Before the silting up of the surrounding area, Nakhon Si Thammarat lay closer to the sea on the east side than it does today, and the city seems to have functioned as a port, at least for moderate-sized boats of not too great a draught. Even in more recent times, such vessels could come up to the city via Klong Pak Nakhon, branching off into the streams leading to the city moats – as indeed they could again, if the ‘klongs' were dredged and the bridges rebuilt.
On the east side of Nakhon there were formerly three gates in the city wall. They were called Pratu Lak, Pratu Po and Pratu Lod. Their identities are preserved in the names of some of the streets leading east, off the town's central road, Thanon Rajadamnern. On the west side of the city there were a further five gates – Pratu Tha Ma, Pratu Ta Chi, Pratu Tai Wang, Pratu Saphan Yom and Pratu Nang Ngam. Records also suggest that at one time there was a Pratu Chang, or “Elephant Gate” at the north-western corner of the city, leading to Elephant Wharf, where captured elephants were transhipped in former times.
In the 19th and 20th centuries came the steady decay of the walls, as roads, the prison, and other structures were built with the ready-to-hand material from the now-disused walls. This process only really came to a halt in 1990, when the elegant surviving section of the north wall was restored. Today this stretch of wall is an important attraction for Thais and foreign visitors alike. Seen in the clear light of the early morning, or illuminated by the rays of the setting sun, the ramparts of Nakhon Si Thammarat are a reminder of the city's former importance as a bastion of Thai power and prestige in the turbulent south.
For those more enamoured with nature than with history, Nakhon has something special to offer as well. This is Talad Park, a compendium of zoo, aviaries, gardens, lakes and pavilions. The large aviary is especially attractive. A gateway hung with heavy chains to prevent the escape of the birds leads into a little paradise. Here, one can wander around the paths of a richly planted and shaded area, supplied with its own small rivers, waterfalls and bridges, watching the birds – over one thousand are assembled – in a habitat much more natural than their caged fellows in the zoo. Peacocks, including rare white ones, glorious pheasants, waders, ducks, pigeons and doves, and many species of small brightly coloured birds, occupy the aviary. The park itself is ideal for a picnic, with many areas specially equipped with seats and tables overlooking lakes or waterfalls.
After an enjoyable day examining Nakhon's many fascinating sites, the visitor could do no better than sample some of the region's justly famous seafood. The city motto, which promises “every sort of prawn and crab”, is no exaggeration. Nakhon boasts a host of small cafes, restaurants, bars and suan ahaan garden restaurants where excellent and very reasonable food can be found at virtually any time of the day or night.
Text by Stuart Munro-Hay; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History – © CPA Media