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Phanom Rung, Isaan’s Temple of the Gods
A Drive to Phanom Rung via the Cambodian Frontier
Khorat's Prasat Hin Phimai may be the best-known and most easily accessible Khmer temple site in Northeast Thailand, but Buriram's Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung is perhaps better preserved, and certainly set amidst more spectacular scenery. Nor is it hard to reach. Just 18 kilometres to the south of Route 24, the main highway between Khorat and Ubon Ratchathani, the carefully restored ruins are served by an excellent all-weather road from the small settlement of Ban Ta Ko, 18 kilometres to the west of Buriram's Amphur Prakhon Chai. This is the way most people approach Phanom Rung, and there is nothing wrong with that – it's straightforward, easy and convenient. So why look for an alternative, one may legitimately ask?
The answer is simple – ‘traffic' – that bane of modern society. Route 24 is busy, often packed with traffic, much of it of the ‘heavy goods' variety. Happily, a scenic, attractive and quiet alternative exists for visitors approaching Phanom Rung from Bangkok. Just south of Khorat, in Amphur Chok Chai, a subsidiary road breaks away from Highway 24 and leads south-east, along the Thai-Cambodia frontier, through Lahan Sai and Ban Kruat to rejoin the main road south of Surin. This route, which was originally upgraded for defensive purposes during the second and third Indochina Wars, is nowadays wide open to ordinary travellers, secure and tranquil. It represents the ‘back way' to Phanom Rung, and beats Highway 24 hands down for laid-back driving.
The traveller should leave Khorat by the road south to Chok Chai, pausing at the unique pottery village of Ban Dan Kwian, 15 kms to the south-east, where rust-coloured clay from the local river is used to make an impressive range of elegant pots, vases and other artefacts. The potters are friendly, and delighted – naturally – to welcome visitors. Prices are very reasonable, and it is possible to visit the workshops behind the sales stands where the multifarious stages of potting, glazing and firing may be observed at leisure.
After Ban Dan Kwian the route becomes a rural idyll, with precious little traffic – and virtually no heavy goods lorries or long-distance tour buses – to disturb the scene. Instead, the traveller will encounter numerous small i-ten farmers' trucks puttering along in the slow lane usually reserved for motorcycles. At this time of year – in February and March – they are stacked high with tapioca roots, the most important crop in the region, destined for the world animal feed market. Thailand is now the world's largest exporter of tapioca feed, and on each side of the highway to Phanom Rung and Ban Kruat great tapioca depots are a constant reminder of this fact. Not that the industry spoils the scene – rather it adds to it, helping to make the local people prosperous and cheerful. There are precious few signs of poverty in this ‘back-woods' region.
Route 2071 leads south from Chok Chai to Khon Buri before turning eastwards and becoming Route 2119 to Soeng Sang. The quality of the highway is excellent, with no bumps or potholes at all. On either side of the road fertile fields extend as far as the eye can see, the ubiquitous tapioca plant interspersed with fields of sugar cane, lamyai trees and – where the landscape permits – low-lying rice paddies protected by carefully-maintained retaining walls. Everywhere there are mango trees, sugar palms, coconuts and re-planted teaks. If ever there were an isaan kiao – a "green northeast", then this is it. The people seem to be darker-skinned than those of Khorat who have been left behind. After all, this is southern Buriram, and as one proceeds east the percentage of Khmer-speaking Suay increases, until at the major town of Ban Kruat Suay-Khmer has become the lingua franca of the region. Everyone can speak central Thai and isaan dialect as well, however, so for the visitor unfamiliar with Khmer this presents no problem.
Before reaching Ban Kruat, close by the remote settlement of Lahan Sai, a metalled spur road stretches north towards the ancient Khmer temples of Prasat Meuang Tam and Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung. "Prasat Hin" – the generic term usually applied to Khmer historical monuments in Thailand – is often translated as "stone castle" in English. In fact "temple sanctuary" would be a better translation than "castle", since the latter suggests some form of military function, whilst in truth Thailand's Khmer prasat – from the Sanskrit prasada – are large temple sanctuaries based on a cruciform floor plan. In the case of Phanom Rung, the designation is complicated by a rather clumsy mixing of Thai and Khmer. Thus phanom rung, the sanctuary's Cambodian name, means "Big Hill" in Khmer. To this the Thais have added the qualifiers khao, or "hill", and hin, or "stone"; hence "Big Hill Stone Castle".
Before reaching Phanom Rung, however, the traveller from the Lahan Sai must traverse a broad, flat plain over which the ‘big hill' shimmers in the mid-day heat. Half-way across these thirsty flat-lands stands the old Khmer sanctuary of Prasat Meuang Tam, a convenient and fascinating stopping point on the journey. Fifteen years ago Prasat Meuang Tam was a crazily-leaning, lop-sided mass of stone walls and lintels, shrouded in the dense vegetation of centuries of neglect. Today only a small part of the temple complex remains – for a brief while – in this condition, a mute testament to the arbitrary power of time and circumstance. The rest has been restored, and splendidly so, by the Archaeological Commission of Thailand.
Prasat Meuang Tam dates to the late 10th century AD, and was constructed on the orders of King Jayavarman V. Surrounded by a high laterite wall, the complex includes magnificent stepped tanks which have been lovingly restored and filled with lotus flowers. The mellow sandstone of the sanctuary walls and artistically-carved lintels contrasts beautifully with the darker, coarser laterite of the surrounding sanctuary walls. The sense is one of peace and quiet reverence – the more so since this temple is rarely visited compared with nearby Phanom Rung, and much less well-known.
Just five kilometres beyond Prasat Meung Tam, the road begins a short and fairly sharp ascent of the ‘big hill'. Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung is clearly discernible from the plains below, but the scale of the Khmer enterprise only becomes clearly apparent nearer the summit. The sanctuary rises from the crest of an extinct volcanic cone 383 metres above sea level, offering fine views of the surrounding countryside, especially southwards where the peaks of the Chuor Phnum Dangrek range mark the Thai-Cambodian frontier.
Phanom Rung was constructed between the 10th and 13th centuries, but the greater part of the work was completed during the reign of King Suriyavarman II (1113–1150 AD), during the period when the architecture of the Kingdom of Angkor reached its apogee. Today, after seventeen years of careful and painstaking restoration, the sanctuary is the largest and best-preserved of all the Khmer monuments in Thailand, Khorat's Prasat Hin Phimai not excluded. As such, it is also the most impressive – and safest – Khmer monument outside Cambodia, and forms an essential part of the Tourism Authority of Thailand's "Khmer Culture Route" across the Weeping Plain of Southern Isaan. Even when peace eventually prevails inside Cambodia, the terrain around such marvellous sites as Angkor and Khao Phra Vihaan will remain strewn with landmines, whilst the temples themselves will require years of restoration. Quite simply, Phanom Rung has decades of advantage on its side as the most impressive, most secure, and most accessible of Khmer sanctuaries still extant.
Whilst this fact may not yet be common knowledge in Europe and America, it certainly seems to be in Buriram. The sanctuary is extraordinarily popular with local Thais, and a constant stream of visitors – fortified by the obligatory kai yang grilled chicken, som tam papaya salad and (not infrequently) a glass or two of Mekhong whisky, stroll around the venerable complex taking photographs and admiring the fine stone-carvings. Last week an almost surreal quality was added to this relaxed and secure atmosphere – the distant, muffled sound of heavy artillery on the Khmer side of the border a discreet but sobering reminder of the proximity of war.
The climb to the sanctuary from the nearby car park is gradual and passes a number of small museum buildings constructed to house precious artefacts from the restored site. At the crest of the hill, facing due west, a long laterite promenade leads straight to the main temple, passing a lesser structure – the White Elephant Hall – on the right. This is one of the most impressive sights of Phanom Rung, best seen in the early morning as the rising sun illumines the steps and naga ballustrades leading to the inner complex containing the central mondop and main prang.
Phanom Rung was originally built as a Hindu temple honouring the deities Vishnu and Shiva. Beautifully-carved representations of these two gods can be found in the lintels and pediments of the sanctuary, together with figures of Nandi, the bull mount of Shiva and Uma. On the east portico of the mondop, or antechamber to the main sanctuary, is a fine Nataraja, or Dancing Shiva figure. Beyond, in the rust-coloured central sanctuary of the prasat, is a Shiva lingam, or phallic image.
Perhaps of most interest, or at least viewed with most sentimental attachment by the Thai visitors, is the main lintel over the east-facing front entranceway. This is the famed Phra Narai Lintel, a carved relief bearing the image of Lord Narayana. Growing from his navel is a lotus blossom, on a branch of which sits Brahma, Lord of Creation. On either side of Narayana – the reclining Vishnu – are the heads of Kala, the God of Time and Death. Narayana is asleep on the milky waters of eternity, represented by a naga snake. The lintel looks as though it has been here for ever – or at least, from the days of Suriyavarman II.
Yet it is not so. Between 1961 and 1965 persons unknown contrived illegally to remove and export this hallowed stone-work. Subsequent investigations showed that it had been donated by James Alsdorf, an American benefactor, to the Oriental Art Institute in Chicago. Only in December, 1988, did the the Alsdorf Institute return the lintel to Phanom Rung after a long and vigorous campaign by the Thai people. During this period the popular music group Carabao released their album Thap Lang (which means "lintel" in Thai) featuring a Statue of Liberty cradling the Phra Narai Lintel in her left arm! The most memorable lyric on the album was "take back your Michael Jackson, and give us back our Phra Narai!"
Rumour has it that of seven Thais involved in the original theft, six have met unpleasant ends. Be this as it may, Phra Narai is once again back where he belongs, reclining above the main doorway to Phanom Rung sanctuary. Long may he remain thus.
Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley, Joe Cummings & Pictures From History – © CPA Media