KHMER IN THAILAND
On The Road To Angkor
24 August 2017
Angkor Wat remains so symbolic of the splendour of the Khmer Empire that other monuments scattered across Cambodia, Laos and Thailand are often overlooked. However, a royal road runs from Phimai in Isan to Angkor, linking the two sites, passing through Phanom Rung and Muang Tam.
Whether as a prelude to, or after a visit to the temples of Angkor, far from the crush of the two million yearly visitors to the Cambodian site, the Phimai, Phanom Rung and Muang Tam parks provide a peaceful haven with fewer tourists. Classed as historical monuments by the Thai authorities, these are testament to the Angkorian era, the golden age of far-eastern architecture, and are some of the most beautiful Khmer sanctuaries in Thailand, just waiting to be given UNESCO World Heritage status.
From the ninth to the thirteenth centuries, the Khmer Empire covered vast territories in what is today Thailand, stretching across the provinces of Nakhon Ratchasima, Buriram, Surin and Ubon Ratchathani. More than 300 temples would be built, the most important of which would be linked by a ‘royal road.’ While this ancient road is no longer visible other than in satellite images, we nevertheless travelled the 225 km separating the cities of Phimai and Angkor, looking to discover these less famous temples.
A small village around 60 km from Nakhon Ratchasima, the modern town of Phimai can be found in the same location as the ancient one, and still today ruins of the outer walls can be seen here and there, as well as the temple of Prasat Hin Phimai in the town centre. Built around the eleventh and twelfth centuries, some years before Angkor Wat, Prasat Hin Phimai may even have served as a model for it, as demonstrated by numerous architectural similarities, such as the 28 m tall central tower. However, a few elements give Prasat Hin Phimai a different character, since this is in fact a Buddhist Mahayana temple, while Angkor Vat was realised in tribute to Hindu god Vishnu. The other distinctive feature of the temple at Phimai is that it faces to the south, towards the ancient road which leading to the heart of the Khmer empire. In fact the southern gate is still extant, inviting the traveller to continue their journey after having discovered the town.
Even though the temple is the main attraction, Phimai proves to be a little town full of charm in other areas too, on the banks of the River Mun, where you can take a lovely stroll through the Sai Ngam Park. This is located on a small island, from where we you are plunged into a forest formed by the roots of a single banyan tree more than 350 years old. This is an enchanting setting by day, but we can easily imagine it becoming the set of a horror film once night falls. In the evening, you must go and visit the night market, in order to try the culinary specialities of Isan, including ‘Phimai style’ pad thai. A spicier version of traditional pad thai, it is packed full with the two main ingredients of north-eastern Thai cuisine: sugar and chilli peppers!
Phanom Rung and Muang Tam
More isolated than Phimai, the sanctuaries of Phanom Rung and Muang Tam can be visited on organised tours from Buriram, and even though there are a few hotels and guest houses close to the historical sites, the atmosphere here is much more pastoral, with rice fields as far as the eye can see. Built between the tenth and thirteenth centuries in the crater of an ancient volcano, the temple of Phanom Rung reaches a height of 400 m, a small challenge for the daring among you who wish to get there by bicycle. At the top you will find majestic scenery and on a clear day you can see as far as the Dangrêk Mountains, which mark the border with Cambodia.
Access to the temple, dedicated to the god Shiva and facing in the direction of the rising sun, is akin to a Hindu spiritual journey, leading, after a hike punctuated with steps, to Mount Meru, presiding over the summit of the world. The most impressive part is without a doubt walking across the 160 m long road paved with blocks of laterite and sandstone. At the end of this pathway, a monumental staircase leads to the top of the hill. The scope of the temple and the beauty of its buildings give a good indication of the power and wealth of the Khmer Empire. For those who love photography and magic moments, the sun’s rays can be seen pouring simultaneously through the gates of the approach to the sanctuary four times a year (3-5 April, 8-10 September at sunrise and 5-7 March, 5-7 October at sunset). This is a phenomenon caused by something being gently knocked out of alignment towards the north of the historic park.
At the foot of the hill is the Muang Tam sanctuary, less impressive than its neighbour. The site seems to have been given the cold shoulder by tourists, in contrast to the 300,000 annual visitors to Phanom Rung. Undeservedly so, however, since with its moats covered in lotus owers and its ve brick towers surrounded by two outer walls with numerous, very well-preserved bas- reliefs, it emanates a feeling of great serenity. And then, it’s also next to Muang Tam that another portion of the laterite-paved road continues for around 100 m, a remnant of the holy road, inviting the traveller to continue their journey all the way to Siem Reap.