Saturday, August 25, 2007

A view on Khmer ruins from Thailand

I was sent this article by Ly Kenara as it provides some interesting details of the Khmer temples to be found in Thailand. Its taken from the Royal Orchid Holidays website so as you might expect has a distinctive Thai-bias in its reporting. But whatever happens, lets not start another bust-up between the two countries.

On the Trail of Khmer ruins in Thailand, There’s more than one Angkor Wat - by Harold Stephens,Travel Correspondent for Thai Airways International.

People are often surprised when I tell them they don’t have to travel to Angkor Wat in Cambodia to find Khmer ruins. Khmer ruins are everywhere in Southeast Asia, and especially in Thailand. Imagine, for nearly 500 years much of Southeast Asia, from the Mekong Delta in the east to borders of Myanmar in the west, lay under the control of the Khmer Empire. With Angkor as the hub, the empire radiated out in every direction, and to connect to the outlying reaches of the empire, the Khmers built a system of military highways. At various locations along these highways, religio-political strongholds were constructed, some no more than a stone shelter for guards, while others were the size of city blocks. But regardless of its size, each stood like a minor Angkor Wat, mighty in its own grandeur. Amazing as it may sound, Thailand has more than 2,000 of these Khmer strongholds, or ruins, within its domain. Where are they? No single text or guidebook has been written to include all of them, and if it were possible to write one, its pages would number in the thousands. But don’t despair. You can find them. The larger of these sites, of course, are well known. They are in guidebooks and appear in magazines and tourist publications, and their names in many cases have become household names— notably Phimai in northeastern Thailand. But there are others, actually a series of magnificent sites strung like beads on a necklace across Thailand's Tung Kula Rong Hai which include sites like Banteay Srei, Preah Vihear, Wat Phu, Phanom Rung and several others.

Without a guidebook, how do we find these lesser-known ruins? It’s a simple matter of exploration and discovery. All you need to do is to get behind the driver’s wheel of a car, arm yourself with a good road map—better yet two or three maps—and take off. Many road maps have sites marked, sometimes only dots on the map, but more often it’s by chance alone that you find a site. This is especially true when motoring the back roads in the northeast of Thailand. When you take any one of these roads, sure enough a small road sign will pop up pointing out the direction to a hidden Khmer site. And you don’t need a four-wheel drive vehicle to make these discoveries. Roads are all-weather, and very few go unpaved.And you don’t need a four-wheel drive vehicle to make these discoveries. Roads are all-weather, and very few go unpaved. Motorists usually stumble upon a ruin without expecting it. That happened to me recently when I was driving from Kanchanaburi to Three Pagodas pass, following along the old line of the Death Railway. Suddenly there was a sign— Prasat Muang Singh.

I wouldn’t have known what it was unless I stopped to enquire. It was a Khmer ruin, a western outpost of the Khmer Empire. Who would ever suspect a Khmer ruin this far in the west close to the Myanmar border, but there it was. I also learned from the curator at Muang Singh that there are several more minor ruins in the area, which I put off investigating until another day.
The question that comes to mind is how did all these ruins become forgotten? Angkor Wat in Cambodia, as the capital, thrived between the 10th and 14th centuries AD. But by the mid-19th century, when the frontiers of present-day Indochina were clearly defined by French imperialism, the Khmer Empire had long since disappeared and Cambodia was but a mere fraction of its former size. In time these outposts were forgotten and fell into ruin. Although Angkor Wat remains within Cambodia, the bulk of the Khmer past now lay outside Cambodia.
Thailand has always valued her historic treasures, and has long acknowledged their full potential as tourist attractions. The most important of these sites have been painstakingly and successfully restored by the Department of Fine Arts. As I mentioned, the most prominent of these is Phimai, the northeasternmost site and certainly the best known of them. Phimai can be found at the small town of Phimai, 59 kilometres northeast of Khorat, on a turning off from National Highway 2 to Khon Kaen. In distant times the site was directly linked by road to Angkor. There are clear indications that Phimai was the main religious and administrative centre of the Khmer northeast. The complex at Phimai dates originally from the reign of Surayavarman II, during the first part of the 12th century. The temple was constructed with white, finely grained sandstone, in the same style as Angkor Wat. Like Angkor, too, Phimai was first dedicated to the cult of Vishnu. The central sanctuary tower and much of the immediate surrounding that survive today date from this early period. 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. It is my favourite site. It is easy to reach, just 18 kilometres to the south of Route 24, the main highway between Khorat and Ubon Ratchathani. Phanom Rung is quite interesting, being a mixing of Thai and Khmer. It was constructed between the 10th and 13th centuries, but the greater part of the work was completed in the reign of King Suriyavarman II (1113 -1150 AD), during the period when the architecture of the Kingdom of Angkor reached its apogee. About 8 kilometres south of Phanom Rung, on the vast plain approaching the Cambodian frontier, stands the old Khmer sanctuary of Prasat Muang Tam. The ruin dates to the late 10th century AD. Surrounded by a high laterite wall, the complex includes magnificent stepped tanks which have been restored and filled with lotus flowers. The mellow sandstone of the sanctuary walls and beautifully carved lintels contrasts with the darker, coarser laterite of the surrounding sanctuary walls.

Surin province is a gem for Khmer ruins. Motorists should follow Route 24 from Ban Ta Ko and proceed east to Amphur Prasat and the junction for Surin, some 25 kilometres to the north. This province is closely linked with neighbouring Cambodia. Fine examples of the areas Khmer past may be found at Prasat Ban Pluang, near the road junction at Prasat, as well as at Prasat Sikhoraphum, 32 kilometres beyond Surin on Route 2077 to Sisaket. Both sites have been beautifully restored. Ban Pluang, which dates from the second half of the 11th century and was once an important stop on the road between Angkor and Phimai, is a square sandstone tower built on a laterite platform. The surrounding moats and ponds have been turned into an attractive garden to very pleasing effect. By contrast Sikhoraphum, which has also been carefully restored, consists of five brick prangs on a square laterite platform surrounded by lily-filled ponds. The lintel and pillars of the central prang are beautifully carved with heavenly dancing girls, or aspires, and other scenes from Hindu mythology. Finally, further along Route 2077 we come to the heavy laterite sanctuary of Prasat Kamphaeng Yai. And beyond that is magnificent Preah Vihear (known to the Thais as Khao Phra Viharn) just across the Cambodian border from Ubon Ratchathani. Until recently it was not advisable to travel to the site but that has changed in the last few years. Thailand and Cambodia have reached some sort of peace agreement following the death of Pol Pot and the banishment of the Khmer Rouge from its nearby Anglong Veng Base. Preah Vihear is now open for visitors with authorized entrance from Thailand. What’s amazing is that the ruin is almost inaccessible from Cambodia, unless, of course, one has the funds to charter a helicopter.

Thailand has done a marvelous job in developing the area. A tarmac paved road leads right up to the border, and here one can park. From here visitors must hike along a dusty trail to the ruin. One may tour only the immediate surroundings of the complex, as there are still plenty of land mines and live ordnance in the fields and forests nearby. One can’t forget the site was the scene of heaving fighting as recently as May 1998 and the Khmer Rouge in defending this strategic location against government forces used numerous land mines. The site is truly impressive. It actually sits atop a 600-metre cliff, an escarpment, and commands a dramatic view of the Cambodian plains to the east, and both Laos and Thailand in the other direction. The hill itself was sacred to Khmer Hindus for at least 500 years before the completion of the temple complex that has been only semi-restored. A Khmer ruin that I really enjoy is Wat Phu near Pakse in neighboring Laos. Motorists can leave their vehicles at the Lao/Thai border and travel by bus to the ruin. But that trip is another story for another time.
Note: The article is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the view of Thai Airways International Public Company Limited. website.

1 comment:

rjhintz said...

An excellent guide is "Khmer Temples in Thailand and Laos" by Michael Freeman, 1996, ISBN: 0834804506. I guess it's out of print now, since Amazon has some exorbitant price for it. It may be available at shops in Bangkok.