Don’t miss these two less visited majestic temples in the plains of southern Isan, which testify to the enduring legacy of the Khmer empire in Thailand.
By Marco Ferrarese.
When planning an itinerary to Southeast Asia, the temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia almost always comes to mind as one of the first choices. Elegant, mysterious and picture-perfect, it’s visited by thousands of tourists every year. Fewer know that back in the glory days of the Khmer empire about 800 years ago, the geographies of modern Southeast Asia’s nation-states were quite different.
Indeed, Angkor was the last in a series of temple complexes connected by a ‘royal highway’ that extended from present-day Cambodia to northeast Thailand, and precisely, southern Isan. The two most significant vestiges of the Khmer Highway in Thailand are Phanum Rung, near the small town of Nan Rong, and Phimai, about two hours away from Isan’s main city Nakhon Ratchashima. They are much less visited than the Angkor Wat complex, but certainly not less intriguing.
Arriving in Nan Rong — a small center in Buriram province laid at the side of the highway that continues east through Surin until the Lao border — it’s difficult to imagine that the glory of Phanum Rung lies just about 30km away. The best way to reach the complex is by renting a set of wheels and leaving the highway as soon as possible to venture out in the countryside. A well-paved road snakes through small villages, climbing up a steep hill and entering into Phanum Rung’s archaeological area proper.
The temple itself, attractively built with reddish laterite stones, stands proud at the top of a 440m-high extinct volcano. Its main tower is visible from the beginning of a path that leads visitors from the main complex’s entrance to the volcano’s foothills.
At the sides, a series of Nagas, the celestial snake gods, accompanies the visitors to the bottom of a steep staircase that leads to the main temple. Two pools filled with lotus flowers welcome visitors with reflections of the main gopura straight before the entrance. Following the main corridor, it’s easy to reach the back of the complex and observe the majestic pinnacle of the main temple. Originally built between the 10th and 13th century as a Hindu shrine, it represents mount Kailash, Shiva’s heavenly abode.
Differently from Phanum Rung, Phimai temple constituted one end of the Ancient Khmer Highway from Angkor, and is surrounded by a small town that has grown thanks to the importance of the archeological site. Even if having a similar area and being built in the Hindu style of temples like Angkor’s Bayon, Phimai was on the contrary a Buddhist temple.
Compared to Phanum Rung, the atmosphere at Phimai is quite different, as it is enclosed by a modern living city. The ruins are in fact at the center of small town Phimai, and it’s indeed possible to stay in guesthouses right next to the historical park. Phanum Rung, on the other hand, looks like a place lost in the middle of the countryside, sheltered by modernity, and to some this is its winning point.
Phimai may initially look more commercialized but offers more comforts and the chance of exploring and enjoying small town life — and a lively night market — right on the doorstep of an archaeological site.
What’s more, Phimai is much more similar to Angkor Wat, as it was built on a plain, and it’s the biggest of all Khmer temples in Thailand. Entering the complex, one has to walk for several hundreds meters before getting to the temple itself. Surrounded by other minor shrines and platforms ornated by nagas, Phimai’s three towers come into view framed by the branches of numerous trees that grow undisturbed in the quaint gardens.
On a clear day, the three dark-red laterite towers appear grandiose against the sky. The best time to visit is during morning hours or sunset, when the sunlight is not too harsh, and the colors of the temples are at their most glowing. During the day, take a walk along the Mun river than skirts the ruins until Sai Ngam, a spooky banyan tree forest, said to be the biggest in Thailand, one that warrants creepy walks under a web of convoluted branches resembling the set of a horror film.
At last, both Phanum Rung and Phimai have one thing in common. On the contrary of Angkor Wat’s busy grounds, they still guarantee that sense of untamed exploration that one only gets when away from the crowds.
Walking up these century-old staircases, roaming the grounds and spending some quiet time sitting on the ruins and contemplating history is best done without hordes of camera-toting tourists. Get there before all this changes.