Notes from a Nomad

Remarkable People, Memorable Events and Fascinating Destinations from Around the World.

64 Ancient Cities and Temples: A Thai Road Trip. Oct 22 – Oct 30 2020

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The most famous historic ruins in South East Asia are justifiably the magnificent and extensive ruins of more than three dozen often ornately decorated Temples found amidst the dense jungle at Angkor Wat, near Siem Reap in Cambodia. And as a result Angkor Wat is a heavily visited destination, attracting visitors from all around the world. Indeed when I first visited Angkor Wat in 2006, I was also fortunate enough to visit the Great Pyramids in Egypt and Machu Pichu in Peru, also both for the first time the same year, and it was Angkor Wat that for me was by far the most impressive.

What is less well known is the fact that extensive Khymer ancient ruins are also found in Cambodia’s neighbours Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Indeed whilst Thailand is usually often primarily associated with sun and sand vacations on idyllic islands, it contains a truly impressive range of historic monuments and temples spread throughout the country.

The most famous of these are perhaps the complexes found at Ayutthaya, easily accessible from Bangkok, and at Sukothai in the north of Thailand. In 2017 I had visited the Historical Parks at Phanom Rung and Prasat Muang Tam close to Buri Ram in the Isaan region, and thought they were almost as impressive as the temples at Angkor Wat.

As a result of the Covid – 19 pandemic I had stayed at my home in Pattaya in Thailand  for 7 months, indeed I had not ventured more than 10 kilometers from my home and sleeping 7 months in the same bed was probably not something I had done for 20, 30 maybe 40 years or more.  You can read an account of life under lockdown in Thailand here but by August life was very much back to normal in Thailand except for an absence of international tourists as the borders were closed. And when I decided not to return to either Switzerland or the UK, where it seemed a second wave of Covid – 19 and further restrictions and lockdowns were inevitable, I decided I should really take the opportunity to explore more of Thailand.

A September road trip was considered and then moved to early and then mid October and it was not until October 22, after hiring a late model rental car for £7 ($10) a day, that my friend Ampai and I finally set off, heading for Phitsanulok and the Historical Parks at Phimai, Sukothai, Si Satchanalai and Kampaeng Phet.

Our first night’s stop was at Nakhon Ratchasima (better known as the abbreviated Khorat) by which time Ampai had asked me on several occasions why we were not visiting Lopburi which she had spotted on several signposts during the day.

Given that I wanted to be back in Pattaya by November 4 to watch the US Presidential election results unfold (Good Luck with that Michael – it took weeks!) and the hoped for demise of Trump (Thank God) we were already under some time constraints and more so as I also wanted to visit Ampai’s home village to buy some furniture for the extension to her house before we planned another visit there with friends later in November.

I explained to Ampai that as a Geographer and experienced tour operator I had planned the itinerary in the most logical way to make the maximum use of the time available, but once in the hotel I checked the calendar, the maps and found that maybe it made sense to backtrack 40 miles or so, reverse our itinerary and head towards………………………Lopburi!

Ampai was indeed correct that it should have been included in our plans from the beginning as the guide books confirmed there were a number of interesting attractions to visit, as well as a gazillion of monkeys roaming around parts of the city!

For the next 8 days we dined on an unrelenting and never ending feast of interesting historic monuments and ruins by day and then often driving anything between 50 and 150 miles to our next destination during the late afternoon and early evening.

By the time we got to Ampai’s village for two days of furniture shopping and then a 300 mile drive back to Pattaya I was as tired as I have ever been from travelling, but that was my fault and mine alone for delaying our departure. In truth I would return to any of the destinations in a heartbeat and certainly all would benefit from more than the one day we spent at each, two days at Sukothai being the exception.

An added bonus for visiting any of the Thai monuments is that Thais have a great pride and awareness of their history and, as Thailand is one of the most developed of the Tiger economies of South East Asia, there has been significant government investment in the management and landscaping of all the historical parks that we visited with impressive signage and access.

I am already planning another trip to include some of the historic monuments we have yet to visit, a return to Ayutthaya which we did not include this time as we had spent a weekend there in 2013 and Yes a return to Lopburi!

Meanwhile I hope the images that follow will give you a taste of what Thailand offers to aficionados of ancient cities and civilizations.

To Lopburi

We enjoyed a nice sunset beyond Lumtakong Lake near Nakhon Ratchasima.

Thailand is very Covid – 19 concious. Plastic gloves at buffet breakfast and social distancing instructions in the lifts.

Wat Phra Phuttabat

Wat Phra Phuttabat is one of just two royal temples located outside of Bangkok.

Buddha’s ‘footprint’ is now covered by gold leaf and donations from merit seeking Thais!

Thai temples are characterised by sculpture and ornate decoration.

There is a shrine in a cave near the hilltop viewpoint.

Wat Tham Krabok

Wat Tham Krabok is relatively modern, dating from 1957 and is characterised by many giant Buddha images. It has gained international notoriety formerly as a centre housing up to 35,000 Laotian refugees on its grounds  and also for its heroin and opium drug rehabilitation programs, which have treated over 110,000 patients including several western celebrities.

 

 

Lopburi

Lopburi is a historic town dating back to the 6th century that easily justifies a two day stay, with historic ruins and temples spread over several sites, as well as an outstanding museum. It is however most famous today for what are quite possibly the world’s most aggressive monkeys that live amidst the ruins.

Phra Narai Ratchaniwet

The Phra Narai Ratchaniwet  Palace dates from the 17th century and contains an outstanding National Museum. The Palace and grounds are the centrepiece of Lopburi.

 

Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat

The extensive grounds include renovated Khymer ruins from the 6th century  and the Khymer style Prang towers are almost 30 metres high.

 

Prang Sam Yot

Prang Sam Yot faces the railway station and is the most famous attraction in Lopburi. The three linked towers date from the 12th century and are believed to be of Hindu origin representing Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma but were converted to a Buddhist monument in the Ayutthaya period and now contain ruined Buddha images as well as a few bats! The grounds and surrounding streets are the home for hundreds of sometimes aggressive monkeys as the following images will illustrate!

Always give way to Monkeys!

Lopburi is the preferred destination for Bats and Monkeys!

Monkey attack!

It is not unusual for visitors to lose sunglasses and caps to the monkeys!

Prang Kaek which dates from the 10th century is found beside a busy road in the heart of the city and is the oldest surviving monument in Lopburi.

Ban Wichayen was built in the 17th century for foreigners attending the Siamese court which had relocated to Lopburi.

 

Wat Sao Thong Thong

The temple with several halls almost 500 years old remains active and contains a large monastery.

With no time left to visit Wat Mani Chonlakan we concluded Lopburi easily justifies a two day visit if time permits.

 

Kamphaeng Phet

Kamphaeng Phet is located half way between Bangkok and Chiang Mai and, in comparison with Ayutthaya and Sukothai, receives far fewer visitors. Nevertheless it contains many impressive historic ruins encompassed in a Unesco World Heritage site and with the impact of Covid – 19 we virtually had the monuments to ourselves.

Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park Central Zone

Thai Historical Parks are always immaculately maintained.

The only tourists in town!

This brick and plaster reclining Buddha displays beautiful detail and dates from the Ayutthaya era.

Some of the Buddha statues are so eroded that they look like futuristic sculpture.

The well preserved elephant trunks decorate the bases of chedis that are part of the Wat Phra Kaeo complex.

The Shiva Shrine is found close to the Historical Park’s Central zone and attracts local devotees.

The Kamphaeng Phet National Museum contains an impressive collection of artefacts.

The nearby Ruan Thai or Regional Museum comprises a series of Thai-style wooden structures displaying the history of various local ethnic groups.

 

Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park Northern Zone

There are over 40 restored Temple compounds ranging from little more than outline foundations to an extensive complex in the forested northern zone about a mile from the centre. These include a giant standing Buddha at Wat Phra Si Iriyabot and the elephant buttressed Wat Chang (Elephant) Rawp.

 

Wat Phra Borommathat

The large riverside Chedi dates from the late Sukothai period and is now crowned with a Burmese type umbrella added in the early 20th century.

 

Sukothai

Sukothai is without doubt, one of South East Asia’s top historical attractions  and for almost 200 years from 1238 until it was taken over by Ayuthhaya, Sukothai was the seat of a new Thai kingdom and this period is often considered to be the ‘golden era’ of Thai civilization. The remains of the kingdom at and around Sukothai  are one of Thailand’s most visited ancient sites and the World Heritage listed Historical Park is divided into three main zones: central, northern and western.

Sukothai Historical Park Central Zone

The Central zone is dominated by the graceful Chedi of Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat and the nearby 12 metre standing Buddha known as Phra Atharot. Wat Si Sawai with its Hindu origins and three prangs (towers) and the island situated Wat Sa Si with is graceful chedi are other notable temples in the Central zone.

Wat Mahathat is impressive in scale with almost 200 chedi – towers and spires.

The giant standing Buddha is known as Phra Atharot.

The equivalent of $2 procured a rental bike which made it easy to explore the Central zone of the historical park.

Wat Si Sawai features three Khmer style towers and was originally built by the Khmers as a Hindu temple.

Wat Traphang Ngoen is famous for its seated white Buddha and a graceful image of a walking Buddha framed by a red brick wall.

Wat Sa Si is located on an island in the historical park’s largest pond and is a focal point for the Loy Krathong celebrations which took place at the time of our visit.

The seated white Buddha at Wat Sai Si.

Sukothai Historical Park Northern Zone

The northern zone of the Historical Park contains Wat Si Chum, which houses a massive seated Buddha known as Phra Atchana which fills the interior of a large roofless hall. This giant statue of Buddha is arguably the most impressive image of Buddha to be found anywhere in Thailand let alone in Sukothai!

As one approaches Phra Atchana through a narrow passage more and more of the massive figure is dramatically revealed.

The much photographed gold tapered fingers reaching towards the earth are each equal to the height of an adult!

Buddhas everywhere!

 

Wat Chang Lom

Wat Chang Lom is located just outside Sukothai in a rural location close to the Mae Lam Phan canal. The base of the bell shaped chedi is adorned by 32 elephant sculptures.

 

Wat Trapang Thong

The ‘Temple of the Golden Lake’ is located close to the Historical Park’s Central Zone and is reached by one of two footbridges across the surrounding lotus filled pond which was also the original site for Thailand’s Loy Krathong Festival.

Graceful ornamentation is a common theme at most Thai temples and Wat Trapang Thong is no exception.

 

Loy Krathong in Sukothai

Other than Thai New Year, Loy Krathong is Thailand’s most important annual celebration. As the tradition of celebrating Loy Krathong originated in Sukothai there is no better place to watch the celebrations, which are considered to be the finest in Thailand. For five days every November the historic park makes a spectacular setting with fireworks, folk dance performances, sound and light productions, all set amidst the temples and of course with the magical floating lanterns on the ponds and canals. Thais believe that the light of the candle shows respect to Buddha and the floating away of the Krathong on water is symbolic of letting go of one’s hatred, anger, sins, worries and bad luck. We were fortunate to be in Sukothai for Loy Krathong and at night the park was transformed into a colourful circus of eating, shopping and entertainment with thousands of ornate krathongs made of flowers being purchased to float away on the water.

There was no charge for the spectacular Sound and Light Shows.

There were hundreds of people selling Krathongs all elaborately made with fresh flowers.

There were many designated launching areas to float one’s Krathongs and Bad Luck away!

Si Satchanalai

Si Satchanalai is set amidst hills and located about an hour’s drive (50km) north of Sukothai and attracts far fewer visitors, but has extensive Khmer ruins dating from the 11th century onwards, as well as temples from the later Sukothai period. In normal times with fewer visitors it is a more peaceful and quieter setting than Sukothai but whilst the Covid–19 pandemic persists there were few visitors at either location at the time of our visits. The ruins are found in two locations: Chaliang was one of the distant outposts of the Angkor empire based in present day Cambodia and offers Khmer ruins with later additions in the Sukothai style, whilst extensive Sukothai ruins dating from the 13th to 15th centuries are found just a few kilometers away in the Si Satchanalai Historical Park. The archeological excavations at Wat Chom Chuen have confirmed that settlement in this area was established in the 4th century at the beginning of the Dvaravati era.

Chaliang – Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat

The temple which shares a name with a temple in Sukothai is perhaps the most impressive site in Si Satchanalai with Khmer origins and many Buddha images added in the 14th century.

This seated Buddha dates from the 14th century.

This Khmer style Prang (tower) on the right above at Wat Phra Si is in excellent condition.

Chaliang – Wat Chao Chan

This 12th century Khmer temple is draped by trees and is of a similar architectural style to the temple of Angkor Thom at Angkor Wat.

 

Chaliang – Wat Chom Chuen Archeological site

Excavations adjacent to the temple have revealed 15 human skeletons dating from the 4th to 11th centuries which confirm there was a Dvaravati settlement here which predated the 11th century arrival of the Khmer empire.

Wat Chom Chuen gives its name to the adjacent archeological site.

The skeletons at the Wat Chom Chuen archeological site can be viewed from a footbridge built within a protective pavilion.

All the attractions at Chaliang are contained within a promontory encircled by a meander of the Yom River.

Si Satchanalai Historical Park

A two kilometer walk, rental bikes or a tourist tram are the options for exploring this extensive park with several separate temples sites spread over the wooded area.

The easiest and most enjoyable way to explore the park is on a rental bike!

Wat Nang Phaya

Wat Nang Phaya dates from the 16th century Ayutthaya period and displays some beautiful stucco reliefs reflecting Chinese and Lanna influences.

 

Wat Chedi Ched Thaeo

This important former monastery is the centrepiece of the historical park and contains 33 stupas and was possibly a royal graveyard in the Sukothai period.

 

Wat Chang Lom

This graceful temple is notable for its distinctive bell shaped chedi and the remains of 39 elephant statues around its base. There are also many sitting Buddha images in the niches around the base of the chedi which was built between 1285 and 1291.

The remains of Elephant statues adorn the base of Wat Chang Lom.

Images of Buddha are found in niches around the top of the base of Wat Chang Lom.

Views over the historical park from Wat Chang Lom.

There were few other visitors because of the impact of Covid-19.

Completing our tour of the Si Satchanalai Historical Park.

Phimai

After 4 days exploring Kamphaeng Phet, Sukothai and Si Satchanalai we drove 300 miles south east to the Isaan area and our destination was Phimai, which has one of Thailand’s finest Khmer temple complexes in the very centre of the town. Many visitors make comparisons with Angkor Wat which is perhaps not surprising given that Phimai was located on the trade route linking the Khmer capital of Angkor with the northern outposts of the Khmer empire. The construction dates from the 10th and 11th centuries.

Preparing to enter Prasat Hin Phimai.

The 28 metre tall central Prang is the tallest in Thailand and represents the holy Mount Meru, abode of Gods in Hindu mythology.

Life imitating Art or Cat imitating Buddah?

Beyond the courtyard are many chambers and corridors.

Prasat Phimai is very atmospheric through the foliage.

There are many ornate Hindu scenes carved on the lintels above the doorways.

Ban Prasat Archeological site

On our drive from Sukothai to Phimai we visited the Ban Prasat Archeological site just 15km outside of Phimai, where three burial sites and a small museum are left open and unattended in this sleepy village. The skeletons and artifacts testify that a rice growing and cattle raising community was living in the area 2,500 years ago.

 

Our nine day mini road trip had introduced us to an almost unparalleled collection of historic remains and we saw a very different Thailand to the one experienced by tourists who come to Thailand for idyllic beach vacations or to explore the markets and colourful temples of more recent origin found in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. The excellently presented Historical Parks and associate Museum were an illuminating introduction to Thailand’s history and past civilisations.

If you have an interest in history, architecture or design and, when the memories of the current pandemic hopefully fade, you could do a lot worse than book a ticket to Thailand, rent a car and explore some of the great historic sites that Thailand has to offer.

© Michael Bromfield

 

One thought on “64 Ancient Cities and Temples: A Thai Road Trip. Oct 22 – Oct 30 2020

  1. Pingback: 65 The Elephant Round Up – A Memorable Thai festival. Surin, Isaan, Thailand: Nov 20 – 21 2020 | Notes from a Nomad

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