Who doesn’t know about Angkor Wat of Cambodia? We all know how popular it is, right? Or the Phanom Rung?
Angkor Wat stands as the prime legacy of the Khmer empire. It has stolen away all the limelight from the other Khmer temples.
How many of us even know about other Khmer temples?
The Khmer empire runs over most of Thailand, and therefore we get to see many Khmer temples around Thailand, with the most famous ones on the ancient Khmer Highway.
One such example is the Prasat Hin Phanom Rung, popularly called the Phanom Rung historical park.
This was the first historical park that I visited in Thailand, and hence it holds a special place in my heart. I was majorly impressed with Phanom Rung, and the Prasat Muang Tam found just a few kilometers from Phanom Rung.
Little bit about Khmer Empire
Khmer empire, also called the Angkor empire, is spread wide in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam.
There is a misconception that it was prevalent only in Cambodia.
We can see Khmer temples as far as in the west at Kanchanaburi, Thailand.
The empire is based at Angkor and had many prominent temples constructed around the capital that the other temples did not get their due credit.
Let us dig deeper into the exciting history of the empire.
Khmer kings oscillated between Hinduism and Buddhism, leading to constructing both kinds of temples and demolishing them in their respective periods.
Angkor was found by Jayavarman II, who was a Hindu. He and some of the subsequent kings were also Hindus, but the drift was Vaishnavite to Shivaite. This explains why we see Vishnu temples and then Shiva temples or sometimes Shiva temples with all Vishnu motifs. It is fascinating to read that the Khmer kings allied with the Chola dynasty of South India just because both were strong Shivaites. Suryavarman II, a Shiva devotee, constructed Phanom Rung, and hence the main deity of the temple is Shiva.
Subsequently, kings started adopting Buddhism in its different forms, leading to Hindu temples being converted to Buddhist ones or demolishing temples.
Hence, even now, one can see some of the ancient sites of Thailand having lintel and motifs of Hindu Gods, but the primary deity will be Buddha.
One of the prominent kings of the Khmer empire is Jayavarman VII, known for improving the infrastructure of Angkor and constructing many architecturally rich temples like Bayon.
He constructed the ancient Khmer Highway, a 225km road running from Angkor (current Cambodia) to Phimai (present Thailand). This road, also known as the Royal Road and sometimes referred to as Dharamsala road, was economically developed, with many temples, hospitals, and schools constructed along the way.
Phanom Rung, Muang Tam, and Phimai fall on this highway, making it an important site to visit, and thereby it survived even after the Khmer empire was overthrown. These temples are from the 13th century, which is even before the Thai kingdom came into establishment.
Prasat Hin Phanom Rung Historical Park
Phanom Rung is a Shiva temple constructed by Suryavarman II during the era of Hindu kings due to which it can date back to older times than Angkor Wat.
Phanom Rung’s history speaks for itself. Angkor Wat was built from the inspiration of this temple.
Situated up a hill, it is on top of an extinct volcano. The mountain represents Mount Kailash which is the abode of Lord Shiva.
This underlines the significance of the temple, and it is as great as taking blessings from Shiva in his adobe.
I had hired a car to show me around Phanom Rung, Muang Tam, and Khao Phra Angkhan, a relatively newer temple.
The east of Thailand has its charm, like a typical town, untouched by the tourists. Residential houses flanked on either side, little shops and small grocery shops tucked in the corners, street vendors selling fruits.
Drive away from the town opens up to lush paddy fields on either side, tiled farmhouses tucked here and there, bullock carts in front of the houses, cows lazing in the front, hen and chicks running around. It pretty much felt like I was going on a road trip a little away from the cities of India into its villages.
The roads went winding up a hill and led to Prasat Hin Phanom Rung. I was there by about 9 am and was surprised to see the restaurants grilling fish and pork early in the morning. The shops in front of the temple were yet to open.
I got a ticket that lets one visit Muang Tam and walked up the stairway from the information center. I wonder why they make such steep stairways, especially those days when the kings and queens would have probably been carried in a palanquin.
Note: Buy the 150 baht ticket that lets you visit both Phanom Rung and Muang Tam
Walking up the stairway, there comes the first sight of Phanom Rung at a distance. The blue sky, the earthy tones of sandstone structure, green trees, the temple atop; indeed, it was like Kailasam, the perfect adobe for Shiva.
To the right were rooms that were used by the royalty to change costumes before entering the temple.
Called the Royal Pavilion, it looked like beautiful architecture, especially the windows. It must have had a wooden tiled roof, for it is no longer there. Thankfully the prominent temples are constructed in stone!
It is said that a lot of buildings during the Khmer period were made of wood and hence were easy to get destroyed in the fire. A steep set of stairs peered at me.
It was so beautifully preserved that I imagined the royalty wearing colorful clothes walking through these stairs. And Thai costumes are so beautiful. This wish of mine was fulfilled in Phimai. I will write about it in the next blog.
The Indian temple architecture heavily influences the Khmer architecture of temples. These temples have a pavilion-like mentioned above. The main entrance faces east, with a gopuram towering above the door.
There is an enclosure which usually has the temple pond, kitchen, Dharamsala (for travelers to rest), a library (to stock the religious scriptures), dancing hall, smaller shrines around the enclosure, and the main sanctum where the primary deity will preside.
I got to see many deities, guardian angels, demons in the form of motifs on the gopuram and pillars. Some of the differences we can find are-
- Khmer architects were not perfect with making arches for doorways. So, they raised two pillars and placed a carved, highly decorated stone over them. These are called lintels. The problem with lintels is that they remained a source of theft since they are a separate piece from the pillars.
- The other is the famous Naga bridges connecting the walkway to the main temple. The other thing I love about Khmers is the way they make faces of idols and sculptures. Be it B
Inside the Phanom Rung Temple
The Shiva Linga can be seen even before entering the temple from the entrance.
The temple has four doors, and the Shiva Lingam can be seen from all directions.
What fascinates me are the stories from Mahabharata and Ramayana on the lintels and walls.
The main entrance has the sculpture of Dakshinamurthy on top – the representation of Lord Shiva as the supreme Guru of all kinds of knowledge.
Most of the lintels and figurines are described as what makes it easy for the tourists to understand.
This lintel depicts Rama’s army getting ready for the war. On the top you can see Rama and Lakshmana being carried on a palanquin.
Phra Narai Lintel
The most famous lintel of Phanom Rung shows Vishnu in the Ananthasayanam form.
Meaning: He is sleeping with Adhiseshan guarding Him and Goddess Lakshmi by His side.
In Thai, this posture is called Thap Lang Narai Banthomsin.
This lintel is famous because it was once stolen and then was found in the museum of Chicago, and then Thai made a donation to the museum to procure it back to where it rightfully belongs.
Phanom Rung Festival
It is a famous festival that happens every year in early April. The date changes every year, and you need to check out before.
It is the day when the sun aligns through all the 15 doors of the temple. It is an Architectural wonder.
The sunrise perfectly aligns through all the doors, making it a spectacle to watch. I was not there during the festival time but having read about it, and I am sure it will be crowded.
But one cannot miss all the colorful Thai procession and dance performances that happen there during the festival.
The mighty complex of Phanom Rung
Prasat Muang Tam
Muang Tam temple, located at the foothill, is dedicated to Lord Shiva. This temple is much well maintained, and the lintels and motifs seem to be in better shape.
With similar architecture, what captures my eyes are the lintels depicting scenes.
Particularly the one that reads KalyanaSundaraMurthy – Tamilians will find it very familiar to readers.
That is the form of Shiva where He is about to marry Goddess Parvathy.
The usual depiction is the Lord accepting the hand of Bride, which Lord Vishnu gives away. I loved Muang Tam more than Phanom Rung, maybe because it was much quieter, serene, and well maintained.
Nearby Phanom Rung
Wat Khao Phra Anghkan
With time in my hand, I decided to visit one more popular site nearby called Wat Khao Phra Anghkhan. It is about 20 odd kilometers from Phanom Rung.
It is relatively new, showing different styles from Chinese pagodas to Khmer style structures. A Reclining Buddha is the first sight to see. It is huge, but it is not the best that I have seen.
The main inner building has many murals depicting a story of an honest king and his sufferings on one side of the wall. And on the other side is the life of Buddha. What caught my eyes was a beautiful reclining Buddha behind the main building with such a serene face.
How to Reach Phanom Rung
There are no places to stay around Phanom Rung.
You can either stay at Buri Ram, which is about 60km away, or at Nang Rong, just 30km away.
I stayed at Nang Rong, a relatively small town and not with many good stay options. My Initial thought was to hire two-wheelers from the Honey Inn guesthouse.
Honestly, the town is so tiny that we could not find anyone renting two-wheelers / bikes, not even the hotel that I was staying in. A blog pointed me towards Honey Inn, and we walked and walked to find that place. Instead, we hired a car so that we can cover more sites, and the owner of the guest house surprisingly had a good command over the English language.
You can also stay in a city like Ratchasima and make a day trip to Phanom Rung.
If you have plans to do Lopburi and Phimai, then Ratchasima is like a center point.