Thai roads to ancient Khmer
The Star, Malaysia
Story & pictures by Tom Cockrem

EVERYONE in our village speaks Khmer,” said Michael, a Canadian expatriate I had just met in a small sidewalk café. “Almost no-one speaks Thai. They even dress Khmer.” I was surprised. For this was in Surin, a small city in Thailand’s north-east district of Isan. Michael’s village is just outside town.

Come to think of it, my new companion’s revelation should have been hardly surprising. I had been travelling in Isan for several days now. My object: to discover the most ancient and important temple ruins in the district. And these are all Khmer.

Accompanied by a local guide, I would visit three such sites, all of which pre-date Angkor Wat. And not only pre-date it, they inspired that wondrous masterpiece as well. They still continue to inspire.

The natural border between this part of Thailand and Cambodia is defined by the Dongrek mountain range. From the Thai side the mountains loom as a modest set of hills. But when viewed from the lowlands of Cambodia, they rise dramatically, nigh impossible to cross.

The Dongreks notwithstanding, the Khmer empire spilled north from the 9th century AD. The sub-kingdoms it established provided material and military support for the empire, and produced three of the empire’s greatest kings – Jayavarman VI and VII, and Suryavarman II.

The great temple ruins you see today are relics of these ancient power centres. To explore them means a fair amount of driving; up to three hours. The roads are good though, and you get to see a lot of local life along the way: farm life mainly, exotic little markets and intriguing rural villages that seem, like their inhabitants, disinclined to change.

But there has been one fundamental change: religious beliefs. Now essentially Buddhist, the people of these districts once worshipped Hindu deities, notably Vishnu and Shiva. Evidence of this is no better seen than at Preah Vihear.

Built in stages from the 9th to the 12th century, this is one of those eerie and isolated ancient monuments that seems to exist only in works of fiction. It sprawls for the best part of a kilometre up the slopes of a south-projecting spur in the Dongreks, culminating at the spur’s overhanging edge. The temple’s only access is in Thailand, but it’s officially in Cambodia – no-one quite knows why.

For the visitor, Preah Vihear presents something of a physical challenge. Its five entrance pavilions (gopuras) are linked by long upward causeways and crumbled flights of steps. There to greet you at the top of the first and longest causeway are two massive seven-headed naga snakes, whose unlikely function is to speed a soul to paradise.

They immediately do; paradise at Preah Vihear is represented by its art. The themes, of course, are Hindu: Vishnu reclining, the ten-armed Shiva dancing, Shiva with his consort riding Nandin, and the “Churning of the Sea of Milk”. The latter is a classic, highly stylised and almost comic in its rendering, with Mount Mandara represented by a post, and the great sea by a humble kitchen pot!

The temple’s central tower has collapsed. Left standing are the galleries that surround it, and the central sanctuary (mandapa). It feels incongruous to enter this tiny corbel-roofed sanctum of the Hindu deities, as modern pilgrims do to pay homage to the Buddha.

A small door in the gallery leads out to the escarpment. Here you gaze across the jungle-swathed cliff face – a 500m drop – to the mist-shrouded plains of Cambodia below.

Phnom Rung lies some 190km west of Preah Vihear. It too crowns a lofty hill – an extinct volcano. And it too is approached via a long steep causeway and lots of broken steps. These plus a series of cruciform platforms lead to a gopura and the central sanctuary. The site is surprisingly complete, having undergone thorough restoration in the 1970s and 80s.

The temple’s most captivating artwork graces the antechamber of the central sanctuary. The large pediment depicts the 10-armed Shiva Nantaraj in princely dancing mode, with his elephant-headed son Ganesh and two female attendants looking on in admiration.

The soaring central tower (prasat) is definitively Khmer. It rises in five gently inward-sloping tiers, each a diminished replica of the one that came before. There is barely any surface that’s not elegantly rendered or intricately carved.

The most celebrated of Isan’s Khmer temples is Phimai, and for good reason. Its lofty tiered tower surpasses even that of Phnom Rung, both in height and architectural perfection. But what mainly sets it apart are the blissfully accessible leafy grounds in which it stands. For Phimai is a community shrine. The bustling town that attends it was doubtless no less bustling a thousand years ago. There are no steep climbs to challenge patrons here, no restricted views. This is a place to savour at your leisure: explore every “library”, every gallery, gopura and even garden pond, and stand in awe of the fantastic “corn-cob” tower as you do so.

Though Hindu in its layout, Phimai is devoted to Lord Buddha. Its statuary tells you this, as does its most important art. They are confined to the inner sanctuary, where the divine one is depicted in typical meditative pose, surmounting with his wisdom all manner of temptation and rude demonic threat.

The Khmer temples of Isan were abandoned in 1431, around the same time Angkor was. But like Angkor they survived. They did so as captives in the hands of nature, that had one will to preserve, and another to entangle and destroy.

True romantics might begrudge the temples’ long-denied release. Others, a fraction more mundane, embrace them with delight. Having seen these ancient wonders for myself – splendidly replenished as they are – I think I have to count myself among the more mundane.

FACT FILE

Getting there
Thai Airways flies from Bangkok to Nakorn Phanom daily.

Travel arrangements
· Tourism Authority of Thailand
Tel (02) 9247 7549,
E-mail: info@thailand.net.au

· North by North-East Tours (Thailand)
Tel (02) 6642 513 572
E-mail: nxne@thaitourism.com
Website: www.thaitourism.com

When to go
The cool season is from Nov-Feb.

Essentials
Sunblock, sun hat, repellent, light cottons, long trousers/dresses for visiting temples and sacred sites, comfortable walking shoes.

What to read
Lonely Planet has a current edition on Thailand – Khmer Temples in Thailand & Laos by Michael Freeman (River Books Guides).