The Khmer Empire in Thailand

The Khmer Empire is well known for its site Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but did you know that this kingdom stretched much further to include parts of eastern Thailand? A Khmer trading route ran from Angkor Wat in Cambodia to near the Thai city of Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat). On this trading route, not far from Khorat, we found three well preserved Khmer sites; Phimai, Phanum Rung and Prasat Muang Tam.

Phimai Historical Park

Located in the small town of Phimai is an important historical wat dating from the 11th and 12th centuries. The temple was built by the Khmer Empire and in fact it looks more like the ruins in Angkor Wat, than those in other parts of Thailand. Even though Khmers at that time were Hindu, the residents in Phimai were Buddhist so the temple was built as a Buddhist Temple. It is considered to be one of the most important sites along this Khmer trading route.

As we approached Phimai Historical Park by road we could see tall stone towers poking above the original stone wall letting us know something special was inside. After entering through the main gates of the park we saw a long walkway that leads to a low rectangular building with a tall prang (tower) behind.

As we got closer, we saw the entrance to this building was guarded by stone lions. Beyond them, nagas definined a small bridge that leads to the first doorway.

After crossing the bridge you enter a series of long hallways bordered by tall pillars. Many are beautifully decorated with Buddhist and Hindu carvings. There would have been walls and roofs made out of wood, but all that remains today is the stone framework.

The hallways lead to a courtyard with a tall, main prang (tower) surrrounded by a few smaller ones. Some of the towers are in good condition with detailed carvings on the tall roofs. Other towers have fallen into disrepair. Inside each prang we found Buddha statues set in small alcoves. The statues are protected by a large naga head.

Phimai Historical Park was a wonderful introduction to the Khmer sites in this area.

Phanum Rung Historical Park

Getting to Phanum Rung was a little different than most trips. First we took a public bus from Khorat and then we had to use motorcycle taxis. The 14km road to the site is a steep, winding mountain road. The motorcycle taxis didn’t have helmets and they drove in which ever lane or shoulder they wanted.  It was not the safest ride, but we made it in one piece.

The ruins of Phanum Rung Historical Park are set on the top of an extinct volcano, 400 m high. It was built between the 11th and 13th centuries and is said to be the best preserved Khmer sites outside of Angkor Wat. Phanum Rung along with Prasat Muang Tam are being considered for UNESCO World Heritage designation.

From the park’s entrance a long, stone stairway leads to the temple on top of the volcano. Stairs in Thailand, whether old or new, are always a challenge. They always seem to have steps of various heights and widths. Many times the riser is very high making it difficult even for us to climb, and we’re considerably taller than the locals. This staircase was no different. In addition to the varying heights, many of the steps were half the size of our feet so we had to go up and down sideways.

At the top of the stairs you realize that the climb was worth it. A low roofed stone building with a decorated doorway entices you to enter.

On the other side of the doors we found a large courtyard filled with stone Khmer-era buildings. Detailed carvings decorate the outer walls, pillars and ceilings and reminded us of Angkor Wat. Compared to other sites we’ve seen, these buildings are in remarkable condition. It is a great site to wander around and explore the fascinating architecture.

Prasat Muang Tam

The smallest, but most peaceful Khmer site is 8 km down the road from Phanum Rung. Prasat Muang Tam is the oldest of these three sites built in the 10th and 11th centuries. It has a lovely park-like setting with big trees and large ponds filled with lotus flowers. The ponds are decorated in elaborate gates and steps.

Gates decorated with gorgeous relief carvings depicting Shiva and Hindu mythologial figues lead from the outer courtyard to the inner sanctuary.

Inside the gates is a large platform with four stone prangs. The centre prang which would have been the main one has collapsed, but the others allow you to imagine how grand it was. Prasat Muang Tam was the least busy site and that combined with the ponds, made it a peaceful site to visit.

Getting to Phanum Rung and Phimai

All three sites are accessible from Khorat. It is a large city with plenty of hotels and restaurants.

Phimai – Buses leave from Terminal 2 in Khorat. Get off at the clock tower in Phimai. The site is easily seen as you drive by.

Phanum Rung – Buses leave from Terminal 2 in Khorat. Catch a bus passing through Nang Rong. Your stop is on the east end of Nang Rong. From there hire one of the available motorcycle taxis to get to the ruins. The motorcycle taxi fee is 250 Baht return and includes a visit to Prasat Muang. Only one passenger per motorcycle.

Prasat Muang Tam – While in Phanum Rung have your motorcycle taxi wait for you and then take you the 8 km to reach Prasat Muang Tam.

Coming Next – Travel Guide for Thailand

To see more of our pictures visit Gallery at Monkey’s Tale.

To read our stories from other places in the world visit Destinations.

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