Scattered around the Northeast region of Thailand lies Thailand’s Khmer ruins. These ruins are one of the best places to visit to understand the history and culture of Thailand and its heritage in Southeast Asia.
At its height, one of the most powerful empires of Southeast Asia – the Khmer – stretched across modern-day Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. Between the 10th and 13th century, Khmer rulers built a series of impressive temples and other structures in the region, which were later swallowed up by the jungle in the centuries that followed the empire’s downfall, only to be rediscovered in the 19th century.
A handful of these remain in northeast Thailand, scattered mostly around Surin and Buriram Provinces in Isan. Although not as big as the famous Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Thailand also possesses a wealth of temple ruins that are a must-see. Off the beaten path and away from the tourists, these ruins offer a look into the splendour of a bygone kingdom.
Set on top of a dormant volcano in an otherwise flat area, is this Khmer temple that started as a Hindu shrine in the 10th century and ended as a Buddhist temple in the 13th century. This temple was originally a Hindu shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva and symbolises Mount Kailash, his heavenly dwelling.
The large temple complex, which visitors enter via a dramatic 120-metre carved stone walkway, has six separate stone buildings connected by walkways.
The main central prang, or stupa, is constructed in a corn-cob style typical of the era, similar to the one found at Wat Arun in Bangkok. The rest of the buildings are covered in intricate carvings with floral and other motifs, as well as images that portray the Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu. Images and carvings of the nagas, the five or seven-headed snakes, significant to both Hinduism and Buddhism, are also found throughout the complex.
The design of Phanom Rung was based on their knowledge of astronomy, similar to many other Khmer temples that were built to showcase solar events. During the 14th day before and after each equinox, the 15 doorways of the temple complex are perfectly aligned with the sun’s path and offer amazing views of the sunrise and sunset. These four days around March and September are the best time to visit the temple.
Prasat Hin Phimai, located in the center of the modern town of Phimai, is Thailand’s best-restored Khmer ruin that marks one end of the Ancient Khmer Highway from Angkor. The stone structures surround the impressive 27-metre corn cob-style main prang. Like Phanom Rung and other structures built in the area, the temple complex has both Hindu and Buddhist motifs carved into the stonework.
The temple ruins are scattered around modern-day Phimai as the small town was built around the ruins. Phimai is also home to the Phimai National Museum, which houses not only a collection of artifacts from Prasat Hin Phimai, but also a large collection of art and artifacts from around the region.
These massive temple ruins, set atop a mountain, are actually in Cambodia but the site is accessed through Khao Phra Wihan National Park in Sisaket, Thailand. The region’s most impressive Khmer site in terms of size and scope is unfortunately also the subject of a serious ongoing controversy between Thailand and Cambodia. Because of this, Khao Phra Wihan has been the site of armed conflicts between the armies of each country and, as recently as 2010, has resulted in the loss of life. In 1962 the World Court ruled that they were on Cambodian land but the two countries continue to argue over exactly where the border is.
If the site is open when you visit, you’ll see one of the largest ruins in the area, covering some 70 acres of land. The main temple complex is accessed by a long walkway and a series of stone stairs climbing the mountainside. Although you will be technically crossing over into Cambodia when you visit, you won’t need a visa to make the trip. You will have to pay a fee to visit the temple, though, and you won’t be able to enter any other part of Cambodia when you are there.
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