Abode of the Gods
IN THE LATE NINTH CENTURY, a monarch ruling over a relatively small domain made the sort of decision that turns a kingdom into an empire, and a minor royal house into a dynasty.
Looking north from lowland Cambodia, he sent his army through the narrow passes of the Dongrek Mountains and descended to a sun-baked plain, rich with rivers and arable land.
This was the Khorat Plateau, and the king was Indravarman I. He began an expansion that would eventually take the Khmer empire as far west as modern-day Burma and east to Vietnam. When the last Khmer king died more than 500 years later, much died with him. His wooden palaces rotted away and sacred texts withered into dust. But the empire's temples survived, providing a rich architectural heritage.
Many of the Khmer temples in northeast Thailand are now little more than laterite rubble. However, two stand out as among the finest examples of Khmer architecture outside Cambodia.
The most significant is Prasat (temple) Phimai. Such was its importance that King Jayavarman VII built a royal road between Phimai and the capital Angkor Wat. The Khmers took their religion and temple styles from India, but as their civilisation evolved, so their culture, iconography and beliefs mutated, and Hinduism was replaced by Mahayana Buddhism. However, Hindu cosmology and its deities were not discarded. At the centre of the universe was always the abode of the gods, Mount Meru, symbolised on Earth by the central sanctuary tower in the temple. At Phimai, wherever you stand, the eye is drawn to the white sandstone tower.
At the main entrance of Phimai there is a naga bridge. Nagas are mythical snakes, protecting the causeway linking the realm of man to the home of the gods. Four ponds represent the oceans of the universe.
As with all the temples, exquisite carvings depicting Buddha, Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma can be found on the lintels and gables above the central sanctuary doorways.
While Phimai is in the centre of a modern town, Prasat Phnom Rung, as its name suggests, sits majestically above the Khorat Plateau, on top of an inactive volcano. Phnom means hill and special attention was given by the Khmers to their hilltop shrines.
The naga bridges here are even more impressive than at Phimai. The lintel bas reliefs above the gopuras (entrance pavilions) and the pink sandstone central tower are mainly Hindu, as Phnom Rung is dedicated to Shiva.
Views of the surrounding countryside, with its patchwork of rice fields, are spectacular. Prasat Muang Tam is located in these fields, and although it's not in the same league as Phimai or Phnom Rung, it has been carefully restored and still has its baray (reservoir).
While most of the reliefs in these temples portray scenes from religious mythology, a few carvings offer a tantalising glimpse of real life. At Phnom Rung, a faded carving shows a puberty ceremony for a young girl, and at Phimai National Museum, a strange lintel of Buddhas dressed as women suggests the existence of religious cults. Artefacts at the museum show that in this caste-ridden society, the aristocrats wore ornate jewellery, intricately wrought gold armlets, ank-lets and bracelets.
The architecture of the Khorat temples shows the empire at its zenith, but as it continued to expand, it overreached itself. By the time Jayavarman VII, the most loved of Khmer monarchs, died, around 1220, the empire's vassal states, including those in what is now Thailand, began to break away.
Before visiting the temples, it is worth reading the definitive book on this subject by Michael Freeman, Khmer Temples In Thailand And Laos, or his two booklets on Phimai and Phnom Rung.
Both temples can be reached from the provincial capital Nakhon Ratchasima, better known as Khorat, which is about four hours by express train from Bangkok. Phimai is about 90 minutes by bus from Khorat. There are no buses to Phnom Rung or Muang Tam. A hire car from Khorat for one day, including a driver and petrol came to just under 2,000 baht (about HK$400). I booked in advance on the Internet through Nanta travel agency - firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is also a useful general Khorat Web site: www.korat.in.th/attraction/eindex.htm.