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The Splendours Of Phimai

The Splendours Of Phimai

A Classical Khmer Gem of Northeast Thailand


Tragically, in recent decades, Cambodia has become internationally renowned as a symbol of foreign invasion, endemic civil war, and man's inhumanity to man. The terrible "zero years" between 1975 and 1978, when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge ruled the country, resulted in the death of more than one million Cambodians, or about 15% of the population, and the complete impoverishment of the country.

Today Cambodian society is still struggling to reconstitute itself. Much of the money necessary for rebuilding the infrastructure of the country, from sorely-needed schools and hospitals to new roads and railways, might be derived from tourism – were it not for continuing insurgency and the ever-present danger posed by millions of unexploded mines. Cambodia's past could, and should, help to assure that country's future.

In time, no doubt, not only the great temple complexes of Angkor, but other less-known monuments, will become readily accessible to visitors. For the present, however, most such sites within Cambodia remain off-limits to visitors; even Angkor requires a special security cordon, and signs warning of the danger of hidden mines are not to be taken lightly.

Fortunately, monuments from the Khmer past are not limited to Cambodia alone. In southern Laos the province of Champassak boasts the Khmer ruins of Wat Phu, now open to international travellers for the first time in decades. Still more accessible, and in far greater comfort, are the Khmer relics of Northeast Thailand. Here, scattered like jewels across the Tung kula rong hai, or ‘weeping plain' extending from Khorat to Ubon, numerous temples and related structures survive, often in excellent condition.

Perhaps the best-preserved, and certainly the most famous of these complexes may be found at the small town of Phimai, fifty-nine kilometres north-east of Khorat, on a turning off National Highway 2 to Khon Kaen. In classical times the site was directly linked by road to Angkor, the capital of the Khmer Empire. Indeed, there are clear indications that Phimai was the main religious and administrative centre to the north-west.

But what exactly do we mean by ‘classical times'? Who were the ancient Khmers, and what relationship did they have with the Thais? Perhaps most intriguingly, why are ancient Khmer ruins to be found deep within Thai territories today?

About twelve centuries ago, when the centre of the emerging Tai polity was still located on the Yunkuei plateau in southern China, King Jayavarman II founded the first Kingdom of Angkor. In far away Europe, at about the same time, Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. For the next four centuries the Khmer Empire would remain the dominant power in mainland Southeast Asia, before being cut back to a fraction of its former size by the Tai and Viet states as they expanded southwards.

Angkor Wat, the most outstanding architectural achievement of the Khmer Empire, was built by King Surayavarman II, who reigned between 1113 and 1150 – just one hundred years before Sri Indraditya established the first known independent Thai kingdom at Sukhothai. At this time the Khmer kings were still strongly influenced by Hinduism, and Angkor was dedicated to the God Vishnu.

It was at this time that the Thais first made their presence felt in the Khmer Empire. An exquisitely-detailed bas relief on the walls of Angkor Wat dating from the mid-12th century shows the army of the ‘Syams' and their chief saluting King Surayavarman II. Unlike the Khmer troops – who march in step and look something like Roman centurions – the Syams wear sarong-like dress and march out of step. Their foot soldiers carry pikes, whilst the Thai chieftain rides a magnificent war elephant, and carries a bow.

The Syams may have been out of step, but before long they would emerge as a major threat to the Khmer Empire, gradually absorbing all the central Maenam-Chaophraya plain, and moving into the great north-eastern plateau towards what is now Nakhon Phanom on the middle Mekong.

After the death of Surayavarman II in 1150, the Khmer Empire went into gradual decline – though it was still very strong. Between 1181 and about 1219, Angkor was ruled by Jayavarman VII, a king who favoured Buddhism above Hinduism, and who considered himself the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara – sole intermediary between God and man. Jayavarman VII had a grand vision of construction, rather than conquest, and built more temples, fortifications, civil buildings and roads than all other Khmer Emperors put together. His chief monuments are Angkor Thom and the nearby Bayon – but he also established or upgraded a series of other centres, most significantly the important regional capital of Phimai.

The complex at Phimai dates originally from the reign of Surayavarman II, during the first part of the 12th century. The temple was constructed with white, finely-grained sandstone, in the same style as Angkor Wat. Like Angkor, too, Phimai was first dedicated to the cult of Vishnu. The central sanctuary tower and much of the immediate surrounding which survive today date from this early period.

About one hundred years later, when Jayavarman VII, ‘The Builder', extended and developed Phimai, the temple became a Mahayana Buddhist centre, dedicated to the Vimaya Buddha. The name ‘Phimai' is derived from this. The basic structure of Jayavarman's city is readily identifiable today. The complex sits in a large rectangle which once contained a small town, and was surrounded on all fours sides by water – the Mun River to the north, a natural canal to the west, and two man-made canals to the south and east. The south wall of the city was pierced by the Pratu Chai, or ‘Victory Gate'. From this gateway a road led straight to Angkor, the Khmer capital.

The temple complex itself comprises a rectangular outer wall, directed towards the cardinal points, enclosing a wide courtyard with four ponds. Within this is an inner wall protecting the central prang, or sanctuary tower, which formerly contained the main Buddha image. Just outside the Pratu Chai is a building known as Klang Ngoen, or ‘The Treasury', which is thought to have originally functioned as a government rest house. Once within the gate, a raised pathway leads past a series of ponds to the royal pavilions erected by Jayavarman VII. In its prime, Phimai must have been a stunning sight; even today it retains a sublime and impressive air, particularly when seen at sunrise, or in a golden sunset over the Mun River.

Although we have no specific descriptions of life and society in Phimai during its years of glory, we can deduce much from the contemporaneous writings of Chou Ta-kuan, a Chinese envoy to the court of Angkor during the reign of Indravarman III (1295–1308). According to Chou, besides the capital, Cambodia was divided into “more than ninety provinces... each of which has its mandarins, and in each a citadel fortified with wooden palisades.” Every village, besides, “has its temple, or at least a pagoda. Along the highways there are resting places like our [Chinese] post-halts.” He then adds, significantly, “Recently, during wars with the Siamese, whole villages have been laid waste.”

Phimai was no small village, but a provincial capital, which must have boasted considerable wooden fortifications in addition to the surviving stone walls. We know from Chou's description, amongst others, and from the bas-relief carvings at Angkor and elsewhere, that Khmer society was organised, culturally rich, and rigidly class-stratified.

Commerce was largely in the hands of women, whom Chou observed with a cynical eye. He admired their form, and especially the ‘milk white breasts' of the ladies of the upper classes, but found their morals rather too loose for his conservative Middle Kingdom tastes – or so he would have us believe. He considered Cambodia 'an excessively hot country' where people, and especially children, bathed and swam in the ponds and rivers all day long. In this, at least, he would recognise the children splashing and playing in the ponds and canals of Phimai down to the present time – though nowadays those children are Thai, and not Cambodian.

 Chou, who remained in Cambodia for a year in 1296–97, described the Khmer Empire at a time when it was past its zenith, but still exceedingly magnificent. To set the account against events in the Tai World, during the same year Phra Ramkhamhaeng was approaching the end of his reign as King of Sukhothai, whilst Phra Mangrai was four years into the construction of Lan Na's new capital at Chiang Mai. Thailand, still taking form and expanding, was in the ascendant; Cambodia in decline.

From 1351, with the foundation of a new and powerful Thai Kingdom at Ayutthaya, Cambodia came under increased attack from the north and west. The Siamese gradually absorbed the Khmer Empire's northern and western provinces, including Phimai, which was lost to Cambodia for ever. Then, in the mid 14th century, they captured Angkor, sacking it so extensively that it had to be abandoned. Meanwhile first the Chams, and then the Viets, captured territory from the Khmer Empire in the east.

By the mid-19th century the once-mighty Khmer Empire had been reduced to the small Kingdom of Cambodia, a small, semi-independent rump state paying tribute to both Vietnam and Thailand – a country on the verge of extinction. Perversely, Cambodia was saved from this fate by French colonialism. It was the French who fixed Cambodia's present frontiers, preventing further encroachment by the Thais and the Vietnamese, and it was the French who rediscovered – to their amazement – the stunning achievements in stone of the great Khmer kings.

Under French supervision the jungle was cut back, the relics restored. Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, the Bayon, stood revealed for the first time in centuries, and all who saw them – not least the Cambodian people themselves – were filled with a wild surmise.

For the first half of the 20th century Angkor, that wonder of the eastern world out-shone other major Khmer monuments such as Phimai. Subsequently, however, as a result of Cambodia's tragic recent history, and continuing low-scale civil war, Angkor became off-limits for many decades, and is only now – slowly – reopening to the outside world.

Meanwhile Phimai, restored by the Thai Fine Arts Department under the supervision of Prince Yachai Chitrabongse, in cooperation with Bernard Groslier, formerly Director of Restoration at Angkor, has been beautifully and carefully restored. Today it ranks amongst the best examples of classical Khmer architecture anywhere in the region, whether in Cambodia or beyond.

Hopefully, as Cambodia becomes an increasingly tranquil and peaceful land, links between Phimai and Angkor will once again be re-established, and tourists – as well as pilgrims – will ride, if not walk, the old, straight roadways of Jayavarman VII. In such a case, not only Phimai and Angkor, but also the long-disputed Khmer complex at Prasat Khao Phra Viharn, legally part of Cambodia but accessible only from Thai territory, may be restored and opened to the peoples of Thailand, Cambodia, and the world at large.

In the meantime, magnificent Prasat Hin Phimai continues to offer safe, comfortable and easy access to the splendours of the Khmer past.


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History – © CPA Media