This post begins in January 2019, when dry season was about to begin, turning landscape to brown and yellow. Last photos are from September, after monsoon rains had washed the region already for months.
Royal Road system of Khmer empire, connecting Phimai, Wat Phou (Phu) and other provincial centers. Credit: Mitch Hendrickson (source). Kingdom at its zenith, see: map.
Term “all roads lead to Rome” is not just a catchy phrase, but actually a precondition for any long lasting empire in olden times. Without a good road network, enemy forces threat even its existence, if warning of their approach came too late. In Khmer kingdom roads span from the capital Angkor and headed to all directions, facilitating commerce and enabling pilgrims to come worship in majestic temples of the capital. Roads no doubt had a military angle as well, improving intelligence gathering and making it faster for the God-King (Khmer Devaraja-cult of ruler being avatar of a God) to project his power where this was deemed necessary. Six main highways are sometimes called Royal Roads to signify them from the rest. These roads likely formed on top existing infrastructure of pre-Angkorian times, but were largely expanded as means and needs increased. Along the way wooden bridges were rebuilt using stone, roads were raised to prevent flooding, water reservoirs were dug, rest houses that combined as temples (fire shrine) were built. Two of the longest and most important routes were one heading to Phimai in north west (today in Thailand), and second to north east to Wat Phou (in Laos). Following text describes these places, as well as few other provincial centers. Third and final “Khmer post” will be about the capital itself, but that is yet to be made.
Wat Phou, 11th to 13th century
Lower temple buildings and surrounding region, including water reservoirs, seen from upper temple of Wat Phou. If landscape provided, holy sites were built on visible places to signify their importance. Such was the case also with Phanom Rung (see bellow), Phnom Bakheng (on a hill in Angkor) and Preah Vihear (at Dangrek mountain range).
Plumeria trees are distinct feature of Wat Phou temple park.
Wat Phou is Hindu temple in southern Laos built by Khmer’s when region was part of their empire. Like other temples dedicated to Shiva, Vat Phou is oriented towards the east. Temple is built at the foot of Phu Kao Mountain “Lingaparvata,” so named because the natural formation seems to resemble Shiva’s linga. “Parvata” means “mountain,” so “Lingaparvata” is literally “Linga Mountain”. This is why mountain was considered the home of Shiva, and Mekong river representing the ocean or the Ganges, the perfect location for a religious center, that served civilian and administrative center in the region. People who arrived for praying have seen the mountain already afar when slowly approaching. Once arrived, long corridor with 1.5m stone pillars were surrounding the first approach. There were three stages of stairs approaching the holiest, the temple atop of hill and just beneath the steeper slope to the mountain top. Road south from the temple through town of Lingapura, and then began longest of the Royal Roads, heading to capital Angkor.
Long corridors are believed to be used as processional walkways during rituals, the spectacle performed by royals and other nobility. Similar and better preserved walkway is in Phanom Rung (see bellow).
Half collapse temple of Wat Phou at the mountain. Survived buildings date from the 11th to 13th centuries.
While originally Hindu, temple has been converted to Buddhist use.
Human size “crocodile stone” is believed to have been used in human sacrifice during pre-Angkorian times. ”A Chinese 6th century text mentions ”near the capital there is a mountain called Ling-chia-po-p’o (Lingaparvata), on top of which there is a temple which is always guarded by a thousand soldiers. It is consecrated to a spirit named P’o-to-li, to which human sacrifice is made. Each year, the king goes into this temple and himself offers a human sacrifice during the night”. (Michael Freeman: A guide to Khmer Temples in Thailand and Laos, 1998)
Phanom Rung, 10th to 13th century
Along with Phimai, Phanom Rung is best preserved temple parks in Thailand and showcases what Khmer’s were capable of. Complex is built on the rim of an extinct volcano at 400 meter elevation. It is said to symbolize Mount Kailash, a holy mountain in Hinduism on top of which Shiva lives, to whom Phanom Rung is dedicated. Phanom Rung lies on the ancient route from Angkor to Phimai. Nearby is another Khmer complex called Muang Tum, from the same era. It resides in low lands and not have views from elevation like Phanom Rung.
Every year on April a interesting phenomenon occurs in Phanom Rung. On April 13th rays of the rising sun shine through all of the portals of the temple. This was actually a common feature in many Hindu temples: they are oriented usually towards general direction of east, astronomy playing an important role in Hinduism. Either true east – the direction guarded by Indra, and direction of sunrise at winter. North-east – the direction guarded by Isana, an aspect of Shiva. Some are orientated slightly to the south-east. Ancient builders didn’t always get the direction exactly right!
Royal family is believed to change their attire in buildings (distance in the picture above), and then enter the processional walkway, finally ascending to the main temple. 160 meter long walkway is impressive feature of the temple, and is paved with laterite blocks. It is bordered by seventy sandstone posts with tops of lotus buds.
Phimai, 11th to 12th century
Phimai was where western Royal Road ended. Its temples can be seen a sort of proto-Angkor Wat, predating it and many construction styles were then honed to the fullest in the capital. Because the region of Phimai during Khmer reign was already Buddhist, temple was dedicated to Buddha, instead of Shiva or Vishnu. Phimai is oriented towards the south east, in the direction of capital Angkor. Main building resembles the peak of Mount Meru at the center of the universe (sacred and mythical mountain in both Hindu and Buddhist cosmology). Main temple has three towers (Prang) which was common feature is similar regional temples (see Lopburi bellow).
Phimai was northern region of kingdom, but judging the size, it must have been an important administrative and religious center. 225 km long Royal Road, or Dharmasala pilgrim route connected Phimai to capital.
Dharmasala route explanation by Asger Mollerup (source):
“In 1925 the French archaeologist Finot wrote about the vahni-grihas and without any arguments coined the term dharmasala. This term has since become widely used and is correct to the extend that these small sanctuaries were places (sala) for Buddhist conduct (dharma).
Even the author favours terms as vahni-griha or agni-sala, or a translations as ‘temple with fire’ or ‘fire-shelter’, the more commonly used dharmasala will be used in this paper. The route from Angkor to Phimai is therefore named the Dharmasala Route.”
Statue of Jayavarman VII, was ruler of the Khmer empire during the end of the 12th century, and considered as last of great kings. During his reign grandiose building projects were started both in capital and provinces. The statue was discovered in one of Phimai’s prangs, and can be seen in museum outside the historic park.
Phimai temple park at morning.
Lopburi, Lavapura, Phra Prang Sam Yot, Late 12th to early 13th century
Thai town of Lopburi has Khmer and later period temples, although it has been debated if Lopburi/Lavapura was semi-autonomous state within empire, rather than integral part of it. Road system mentioned earlier didn’t reach this far west from Angkor. Nevertheless Lopburi was heavily influenced by Khmer’s, which shows today. Phra Prang Sam Yot is one of oldest and best preserved temples in the down. Temple has three prangs, which also give name to it, “three holy prangs”. Unlike in Phimai or Phanom Rung that have separate park areas, in Lopburi history scattered around the living city. Monkeys run free withing couple quarters of old town. Temple was likely founded in the late 12th or early 13th century during the reign of great builder king, Jayavarman VII.
Monkeys outside cannot get access inside the Phra Prang Sam Yot. It is home for many bats living in the roofs.
Lopburi is famous not only from historic sights, but also monkeys that roam free on streets.
Phra Kan Shrine is active Hindu sanctuary, modern temple has been built on top of old one. Several ancient objects have been discovered on the grounds of the shrine, such s the 19th Inscription, now exhibited at the National Museum, Bangkok (see link).
Khmer sites today
Today there are hundreds of historic Khmer sites in mainland Southeast Asia, and only couple of the best known were described in this post. Thailand clearly has better means and resources to restore its heritage, compared to Cambodia and Laos. This becomes evident when comparing Wat Phou in Laos to any of temple parks in Thai side. Angkor in Cambodia is exception to this rule, amounting over 10% to the GDP of the whole country. Some historic sites are located at Dangrek mountain range which forms a border between Cambodia in south and Thailand (Khorat plateau aka. Isaan) in north. Because of financial relevance and somewhat disputable location right at the border, both countries have been trying to claim temples as their side. There has been even army involved in solving these questions, such as was the case with Prasat Ta Muen and Preah Vihear.
While studying topic, two good sources provided lot of additional information used in this post:
- Danish Asger Mollerup writings about historic Khmer sights in Southeast Asia: link.
- American historian Mitch Hendrickson about Khmer road network, research paper: link.
View from Phanom Rung to low lands and rice paddies, a scene that hasn’t change much since time when Khmer’s watched down from the mountain.