Around Nakhon Ratchasima

Khao Yai National Park

Khao Yai National Park, one of the country's finest, covering an area of 2168 sq km,
encompasses the limestone Dangrek mountain range, a large area of rainforest, waterfalls
and a surprisingly wide selection of wildlife. Visitors may be lucky enough to see Asiatic black bear, Javan mongoose, slow loris and tiger. Two notable species are the white- handed (or lar) gibbon and the pileated gibbon. There may be as many as 200 elephants in the park. Having said this, recent reports have indicated a distinct lack of any wildlife, and you may travel long distances for little reward and unfortunately, because of the park's easy accessibility from Bangkok, it is overrun with visitors and its environmental integrity is at risk.

Short trails are marked in the park; for longer hikes, a guide is usually needed. The 50 km of trails are the most extensive and best marked of any national park; it was the first park to be founded in Thailand in 1962.
Kong Kaeo Waterfall
is a short walk from the visitors' centre. Six kilometres east is the
Haew Suwat Waterfall
(three to four
hours' walk). There are 'rest areas' near Haew Suwat and Haew Narok waterfalls, providing
drink and simple Thai food. Waterfalls are at their best between June and November, wildlife is best seen during April and May, although August and September are good months to see the
hornbills
(of which there are four species here). Night-time is good for animal observation, when you might be able to see sambar and barking deer, porcupine, gibbon, pig-tailed macaques, mongoose, civet cats and elephants.

The closest town to the national park is
Pak Chong
, where there are numerous
songthaews
to take you to the park. While there is some accommodation in the park itself, most of the commercial hotels and guesthouses are situated here and it is a good place to base yourself. Cars can be hired and tours booked. There is little to see here, apart from the markets on the north side of Mittraphap Road. The main road through town is the Bangkok-Korat (Friendship Highway). There's a bus from Bangkok to Pak Chong (2½ hrs), or alternatively you can take a train. Trains runs to Pak Chong from Bangkok (3½-4 hours) and Ayutthaya.
c For more information on reaching Pak Chong from Nakhon Ratchasima .

Phimai

The ancient town of Phimai, northeast of Korat, lies on the Mun River - a tributary of the Mekong and one of the northeast's major waterways. The town itself is small and rather charming; it has only two hotels and one major attraction to offer the visitor: the magnificent Khmer sanctuary of Phimai, around which the new town has grown.

The Phimai sanctuary was important even prior to the arrival of the Khmers; excavations
have revealed burnished blackware pottery from as early as AD 500. The Mun River formed a natural defensive position and the site also benefited from an extensive area of rich, arable land. These twin advantages of security and nutrition meant this area was occupied almost continuously for more than seven centuries up to the establishment of the Khmer sanctuary, for which Phimai is known.

Dating from the reign of the Cambodian King Jayavarman VII (1181-1201), Phimai was built at the western edge of his Khmer Kingdom, on a Hindu site. A road ran the 240 km from his capital at Angkor to Phimai, via Muang Tham and Phnom Rung. Unlike other Khmer monuments which face east (towards the rising sun), Phimai faces southeast; probably so that it would face Angkor, although some scholars have postulated it was due to the influence of Funan - the earliest so-called 'Indianized' state of Southeast Asia which existed in Cambodia from the first to the sixth centuries AD.

The
original complex
lay within a walled rectangle 1000 m by 560 m, set on an artificial island. There are four gopuras, which have been placed in such a way that their entrances coincide with the sanctuary entrances. The
Pratu Chai
(
Victory Gate
) faces southeast and was built with the purpose of accommodating elephants. Shortly before the gate is the
Khlang Ngoen
(
Treasury
), where important pilgrims were lodged. Within the compound are three
prangs
: the largest,
Prang Prathan
, is made of white sandstone; those on either side are of laterite (
Prang Phromathat
) and red sandstone (
Prang Hin Daeng
). The central and largest
prang
is a major departure for Khmer architecture. Though similar to Phnom Rung in plan, the elegant curving
prang
probably became the model for the famous towers at Angkor.

Another unusual feature of Phimai is the predominance of Buddhist motifs in the carvings that adorn the temple. The lintel over the south gateway to the main sanctuary shows the Buddha meditating under a protective naga, the naga's coiled body lifting the Buddha above the swirling flood waters. Another scene, magnificently carved on the corridor leading into the south antechamber, depicts the Buddha vanquishing the evil forces of Mara. On the west side of the building is a lintel showing the Buddha preaching - both hands raised.

To the right of the gateway is a 'homeless lintels' park where the Khmer artistry can be examined at close quarters. The temple was dedicated to Mahayana Buddhism, yet Hindu motifs are clearly discernible - the main entrance shows Siva dancing. On the lintel over the east porch of the central
prang
is a carving showing the final victory of Krishna over the evil Kamsa.

Of particular interest to art historians is the design of the gateways with their petal-like decorations, similar to those at Angkor itself. As Phimai predates Angkor, there is speculation that it served as the prototype for Angkor Wat. The site has been restored by the Fine Arts Department.

An
open-air museum
 on the edge of the town, just before the bridge, displays carved lintels and statues found in the area. An
exhibition hall has recently opened with
a well-displayed and labelled (in English) collection.

On Route 206, just over the bridge on the edge of town at a spot known as
Sai Ngam
is Thailand's largest banyan tree. There are a couple of crusty-looking fortune-tellers and a gaggle of decent foodstalls.

Prasat Phranomwan

Situated between Korat and Phimai, next to a new monastery, this wat began life as a
Hindu temple. The central
prang
and adjoining pavilion are enclosed within a galleried wall. When it was built is not certain: the carving on the lintels is early 11th century in style, yet the inscriptions refer to the Khmer King Yasovarman who ruled in AD 889.

Ban Prasat

This is a prehistoric site dating back about 5000 years. The dig has been converted into an open-air museum, much like Ban Chiang outside Udon Thani. Indeed, there seem to be close cultural links between Ban Prasat and Ban Chiang. Similar high- quality, red-slipped and burnished trumpet-rimmed pots
have been discovered at both
sites. Rice was eaten as the subsistence crop, domestic animals raised, and the technology
of bronze casting understood. The examination of skeletons unearthed at the site reveals a high infant mortality rate, and a relatively short lifespan of only 34 to 36 years.

Chaiyaphum

The few people who do stop off at this small provincial capital are mainly here for the famed silk-weaving at the nearby village of Ban Khwao. However, Chaiyaphum offers an authentic slice of Isaan life, away from other tourists, that can be sampled in a couple of nights. The bus station is on the northeast edge of town about 1 km from the centre.

The name Chaiyaphum means site of victory, a reference to Pho Khun Lae's (the town's first governor) success in thwarting an attack from an invading Lao army during the reign of Rama III. A statue and shrine to his memory are situated 3 km west of town and a festival is held in his honour each January.

The only real point of interest is
Prang Ku
, a 12th-century Khmer sanctuary tower built entirely of laterite blocks, 2 km east of the town centre on Bannakaan Road. Though scarcely matching the Khmer monuments to be found elsewhere on the Khorat Plateau the local people consider it an important holy site. Within the
prang
is a Dvaravati Buddha, highly revered by the townspeople. The statue is ritually bathed on the day of the full moon in April.

Ban Khwao
 is well known for the quality of its silk. Like Surin, Chaiyaphum is a centre for silk production and weaving.

Ban Dan Kwian

Ban Dan Kwian, 15 km to the southeast of Korat on Route 224, is famous for producing rust-coloured clay ceramics.The ruddy clay - taking its reddish hue from its high iron content - is drawn from the local river and is used to make vases, pots, wind chimes, water jars, ceramic fish and other objects. Countless stalls and shops line the main road. Unfortunately, most of the items are too big to transport home, although some local
producers are beginning to branch out into new products, designed to appeal to foreigners.

Phnom Rung

Phnom Rung, the finest Khmer temple in Thailand, was built in sandstone and laterite
over a period of 200 years between the 10th and early 13th centuries. It stands majestically
at the top of Rainbow Hill, an inactive volcano overlooking the Thai-Cambodian border. The name Phnom Rung means 'Large Hill'. It was built on a grand scale - the approach is along a 160-m avenue of pink sandstone pillars (nang riang). Lying 112 km southeast of Korat and 64 km south of Buriram, Phnom Rung is similar in layout to Phimai and both monuments are believed to have been prototypes for Angkor Wat.

The monumental staircase is reached via a five-headed naga bridge; this 'bridge' is one of Thailand's Khmer treasures. The style is 12th century and the detail is superb: crowned
heads studded with jewels, carefully carved scales and backbones and magnificent rearing b
odies. The naga bridge represented a symbolic division between the worlds of mortals and gods. From here the pilgrim climbed upwards to the sanctuary, a divine place of beauty and power.

The Prasat Phnom Rung (central Hindu sanctuary) is of typical Khmer design, being
symmetrical, of cruciform plan, with four gopuras leading to antechambers. It was probably
built between 1050 and 1150, most likely by the Khmer King Suryavarman II. The out- standing stone carvings on the central
prang
illustrate scenes from the Hindu epics, the
Ramayana
and the
Mahabharata
. The Reclining Vishnu Lintel on the main east porch was discovered in the Art Institute of Chicago in 1973, and after repeated requests from the Fine Arts Department in Bangkok, it was returned to Thailand in 1988. It can now be
seen in its original position. The pediment of this same eastern face portrays Siva cavorting
in his dance of creation and destruction. The central hall of the shrine would probably have had a wooden floor - visitors now have to step down below ground level. The quality of the carving at Phnom Rung is regarded by some as being the finest of the Angkor period. Lunet de Lajonquiere, who first surveyed the site in 1907, wrote “in plan, execution and decoration it is among the most perfect of its kind”.

The Busabong Festival is held here every April. The only place to eat near the site is at the Phnom Rung Park, an assemblage of small restaurants and stalls serving cold drinks and good Isaan food, including
kai yang
(grilled chicken),
som tam
(spicy papaya salad) and
khao niaw
(sticky rice).

Muang Tam

The smaller, intimate Muang Tam, or 'Temple of the Lower city', is found 8 km from Phnom Rung and dates from the 10th-11th century. It is thought to have been the palace of the regional governor of the area. It is surrounded by colossal laterite walls pierced by four gopuras, at the four points of the compass. Three still retain their sculpted lintels.
Nagas decorate the L-shaped ponds, which lie within the walls and are stylistically different
from those at Phnom Rung: they are smooth-headed rather than adorned with crowns. Historians believe this prasat pre-dates Phnom Rung by some 100 to 200 years. Many regard these nagas as unparalleled in their beauty: lotuses are carved on some of their chests, jewels stream from their mouths and garlands adorn them.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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