Prasat Hin Phanom Rung: A celebration of Khmer culture

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Seeking adventure, I’d travelled east to Buriram in the Northeast of Thailand – my destination was the 10th Century Khmer temple of Prasat Hin Phanom Rung where I had a date with the dawn.

Built 400 nearly metres up an extinct volcano, Prasat Hin Phanom Rung has a magic all its own. For a couple of days a year the rising sun’s rosy fingers stroke the temple’s Eastern portico, before plunging through 15 doorways of the temple’s galleries and bursting from the western gate in a blaze of light!

Though a lot smaller than Angkor Wat, Phanom Rung is as architecturally rich

This golden beam floods the doorway for several minutes like an effect from an Indiana Jones film, illuminating ancient carvings and dazzling the waiting tourists who fight back with the feeble flashes of their camera phones trying to capture the moment.

The fact that the sunrise floods the temple door on the 15th day of the waxing moon of the fifth lunar month is no coincidence, rather the result of ancient people’s intricate calculations and study of the stars and sunrise – essential knowledge in a society that ran on religion and agriculture.

Sumptuous costumes and dancing make for a great show, even for non-Thai speakers

A thousand years later, I turned up, slightly aggrieved to find that my “lost temple” was bustling with tourists, all awaiting their own dawn moment. This wasn’t to be my Indiana Jones moment and it was sharp elbows rather than a bullwhip which got me into position for sunrise – where I waited…and waited.

…and was disappointed – for while the rest of Thailand was to be blessed with blue skies and sunshine that day, Buriram was shrouded in thick grey rain clouds. Come back next year Indiana Jones!

But there was still the Phanom Rung Historical Park Festival to enjoy. So if I was up this early, I might as well look around. Prasat Hin Phanom Rung is a stunning example of 10th -13th century Khmer architecture and can be explored in a few hours – perfect for travellers who want a taste of the fantastical temples of Angkor.

I approached Prasat Hin Phanom Rung the same way devotes have for centuries – by walking down the 160-metre laterite-paved processional walkway, bordered by lotus bollards. This ancient path ends with an impressive set of steps in five terraces up to the temple itself.

At the top, I reached the galleries leading to Prasat Hin Phanom Rung’s sanctuary, the main prang of which was evokes Mount Kailasa, the residence of Shiva. This 23-metre pink sandstone tower is home to Shiva’s lignum and carved with scenes from the Hindu epics such as Ramayana. The most impressive carving is the reclining Vishnu lintel above the eastern entrance to the sanctuary. This went missing in the 1960s before being found in the US and returned to Thailand in 1988. No one really knows where it went in the interim. But Vishnu’s self-satisfied smile makes you think he enjoyed an adventure or two in the west.

The sounds of chanting and singing brought me back to the eastern gate. The dawn show marked the opening of the Phanom Rung Historical Park Festival 2014 and a Brahmin ceremony was being held, with local people waiting to share the food offerings.

Wanting my own breakfast, I clambered down the temple’s stairs to find an “ancient market” being set up. The market offered a chance to try local foods – in this case I feasted on Buriram’s traditional mushroom curry and fiery nam prik.

By evening the clouds had given way to stars and the temple became the magical setting for a theatrical performance – the Phanom Rung Historical Park Sound and Light show. Like all good tales, this one was about kings and gods, courts and villages, battles and beauties and the occasional fire-eater thrown in.

The sheer spectacle kept most tourists enthralled. Gods appeared in the temple’s doorways and sparks flew from clashing swords while Khmer dancers, with their subtle but sensual movements, showed their skills before a firework display brought the event to a climax.

On the final day of the festival, I attended the traditional parade down the temple’s processional walkway. Like a bestiary brought to life, creatures from Thai legends were hoisted high by costumed locals, while the young belles of Buriram sprinkled petals in their path. This is a much-loved event in the province and even dark clouds didn’t keep the crowds at bay.

With its costumes, lightshow and processions, the festival is a good excursion, whether dawn breaks in the doorway or not. But if you can’t make this annual event, make sure to see the temple another time and enjoy a more tranquil visit to Shiva’s sanctuary.

Buriram is around 380km from Bangkok and can be reached by rail, bus or road. To visit Prasat Hin Phanom Rung, it’s best to stay in the nearby town of Nang Rong where there is a range of accommodation. Try the local Kaa Moo pork, a specialty of the region.

For high-resolution images, please click to visit the TAT Newsroom Photo Library: Attraction: Historical Site – Prasat Hin Phanom Rung.