In the footsteps of the Khmer – visit the Thai-based strongholds of a lost empire
Bangkok has many sacred sites, from Wat Arun and Wat Phra Kaew to the iconic Temple of the Reclining Buddha, to name but a few. Anyone who’s visited them on their travels around town (and really, there’s no excuse not to) knows that Thailand and temples go together like Pride and rainbow flags!
Leave the capital behind and you’re in for some of the most ancient temples in all of Southeast Asia, many of which have been built by the Khmer, who ruled over the region between the 9th and the 15th century. For the first site on our list, you won’t even have to go far…
Phra Prang Sam Yot, Lopburi
A scenic two-hour drive from Bangkok, previously unknown Lopburi is starting to attract a fair share of travellers, all of whom magically gravitate towards Phra Prang Sam Yod. Although better known as the ‘monkey temple’ (you’ll see why), the region’s best-known landmark was built in the 13th century as a place to honour Hindu deities Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. Note the three steeples typical of Khmer architecture? That’s them! Interestingly, the complex was repurposed after the fall of the empire, when the King of Ayutthaya had it turned into a Buddhist temple four hundred years after its creation. Explore the Hindu stucco on the exterior before paying your respect to the Buddha statues inside the edifice – it’s two at the price of one!
Phimai Historical Park, Phimai
The Phimai temple in Thailand’s lesser-visited Isan state is quite the sight to behold. Looking much like a miniature version of Cambodia’s legendary Angkor Wat, its external walls were constructed using large sandstones rather than traditional bricks, which is typical of Khmer architecture. The structure is meant to represent the universe, with Mount Meru (the highest prang) at its centre. Stroll around the vast park, once home to a powerful city that was, in fact, the end of what’s known as the ‘Ancient Khmer Highway’, a 225 km road connecting Angkor with other Khmer strongholds, including Phimai. This truly is a road of discovery!
Phanom Rung Historical Park, Buriram
Located further south along the highway, Phanom Rung Historical Park is a stone’s throw from the homeland of the Khmer – Cambodia. Visiting the imposing temple surrounded entirely by eastern Thailand’s dense jungles is a spectacular experience: make your way up several flights up stairs, trodding along a processional walkway, past bridges and ponds clad with naga sculptures, before you reach the top of the hill home to ‘Prasat Hin Phanom Rung’. The views from up here are as spellbinding as the structure itself, and it’s easy to see why the complex was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. Venturing out to this relatively remote site in the Isan state? Remember to bring a wide-angle lens to capture the most monumental Khmer site in the country!
Wat Si Sawai, Sukhothai
Sukhothai is perhaps not the most obvious place for Khmer ruins, for the ancient city was the capital of the Thai empire in the 13th and the 14th centuries. But since the territory has been fought and ruled over by different cultures throughout history, it has seen quite the Khmer influence. No temple shows more obvious traces of this than Wat Si Sawai inside the old walled city. Its iconic, corncob-shaped prangs make it stand out from Sukhothai’s other sites and there’s still dispute about what Hindu deity the structure was built in honour of… If solving an ancient mystery isn’t the ultimate motivation to go and investigate, we don’t know what is!