If you're done with the beach life or jungle adventures, make sure to break out your inner history buff!
Thailand has a rich histroy which can be explored through stunning historical parks and temples that date back more than 1000 years. Some of the oldest and most amazing temples were built by the Khmer, the powerful Hindu-Buddhist empire that ruled South East Asia in the Middle Ages. The northeast region of Thailand, also known as Isan, is a bit off the beaten track, but full of Khmer ruins and easy to reach from Bangkok. The main three Khmer destinations are Phanom Rung, Prasat Phimai and Lopburi, but also Prasat Sikhoraphum and Prasat Muang Tam are additional temples worth visiting.
The Khmer society
The Khmer empire in Thailand spread throughout central, east and northeast Thailand from the second half of 6th century until the mid 13th century. However, Khmer styles continued to influence and inspire long after. The Khmer empire was founded upon extensive networks of agricultural rice farming communities. The main religion was Hinduism, followed by Buddhism in popularity. Initially the kingdom revered Hinduism as their main state religion. Vishnu and Shiva were the most revered deities worshipped in Khmer Hindu temples.
Khmer art and architecture
A Khmer presence can be traced through art objects and architectural ruins through the many stone inscriptions found on monuments and sculptures. The empire produced numerous temples and majestic monuments to celebrate the divine authority of Khmer kings. Khmer architecture reflected the Hindu belief that the temple was built to recreate the abode of Hindu gods, Mount Meru, with its five peaks surrounded by seas represented with ponds and moats. Khmer art and architecture reached their aesthetic and technical peak with the construction of the majestic temple Angkor Wat. The construction of the temple demonstrates the artistic and technical achievements of the Khmer Empire through its architectural mastery of stone masonry.
Phanom Rung is a Khmer temple complex and historical park set on the rim of an extinct volcano 402 metres high in the Isan region. You can get there via Nang Rong (nothing special itself, just a convenient stop on your way here). It's 6 hour bus trip from the Northern bus terminal in Bangkok.
The temple was built of sandstone and laterite in the 10th to 13th centuries. The complex is worth visiting for its Phlab Phla pavillion, called the White Elephant House, and walkway. This pavilion is believed to be the place where kings and the royal family would change attire before rituals. Royalty would then enter the processional walkway, one of the most impressive elements of the park at 160 meters long, bordered by seventy sandstone posts topped with lotus buds. The walkway leads to the first of three naga bridges, representing the connection between heaven and earth.
The Phimai historical park protects one of the most important Khmer temples in Thailand, Prasat Phimai. The temple marks one end of the Ancient Khmer Highway from Angkor and it's located close to Nakhon Ratchasima, a 4 hour drive from Bangkok. As the enclosed area is comparable with the Cambodian Khmer Angkor Wat, Phimai must have been an important city in the empire. The Devaraja cult in Phimai worshiped Shiva and believed that the king was an avartar of Shiva as well. Phimai is a unmissable attraction, especially for those interested in history and archaeology.
Lopburi Prang Sam Yot
Lopburi is a city 150 kilometres (93 mi) northeast of Bangkok. It was originally known as Lavo or Lavapura, meaning "city of Lava" in reference to the ancient South Asian city of Lavapuri. The city is also cited in Marco Polo's Book III Travels, where it is called Locach.
Prang Sam Yot, originally a Hindu shrine, has three prangs that represent Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva (the Hindu trinity). It was later converted to a Buddhist shrine. It's the main attraction of the city and an example of Khmer architecture. Funny fact - the city is also known for the hundreds of crab-eating macaques that live everywhere in the city and around the Khmer temple. Because they are not afraid of humans, they steal whatever items of food they can find from unattentative visitors, so be careful!
Prasat Sikhoraphum is a Khmer temple located between the cities of Surin and Sisaket, 7 hours north-east from Bangkok. It was built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II as a place of Hindu worship. The temple is composed of five sandstone and brick towers, on a base made of laterite. There are sandstone bas-reliefs on the main tower depicting Shiva, Brahma, Ganesha, Vishnu and Uma. The door frames have sets of apsaras, devatas and dvarapalas. The temple was converted for use by Buddhists in the 16th century. Architectural contributions influenced by Laos are evident on the tower roofs. The name comes from the Sanskrit word shikhara, meaning tower sanctuary.
Prasat Muang Tam
If you are travelling to Cambodia, consider to stop at Prasat Muang Tam, in Buriram. The Khmer temple Muang Tam dates to the late 10th and early 11th centuries. Like most Khmer temples, Muang Tam has a flat concentric plan, with a central sanctuary and two libraries surrounded successively by an inner enclosure, ponds, and an outer enclosure. The ponds between the enclosures are an unusual feature in Khmer architecture, as is the central sanctuary, which is not elevated and has its towers arranged in rows of three and two rather than in a quincunx. All the towers except the central one have been restored and are open for visitors.