When most people think of ancient ruins in Thailand, they picture the old Siamese capitals of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya. But one of the country’s most impressive stone temples is also one of its least visited. Phimai, located just outside the city of Nakhon Ratchasima, is a Khmer temple dating back to the 11th century. And it would remain important for hundreds of years, eventually being connected directly with Angkor by a long straight road.
Not only is Phimai well-preserved, but it’s also one of the most interesting Khmer temples from a historical standpoint. Scholars generally believe that Phimai was actually a Buddhist temple since its inception. That means that for a couple of centuries, it would’ve been the only major Buddhist temple within a vast Hindu empire.
Phimai's Mysterious Origins
But who built Phimai, and why was it designated as a Buddhist wat and not a Hindu temple? We don’t know for sure, but Phimai is generally attributed to either one of two rulers. The first candidate is Suryavarman I (r. 1002 – 1050) who greatly expanded the Khmer Empire’s territory westward, conquering the Phimai region as well as the kingdom of Lavo (Lopburi).
Another big reason why Suryavarman I is often credited with Phimai is because he’s believed to be one of the only early Khmer Buddhist kings. There’s no evidence to support this, however, other than his posthumous name: nirvanapada. The term ‘nirvana’ is used to refer to Buddhist enlightenment, and is rarely used in a Hindu context. It’s worth noting, though, that the temples he commissioned at Angkor, such as Phimeanakas, were Hindu.
The other candidate is Jayavarman VI (r. 1080 – 1107). Overall, we know little about this king, but it’s widely believed that the Phimai area was his hometown. Furthermore, some scholars suggest that there was another rival king, whose name we do not know, ruling from Angkor at the same time. That means that Phimai likely acted as the capital of the empire for a time.
Jayavarman VI also founded a new lineage, the Mahidharapura dynasty, of which major future kings like Suryavarman II (builder of Angkor Wat) and Jayavarman VII were a part. Jayavarman VII pays homage to his ancestor in a stele found at his Preah Khan temple. And perhaps his ancestral affiliation with Phimai is why the ‘great builder king’ constructed a royal road directly connecting it to Angkor. In fact, many aspects of the Buddhism practiced at Phimai likely influenced the form of Buddhism that Jayavarman VII would spread throughout his kingdom.
Visiting Prasat Hin Phimai
While Phimai is now the name of the town, the official name of the temple ruin is ‘Prasat Hin Phimai.’ To access the temple, visitors must pay a 100 baht for access to the Phimai Historical Park.
After purchasing a ticket, you’ll soon encounter an elaborate entrance bridge flanked with both naga serpents as well as singhas, or guardian lion deities. A number of the sculptures, though, are obviously recent recreations, indicated by their lighter color.
Aesthetically, the bridge is linked with the Angkor Wat style of architecture, meaning it was probably added in the 12th century. There are noticeable similarities between this one and the entrance to Phnom Rung temple in neighboring Buriram Province, itself erected during the Angkor Wat era.
For whatever reason, Phimai faces south and not east like most Khmer temples. To this day, experts still aren’t sure of the reason.
Otherwise, Phimai’s layout is fairly typical for a Khmer temple . Passing through the main entrance gate, visitors must walk through a wide open area before encountering another enclosure at the center of the temple. Inside of that are three traditional Khmer prasats, which represent different time periods and styles. But more on those shortly.
First, you’ll notice a series of rectangles where former structures once stood. This is where a Buddhist viharn was built in the Ayutthaya Period (roughly 1350 – 1767). Khmer Buddhist temples did not have viharns, though the structures, which normally house Buddha images, are a major feature of Theravada Buddhist temples today. Clearly, the much older stone structures of Phimai have long outlasted this relatively recent wooden addition.
There was also likely a wooden structure built over the central passageway leading up to the main temple.
Entering the gateway through the inner enclosure, notice the holes in the bottom of the floor. These once held auspicious objects, like gold and gemstones. Now protected behind glass, an original Khmer inscription also remains visible on the side of the old doorpost.
The center point of the temple is a prasat with a gopura attached to the front entrance (learn more about Khmer architecture here). The style is similar to that of Angkor Wat and other temples from the era, including nearby Phnom Rung. As Phimai itself long outdates Angkor Wat, however, this must’ve been a later replacement of the original tower.
What’s especially interesting about the structure is its mixed imagery. The scenes above the doors (both the front and on the sides) show Hindu deities and mythological scenes. Further carvings in the structure’s interior, in contrast, all represent Buddhism. And so do the figures of either side of the door, which represent a particular type of Buddhism known as Vajrayana.
What is Vajrayana Buddhism?
Vajrayana is also commonly known as ‘Tantric Buddhism.’ It’s distinct from either Theravada or Mahayana Buddhism, but certain Vajrayana practices have long been practiced behind the scenes within more mainstream Buddhist societies.
Tantric Buddhism fuses together ideas from traditional Buddhism and Tantric Hinduism, with practices first emerging in India around the 7th century AD. Unlike other forms of Buddhism, Vajrayana emphasizes concepts like chakras and working with the body’s subtle energy systems. There is also a major emphasis on sexuality, and the transmutation of primal sexual energy into refined spiritual energy.
Buddhist monks, of course, were supposed to remain abstinent, which made many Vajrayana practices forbidden and taboo by default. Therefore, Vajrayana practitioners were often laypeople, including members of the ruling elite.
Vajrayana Buddhism also features a great number of wrathful deities not found in other Buddhist sects. The fearsome gods and goddesses may be protectors of Buddhist dharma, or they may be intended to shaken the practitioner, encouraging them to let go of thought patterns which may be holding them back. This is the same philosophy behind indulging in cultural and religious taboos – but only in a ritualized context and not out in the open among society.
Today, Vajrayana is one of the main forms of Buddhism in Himalayan regions like Tibet. But it has, often beneath the surface, been practiced far and wide throughout Asia. Due to its controversial nature, Vajrayana practices often had to be referred to in coded metaphors or represented by symbols that only initiates could understand.
The images of Vajrasattvas on either side of Phimai’s main sanctuary door are a clear sign that Tantra was practiced here. These divinities are often seen holding a vajra, a lightning bolt weapon which symbolizes both indestructibility as well as Tantric energy. They also carry a bell, symbolizing wisdom and the female aspect of nature.
Even before the arrival of the Khmers, evidence suggests that tantric practices had long been practiced in Thailand’s Khorat Plateau. A Sanskrit stele inscription found about 40km southwest of Phimai praises Vajrasattva. Furthermore, Tantra is known to have been practiced to some degree by the Mon inhabitants who lived in the region for hundreds of years. And it was the Mons who likely introduced the unique fusion of Vajrayana and Theravada Buddhism found at Phimai.
The main image of the temple is that of the Buddha being shielded by a naga snake. These images represent a scene in which the Buddha was meditating in the rain. When the naga serpent Mucalinda saw this, he came over to give the Buddha cover. This style of image was the most common Buddha image produced in the Khmer Empire, especially during the reign of Jayavarman VII.
With that in mind, it’s likely that this particular image (the original is actually in the National Museum) was brought here sometime in the late 12th century during Jayavarman VII’s reign. A carving in one of the outer galleries even depicts this statue being brought to Phimai. One wonders, then, what once sat in this central sanctuary for the previous 100 years?
Another one of the main structures of the temple is a tower known as the Prang Brahmathat. It’s clearly a much older and weathered structure. And seeing how it was made of laterite rather than sandstone, this also suggests that it predates the central sanctuary by quite some time.
Inside is an interesting statue which represents none other than King Jayavarman VII himself. This statue was originally discovered in this structure by archaeologists. However, like the central prasat, the Prang Brahmathat also once had a gopura at its entrance, where the king’s statue would’ve been placed. In the center, then, would’ve been another image of the Buddha.
Prang Hin Daeng
The third major structure of the temple is known as the Prang Hin Daeng. It was made from a pinkish sandstone, and is therefore nicknamed ‘The Red Stone Temple.’ Interestingly, despite its dilapidated condition, it was supposedly built in the 13th century, making it one of the most recent constructions at Phimai.
One possible explanation for its current condition, in relation to the older but much more pristine central tower, is that the construction standard greatly declined following the Angkor Wat period. The Khmers were building more than ever in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, but the overall quality had to suffer as a result.
Nothing but the platform of the so-called ‘Phrab Phla’ remains. Scholars suspect, however, that the laterite structure was used for some type of religious ceremony.
Also within the inner area is a ruined laterite structure believed to be a ‘library.’ Nobody knows for sure, but these mysterious structures, found at nearly all Khmer temples, were either used to hold scriptures and relics or were possibly places for special fire rituals.
Visitors can also walk around the inner gallery. Some of the original, faded lintels are still present over the doorposts. Like the central sanctuary, the various scenes represent both Hinduism and Buddhism (possibly of the Tantric variety as well). This gallery is also a good spot to get some interesting vantage points of the inner temple.
Back out in the spacious area separating the inner and outer enclosures are two mysterious structures. Each platform is 25.5 x 26.5 meters. They had stone doorways, but it’s likely that the rest was made of wood. Even today, scholars have no idea what they were used for.
On one of them you can find plenty of interesting old lintel carvings, though it’s unclear whether these were discovered on the Banalai platforms themselves or at other parts of the temple.
Around the Outer Area
While not essential for those with tight schedules, there are plenty of interesting details to discover around the back and sides of the temple. You’ll come across small ponds, recently added animist shrines and even another Buddha image housed in a shrine of its own. There’s no sign indicating where it came from or why it’s out in the back. Whatever the case may be, locals continue to bring it offerings.
Much of the outer gallery can be walked through as well. Here you’ll find more lintel carvings, including the one depicting the arrival of the central Buddha image mentioned above. Also notice the carvings of bearded wise men on the lower part of each door post. These are likely rishis, or Hindu sages. Some parts of the outer gallery even let you look right out into the city.
Phlab Phla Pleuang Khreung
Way back at the front, to the left of the naga bridge mentioned above, is yet another mysterious structure. It’s similar to the one outside of Phnom Rung, which scholars believe was some kind of changing room or preparatory place for royal rituals. Considering how both Phnom Rung and Phimai were situated along the ‘royal road,’ perhaps kings visiting from Angkor used these rooms for rest during their periodic visits.
Leaving the main temple, don’t miss the small museum with information on Phimai and other nearby Khmer temples in the Isaan region. This is not to be confused with the Phimai National Museum mentioned further down below.
As long as you depart early enough (around 7am) from Nakhon Ratchasima, you’ll have plenty of time to explore Prasat Hin Phimai temple, sites around the city of Phimai and also the National Museum. All can be visited on foot before catching a bus back to the capital in time for dinner.
Right in the city center you’ll notice a hill with a ruined brick structure on top. Known locally as Meru Brahmathat, it was built sometime in the 18th century. While not much to look at today, the hill does, at least, offer good views of the surrounding area. Back down at the bottom of the hill, meanwhile, is the local clock tower.
Aside from the temple, Phimai’s number one highlight is Sai Ngam, the largest Banyan tree in the entire country! At around 2km away from the city center, it’s up to you whether you want to walk or find some type of private transport. If you do decide to walk, you’ll pass an ancient reservoir made around 1,000 years ago by the Khmer Empire. The Khmers, in fact, built these in all of their cities, and there are still many of these barays in the Angkor region of Cambodia.
Arriving at the banyan tree, you’ll notice that this single tree grove is more like its own forest or park. There are even paths and benches set up if you want to enjoy a picnic. Sai Ngam is also interspersed with various shrines (of course!) while there’s also a scenic pond just next to it.
Nearby, you can also find a shrine dedicated to a local Muay Thai legend, though none of the signage here is in English.
Phimai National Museum
Before leaving town, you should also check out the Phimai National Museum. For 150 baht, you get to see statues and lintel carvings from Phimai temple. The museum also contains some sculptures, such as that of a rhinoceros, from Phnom Rung temple, which lacks a National Museum of its own. And this is also where you’ll find the original statue of Jayavarman VII discovered at Prasat Hin Phimai.
If you plan on visiting Phnom Rung, you’ll most likely also want to visit the Isaan region’s other major Khmer temple, Phimai. Phnom Rung is located in the small town of Nang Rong, Buriram Province (not to be confused with the capital city of Buriram). Phimai, meanwhile, is located in the town of the same name which is an hour bus ride from Nakhon Ratchasima (capital of Nakhon Ratchasima Province and known locally as Khorat).
Nakhon Ratchasima is about 3.5 hours away from Bangkok, while Nang Rong is 4.5 hours away. Buriram Province is further east, closer to the border with Cambodia.
The ideal travel route will largely depend on where you’re headed after. If you’re beginning in Bangkok and then returning to Bangkok, visit in any order you like, as just about every town in Thailand has a direct bus to Bangkok.
In my case, I started in Bangkok but wanted to head onward to Chiang Mai. Therefore, I began by taking a bus from Mo Chit bus station directly to Nang Rong. When buying the ticket, be sure to specify that that’s where you want to get off, as the bus’s final destination will surely be a larger city like Buriram’s capital. (Note: you could also fly directly to Buriram City, or even take a train, and then gradually make your way westward by bus).
The best option is to stay at the P. California Hostel, one of the only English-speaking accommodations in town. Wicha, the hotel owner, will be able to pick you up from the bus station. And to see the temples, you have a couple of options.
You can rent a motorbike from the hotel and ride around to see them on your own. This should cost a few hundred baht. Or, you can have Wicha himself drive you to both Phnom Rung and Muang Tam. Note that the official price is 350 baht per person, but the minimum is 2 people. Therefore, if you’re a solo traveler you’ll have to pay 700 baht. That’s probably still much cheaper than negotiating with a random taxi driver on the street! He can also take you to Wat Khao Angkhan for an additional fee.
Though I stayed at P. California and would recommend it, another English-speaking option in town is Honey Inn.
There are direct buses between Nang Rong and Nakhon Ratchasima. Nakhon Ratchasima is the transport hub of the Isaan region and is in fact one of Thailand’s largest cities. If your main objective is to get to Phimai and then move on from there, you’ll want to base yourself relatively nearby the bus station. As it’s a pretty big city by Thai standards, basing yourself in the city center will make it difficult to access the bus station. But for those wishing to see the sites in town, more centralized accommodation would make sense.
Phimai is easy to get to. Just walk to the bus station, tell them ‘Phimai’ and board a bus which leaves nearly every hour. It’s just about an hour away and the temple and National Museum are walkable from the bus station. Buses come and go frequently, so you won’t have to wait long to find a bus back to the city.
From Nakhon Ratchasima you can get a direct bus to just about anywhere else in Thailand, but try getting a ticket at least a day in advance. The ride to Chiang Mai is a grueling 14 hours, but at least it didn’t involve a transfer!