Prasat Hin Phimai

At the height of the Khmer empire whose capital is known to the West as Angkor Wat, much of what is now Thailand was under their influence. Temples and other structures dating from this era are dotted all around the Northeast of Thailand, an area Thais refer to as Isaan. The region was far from being a backwater. The area around the modern town of Nakorn Ratchisima, commonly known as Korat, was in fact the birthplace of a whole succession of Angkor's kings throughout the 12th century, a period which many consider the height of the empire's power.

View from just inside the gate of the middle enclosure View from just inside the gate of the middle enclosure

The town of Phimai is a little under 50 kilometers (33 miles) from Korat. Although a small town today, in Khmer times it was an important city lying at the end of an imperial road from the capital. The temple there was built early in the twelfth century. In plan, the temple is similar in size and layout to the temple of Angkor Wat. However, where the central sanctuary of Angkor is a huge man-made mountain, the much smaller main sanctuary of Phimai is laid flat on a platform only a few feet off ground level. Having scaled Angkor myself, let me assure you that Phimai is much easier to explore.

While similar in size and layout to Angkor Wat, one unusual thing about Phimai is that it is a Buddhist temple, while almost all the great temples of Angkor are dedicated to Hindu deities (although it is thought that Angkor Wat may have been a Buddhist temple when it was first built). The overall plan consists of three concentric rectangular enclosures. The outer wall of the temple is in fact the outer wall of the city, measuring just over half a kilometer by one full kilometer. The temple itself is within another "middle" rectangular wall slightly off center within the outer enclosure. Within this second enclosure is a largely open space with a causeway leading to the last, inner enclosure where the sanctuary stands.

Fragment of a lintel showing an elephant Fragment of a lintel showing an elephant

Off to one side in the inner enclosure is a raised area used to display some lintel fragments found within the grounds. The lintel pieces at Phimai are as delicate and intricate as any can see in the temples of Angkor. The half a dozen or so fragments displayed on the platform are pieces that can no longer be placed in their original position. The platform is heavily shaded by several large trees, so its a good half-way place to sit and cool off for a while. The main sanctuary itself has been extensively restored and the lintels of each entry are worth close examination.

The main sanctuary The main sanctuary

The inner courtyard contains the main sanctuary with its antechamber constructed all in white sandstone. On either side are two towers now in ruins, one in red sandstone and the other in laterite. The main sanctuary has been carefully restored. Inside is a copy of the original statue of Buddha protected by a naga. The lintels over each of the four doorways to the main sanctuary are delicately carved with images depicting various deities. The tower of the main sanctuary soars to nearly 30 meters (100 feet) and is widely assumed to be a model for the five towers of Angkor, which was built several years later.

The chapel attached to the tower of the main sanctuary The chapel attached to the tower of the main sanctuary

After exploring the temple of Phimai, you may want to cool off by visiting the nearby curiosity of Sai Ngam -- the world's biggest banyan tree.