It was a scorcher of a day. We’d tried hard to time our arrival at the ruins of the Khmer temple of Prasat Hin Phimai, slap bang in the centre of the small town of Phimai in Thailand’s northeastern Isaan region, for the late afternoon. But somehow we’d still arrived early in the afternoon and the sun was merciless.
While the rain we’d drive through early that morning en route to Prasat Phanom Rung and Prasat Muang Tam was not expected for late April, the sizzling heat, in what is the country’s hottest month of the year, certainly was.
Withering in the sweltering heat, however, was the price we were prepared to pay to experience the Isaan devoid of tourists. It would be worth it.
An hour after arriving, we would see our only tour group of the road trip at Prasat Hin Phimai. But even then the couple of dozen old Thai women would spend just thirty minutes or so wandering around the shady grounds of the splendid ruins, smiling to us as they passed, taking care not to get in the way of our shots. So content were they with each other’s company, they could have been at the Taj Mahal and been oblivious.
Aside from a few local kids who clambered about the ruins, treating it more like a playground than a spiritual or historical site, we saw just a few families and a solitary Buddhist nun praying within the temple. It was bliss compared to the crowds at Angkor Wat we would meet on an assignment to Cambodia the following month.
For several hours we were left almost entirely alone to wander about Prasat Hin Phimai, a splendid 11th century temple sanctuary situated at the end of the ancient Khmer highway from Angkor Wat.
While the Khmer people were Hindus when Phimai was constructed, the local people were Buddhists and had been since the 7th century, so that by the 12th century the temple complex was dedicated to Mahayana Buddhism, as its exquisite carvings attest.
We explored every centimetre of the elegant ruins, taking photographs as much as taking in the tranquillity of the place, and stayed until sunset when the temple sanctuary turned tangerine and the central temple’s interior was illuminated by a single shaft of light.
It was there that we came upon the bald-headed Buddhist nun, meditating silently on a small mat on the stone temple floor by the handsome Buddha image. The moment was sublime. It was somehow how I expected our experience of Prasat Phanom Rung at sunrise to be…
Don’t you love that about travel? When one experience isn’t quite how our expectations lead us to believe they might be, another experience goes and surpasses them?