The spectacular ruins of the Khmer temple sanctuary of Prasat Phanom Rung and nearby Prasat Muang Tam are just a two-hour drive from Nakhon Ratchasima, more commonly known as Korat, in the southernmost part of the Isaan, Thailand’s large north-eastern region.
Popular with Thai tourists, Thailand’s Northeast, known to Thais as Isaan, is off-the-beaten-track for foreign travellers. It was that, and a magazine assignment, that motivated us to do a road trip of the region.
The Khmer Temple of Prasat Phanom Rung
We’d only had a few hours sleep, arriving in Khorat late the night before on a bus from Bangkok, when at 4am we piled into the car in the pitch-black dark with our cameras and tripod.
Bleary-eyed we may have been, but it wasn’t hard not to be energised at the prospect of seeing the sunrise at the Khmer Empire temple of Prasat Phanom Rung.
It turned out to be a two-hour drive through a deluge in what is normally the country’s driest month, April, and the journey was somewhat dreamlike.
Terence and I both dozed for most of the drive and when I pried my eyes open, glimpses of the wipers sweeping water across the windscreen, rain hitting the glassy bitumen road, the headlights of oncoming cars, and locals kneeling to offer alms to monks by the side of the road, imprinted themselves on my memory.
The downpour slowed to a drizzle by the time the first light appeared on the horizon. The black sky turned cobalt blue then transformed into pastel pink and peach by the time the car pulled up at the entrance.
By the time Terence and I were climbing the stairs to Prasat Phanom Rung, the rain had stopped completely and the sky was baby blue. Just a few puddles hinted at the overnight torrent.
So why had we gotten up at such an ungodly hour to travel to this place Buddhists and Hindus regarded as the ‘home of the gods’?
The Miracle of Khao Phanom Rung
We’d missed by one week the rare spectacle that is ‘the miracle of Khao Phanom Rung’, when at sunrise the sanctuary doors are so perfectly aligned that on a cloudless day a single shaft of light shines through all fifteen temple doorways.
The partial illumination that occurs over following days was also meant to be special so we were hoping to still capture something of the event’s magic.
When we first saw the splendid temple complex set on the summit of an extinct volcano, from the top of the steep narrow stairs, our original intention no longer mattered.
Built between the 10th and 13th centuries, overlooking lotus ponds and set within lush gardens of crimson frangipani, Phanom Rung – ‘big mountain’ in Khmer – was breathtaking.
We were satisfied to simply clamber the ruins, taking in the intricate carvings, and ambling the grounds of what Hindus believed was the heavenly home of Shiva.
We were so enchanted by the temple and the setting that we almost missed the sunlight illuminating the temple’s interior rooms and only caught it just before the moment passed.
Considered by many to be the finest example of Khmer architecture in Thailand, Prasat Phanom Rung is the second most significant Khmer temple in the Isaan region.
The most important, second only to the Khmer Empire city complexes in Cambodia, is sprawling Prasat Hin Phimai, 60km northeast of Korat, where we were headed later that day.
Yet bafflingly, apart from a Thai family arriving to pay homage to the deities as we left, we were the only visitors at Prasat Phanom Rung that morning.
It was the same case at nearby Prasat Muang Tam or ‘temple of the lower city’, situated 8km away, down on the plains, in a tranquil farming village that was surrounded by verdant rice paddies.
Not as highly ranked as Prasat Phanom Rung, it’s thought that Prasat Muang Tam was a place of worship for pilgrims to Prasat Phanom Rung and for the local community, as inscriptions dedicated to the goddesses of water and of rice asked the deity for protection.
Only a few children played among the ruins of Prasat Muang Tam, yet it was equally as elegant, and, its setting amongst shady trees, manicured lawns and more lotus ponds, was just as captivating as that of Prasat Phanom Rung.
Prasat Phanom Rung – Trip Essentials
When to Go to Prasat Phanom Rung
While well-visited by Thai tourists and expat tourists, the Isaan region is for foreign travellers about as off-the-beaten-track as travel gets in Thailand so there’s no period when you need to avoid the high season crowds of other regions. Contact the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s Surin Office ++66 (0) 4451 4447 or check the website www.tatnews.org for dates for the astrological event The Miracle of the Khao Phanom Rung, or The Ascent of Khao Phanom Rung.
Getting to Korat, departure point for Prasat Phanom Rung
We took a bus to Korat from Bangkok’s colossal Northern Bus Terminal. Take the BTS to Mo Chit and then get a taxi; ask the BTS staff to write down the name of the terminal in Thai to give to the taxi driver. Once at the bus terminal, the ground floor Information Desk staff can direct you up to the ticket windows for the Korat buses. Tickets cost us the equivalent of US$10 each and the trip – in the rain – took 4.5 hours. It was an old bus but seats were super-spacious, there was a movie, and snacks and softdrinks were distributed.
Getting Around Prasat Phanom Rung
We’ve driven hire cars the length and breadth of Thailand, where Terence finds driving fairly easy. We’d highly recommend it. As we were on assignment this trip, which means Terence is shooting photos from the time he wakes until the time he sleeps, we hired a driver. It took us a long time and our best contacts to find an English-speaking driver in the Isaan, but it was worth it, he was brilliant. Narawat is knowledgeable and flexible; his number is 081 579 0388.
Where to Stay in Korat
In Korat, we stayed at the Dusit Princess Korat, the city’s most comfortable accommodation. The hotel is now called The Imperial Hotel and Convention Centre Korat. The hotel has two good restaurants and a cocktail bar, which does potent martinis that can all too easily be knocked back after a long day on the road, and there are plenty of food stalls close by. When we stayed the best rate for rooms was 1,550 Baht or about US$50/£31/35 Euros at today’s exchange rate.