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Phanom Rung

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This spectacular temple sits atop a 383-metre high extinct volcano and is the closest thing to Angkor Wat you will see in Thailand.

As with the Khmer ruins of Phimai (near Khorat), it is suspected that Phanom Rung may have been a prototype for what eventually became Angkor Wat. Once built it was also used as a resting spot for pilgrims making their way from Angkor to Phimai.

The temple is the largest and best restored in Thailand (the restoration took 17 years to complete) and was originally built between the 10th and 13th Centuries, with the bulk of it being overseen by Suryavarman II. Unlike many Khmer monuments, both in Thailand and Cambodia, the stone structures of Phanom Rung are in excellent condition today thanks to limited overgrowth and never having become a battlefield.

Like most Hindu monuments, which typically face towards the dawn, the entire complex is built facing the east. The long promenade leading to the main temple is the best of its kind in Thailand and is the site of a large festival in early to mid April (depending on the moon). At the aptly named "Phanom Rung festival", the entire area fills with festive locals performing traditional dance along with fireworks, food, sound and light shows in the evening. The main event of the festival is when the rising sun is framed by 15 of the temple doorways, an awe-inspiring spectacle that only happens once per year.

At any time of year, there's a fantastic sense of suspense while walking the promenade until the main shrine and tower appear overhead. Once at the western end of the promenade you reach the first naga bridge which is sided by spectacular five headed nagas. They are still in good condition and are identical to those which are found at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

At the top of the stairs is the gallery which leads into the primary sanctuary. The sanctuary has gallery entrances from the north, south, east and west, all of which display magnificent and intricately carved masonry depicting Hindu legends.

The lintel above the eastern entrance is the most famous thanks both to its detail and storied recent history. After being stolen in the 1960s it resurfaced in a display at the Art Institute of Chicago where it looked like it was going to stay, but thankfully it was eventually returned to its rightful home in 1988 -- only after supporters of the cause had raised over US$200,000 to 'facilitate' its return and had mounted a high profile campaign, the highlight of which was the album released by the band Carabao titled Thap Lang (Lintel). On the cover of the album was a picture of the Statue of Liberty holding the lintel and the song went along the lines of Take back your Michael Jackson, just give us back our Phra Narai!

The central prang, built in a typical Khmer style, has been very well restored and is particularly photogenic in the mornings for those who make the effort to beat the tours and get there early.

Near the site, there is a small museum with some sculpture from the site along with an interesting photographic essay of the restoration and a small selection of literature.

Unlike many ancient Khmer monuments that have been at least partially reclaimed by jungle, the entire Phanom Rung historical park is well kept by locals -- expect to feel like you're in an actual park as opposed to some forgotten site out of an Indiana Jones movie. The grounds are covered in neatly groomed gardens and there are numerous bi-lingual information signs to go with a new visitor centre near the front of the steps.

Admission to the park is 100 baht for foreigners, but 150 baht gets you a combined ticket valid for the nearby site of Muang Tam as well.

Getting there
It is a little bit of an effort to get to Phanom Rung, but well worth it. If possible avoid weekends when the whole area is packed with local tourists and the scene is often not particularly conducive to a quiet appreciation of the site.

During the festival in April it is packed solid (but the festival is worth seeing). Early morning (before 10:00) offers the best light for photography.

Phanom Rung can be approached from Khorat, Buriram, Surin or nearby Nang Rong. From Khorat, Buriram or Surin catch a bus to Tapek which is 11 kilometres to the east of Ban Ta Ko. It is well signposted as the turn-off to Phanom Rung. Get off the bus there and wait for a songthaew which runs to the foot of the hill.

The songthaews can be quite infrequent (especially on weekdays) so if your patience gets the better of you, catch a motorcycle straight to the ruins and organise for them to wait for you while you visit the site - do not pay up front! If you get a songthaew to the foot of the hill you can then get a motorbike taxi up and back. On weekends, songthaews are far more regular.

If you come from Nang Rong, catch a songthaew straight to the foot of the hill. These leave from the market, most are clearly marked as running to Phanom Rung. Once at the bottom of the hill you will have to catch another songthaew or motorbike to the top.



Text and/or map last updated on 17th February, 2013.

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