Exceeded our expectations
Thailand’s Central and Northeast regions contain many minor Khmer ruins that are often nothing more than a few stones in a field. Every now and then, one of them surprises with exquisite lintels adorning an intact prang. A short ride from downtown Sakhon Nakhon, Phra That Narai Cheng Weng, the northernmost Angkor temple ever found, is one such ancient sanctuary that exceeded our expectations.
Thought to hail from 11th-12th centuries, the roughly 12-metre-high sandstone spire rises from a laterite base and looks unremarkable from far away. Unlike many of Thailand’s lesser-known Khmer ruins, like Kamphaeng Yai and Muang Singh, Narai Cheng Weng is not rimmed by cloisters, minor prangs or moats. It consists of only the one single tower and was most likely an outlying sanctuary used for religious ceremonies.
A legend says that when Phra Mahakassapa miraculously travelled to the site of Phra That Phanom eight years after the Buddha died (that’s over 2,550 years ago so there’s not much truth to this one), he stopped here to hang out with the locals, who were keen to enshrine some of his super-powered Buddha relics in Phra That Narai Cheng Weng. Mahakassapa said, “I think not,” but he did leave some ashes instead. Supposedly, they’ve been stashed inside the prang ever since.
Another legend holds that Phra That Narai Cheng Weng was constructed by women as part of a temple-building battle of the sexes. The male team produced a roofless sanctuary, Phra That Phu Phek, which can still be seen atop a mountain in Phanna Nikhom district. It was left unfinished when the female team tricked the men into thinking they saw Venus by raising a flaming balloon over the horizon — like sounding a fake buzzer in a ball game when there’s still time on the clock. Needless to say, the ladies won!
Judging by a few marvelous lintels that remain over some of the four upper doorways on Phra That Narai Cheng Weng, the female side probably would have prevailed regardless. The most interesting of these shows Krishna clutching the back legs of a lion that appears to strangely enjoy this attack from the rear.
Krishna was the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, or Narai as this revered Hindu god is known to the Thais. Another beautifully preserved lintel shows Vishnu lounging on his side while nagas look on and the now-headless consort, Lakshmi, massages his thigh. Further down near the base of the prang, smaller carvings appear to depict Rishi, a hermit often depicted at the base of 11th and 12th century columns.
The sanctuary fronts Wat Phra That Narai Cheng Weng, a Theravada Buddhist temple established at a much later date. It features a tin-roof wihaan with a very large seated Buddha image and a fairly new concrete ordination hall guarded by fierce-looking Lao-style nagas. Wander towards the back of this forest meditation temple and you’ll find the monks’ quarters along with a Buddha image shrouded in trees.
There’s also a rather spooky derelict building with no roof — perhaps the result of a curse by those ancient male temple-builders? After you finish at Wat Phra That Narai Cheng Weng, you might head around the corner to see a life-like wax sculpture of the famous Thai forest monk, Ajahn Fan, as part of a modest shrine on the grounds of Wat Pa Phuthon Phitak.
Wat Phra That Narai Cheng Weng is located seven km northwest of downtown Sakhon Nakhon, just west of the new bus station and airport, and admission is free. We took a motorbike taxi straight here after arriving by bus since the temple is so close to the station. If coming from closer to the old bus station or Big C, expect to pay around 200 baht for a round trip by motorbike taxi.
If coming on your own, head west out of town on Highway 22 and keep your eyes peeled for a blue sign on the left — it’s written in Thai but includes a small picture of the ruins. You’ve gone a tad too far if you reach the junction with Highway 223 and Sakhon Nakhon Rajabhat University.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.