A host of small attractions join Wat Phra Mahathat and the National Museum to paint a fuller picture of Nakhon Si Thammarat’s complex history. Nearly all of them can be strung into a cultural walk following the path of Rajdamnern Road. Along the way you’ll get a sense for the multiple religions and kingdoms that influenced the city going back at least 1,200 years — and how these ancient roots continue to support Nakhon today.
The walk covers 16 different sites spread over an almost perfectly straight five-kilometre line that barely strays from Rajdamnern Rd. If you get tired on one of the longer stretches, hop in one of the many public songthaews that constantly run up and down Rajdamnern and cost 10 baht per person, per ride. We’ve arranged the route from north to south, saving the biggest attractions for last, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to start in the south at the National Museum to get some historical context off the bat. In that case, read this post backwards.
Kicking it off a few blocks southeast of the train station, Wat Wan Tawan Tok is graced by an old wooden kuti, or monastic residence, constructed by monks in 1888. Sloped ceramic-tile roofs stand over several rooms with a few vintage items lying around inside. Punctuating the fretted exterior walls, detailed carvings depict characters from local folk stories. In 1992, the structure won an architectural preservation award.
Keep south for a half-kilometre and you’ll bump into Phra Chedi Yak, or “Giant Sacred Chedi,” on the east side of Rajdamnern. The original Sri Lankan-style chedi was built around the same time as the larger one at Wat Phra Mahathat and restored after the upper part toppled in the 1970s. Some of the original bricks from the roughly 800-year-old site remain. Fronting the chedi is a small pavilion sheltering Phra Ngoen, an Ayutthaya-era Buddha image.
On the same side of the street, the majestic Yamia Mosque comes up a little further south. Broad archways and multi-sided corners rise up to towers topped by dark-green domes. Walk another half-kilometre south and hop across the street to reach the City Pillar Shrine, featuring an image of the Hindu god Brahma with a pair of four-faced heads stacked one atop the other.
Stop by the neighbouring TAT office to grab a map, or pop over to the southeastern side of the roundabout, behind the Kanlayanee Si Thammarat School, to check out a pond with a bloody history.
A great 17th-century poet from Ayutthaya, Sri Prat was banished to Nakhon by King Narai for committing an offense against the royal house. In his new home, the bold and reckless sweet-talker slept with the wrong woman. Nakhon’s angry ruler beheaded Sri Prat, washing the sword in a pond that henceforth was called Sa Lang Dap Sri Prat. King Narai was so upset to lose the poet, as the story goes, that he travelled to Nakhon and executed Sri Prat’s executioner by the very same sword, which he washed, of course, in the very same pond.
Keep south for another 400 metres to reach a portion of the Old City Wall standing roughly two metres thick and five metres tall beside the Na Mueang Canal on both sides of Rajdamnern. First built around the 12th century, the original earthen wall was covered by an imposing brick and plaster barricade a few centuries later. When passing the wall, you’ll be entering the northern side of the Nakhon Si Thammarat Kingdom’s ancient capital. Welcoming you to his realm is a statue of King Sri Thammasokarat.
Cross back to the west side of Rajdamnern and you’ll come to Wat Sema Mueang, said to be the city’s very first temple. First established as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery by the Srivijaya Empire in the 8th century, it has since taken its place as one of Nakhon’s many Theravada temples. Now kept at the National Museum in Bangkok, the 1,200-year-old Wat Sema Mueang inscription dictates how a powerful Srivijayan king from Java commanded that three Mahayana monuments be built on the site.
Several ancient Hindu images were discovered just south of Wat Sema Mueang at what seems to have been a spiritual centre of the Srivijaya-era city. The site now marked by Ho Phra Isuan (Shiva Shrine) revealed a stone Shiva linga and a bronze dancing Shiva. Directly across Rajdamnern, an ancient sandstone Vishnu was found at the site of Ho Phra Narai (Vishnu Shrine). The original statues are now kept at the local National Museum, with replicas enshrined in the twin halls.
The Shiva and Vishnu shrines not only display how Hinduism existed here in Srivijaya times, but also how Brahman rituals remained prevalent in Nakhon throughout the Ayutthaya era and beyond. In front of Ho Phra Isuan stands Nakhon’s very own Sao Chingcha, the “Giant Swing.” Though a lot smaller than Bangkok’s Giant Swing, it was also used as part of a Brahman festival that saw contestants swing as high as they could while trying to grab a bag of gold.
Stroll a few hundred metres further south and you might be ready for a food break at Tha Ma Market, an expansive roofed network of food stalls that sprawls along the east side of Rajdamnern. Out front, the road turns to cobblestone as you enter the ancient heart of Nakhon Si Thammarat.
Hop back across to the west side of Rajdamanern to check out Nakhon’s most revered Buddha image, Phra Phutthasihing, kept at a shrine of the same name at the end of Soi Salaphimuk. Supposedly cast in Sri Lanka and carted to Nakhon during the reign of King Sri Thammasokarat, the image stands no more than two feet tall and is kept behind a glass case. A trio of salas out back contain the ashes of ancient Nakhon Si Thammarat royalty — leave a flower garland to thank them for welcoming you to their territory.
Back on Rajdamnern, take any of the side lanes that cut east and then hang a right (south) on Si Thammasok Rd. Wiithin a kilometre you’ll come to Si Thammasok Soi 3 on the left, home to Suchart Subsin’s House of Shadow Puppetry. Named a Thai National Artist in 2006, Khun Suchart created one of modern Thailand’s most extensive shadow puppetry centres before his death in 2015. The studio, museum and theatre are well worth a look.
Head south again on Si Thammasok, then hang a right on Phan Yom Rd and you’ll return to Rajdamnern within a short walk of Nakhon’s biggest attraction: Wat Phra Mahathat. The early 13th-century bell-shaped chedi is the focal point, but you’ll also want to check out the adjacent museum and an attractive mondop where a large Buddha’s footprint image is enshhrined.
A few hundred metres further south brings you to Baan Khun Tan, a century-old Phan Yah-style house where a wealthy merchant once lived. Sporting attractive louvred wooden shutters along with some old photos and antiques from the area, the house served as a school for several decades before being opened as a historical attraction in 1993. The small plaza out front has a decent coffee shop along with the excellent Khanom Jeen Sen Sod, serving sticky rice noodles with Nakhon-style curries.
By this point you’ll probably be getting tired but it’s worth keeping south for one last kilometre to check out Srivijaya-era monuments crumbling among banyan trees at canal-side Wat Thao Khot. Just south of that is the Nakhon Si Thammarat National Museum, featuring several exhibitions with subjects ranging from Neolithic cave people to Srivijaya prevalence to Tambralingan religious practices and the glory days of Nakhon Si Thammarat independence.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 1st February, 2016.