Friday, March 11, 2011

Isaan Odyssey, Part 9: Phanom Rung Itself

The Eastern entrance to the upper temple area at Phanom Rung in Buriram, Thailand

[This is Part 9 of a series. If you found this via a search or just happened upon it some other way you can find parts 1 through 8 by scrolling down the Labels in the right-hand column and clicking on "Isaan Oddysey".]

When we left off at the end of Part 8 we had stopped to catch our breath (well, I had, anyway) about three quarters of the way up the hillside from the parking lot at Phanom Rung, a Khmer-style Hindu temple begun in the 10th century AD. It's an impressive structure - supposedly the largest of its kind in Thailand - something all the more amazing when you're climbing it and realize that the entire place was made by hand, with no machinery. Note the Khmer-style posts (always done in fives and sevens) in the picture on the left here.

These weren't turned on a lathe - although they're smooth and even enough to look as though they were - they were carved by hand.

There are blocks that must have taken a dozen or two men to lift that had to be hauled up the 1,300 foot (396 meter) mountain with nothing more than men and animal power to do it. The shaping of the basic blocks was also done by hand, and one can only imagine the labor involved when you see the score marks on the sides of them, as in the picture below.

Once you reach the top level you're greeted by the sight of the full Eastern entrance to the main temple area, the center marked by a main central doorway, the first of 15 that lead all the way through the temple. They were knowledgeable enough in the areas of astronomy and architecture to know how to line up these doorways so that they'd allow the sunlight to pierce across the entire compound through all 15 of them on four days a year: twice at sunrise, twice at sunset. Although minor shifts have caused slight differences in the accuracy (remember, this was built in the 10th century) this phenomenon still occurs today.

The main chedi doesn't show well because of its sheer size; the picture above is three images stitched together as I didn't have enough of a wide angle lens to capture it in one shot.

Another panorama, showing the rear Western side of the temple

Sandstone carves easier than laterite-type rock, so it was used for walls and areas that would be finished with more detail. You can see the figures in the photo below deeply carved into the pink sandstone; something that would be far more difficult in a harder rock.

Again the friend who was my guide reminded me it was getting late in the afternoon and we needed to think about moving along to our resting place for the evening, so I slowly made my way down the stairs while he (being more nimble and having better balance) went on a ways ahead. I stopped to take another few shots of the nagas and lost track of him, but I found him waiting patiently, resting on a tree on the side of the hill near the ever-present souvenir stands.

The temple area can be busy on the weekends, and extremely busy during the yearly festival held there in the Springtime. I'd suggest doing some online research and reading about the place before planning a trip there, as there's a rich history of traditions and meaning behind the site and its buildings - far more than I've included here.

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