Phimai, a small town with a population of just under 10,000, is located about 50 km north-east of Korat in the Isaan region of Thailand. I have come to explore its historical park and to attend the Phimai Festival.
Phimai Historical Park
In the center of town, the Phimai Historical Park was set up to protect Prasat Hin Phimai. Built as a Brahmin temple, during the reign of Suryavaraman I (1006 - 50), it was dedicated to Shiva. At the end of the 12th century it was rededicated as a Mahayana Buddhist temple.
Unlike most Khymer temples which are orientated in an east-west direction, Phimai is orientated in a north-south direction. Why this is so is not clear as it does not face Angkor.
Like many Khymer temples, Phimai is a rectangular. The central prang represents Mt Meru, center of the Hindu Universe. Four surrounding ponds, now empty, represent the four oceans. Entering via a naga (mythical serpant) bridge and striding along a walkway brings me to the central sanctuary under the central prang. Doorways leading into the santuary are decorated by carved lintels featuring stories from the Ramayana. Inside a sitting Buddha is shaded by a naga. This statue is a replica. The original is housed in the Phimai National Museum.
Outside, west of the temple, are many small standing Buddha images. I not aware of this arrangement elsewhere in Thailand though it is commmon in Japan, for example the Mitaki-ji Temple in Hiroshima. Maybe it is an Mahayana Buddhism theme. Theravada Buddhism is dominate in Thailand.
Road to Angkor
Prasat Hin Phimai was connected to Angkor by an ancient road. Once thought to be straight, is now known to have zig-zagged to Prasat Hin Khao Phnom Rung and Prasat Ta Muean. Then the road left the Korat platuea and went down the 200 meter high scarp into todays Cambodia. Along its route were guest houses and lighted torches allowing nightly navigation. King Jayavarman VII, who ruled the Khymer Empire from 1181 to 1218, supplemented the guest houses with a series of hospitals.
Phimai National Museum
Less than a kilometer from the temple is the Phimai National Museum. Amongst its exhibits are artifacts from the Isaan region, lintels from Prasat Hin Phimai and a statue of Jayavarman VII found in one of its prangs.
The advantage of lintels displayed in the museum is the close proximity from which they can be viewed. This is generally not possible when housed in their temple environment.
Every November the Phimai Festival is held. There are a number of activities including the provision of local cuisine, the Korat cat competition, dragon boat races, and the light, dance and singing performance presented at Brahmathat Court, Prasat Hin Phimai.
The dragon boat races are held in a specially prepared section of the Chakkarat River. Teams from all over Thailand come to compete.
My personal highlight of the Phimai Festival is the light, sound, singing and dance show. The story is about the reign of Jayavarman VII. Though I suspect that historical accuracy is not a top prioprity. Not being able to follow the story line, as it was in Thai or maybe even an Isaan dialect, did not dimish my enjoyment.
There were four performances, from Thursday to Sunday starting around 7:30pm. On the preceding Wednesday night there was a free non-costume rehearsal.
The performance ends with the presentation of the Buddha. This statue is the one found in the temple but is now housed in the museum.
After the show audience members are allowed into the court to mingle with the performers and take a few photographs. I particularly like this one. Her features would not look out of place in the Aspara bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat.
It would be wrong to think of Phimai as a mini Siem Reap.
Most of Prasat Hin Phimai's 300,000/yr visitors are Thai.
Resturants with menus other than Thai are few. The multitude of tourist agencies offering more or less the same tours are absent. Even in this week, the week of the festival, foreign faces are only a tiny percentage of the total.
Phimai's economy revolves around servicing agriculture, retail and construction. It does have some industry, for example a shoe factory and salt factory.
Cultural and religious life is conducted in its five Buddhist wats.
The wiharns of the Isaan are much higher and narrower than their counterparts in the rest of Thailand. I haven't been inside of one as they always seemed to be closed when I an present. Getting inside of one is still on my to do list.