Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung is the finest example of Khmer architecture in Thailand, graced with innumerable exquisite carvings, its sandstone and laterite buildings designed to align with the sun at certain times of the year (see Spiritual alignment). As at most Khmer prasats, building here spanned several reigns, probably from the beginning of the tenth century to the early thirteenth. The heart of the temple was constructed in the mid-twelfth century, in early Angkorian style, and is attributed to local ruler Narendraditya and his son Hiranya. Narendraditya was a follower of the Shivaite cult, a sect which practised yoga and fire worship and used alcohol and sex in its rituals; carved depictions of all these practices decorate the temple. There are cheap foodstalls outside the Gate 1 entrance and in its car park area, where the museum-like tourist information centre provides an outstanding introduction to the temple’s construction, iconography and restoration.
The approach to the temple is one of the most dramatic of its kind. Symbolic of the journey from earth to the heavenly palace of the gods, the ascent to the inner compound is imbued with metaphorical import: by following the 200m-long avenue, paved in laterite and sandstone and flanked with lotus-bud pillars, you are walking to the ends of the earth. Ahead, the main prang, representing Mount Meru, home of the gods, looms large above the gallery walls, and is accessible only via the first of three naga bridges, a raised cruciform structure with sixteen five-headed naga balustrades. Once across the bridge you have traversed the abyss between earth and heaven. A series of stairways ascends to the eastern entrance of the celestial home, first passing four small ponds, thought to have been used for ritual purification.
A second naga bridge crosses to the east gopura, entrance to the inner sanctuary, which is topped by a lintel carved with Indra (god of the east) sitting on a lion throne. The gopura is the main gateway through the gallery, which runs right round the inner compound and has been restored in part, with arched stone roofs, small chambers inside and false windows; real windows wouldn’t have been strong enough to support such a heavy stone roof, so false ones, which retained the delicate pilasters but backed them with stone blocks, were an aesthetically acceptable compromise.
The main prang
Phanom Rung is surprisingly compact, the east gopura leading almost directly into the main prang, separated from it only by a final naga bridge. A dancing Shiva, nine of his ten arms intact, and a lintel carved with a relief of a reclining Vishnu preside over the eastern entrance to the prang. This depicts a common Hindu creation myth, known as “Reclining Vishnu Asleep on the Milky Sea of Eternity”, in which Vishnu dreams up a new universe, and Brahma (the four-faced god perched on the lotus blossom that springs from Vishnu’s navel) puts the dream into practice.
On the pediment above this famous relief is a lively carving of Shiva Nataraja, or Shiva’s Dance of Destruction, which shows him dancing on Mount Kailash in front of several other gods, including Ganesh, Brahma and Vishnu. The dance brings about the total destruction of the world and replaces it with a new epoch. Of the other figures decorating the prang, one of the most important is the lion head of Kala, also known as Kirtimukha, symbolic of both the lunar and the solar eclipse and – because he’s able to “swallow” the sun – considered far superior to other planetary gods. Inside the prang kneels an almost life-size statue of Shiva’s vehicle, the bull Nandi, behind which stands the all-powerful Shiva lingam, for which the prang was originally built; the stone channel that runs off the lingam and out of the north side of the prang was designed to catch the lustral water with which the sacred stone was bathed.
Two rough-hewn laterite libraries stand alongside the main prang, in the northeast and southeast corners, and there are also remains of two early tenth-century brick prangs just northeast of the main prang. The unfinished prang noi (“Little Prang”) in the southwest corner now contains a stone Buddha footprint, which has become the focus of the merit-making at the annual April festivities, neatly linking ancient and modern religious practices.
Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung is so perfectly built that on the morning of the fifteenth day of the waxing moon in the fifth month of the lunar calendar you can stand at the westernmost gopura and see the rising sun through all fifteen doors. This day is celebrated with a day-long festival of huge parades all the way up the hill to the prasat – a tradition believed to go back eight hundred years.