Thailand // The northeast: Isaan //

Wat Phra That Phanom

Popularly held to be one of the four sacred pillars of Thai religion (the other three are Chiang Mai’s Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Wat Mahathat in Nakhon Si Thammarat, and Wat Phra Phutthabat near Lopburi), Wat Phra That Phanom is a fascinating place of pilgrimage, especially at the time of the ten-day Phra That Phanom festival, usually in February, when thousands of people come to pay homage and enjoy themselves in the traditional holiday between harvesting and sowing; pilgrims believe that they must make the trip seven times during a full moon before they die.

The temple reputedly dates back to the eighth year after the death of the Buddha, when five local princes built a simple brick chedi to house bits of his breastbone. It’s been restored or rebuilt seven times, most recently after it collapsed during a rainstorm in 1975; the latest incarnation is in the form of a Lao that, 57m high, modelled on the That Luang in Vientiane. From the river pier, a short ceremonial way leads under a Disneyesque victory arch erected by the Lao, past a stubby, brick replica of the original chedi on an island in a pond, then through the temple gates to the present chedi, which, as is the custom, faces water and the rising sun.

The chedi

A brick-and-plaster structure covered with white paint and gold floral decorations, the chedi looks like nothing so much as a giant, ornate table-leg turned upside down. From each of the four sides, an eye forming part of the traditional flame pattern stares down, and the whole thing is surmounted by an umbrella made of 16kg of gold, with precious gems and gold rings embedded in each tier. The chedi sits on a gleaming white marble platform, on which pilgrims say their prayers and leave every imaginable kind of offering to the relics. Look out for the brick reliefs in the shape of four-leaf clovers above three of the doorways in the base: on the northern side, Vishnu mounted on a garuda; on the western side, the four guardians of the earth putting offerings in the Buddha’s alms bowl; and above the south door, a carving of the Buddha entering nirvana. At the corners of the chedi, brick plaques, carved in the tenth century but now heavily restored, tell the stories of the wat’s princely founders.