Built mainly of dusky pink and greyish white sandstone, Prasat Hin Phimai is a seductive sight from a distance; closer inspection reveals a mass of intricate carvings. Entering the complex from the main southeastern gate, it’s worth checking out the visitors’ centre on the right-hand side after the ticket office, which uses simple wall-hung exhibits to explain the history of the site.

Outer areas

Heading into the complex from the southeastern gate, a staircase ornamented with classic naga (serpent) balustrades leads to a gopura in the outer walls, which are punctuated on either side by false balustraded windows – a bit of sculptural sleight-of-hand to jazz up the solid stonework without piercing the defences. A raised pathway bridges the space between these walls and the inner gallery that protects the prangs of the inner sanctuary. The minor prang to the right, made of laterite, is attributed to the twelfth-century Buddhist king Jayavarman VII, who engaged in a massive temple-building campaign. His statue is enshrined within; it’s a copy of the much more impressive original, now housed in the Phimai National Museum. The pink sandstone prang to the left, connected to a Brahmin shrine where seven stone linga were found, was probably built around the same time.

The main prang

After more than twenty years of archeological detective work and painstaking reassembly, the towering white-sandstone main prang has now been restored to its original cruciform groundplan and conical shape, complete with an almost full set of carved lintels, pediments and antefixes, and capped with a stone lotus-bud. The impressively detailed carvings around the outside of the prang depict predominantly Hindu themes. Shiva the Destroyer dances above the main entrance to the southeast antechamber: his destruction dance heralds the end of the world and the creation of a new order, a supremely potent image that warranted this position over the most important doorway. Most of the other external carvings pick out momentous episodes from the Ramayana, starring heroic Rama, his brother Lakshaman and their band of faithful monkeys in endless battles of strength, wits and magical powers against Ravana, the embodiment of evil. Inside, more sedate Buddhist scenes give evidence of the conversion from Hindu to Buddhist faith, and the prasat’s most important image, the Buddha sheltered by a seven-headed naga, sits atop a base that once supported a Hindu Shiva lingam.