Friday, September 26, 2008

The provinces bordering the Cambodian border are rich in ancient architectural wonders

Hot, dry and very dusty for much of the year, the Kingdom's eastern provinces along the ThaiCambodia border are best explored during the rainy season. Although the heat can still be a killer between downpours, there are so many natural and ancient attractions scattered across Prachin Buri and neighbouring Sa Kaeo, which was elevated to provincial status in 1993, that this area more than merits the drive from Bangkok for a weekend break.

Known for their topclass national parks, waterfalls and whitewater rafting courses, both Prachin Buri and Sa Kaeo boast a number of classic Dvaravati and Khmer temples dating back more than a millennium. The drive to the two provinces is like journeying back in time through Thai and Khmer history and art ending, for those who wish it, in a very modern Vegasstyle spread just across the border from Aranyaprathet.

For time efficiency, it makes sense to start your itinerary from the far end and work inwards. At 236 kilometres from Bangkok an easy threehour drive the hilly expanse of Sa Kaeo is strewn with remnants of ancient Khmer heritage that spill over from the Korat plateau in lower Isaan

For history buffs, this is an ideal destination for many reasons. First, these lesserknown Khmer temples are a lot older than the famous ones like Angkor Wat. Secondly, many of these are tucked away deep in the forest and are relatively unknown to most tourists.

It's a long drive to Sa Kaeo, but Road 359 offers priceless views of endless eucalyptus plantations set against a backdrop of distant hills as the road rises and dips through slopes all the way to the provincial capital. Driving in the rain, you almost get to touch rain clouds hovering just above treetops.

Ironically, the first landmark you'll notice is not an ancient temple but rather a Baan Uathorn (lowcost) housing estate at the beginning of Road 348. Rows of white houses with blue tile roofs contrast beautifully with the green swamp but memories of that eye candy soon fade on the approach to Sadokkokthom Temple in Khok Sung subdistrict, the biggest Khmer temple in eastern Thailand. Still in a much better condition than any other in the province, the temple lies east and is just 400 metres from the Cambodian border. Beyond the borderline are unmarked minefields in Banteay Meanchey.

Tucked away behind rural villages and surrounded by big trees, the temple has two large baray (reservoir) to the east and the north, the former the biggest at 240 by 440 metres. Inscriptions from two stone blocks (now kept at the National Library) found here reveal that the temple was unusual.

Built of laterite and pink sandstone from Khao Lone nine km to the north during the reign of King Aditayavarma II (10491066), Sadokkokthom was originally a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva.

Chairat Sakulpram, a volunteer guide, says that the temple was the most important of all in the area because it was the centre of knowledge for all Brahmins who wanted to serve in the royal Khmer court. They came here to study all aspects of the religious protocol before entering the service in the ancient court.

Much of the damage, Chairat says, is the result of looting that started during the 1960s, much of thought to have been perpetrated by GIs stationed in the northeast in the wake of the Vietnam War.

The partially disfigured reclining vishnu lintel still adorns the gopura but the Shiva Linga from the main tower sanctuary is now missing.

From Sadokkokthom Temple, it's tempting to visit Aranyaprathet just opposite Poi Pet if for no other reason but to observe Cambodian life without actually crossing the border markets. These day, visitors come to Aranyaprathet for three main reasons: to try their luck in one of the casinos just over the border, to hail a Toyota Camry taxi for a Bt500 trip to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat or to shop at Talat Rong Klua market for handicrafts and products from Tonle Sap, Vietnam and China.

It's a hot and dusty market full of contradictions, with young Cambodians both selling their wares and begging for mercy. On the other side, buses with the names of casinos plastered on the windshield ferry gamblers across the border.

Around Aranyaprathet, there are a few more Khmer temples to be found. Since most are in ruins beyond restoration, they are better ignored. Instead, turn the car inland and head towards Prachin Buri on Highway 33.

Downtown Prachin Buri, just 155km from Bangkok, is a frenzied market town with ubiquitous restaurants, glassfront barber's shops and beauty salons. A favourite spot with locals is the Bang Pakong River, which boasts countless riverfront restaurants, temples and a spectacular Chinese shrine on its banks.

One of the best known attractions is Chaophraya Abhaibhubejhr Hospital, home to the renowned colonialstyle Chaophraya Abhaibhubejhr building. Built in 1909 as a residence for King Rama V on his next visit to Prachin Buri, it was never graced by the monarch, as he passed away the following year. However, it did serve other members of the royal family including King Rama VI who visited in 1911.

Named after the son of the Cambodian ruler of Battambang who served the Fifth King when this city and other parts of Cambodia came under Siam's rule, the hospital is now known as a centre of traditional Thai medicine and produces the kingdom's best known line of herbal products.

From Prachin Buri, it's an easy drive south on Road 319 to the ancient Dvaravati city of Si Mahosot. Or, if you've had enough of history, can head northwards on Road 3077 to Khao Yai National Park with its renowned waterfalls, camping sites and wildlife observation stations

A favourite stopover on the northern route is Haeo Narok waterfall (literally "the hellish abyss"), which made the headlines some years ago when some hapless elephant calves strayed off the beaten track and fell 60 metres to their death.

Heading back to the urban sprawl, you either exit on the other side of the national park, in Pak Chong, Nakhon Ratchasima, and pop into Choke Chai farm for some tasty ice cream made from real milk, or make your way back to Prachin Buri and admire King Naresuan Shrine right at the intersection of Road 3077 and Highway 33.

After that, follow the highway for 15km to Nong Chaom fruit market, then turn left into Road 319 for Bangkok with a stop at Si Mahosot ancient city.

Prachin Buri and Sa Kaeo make for an incredible driving experience and a great weekend stay - check them out while the weather is still pleasantly cool and the showers still frequent.
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