Phimai is becoming quite familiar. It’s relative close proximity to Korat make it ideal for anyone visiting and eager to see the albeit few jewels of the Isaan province. I’d seen it in the morning rise with good friends, and in the late afternoon sun with family. This time, the journey was made in the dark, only now seeing Phimai Historical Park and its ruins presented with light and sound.
Prasat Hin Phimai, the historic park that lays slap bang in the middle of the town, is a ruin that deserves a name that conjures something other than bricks and broken stone. The site remains preserved in a time dating back to the turn of the 11th century, when Khmer kings reigned this part of Thailand. As with many other temples, it was designed with regard to several elements of Buddhism (specifically Mahayana), though Hindu deities can be spotted around the architecture. A naga bridge, a great snake, slithers from the Earth to the heavens as you first come into the park. Through several doorways, a familiar-looking cross-legged statue sits in an alcove. At first glance, the fellow might be associated with the stature of the Buddha. This is a common misconception – the statue was actually made in the image of the Khmer king at the time. It might also be worth a mention that this isn’t the original sculpture, but a replica to replace the one that can now by found in the town’s museum.
On this particular venture, Phimai was the host of a light and sound festival. The evening started with three or four long queues that we couldn’t see the source of, but being British, I naturally joined anyway. The queues were actually tickets for the evening’s performance, a musical, and we were about the 45th place in our own line. I chatted bubbles of broken Thai to a man who looked like he was managing things and he suggested coming back the next evening. As this wasn’t really an option being over an hour’s drive from our home, we were weighing up our other options when the same man gave us tickets and told us to “go enjoy ourselves”. Such luck! And a prime example of what a positive attitude and asking the right questions can get you.
This was the first time I’d seen the ruins so alive. Lights of the obligatory countless Thai food stalls and neon colours illuminated the old temple; architecture so admirable that it’s believed to have influenced those of Angkor Wat. In the moments leading to the performance, a number of men in traditional Thai dress bottoms paraded into the park’s centre,hoisting into the air our familiar fellow, King Jayavarman VII. I think.
This time, no walking through were permitted, just to stay on the outside and look in. The performance itself was of course in Thai, so in between the daily-used adjectives like “suay (beautiful)”, we relied on joining the dots between the actions made to understand what was going on. My own interpretation was along the lines of a prince needing a princess and falling in love with a girl, who unfortunately had an admirer that couldn’t seem to take no for an answer. The two men fought and the prince won. Hooray! Oh, and at one point a woman with a VERY nice operatic vocal range gave birth to a baby girl. Still trying to figure out the link for that part.
The performance itself was quite well executed and the ten-second outfit changes were impressive, and left me wanting to find out more and the regions history. Phimai is typically a quiet town with not much going on but I think it felt its maximum capacity on Saturday night. From the very timid scene in the daytime I’d seen on previous, things felt very much alive. The streets outside were budding with food, clothes and music – not least to mention, this guy. He heroically played pin Isaan (a guitar especial to the Nakhon Ratchasima province), pipes and hopped up and down with a tambourine tied to his ankles.