Archaeological travel guide to the Phong Tuk Archaeological Site, the first architectural remains of the early Dvaravati culture to be excavated in the early 20th Century.
In Kanchanaburi, the Central Plains of Thailand start to give way to a narrow Tenasserim Highlands, a natural barrier that has created the border between Thailand and Myanmar since prehistory. It is also where some of the earliest cities in Thailand can be found, and why I was here – seeking out cities like U Thong, Khu Bua, and ancient Kanchanaburi. Tucked away in a small river bend between these more noteworthy cities is the Phong Tuk Archaeology Site.
The Phong Tuk Archaeology Site is a group of Dvaravati architectural remains in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. These were the first Dvaravati monuments to be excavated and studied beginning in 1927. Excavations found several viharas and stupas made from bricks and laterite, as well as important artifacts from the culture.
This article will overview the history of the Dvaravati Phong Tuk ruins, my own experience visiting, and the information you need to visit for yourself.
The Story of the Phong Tuk Archaeology Site
The borderlands of western Thailand are home to some of the earliest urban centers in the country. These moated settlements built by a culture that would one day be called Dvaravati were in full swing 1000 years before the Thai people would enter the region.
Most likely entering the country through the Three Pagodas Pass area in the far west of Kanchanaburi province, the Mon people would first establish themselves most prominently at U Thong, then begin spreading out eastward, settling cities in the Central Plains including Khu Bua, Nakhon Pathom, and Lopburi.
Centrally positioned between U Thong, Nakhon Pathom, and Khu Bua is the Phong Tuk Archaeology Site (also transliterated as P’ong Tuk, Phong Tuek, and other similar variations), where the first architectural evidence of the Dvaravati culture was found by modern archaeologists.
Early Excavations at Phong Tuk
While the narrative of an early Buddhist society in Thailand had existed before the 20th Century, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that evidence of this culture started to be seriously considered and sought out. Relics from this culture had surfaced randomly throughout Thailand’s history, but these were most often long removed from the place they were found. Called provenience in archaeology, this can often provide more information and context than an artifact itself.
The first excavations at Phong Tuk took place in 1927 by George Coedes after he read of a “giant skeleton” that had been uncovered with gold and silver Buddhist artifacts and statues. A month later, he arrived in Phong Tuk village, which is relatively remote even within the rural area of Kanchanaburi province. By the time he had arrived from Bangkok, the skeleton and the accompanying artifacts had been looted and lost.
He began excavations here shortly after, publishing his results within the years. A second investigation by H. G. Quaritch Wales in 1936.
During these excavations, a number of important artifacts were uncovered, including many Buddhist artifacts, including ceramics in the form of votive tablets and decorations. There were also indications of trade, with artifacts from as far away as an oil lamp originating in the Mediterranean region.
Burials and the Phong Tuk Vishnu Statue
Among the number of important items found at Phong Tuk, two, in particular, stand out: human burials at the site and a statue of the Hindu god Vishnu.
Human Burials at Phong Tuk
There were between 12-18 human burials found in very close proximity to the monuments at Phong Tuk, most notably the central, oldest architecture group. This is unusual because, almost universally, Buddhist societies prefer to cremate their dead instead of burying them.
In a 2011 paper by Wesley S. Clarke, the author points out only 4 other Dvaravati-era archaeological sites where human burials have been found (out of 40+ throughout Thailand).
Regarding these finds, neither of the initial researchers commented on the significance of the finding. Coedes believed these non-cremated human remains were a remnant of the local beliefs on burial practices as the population adopted the Buddhist faith.
Quaritch Wales, on the other hand, wrote it off entirely as the burials being from an earlier pre-Dvaravati culture up to 500 years before the monuments were built. This seems unlikely given their proximity to the monuments themselves.
The Phong Tuk Vishnu Statue
The other surprising find was a carved statue of the Hindu god Vishnu found buried near the streetside between Architecture Groups 1 and 2. The finding of such a significant Hindu artifact of worship is notable because of the largely Buddhist-centric literature that was published about the site and subsequent Dvaravati cultural interpretations.
The statue is dated to the 600s-700s CE and has elements of displays designs also seen in Rakhine, Funan, and Cham art styles of the time. The statue today (to the best of my knowledge) is housed at the Thailand National Museum in Bangkok.
Unfortunately, none of my visits to the National Museum have yet aligned with the Dvaravati exhibition being open, so I haven’t been able to get a photo of the Vishnu carving myself. The statue can be seen in this paper on the Siam Society website (also in the Sources section below).
Like the burials, this Vishnu idol find was noted but largely ignored in the published material following the excavations. Also included in the early excavations by Coedes at Architecture Group 1 was a small temple with indications of a yoni shrine, a symbol of Shiva worship. However, Coedes did not acknowledge Hindu worship at the time
Modern articles on the subject criticize this approach. They note that the presence of Hindu worship coexisting with the Buddhist worship paints a different picture of the Dvaravati culture and that approaches in researching the culture since Codes and Quaritch Wales have been negatively impacted.
Interpretations of Phong Tuk
During the early excavations, Phong Tuk was thought by Coedes and Quaritch Wales to be the earliest inhabited Dvaravati settlement within Thailand, dating it circa 2nd – 6th Century CE.
Phong Tuk and the Term “Dvaravati”
It’s important to point out that Dvaravati originally referred to an art style, not a unified state. While there is evidence of the name “Dvaravati” being used in the context of a state in multiple locations around Thailand in this period, this is not accepted as a single entity. Dvaravati is now more accepted as a shared cultural tradition between a loose affiliation of city-states.
Modern archaeologists reviewing the work of Codes and Quaritch Wales conclude that both approached their research with the mindset that the Dvaravati art style suggested a unified kingdom and early excavations approached it with this mindset
The Buddhist artifacts found during their excavations were used to back up their early assertions of a Buddhist kingdom that lay somewhere in the areas between the Indianized states of ancient Myanmar and Cambodia. And, as more examples of this art style were discovered throughout Thailand, this idea of a single, powerful Buddhist Kingdom spanning Thailand continued to spread, influencing popular perception of the term Dvaravati to this day.
So Peaceful They Didn’t Need Walls?
One curious element of Phong Tuk is that it is one of only three unfortified settlements attributed to the Dvaravati culture. While I haven’t yet been able to find the names of the other two, I suspect one is Khok Setthi in Phetchaburi province (120 km / 75 miles to the south).
However, there are Chinese written accounts that refer to some settlements in the area with wooden palisades. This type of fortification feature would not be easily found in modern excavations. It is possible that Phong Tuk may have had such wooden defenses.
Not too long after Phong Tuk’s initial digs, more prominent Dvaravati cities with moats and city walls began to be rediscovered. For instance, the first preliminary surveys at U Thong began in 1933. This new information caused Quartich Wales to reevaluate his statements about Phong Tuk, designating it as a market town or waystation rather than the major Buddhist city he had first proclaimed.
As it sits almost dead center between U Thong (55 km), Khu Bua (45 km), and Nakhon Pathom (35 km) and is along the Mae Khlong River heading to the coast, this might be the case. But, the status of Phong Tuk and the two other non-fortified settlements (as opposed to 25+ with moats) is still a matter being debated.
A Brief History of the Dvaravati
The Dvaravati Culture was the first civilization of ancient Thailand, predating the Thai kingdoms and Khmer Empire by many centuries. Sometimes referred to as the Mon Kingdoms, the Dvaravati were a collection of early city-states first settled in the Central Plains of Thailand along the coastal trade routes between India and China. As their cities became more prosperous, the Mon-Dvaravtai people began expanding their settlements northeast in the modern region of Isaan and in the north, forming the Hariphunchai Kingdom.
The Dvaravati built walled cities, engineered spectacular monuments, and crafted unprecedented Buddhist artworks throughout the regions that would become Thailand and Laos. Despite the widespread nature of the Dvaravati civilization, they emerged at a time when regional writing systems had not yet taken hold.
Records about the Dvaravati were scarce, and they were considered semi-legendary by some researchers. However, as more Dvaravati writings, artifacts, and other material culture were rediscovered, subsequent research has begun piecing together the ancient record of this previously lost civilization, as just how the protohistoric Dvaravati built the basis for the subsequent generations of Khmer and Thai culture.
My Visit to Phong Tuk
The Phong Tuk Archaeology site stretches about 1.5 kilometers from the southwest bank of the Mae Khlong River. The majority of it can be accessed from a single stretch of road 5097 heading south from the riverbend toward the border of Ratchaburi province.
The small site was my first stop of the day on the road from Kanchanaburi to Ratchaburi city, where I was going to see the larger moated Dvaravati city of Khu Bua. There is little information available on Dvaravati sites outside of academic papers, particualrly when compared to later, more monumental sites in Thailand such as Angkorian or Ayutthayan ruins.
However, the sheer age of the Dvaravati culture and its impact on the later Thai and Khmer cultures to inhabit Thailand made it seeking out there ruined cities worthwhile. However, the Dvaravati cities have three things working against them that keeps them from becoming major tourist sites like Sukhothai and Phimai are:
- They are older – often dating from 1000+ years ago, Dvaravati ruins are centuries older than any Thai ruins and most Khmer ruins in the same region, meaning the ones that do remain are already in a greater state of decay than more recent monuments
- They are smaller – While there are a handful of examples of large Dvaravati monuments (such as Wat Khlong Suwankhiri in Khu Bua, Wat Nakhon Kosa in Lopburi, or Khao Klang Nok in Si Thep), most are simple brick stupas with only a part of the base remaining
- Because of these factors, and a few other considerations, they aren’t given the same level of protection as other ancient monuments in Thailand.
Many Dvaravati ruins are left in the open in varying states of preservation or restoration, occasionally accompanied by an informational sign. Of the dozen or so Dvaravati cities I’ve visited to date, Si Thep is the only one made into a full protected historical park, but it also has large-scale Dvaravati architecture and a number of Khmer Angkorian monuments.
It’s understandable that more resources would be allocated to the larger and more historically significant sites. Still, I had the chance to see one of the most important smaller sites here at Phong Tuk. However, between most of the architecture being reburied and the bad light in the tropical forest, I didn’t get too many good pictures out of the short visit.
Phong Tuk Site 1 – San Chao / Banana Plantation (Northern) Architecture Group
The northern group at Phong Tuk was the first of three groups discovered in 1927 and is in close proximity to where the “giant skeleton” that first drew Coedes to the site was found. Once Coedes’ dig began, he uncovered the first structure at Phong Tuk, which he named the San Chao Vihara (“spirit shrine” vihara).
The vihara structure he uncovered is the laterite base of a Buddhist temple that measured 25 x 14.4 meters (82 x 47.2 feet). The base has similar designs that would later be found in Nakhon Pathom at the ruined Dvaravati temples of Wat Phra Men and the Phra Pathon Chedi.
On top of the base is a terrace made of unfinished square laterite blocks and a small square structure thought to be used for offerings. The monument would have been topped off with a wooden roof, however, no traces of that remain today.
Phong Tuk Site 2 – Central Architecture Group
The central group at Phong Tuk is believed to be the oldest, as it was made entirely from bricks. Here is where the majority of the burials were found. There are still some unexcavated mounds in this area and a kiln that would’ve been used for pottery and possibly the bricks at the site.
There is unfortunately nothing to see of the central group today. The monuments have been reburied and are in private farmland away from the road. They may be restored at a later date, but given they are not even marked by signs like the other two groups are, this doesn’t seem likely in the near term.
Phong Tuk Site 3 – Ban Nai Ma (Southern) Architecture Group
The southern group at Phong Tuk was made only of laterite construction. The group was made up of (1) a square base that measured 6 meters on each side and (2) a round base 9 meters in diameter that likely held a round stupa.
When I arrived at Site 3 (although it is labeled ‘Phongtuk Ancient Monument Site 2’ on the English road sign), there was very little to be seen. There are a few pieces of rock and laterite sticking up through the overgrown forest floor and a sign in Thai stating that the monument hasn’t yet been restored by the Fine Arts Department.
Multiple sculptures were also found during the initial excavations at this location and are now located at the National Museum in Bangkok.
How to Get to Phong Tuk
GPS Coordinates: 13.89406, 99.78509
Phong Tuk is located approximately halfway between the provincial capital cities of Nakhon Pathom and Kanchanaburi. Taking Highway 323, there is a bridge to cross the Mae Khlong River into Phong Tuk village. Although regular buses travelling on 323 may stop nearby, private transit is recommended.
The first monument group is located 400 meters past the southern end of the bridge. The second group is located approximately 800 meters to the south on road 5097.
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.
Mon-Burmese ethnic group based in modern Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. Responsible for the introduction of Buddhism (Theravada sect) to Thailand.
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. It stems from Vedic teachings and one of the oldest extant religions in the world.
Austroasiatic ethnic group native to Southeast Asia and the majority inhabitants of the modern nation of Cambodia.
Hindu-Buddhist kingdom that ruled much of Southeast Asia from their capital at Angkor.
Dvaravati city outside of modern Ratchaburi.
Red clay-like soil which hardens when dry and is used in many types of construction.
Ethnic group originating in Myanmar who established the first civilizations in modern Thailand. The Mon kingdoms in Thailand are collectively referred to at Dvaravati.
A large, moated settlement of the Mon-Dvaravati culture which existed from c. 500-1000 CE. Also known as Nakhon Chai Si.
Hindu destroyer god and member of the Trimurti.
Buddhist monument used to enshrine sacred relics or memorialize important figures. Its dome, bell, or otherwise tower-like appearance is an architectural representation of Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain said to represent the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.
Three Pagoda Pass
Mountain pass in western Kanchanaburi Province linking Thailand and Myanmar.
The first settlement of the Mon-Dvaravati culture which existed from c. 500-1000 CE. Also known as Nakhon Chai Si.
Buddhist monastery that includes living quarters, study halls, and prayer halls.
The main worship hall in a Buddhist temple.
Hindu preserver god and member of the Trimurti.
A pedestal symbolizing a womb and the Hindu goddess Shakti often used to house a lingam in worship of the god Shiva.
- Bennett, Anna, and Hunter Watson. Defining Dvāravatī. Silkworm Books, 2021.
- Clarke, Wesley S. “Dvāravatī [Period].” National Museum (Bangkok) Volunteers Guiding Handbook. (2018): n. pag. Print.
- Clarke, Wesley S. Return to P’ong Tuk: preliminary reconnaissance of a seminal Dvaravati site in west-central Thailand. Diss. Ohio University, 2012, https://etd.ohiolink.edu/apexprod/rws_olink/r/1501/10?clear=10&p10_accession_num=ohiou1321396671.
- Clarke, Wesley S. “The Skeletons of Phong Tuek: Human Remains in Dvāravatī Ritual Contexts – 2014.” In Before Siam: Essays in Art and Archaeology, edited by Nicolas Revire and Stephen A. Murphy, 310-329. Bangkok: RiverBooks and The Siam Society. (2014): n. pag. Print.
- Lavy, Paul A., and Wesley Clarke. “Integrating the Phong Tuek Viṣṇu: The archaeology and art history of a forgotten image.” The Journal of the Siam Society 103 (2015): 19-62, https://thesiamsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/JSS_103_0c_LavyClarke_IntegratingThePhongTuekVisnu.pdf.
- Saradum, Natpiya. Dvāravatī The Earliest History of Buddhism in Thailand (6th-12th Centuries). Eastern Book Linkers, 2019.