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Archaeological travel guide to Tháp Khương Mỹ, three early Cham tower ruins left in their unrestored state outside the town of Tam Ky.


Fast Facts

Name: Tháp Khương Mỹ Cham Towers

Where: Tam Kỳ, Quảng Nam, Vietnam

Location: 15.54799, 108.50578

Description: The Khoung My Towers are ruined Hindu temples made by the Cham culture and date from the 9th-11th Centuries CE.

Getting there: The Khuong My ruins are located approximately 3km from central Tam Ky. While it is possible to walk or bike, private transportation or a taxi is recommended.

Cost: 20,000 VND / 0.90 USD


The landscape between the cities of Danang and Tam Ky in Central Vietnam was one of the early centers of the Cham culture. As they established their art and architectural style in this ancient heartland, the Cham people built a number of experimental designs, one of which was at Tháp Khương Mỹ.

The Tháp Khương Mỹ Cham Towers represent an early phase of monumental religious architecture of the Cham culture. Dating between the 9th-11th Centuries CE, these three unrestored brick towers marked a transition between early artistic styles from Đồng Dương and later styles at My Son.

This article will guide you through the history and architecture of the ancient monuments and provide all the information you’ll need to visit the Tháp Khương Mỹ Cham Tower for yourself.

The Story of Tháp Khương Mỹ Cham Towers

The Tháp Khương Mỹ Cham Towers are located at the southern end of one of the earliest core regions of Vietnam’s indigenous Cham culture. This Indianized society of sea traders emerged along the coastal trade areas routes of Central Vietnam, establishing two citadels in the area (Trà Kiệu and Đồng Dương) before expanding their territory and influence southward. 

The Archaeology and Architecture of Tháp Khương Mỹ Cham Towers

The three ruins towers at Khương Mỹ were once part of a larger Cham religious complex that marked an important transition in artistic styles between the 9th-11th Centuries CE. During this period, the Champa Kingdom was at the height of its influence in this region of Central Vietnam, and transitioning power centers between the older Trà Kiệu and the newer Đồng Dương.

The extended entry vestibules of the South and Middle towers, and the missing entryway of the North Tower
The extended entry vestibules of the South and Middle towers, and the missing entryway of the North Tower

According to the French architect and historian Henri Parmentier, who recorded many ancient monuments throughout the former area of French Indochina (modern Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), the towers seen at the site today were built on top of an earlier structure. However, very little trace of these original structures remains and only the foundations were found during excavation.

None of the towers retain their original shrines and altars inside, so the exact Hindu god (or gods) the towers were meant to worship is unknown. Due to a higher number of Vishnu images found during excavations, archaeologists believe that the Khương Mỹ may have been a shrine to this god before being transitioned to a temple to Shiva later on.

The dating of the towers is still a small matter of debate, as no inscriptions at the site detail a date or sponsor of the temple. One school of thought places their construction beginning in the 9th Century CE into the 10th, based on the art styles transitioning from a Đồng Dương style to a late My Son (My Son A-1) style during the reign of King Indravarman III (911-958 CE). Another date is based on bas-relief sculptures found at the site depicting the Hindu Ramayana epic that coincide with styles from the late 10th to early 11th Century.

The rear of the South Tower (front)
The rear of the South Tower (front)

The South Tower

The southernmost tower (kalan) at Khuong My is both the largest and oldest found at the archaeology site. Despite this, it is the best preserved of the three, retaining an almost complete entryway (vestibule or gopura) as well as three false niches framed on each side by pilasters bearing a grapevine pattern (repeated, overlapped S-shapes).

Above the main body of the tower, the 2nd level has decorative cornices along the edges and top of the entryway. Much of these are still in good condition or even complete. Originally, there were decorative pillars joined to the southern tower, however, these were moved to the Cham Museum in Da Nang for better protection.

The Middle Tower 

The middle tower was the last built at the complex and shares traits from late styles found at My Son. This tower is smaller than the southern tower, larger than the northern tower, and with smoother details than the other two. 

Like the southern tower, most of the entryway is still intact, although a large portion of the original decoration has been lost to weathering, exploring the bare brick underneath.

Like the other two towers, the interior is empty, with only scattered bricks on the floor and the rough outline of interior niches.

The North Tower

The northern tower was the second built and shares much in common with the later middle tower. However, this is also the most badly damaged of the three, likely resulting from strong winds coming in from the coast. The entryway is completely gone and both the front (east) and northern sides are almost all exposed core bricks.

While some slight decoration remains further up on the first level, the second and third roof levels have almost none of their original features left.

The entrance to the north tower accompanied by a relic found during modern excavations
The entrance to the north tower accompanied by a relic found during modern excavations

Tháp Khương Mỹ Cham Towers in the Modern Era

The three towers at Khuong My were in active use until the 1800s. In the many centuries since their construction, the religious complex was expanded to include an enclosure wall and several additional religious buildings contained within.

During this long period of time, the three towers endured severe weathering, particularly on the eastern side facing the coast. The lower sections became slightly buried and overgrown with plant life, while the roofs had grass beginning to grow around the top. 

Excavations in the area began around the beginning of the 20th Century, unveiling several important carvings and artifacts that are now on display at the Cham Museum in Da Nang.

While this ancient Cham temple has not undergone any restorations, the overgrowth was cleared away around the year 2000 when the ruins were being prepared as a tourist attraction. Today, it is open to the public to view in its original, weathered state.

What Is a Cham Tower?

Main article: Architecture Profile: Cham Towers, the Hindu Temples of Ancient Vietnam

Throughout their territory, The Cham people built numerous religious towers (known in Vietnamese as Tháp Chàm and in the Cham language as Kalan) for Hindu worship, most often of Shiva. These towers share a common origin and function with the better-known Khmer prang, both stemming from the religious towers built by the Funan people. Like these other structures, there is commonly a shiva lingam shrine found inside.

The Chams’ Tháp Chiên Đàn (top) and the Khmers’ Prasat Prang Ku (bottom) may appear similar but are from different cultures.
The Chams’ Tháp Chiên Đàn (top) and the Khmers’ Prasat Prang Ku (bottom) may appear similar but are from different cultures.

The evolution of Cham towers stems from Indian religious architecture and adapts many of their stylistic motifs, with the parts of the tower and designs found upon it representing different worldly and supernatural elements. Like Buddhist stupas and their Khmer prang counterparts, Cham towers were a symbolic representation of Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain representing the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.

Cham towers are built of an iconic red brick that, once put into place with a local organic resin, was able to hold the structures together entirely without mortar for centuries. Many towers are adorned with intricate carvings along their exteriors. These carvings are etched into the individual bricks themselves before they are placed onto the structures instead of carved onto the building after completion. 

My Visit to Tháp Khương Mỹ Cham Towers

Waking up in the Muong Thanh Grand Quang Nam Hotel was admittedly a bit of a splurge for this trip through Vietnam, but it was the end of the stay and marked the last group of Cham Towers I had left to visit.

The previous day, I had driven a rented motorbike along the coastal road from Hoi An. This was a much more scenic route than the sometimes-chaotic QL1A highway that I had used to visit Bang An Tower and the My Son Sanctuary on a previous trip through Vietnam.

Tam Ky itself was a relatively quiet town for being the provincial capital, with not much of note around the hotel itself. I still had one more night before my flight back to Thailand, leaving me a full day to visit the nearby Cham ruins at Khương Mỹ, Chiên Đàn, and Đồng Dương.

Approaching the Khuong My Towers from the rear on a residential street
Approaching the Khuong My Towers from the rear on a residential street

Arriving at Tháp Khương Mỹ Cham Towers

The Khuong My towers were my first stop out of Tam Ky, as they’re the closest to the city. After a quick 10 minute drive from the hotel, I was on a quiet neighborhood street facing the backside of the three towers. 

Even at first glance, the Khuong My towers just looked older than others I’d seen throughout Vietnam. Their bases were angular and bulky, lacking many of the smoother details found in many of the later towers. It’s something that can also be seen in the progression of Khmer prang towers from the early Chenla period to the later Angkor period.

The entrance to the ruins are on the eastern side near the modern Chùa Hưng Mỹ Buddhist temple
The entrance to the ruins are on the eastern side near the modern Chùa Hưng Mỹ Buddhist temple

Like the majority of Cham towers (and Khmer prangs) these monuments face the east, and this is also where the entrance and ticket booth were. A small 20,000 đồng (USD 0.90) entry fee and I was inside the fenced-off site.

Strangely placed in front of the towers is a later Vietnamese-style temple. While still old, it is more built in the style of the Sinicized Dai Viet architecture instead of the Indianized Cham culture. At the time of my visit, this building was completely closed off and there was no way inside. 

Immediately behind this Vietnamese temple, almost uncomfortably close, were the three Cham towers. It was difficult to get a photo of only the front of the towers since the temple blocked most of the possible shots. 

This awkwardly placed Vietnamese temple is old, but not related to the Cham tower ruins behind it
This awkwardly placed Vietnamese temple is old, but not related to the Cham tower ruins behind it
The Vietnamese temple also blocks any good view of all three Cham towers together
The Vietnamese temple also blocks any good view of all three Cham towers together

I approached the towers from the north, going into the northern temple without the proper entryway first. A makeshift shrine of stacked bricks with incense and flowers was where the original altar would have stood.

Along the walls were several spaces where the original bricks had been removed to create little niches for offerings after the fact. Looking up, the ceiling coming together into a point at the top of the tower interior was certainly the most impressive part.

The highly damaged entryway and interior ceiling of the North Tower
The highly damaged entryway and interior ceiling of the North Tower
The empty interior of the North Tower with its makeshift shrine
The empty interior of the North Tower with its makeshift shrine

Exciting the North Tower, I walked around the back to see if the damage was all around the monuments. While the rear sides retained a good amount of their original carvings, it was the sides between the monuments that were in the best overall condition.

Rear view of the towers
Rear view of the towers

Looping around to the front of the South Tower, the entryway vestibules of the South and Middle Towers stuck out from the main body where one had been absent from the North Tower.

The outer walls of these two entryways still had much of their original decorations, however, the insides – both of the entrances and the sanctuaries within – were entirely bare. 

The intact entryway vestibule of the Middle Tower
The intact entryway vestibule of the Middle Tower
The interior sanctuary of the Middle Tower is also very empty
The interior sanctuary of the Middle Tower is also very empty

Again, there were small makeshift shrines of a few bricks with incense and offering bowls sitting in the middle near the far wall of the sanctuaries. These sat on a floor of shattered bricks, leaving it unclear if these bricks were part of the original flooring or the remnants of broken bricks fallen from the walls – a danger that signs outside warn of even today.


Exiting the empty sanctuary of the Middle Tower, I tried to find a few more spots where I could get a good photo angle of the fronts of the three towers together. However, the sun overhead had other ideas.

Finally packing up, I returned to the motorbike to head north out of the city toward the later Cham ruins at Tháp Chiên Đàn.

How to Get to Tháp Khương Mỹ Cham Towers

GPS Coordinates: 15.54799, 108.50578

The Khuong My Cham Tower ruins are located immediately to the west of the modern Chùa Hưng Mỹ Vietnamese Buddhist temple
The Khuong My Cham Tower ruins are located immediately to the west of the modern Chùa Hưng Mỹ Vietnamese Buddhist temple

Tháp Khương Mỹ Cham Tower is located approximately 3km (1.8 miles) south of the city of Tam Ky just off of National Route 1A (abbreviated QL1A on maps). While a decent size town and the capital of Quang Nam Province, Tam Ky is usually overshadowed by the tourist towns of Da Nang and Hoi An to the north. 

If you are travelling from Tam Ky, it is possible to walk or bike from the center city. However, given the busy roads and hot, humid conditions of Central Vietnam, private transportation or a taxi will be preferable in most cases.

If you are travelling from Da Nang or Hoi An, private transportation will be necessary. Visitors will want to take the north-south trans-Vietnam highway, National Route 1A south 70 km from Da Nang (or 55 km from Hoi An) to the southern end of Tam Ky. After crossing the Song Tam Ky River, the ruins are located in a neighborhood immediately south of the QL1A highway.

In total, the one-way trip should take approximately 90 minutes by car from Da Nang and about 75 minutes from Hoi An by car. The time will be longer when going by motorbike.

Fast Facts

Glossary

Cham
Austronesian ethnic group native to Southeast Asia that once controlled the Hindu Champa civilization in the region of modern Vietnam. Today, the Cham people are a minority in Vietnam and largely practice Islam.

Champa
An Indianized Hindu kingdom in ancient Vietnam known for constructing Tháp Chàm, their iconic Cham Towers dedicated to Shiva and other Hindu deities.

Cham Tower
Hindu monument built by the Cham people of ancient Vietnam.

Indianization
A culture adopting Indian culture, religion, and social structures.

Khmer
Austroasiatic ethnic group native to Southeast Asia and the majority inhabitants of the modern nation of Cambodia.

Khmer Empire
Hindu-Buddhist kingdom which ruled much of Southeast Asia from their capital at Angkor.

Mount Kailash
A mountain in southwestern Tibet considered the dwelling place of Shiva and associated with Mt. Meru in Hindu-Buddhist traditions.

Mount Meru
The metaphysical mountain said to represent the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.

prang
A Khmer Hindu tower representing Mount Meru and taking the form of a lotus bud. Thai architecture later adopted the design into their Buddhist temples.

stupa
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.

Sources

Benjamin Williams

Hi all, my name is Ben. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in archaeology and writing, pursuing a career in the latter. However, I never quite lost that fascination for archaeological theory. For the past 9 years, I’ve been living and travelling in Asia, documenting ancient sites and the peoples who built them, and then adapting them into practical archaeological travel information at PathsUnwritten.com.

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