Name: Prang Ku (Prasat Nong Ku)
Where: Ban Yang Ku, Roi Et, Thailand
What to do: Explore one of the outlying frontier temples of the Khmer Empire.
Getting there: Personal transportation is needed from Roi Et City, take Highway 2044 for 8km and turn right into Ban Yang Ku. The ruins will be hard to miss.
A millennium ago, the Khmer Empire ruled over most of South East Asia. The grandeur of this civilization is well-known from the splendor of their capital at Angkor, at modern-day Siem Reap in Cambodia. There, massive monuments such as the Bayon and Angkor Wat make up the ruins of what has been discovered to be the largest pre-industrial city in history.
But what was life like on the fringes of the empire? How did these Khmer god-kings spread their influence to the frontiers?
This was the reason I had come to Roi Et, a province as much on the frontiers of modern Thailand as it was for ancient Angkor. Little-known among travellers and often even overlooked by Thais in lieu of the growing & blossoming cities of Kohn Kaen and Khorat, Roi Et sits among the northeastern flatlands of Thailand collectively known as the Khorat Plateau or Isan. After renting a motorbike from the One-O-One-Pizzeria, I was off to see the ancient sites of Roi Et Province.
During the height of the Khmer Empire’s power, around 1200 CE under the reign of Jayavarman VII, the Empire initiated a massive building spree into its outer territories. This resulted in dozens of of large laterite temples built throughout what are now Thailand and Laos. A large number of these were Arogayasala, or hospitals, small temples used as rest and recovery stops for religious pilgrims. One of the more impressive of these outlying structures was at Muang Sing, found far enough west to have straddled the contemporary Pagan Empire in Burma.
But what about on the northern edge of the Khmer Empire?
A number of Khmer outposts encircle Roi Et city, and a small amount of information can be found on them at the city museum. The closest of these is Prang Ku, known in Thai as Prasat Nong Ku (in English, “Stone Castle”). This small shrine lies about 8 km east of the city moat on an artificial reservoir Khmers called a baray.
Located in Ban Yang Ku, a small village, if it could even be called a village, Prang Ku sits in the courtyard of this quiet street’s modest, modern temple and school. Otherwise devoid of much activity, the peaceful grouping of buildings lies just off a rather busy intercity Highway 2044 to the province’s airport.
The temple itself it very small by Khmer construction standards, holding only the basic structures uniform to most Angkorian temples. The most obvious of these is the characteristic Angkor-style prang, for which the temples is named. Prangs are the Khmer variation of the stupa, a pointed-dome structure meant to represent the cosmic Mount Meru in Hindu-Buddhist mythology. As might be expected, the prang of Prang Ku is not quite the monumental structure of those at Angkor Wat.
The other thing that you’ll notice when approaching Prang Ku is the difference in colors on both the prang and its surrounding wall. The bricks of different color are due to reconstruction efforts to make the temple as it once appeared. I do have mixed feelings about this practice, but this one in particular was surprising considering it’s not a temple that’s promoted as a tourist attraction.
And what of the reconstructed portions of Prang Ku? Well, they certainly are noticeable with their sharp colors and edges. But more importantly, they make the structure complete.
This takes on a different significance in a location like Prang Ku where, since it is on temple grounds, it is also used as an extension of the modern Buddhist temple. Since the prang structure was coopted by the Thais, they have since shown up in much of the important Thai religious architecture, which is uniformly Buddhist. The traditional yoni and linga, symbols of the temple’s Hindu past, were replaced with a number of meditating Buddha statues, although another source said one of these statues represents the monk Phra Sangkatchai.
The linga and yoni were instead moved to to eastern-facing gopura, the traditional entrance enclosure to most Khmer temples, regardless of the era. Above the entrance to the gopura is a lintel carving depicting, among other things, Shiva and his mount, the bull Nandi.
Not far from the very obvious ruined temple is something I personally found more interesting: the remains of what seems to have been a larger temple. However, all that was left was a platform overgrown with tall grass as it had been left alone for many years.
When I climbed the few dark and faded stairs to the top of the platform, all that was left was the intact yoni where the interior of the temple’s prang would have presumably been. Otherwise, there was only grass and weeds everywhere over the flat-topped platform.
This begs the question: what happened to all the large stones that had made up this larger temple? They didn’t appear to have been used in any other local construction or to construct the other intact temple. Paving stones on the ground in front of the east-facing entrance show that was the smaller temple’s original location.
It didn’t seem I would be getting any answers to this question this day as the already sleepy village of Ban Yang Ku was losing whatever commotion it had as the sun was going down in the west. Getting back on the bike in the direction of the setting sun, I was soon back at the Roi Et city moat, staring down the large golden Buddha of Wat Burapapiram welcoming those entering the city from the east.