Archaeological travel guide to the ruins of Prang Ku, a Khmer arogayasala temple located outside of Roi Et, Thailand.
A millennium ago, the Khmer Empire ruled over most of Southeast Asia. This medieval civilization’s iconic grandeur is best embodied in 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?
The Story of Roi Et’s Prang Ku (Prasat Nong Ku)
Prang Ku (ปรางค์กู่) is one of the many Angkorian arogayasalas located in the former northern territory of the Khmer Empire, now known as Isaan in Thailand. Roi Et city and province lie at the geographic center of this region and was ruled over by several empires both before and after the Khmer.
Roi Et is a moated city dating back at least to the Dvaravati Period, as evidenced by the Dvaravati stupa at Wat Nuea temple within the moated area. There are also vestiges of Khmer rule throughout the province, although the Prang Ku ruins are closest to the city proper.
What Is an Arogayasala?
An arogayasala, commonly referred to as a hospital, medical station, or nursing home, was one in a set of 102 roughly identical temples built in the 12th Century CE by the Khmer Empire. Arogayasalas all follow the same layout plan and are some of the more common sights of Angkorian design throughout the empire’s former territories, particularly in the area that is now northeastern Thailand.
All arogayasalas are built almost entirely of laterite, as opposed to the finely-carved sandstone seen at most the more ornate Angkorian temples. The basic plan of an arogayasala includes:
- Laterite enclosure wall with an east-facing gopura
- Single prang shrine in the center
- Bannalai library southeast of the prang
- Square stepped baray pool northeast of the enclosure wall
Arogayasalas are also, very notably, Mahayana Buddhist temples and not the standard Angkorian Hindu. These hospital temples were built as part of King Jayavarman VII’s massive public works project to rebuild the Khmer Empire. After renovating the imperial core at Angkor, Jayavarman began reinforcing the outer empire with new roads, reinvigorated settlements, and many of these new arogayasalas.
Visiting Roi Et’s Prang Ku (Prasat Nong Ku)
The Khmer ruins of Roi Et were the reason I had come to the province which is 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 Khon 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.
Ban Yang Ku Village
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 Prang Ku ruins have been integrated into the temple grounds of Wat Si Rattanaram, the main temple of Ban Yang Ku village.
The Prang Ku Arogayasala
As an arogayasala, the Prang Ku temple itself is 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 temple is named.
Prangs are, in essence, 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 (and other arogayasalas) is not quite the monumental structure of those at Angkor Wat and other grander Angkorian temples.
The other thing that you’ll notice when approaching Prang Ku is the difference in colors on both the prang and the enclosure wall surrounding the temple. The bricks of different colors are due to reconstruction efforts to make the temple as it once appeared. I do have mixed feelings about this practice, given that it oftentimes ends up doing damage to the original structure. However, I was surprised to find such extensive reconstruction at this temple considering Prang Ku is not promoted as a tourist attraction.
The reconstructed portions of Prang Ku — while they certainly are noticeable with their sharp colors and edges — do make the structure complete once more.
Prang Ku’s location on the Wat Si Rattanaram temple grounds is likely the reason for its reconstruction., As an extension of the modern Buddhist temple, it is also maintained by the abbot of the temple. Within the ancient monument’s prang is an active Buddha shrine that locals still worship and leave offerings.
During the Ayutthaya period, the prang structure was adopted by the Thais. Since then, the architectural feature has become commonly used in Thai religious architecture, which is uniformly Buddhist. Likewise, many Khmer prangs all over the country (including the Hindu ones) have been made into active Buddhist shrines,
In most of these formerly Hindu shrines, the traditional yoni and lingam were replaced with meditating Buddha statues (although another source said one of these statues represents the monk Phra Sangkatchai).
In the Prang Ku ruins, there is curiously a lingam and yoni just inside the eastern-facing gopura, the traditional entrance enclosure to most Khmer temples, regardless of the era. Considering that the arogayasala was a Mahayana Buddhist temple, it is likely that the lingam and yoni came from the ruined temple base ruins nearby. Above the entrance to the gopura is a lintel carving depicting, among other things, Indra and his mount, the 3-headed elephant Erawan.
Ruined Temple Base
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.
Such a raised laterite base is commonly found in many of the older Khmer temples found all over Isaan. These usually hold a collection of prangs, In provinces with even higher concentrations of Khmer ruins, these platforms often have 3 prangs, symbolizing the Hindu Trimurti.
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.
How to Get to Roi Et’s Prang Ku (Prasat Nong Ku)
GPS Coordinates: 16.077347, 103.734931
Prang Ku is located approximately 10km to the northeast of the provincial capital Roi Et city. Like most of the small towns scattered around Isaan, there is no public transportation system in Roi Et or its suburbs. There are, however, Thailand’s ubiquitous tuk-tuks, which can often be hired or negotiated with to go between towns or other destinations, including to the ruins of Prang Ku.
The Prang Ku ruins are more easily accessed by private transportation, such as a car or motorbike. While Roi Et is not a town with the usual tourist facilities found in other Thai cities, many of the small hotels and guest houses may still rent motorbikes (on my visit, I rented from a restaurant next to my hotel). However, unless you have experience driving motorbikes, Roi Et’s roads are not an ideal place to learn — and the road leading out to Prang Ku is a busy highway.
Taking Highway 2044 out of Roi Et, you will pass a few discreet signs in Thai and English pointing the way to Prang Ku, but these are in white and very easy to miss. The turnoff into Ban Yan Ku village is marked by a metal gate over the road with blue signs attached.
This road leads into the quiet roadside village of Ban Yang Ku, where you will easily find the ruins of Prang Ku near the temple and school.
Name: Prang Ku (Prasat Nong Ku) | ปรางค์กู่
Where: Ban Yang Ku, Roi Et, Thailand
Location: 16.077347, 103.734931
Description: Prang Ku is a ruined Khmer arogayasala hospital temple.
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.
Capital of the Khmer Empire, located near modern-day Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Walled city and final capital of the Khmer Empire built by Jayavarman VII.
Signature monument and Hindu temple mountain built by Khmer king Suryavarman II.
Standardized hospital temple design built throughout the Khmer Empire by Jayavarman VII.
Khmer monument commonly referred to as libraries and thought to house important documents, however, their true purpose is unknown.
Signature monument of Jayavarman VII standing at the center of Angkor Thom. The original name was Jayagiri (“Victory Monument”).
Khmer architectural style lasting from 1180-1230 and characterized by laterite construction, less intricate carvings, and Buddhist themes.
An Indianized Hindu kingdom in ancient Vietnam known for constructing Tháp Chàm, their iconic Cham Towers dedicated to Shiva and other Hindu deities.
Early period (6th-9th Centuries CE) of independent Khmer states before being united into the Khmer Empire by Jayavarman II.
“Fire house” temple design built along the Khmer Empire’s Angkor-Phimai road by Jayavarman VII.
Important road from Angkor to Phimai and lined with 17 dharmasalas.
Entrance building to an important structure.
Common name for the northeastern region of Thailand.
Mahayana Buddhist king of the Khmer Empire from 1181–1218 who conquered Champa, built Angkor Thom, and initiated massive engineering projects to rebuild the kingdom.
Hindu-Buddhist kingdom which ruled much of Southeast Asia from their capital at Angkor.
Red clay-like soil which hardens when dry and is used in many types of construction.
A sect of Buddhism focused on the reverence of bodhisattvas.
The metaphysical mountain said to represent the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.
Walled Angkorian city on the western edge of ancient Khmer territory, near the Burmese border of of modern Thailand.
Signature monument of the Khmer consisting of a tower representing a lotus bud and housing a Hindu lingam or Buddhist idol. The design was later appropriated by the Thais in their monuments.
Thai and Khmer word meaning “castle”, “tower”, or “temple” most often used in reference to Khmer stone prangs and ruins, and occasionally for Thai brick stupas.
- Cooper, Paul M.M. “5. The Khmer Empire – Fall of the God Kings.” Fall of Civilizations Podcast, 6 May 2019, fallofcivilizationspodcast.com/2019/05/06/episode-5-of-fall-of-civilizations-is-now-live/.
- Evans, Caitlin Violet (2015) Sites, survey, and ceramics: a GIS-based approach to modelling ancient settlement patterns in the Upper Mun River, Northeast Thailand. PhD thesis, James Cook University. http://researchonline.jcu.edu.au/48508/.
- Mollerup, Asger. Ancient Khmer Sites in North-Eastern Thailand: Khorat, Buriram and the Angkor-Phimai Route. White Lotus, 2018.
- “Prang Ku.” Prang Ku | Roiet Travel Advice Tours and Hotels Resorts, www.thailandtriptour.com/roiet/prang-ku.html.
- Williams, Benjamin. “Architecture Profile: Arogayasala, Angkor’s Hospital Temple Ruins.” Paths Unwritten, 06 March 2020, https://pathsunwritten.com/angkor-arogayasala-hospital/.