Phimai is a lovely Thai town in Nakhon Ratchasima Province in northeast Thailand. From 1000 AD, Phimai was an important outpost of the Khmer Empire and remained that way for 300 years. Today the quiet town is known for the wonderful Khmer ruins, for being the birthplace of the Korat breed of cat, and for the Sai Ngam, the largest banyan tree in Thailand.
The Khmer Empire and Phimai Historical Park
A quick dip into a history encyclopedia brings up the name of Angkor Wat as the capital of the Khmer empire during the time of the Khmer kings. Sometimes dubbed the eighth wonder of the world, Angkor Wat, along with important temples such as Phnom Bakheng, Preak Kham, and Angkor Thom, record the heights of Khmer architecture first as Hindu, then Mahayana, and then finally as sites of worship for Theravada Buddhism.
The ancient history of these sites begins with King Jayavarman II and ends with the reign of King Jayavarman VIII. During this period the Khmer empire spread from the banks of the Tonle Sap river and at its peak covered much of what is known today as southern Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. Jayavarman II, who gave himself the title of “universal ruler,” united these kingdoms into the vast territorial state it became lasting from 802 CE to 1431 CE.
Thailand, formerly known as Siam and part of the Khmer Empire at the time of Jayavarman II, contains a population of over 68 million and is the world’s 50th largest country by total area. Most tourists will visit Bangkok and the ancient ruins of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya but many will miss one of the most interesting of all: Phimai in the Isan region of northeast Thailand.
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Khmer Empire Map
Prasat Hin Phimai Historical Park
The Royal Road from Angkor Wat to Phimai
Phimai is a Khmer temple that dates back to the 11th century. King Jayavarman VII was the last great ruler and he replaced Hinduism with Mahayana Buddhism as the official religion of the Khmer. Phimai was critically important to his Khmer empire and because of its importance, it was connected to Angkor Wat (225 kilometers southeast) by a long highway known as the “Royal Road.”
The highway, like other routes that joined the Khmer Buddhist world into a coherent spiritual landscape, was made into a sacred space through the planting of Banyan trees along the route and the placing of religious statues along bridges and other important sites between Angkor Wat and Phimai. 17 rest houses were located along the Royal Road.
Religious Origins of Phimai
Prasat Hin Phimai is extremely well-preserved and most historians believe that it was a Buddhist temple built by Hindu workers. It was most likely built during the 11th century by Suryavarman who was King of the Khmer Empire from 1010 until 1050.
The religious origins of Phimai are still of debate today. Evidence within the site suggests that Phimai was an important Buddhist spiritual site, but archaeological evidence points to other practices including Hindu, Animism, and varying Buddhist practices that predated Theravada Buddhism at Phimai, just as it did at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The deity worshipped at Phimai was the Mahayana Buddha, Adi Buddha, who is sheltered by a naga, or a 7-headed snake, called Muchalinda.
Certainly, the location of the site had something to do with its defensive geography. Phimai is surrounded on three sides by the Mun River.
Prasats and the Layout of Phimai Historical Park
When visiting Phimai from the town of Khorat to the south of the site a river must be crossed and you enter into an ancient space which according to archaeologists was the bathing place of the local heroine Thao Suranari. Known as Ya Mo she is a Thai heroine who led the battle to overthrow the Lao warriors who had invaded the country. If you visit Khorat you can see a sculpture and memorial to Ya Mo in the center of town.
Phimai was restored and opened to the public with the assistance of the same experts that worked at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Historians believe that it is possible that Phimai might have been the model for Angkor Wat which was built in the century following Phimai’s construction.
Phimai consists of three rectangular enclosures called prasats and each enclosure’s outer wall is actually the outer wall of the greater city site. It is a wonderful state of restoration compared to the many structures in Angkor Wat that are quickly being covered over by the jungle.
Khmer temples were built to represent the universe and the main tower within these complexes is said to represent Mount Meru which is the holy mountain of Hinduism and the center of the Hindu universe. This tower predates Angkor Wat by several years and it is thought that it was the model for the great towers of Angkor Wat.
How to get to Phimai
Phimai can be reached from Bangkok by catching a bus to Nakhonratchasima, also called Khorat. You can take either a train or bus to Phimai as they both take around 4 hours. The bus will head to Bogoso Mai where you will catch another bus directly to Phimai. You can also take a guided tour which will run from Bangkok and offer hotel pick up or hire a car. The drive to Phimai takes around an hour and there is a small parking lot but also free street parking.
Visiting Prasat Hin Phimai
The official name of the temple is ‘Prasat Hin Phimai’ which is located within the Phimai Historical Park. An adult entrance ticket costs 100 Thai Baht. If you wish to see the Phimai National Museum – see below- that is an additional 50 Baht and is well worth the money.
Phimai is the largest Khmer temple in Thailand, and the complex measures over 1,000 meters long by almost 600 meters wide. The complex is entered over a decorative bridge that has naga (serpents) and singhas (guardian lion) on either side. The bridge symbolizes the pathway from the human realm to the place of the gods.
Archaeologists believe that the bridge is similar to the Angkor Wat style of architecture which would indicate that it was added in or around the 12th century. Phimai, unlike most Khmer temples, faces south and not east but historians are still not sure why but the site is oriented towards Angkor Wat as its cardinal direction.
Once over the bridge, the walk takes you through open space before you come to the enclosure at the center of the temple. Within this enclosure sits three Khmer prasats or temple structures. The main tower, the Brahmadat, and the Redstone tower.
The main tower has a gopura or entrance similar to those found at Angkor Wat and other temples from the 12th century. This tower has some beautiful images carved into it including scenes of Hindu deities and the legends around them. The interior of the tower has an array of Buddhist carvings.
It is believed to have been built prior to the central sanctuary as it is made of laterite (a type of red rock) rather than sandstone which was used in many of the other buildings.
Within the Prasat is a statue that King Jayavarman VII which was discovered within the structure.
Prang Hin Daeng
Nicknamed the Red Stone temple because it is made from pink sandstone. It is believed to have been built in the 13th century, making it one of the youngest but it is also the most crumbling ruin at Phimai. Statues carved into the stones include a meditating Buddha and sculptures of demons and animals range around the walls.
There is a small gallery around a courtyard with several Buddhist inscriptions that have been dated to before Angkor Wat was built.
Phimai is an underappreciated ancient Khmer temple of great significance to the Khmer Empire in Southeast Asia. The advantage to that is that unlike Angkor Wat in Cambodia there are many fewer tourists visiting this beautiful site.
The Phimai National Museum is a highlight of any visit to Phimai. Only 300 meters from the entrance to the Phimai Historical Park, this three-story museum puts it all together in terms of understanding the empty Khmer ruins. It is hard to see something still standing from a turbulent period of ancient history – the 11th century in Southeast Asia and imagine what this busy site must have been like.
The museum will help you visualize the rooms and galleries at Phimai. Of the three zones of the museum, the downstairs area displays perhaps the very best collection of Khmer artifacts found in Phimai and in northeast Thailand. You can see the statue of King Jayavarman VII, pediments, and lintels taken from eh site and gold and silver items found there.
The museum is open from 9 am to 4 pm Wednesday to Sunday.
Where to Stay in Phimai
A half-day in Phimai Historical Park and then a trip to the Phimai National Museum is best done as an overnight trip from Bangkok. Phimai does not have many chain hotels but it does have a few modern ones as well as charming local guesthouse accommodation on the river. Here are the best three:
My top pick with lovely clean rooms, river views, a great terrace, and free bikes to ride the 700 meters to the Phimai Historical Park!
Phimai Paradise Boutique Hotel has lovely modern and clean rooms and the hotel is a walk to the Phimai Historical Park. There is a restaurant on-site making this a good overnight stay to visit the Isan region and the Khmer empire ruins of Phimai.
By far the cleanest hotel you will ever find in Thailand! A lovely cafe/beer garden, and extremely high reviews with an average of 9.2 out of 10. A great budget option.
Links and Further Information
Get Your Guide Phimai travel activities are here
Visiting Angkor Wat in Cambodia is an unmissable part of any trip to Southeast Asia. Read my comprehensive guide to Angkor Wat here.
Visiting Bagan? Click on my ultimate itinerary for one, two or three days in the largest archaeological site in the world, including a Bagan Map for each day: Bagan Itinerary: Best of Bagan Temples in 1, 2 and 3 Days
See all of my posts on Myanmar here
For another spectacular and must-see Asian temple, see the world’s largest Buddhist temple, Borobodur, in Indonesia here
More detailed information on how to book transport, airfares, accommodation, and travel insurance is available on my Travel Resources page. Also, check out this post on crossing the border of Thailand.
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