Surin province in Thailand's lower northeast: A land that time forgot

Surin province in Thailand's lower northeast: A land that time forgot
The Prasat Ta Muean Thom compound features two small buildings on the right that house sculptures of deities.
PHOTO: The Nation/Asia News Network

"Rich in castles, aromatic rice and extremely beautiful culture" reads the blurb on the promotional literature describing the province of Surin, encouraging visitors to explore its seven wondrous attractions.

Located in the southern Isaan region, the area that now makes up Surin has a history of human settlement that stretches back more than 2,000 years.

Straddling Cambodia's Oddar Meancheay province to its south, it was once part of the Khmer Empire and has largely retained the Khmer culture.

It is also famous for its elephants and its people are recognised for their skills in capturing and taming the beasts.

The provincial capital underscores that fame with the annual Elephant Round Up and both the festival and Ban Ta Klang Elephant Village draw in tens of thousands of tourists every year.

I start my trip by shopping in the Green Market where villagers, local farmers and artisans decorate their stalls with green fabric to show that their products are organic and contain no toxins.

Organised in the heart of Surin town since 2008, the market is open every Saturday and offers a wide selection of organic agricultural products and top-class OTOP handicrafts, ranging from riceberry, jasmine rice and vegetables to hand-woven silk, cotton and silverware.

Visitors can try some local food and sweet treats, or check out the fresh seasonal ingredients like ant eggs, fresh fish, frogs and field crab.

Opposite the market is Wat Burapharam, which was built between 1757 and 1787 by Phaya Surin Phakdi Si Narong Changwang, the province's first governor.

The high-ceilinged hall houses a sacred antique Phra Chi statue in a posture of subduing the Mara, while the Kam Mat Than Atthithat museum boasts an statue of Luang Pu Dulaya Atulo, a former abbot, who was known for high-level meditation.

The City Pillar Shrine is a short walk away from the temple. Originally built by residents with the stones left over from the boundary maker, it was reconstructed by the Fine Arts Department in 1968 to resemble a Khmer-style castle adorned with a corn-shaped stupa on the top.

Inside the shrine is a three-metre-tall pillar made from Java Cassia wood from Kanchanaburi and finely carved to resemble the four-face Brahma.

In 1972, His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej performed an auspicious ceremony to anoint the city pillar, adorning it with the words "Making this city pillar is good to represent the principle of harmony. Wishing people in Surin have unity, make great progress and live happily."

Less than 25 kilometres from the town is the Phanom Sawai Forest Park. Popular with both tourists and locals, it is home to three hills - Phanom Proh, Phanom Sarai and Phanom Kron. The site of an annual festival, pilgrims visit to pay their respects to the Phra Phutthasirinthara Mongkhon statue, a miniature footprint of Lord Buddha, the relics of Luang Pu Dulaya Atulo, the Guan Yin shrine and the Phanom Sawai Castle.

Surin's rich history can be further explored in Phanom Dong Rak, a mountainous area that's home to the ruins of Ta Muean, Ta Muean Thom and Ta Muean Tot castles.

The Khmer historical sits on the border between Thailand and Cambodia and was once an important stop on the route to Phi Mai Pura, the present-day Nakhon Ratchasima.

"Ta Muean Thom castle faces south towards a route coming out of Cambodia. That's different from other castles, which traditionally face east. Ta Muean Thom castle is also the biggest of the 'Thom' - it means 'large' in the Cambodian language - category. Situated on rocky land, it was built in the 16th Buddhist century as a Hindu sanctuary and features two libraries fashioned from laterite and a pair of sandstone buildings. The Mount Meru-inspired main castle is home to a lingam-like natural stone and could only be inhabited by a king and Brahmin," says Benjaporn Saraprom, head of Surin National Museum.

"The Fine Arts Department restored this compound between 1991 and 2001 and discovered nine stone inscriptions, artefacts and many sculptures of elephants, horses and buffaloes, which are now on display in the museum."

Surrounded by walls fashioned out of red stone, Ta Muean Tot served as one of the 102 clinics that King Jayavaraman VII constructed from laterite and sandstone to help cure his people.

Inside is a square stupa adorned with an arched door and a pond made from laterite to prevent soil erosion.

"In Thailand, we discovered the ruins of 30 infirmaries built during the reign of King Jayavaraman VII. In addition to Ta Muean Tot castle, we found them at Prasat Chom Phra and Prasat Chang Pee," says Benjaporn.

The smallest of the castles is Ta Muean.

Built from laterite it too served as a religious sanctuary and contained dormitories fashioned out of wood that provided accommodation for pilgrims and merchants.

The entrance is decorated with a Bayon-style white sandstone pediment adorned with a beautifully sculpted Buddha image in a posture of meditation from the 18th Buddhist century.

Standing alone on Phanom Dongrak hill, Prasat Ta Kwai was a sanctuary dedicated to Shiva.

Fashioned from a combination of laterite and sandstone, the castle was never completed.

Visitors though can enter the edifice, which is home to a display of lingam and boasts a roof shaped like a layered stupa.

Long an area of conflict, visitors to Prasat Ta Muean and Prasat Ta Kwai castles are recommended to adhere to military guidelines to ensure their safety.

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