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Where to See Khmer Ruins in Thailand

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Though Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, is undoubtedly the best place to see Khmer ruins (and definitely worth a side trip if you are visiting Thailand and have an extra couple of days to spare), Thailand has its share of amazing ruins, too. At its height, the Khmer empire stretched across Southeast Asia, covering modern day Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Between the 10th and the 13th centuries, Khmer rulers built a series of impressive temples and other structures in the region that were swallowed by the jungle for centuries when the empire receded, only to be rediscovered in the 19th century. A handful remain in northeast Thailand, scattered mostly around Surin and Buriram Provinces in Isan. The structures are in varying degrees of ruin but are generally well preserved and worth exploring if you are in the area. In fact, if you're heading to Surin for the Elephant Roundup, a side trip to the ruins is a great add on to the trip.

1. Phanom Rung

Set on top of a long dormant volcano in an otherwise mostly flat area is this Khmer temple, begun in the 10th century as a Hindu shrine and completed in the 13th century as a Buddhist temple. The large temple complex, which visitors enter via a dramatic 400-foot carved stone walkway, has six separate stone buildings connected by walkways or paths. The main central prang, or stupa, is constructed in a corn-cob style typical of the era, similar to the one found at Wat Arun in Bangkok. The rest of the buildings are covered in intricate carvings with floral and other motifs as well as plenty of images of the Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu. Images and carvings of nagas, the five or seven-headed snakes with significance in both Hinduism and Buddhism, are also found throughout the complex.

Although it’s impossible to know exactly what the engineers of the temple were thinking when they built it, Phanom Rung was definitely designed with astronomy in mind. During the 14th day before and after each equinox, the 15 doorways in the temple complex are perfectly aligned with the sun’s path and offer amazing views of the sunrises and sunsets (many other Khmer temples were also built to showcase solar events). These four days around March and September are the most popular times to visit the temple and probably the only time of the year you’ll find crowds there.

2. Prasat Hin Phimai

Prasat Hin Phimai, in the center of the modern town of Phimai, is Thailand’s best-restored Khmer ruin. The stone structures surround the impressive 90-foot corn cob-style main prang. Like Phanom Rung and other structures built in the area, the temple complex has both Hindu and Buddhist motifs carved into the stonework.

Phimai was not only a temple complex but also a small city so in addition to the main stone structures visitors can tour the remains of the old city wall and moat. As modern Phimai was built around the ruins, these are scattered around the small town. Phimai is also home to the Phimai National Museum which houses not only a collection of artifacts from Prasat Hin Phimai, but also a large collection of art and artifacts from around the region. The museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. And while the town itself doesn’t offer much for visitors, it is a pleasant place to spend a night if you’re touring the ruins in the area.

3. Prasat Preah Vihear/Khao Phra Wihan

These massive temple ruins, set atop a mountain, are actually in Cambodia but the sight is accessed through Khao Phra Wihan National Park in Sisaket, Thailand. The region’s most impressive Khmer site in terms of size and scope is unfortunately also the subject of a serious ongoing controversy between Thailand and Cambodia. Because of this Khao Phra Wihan has been the site of armed conflicts between the armies of each country and as recently as 2010 has resulted in loss of life.

The conflict is essentially over ownership of the ruins and surrounding grounds. In 1962 the World Court ruled that they were on Cambodian land but the two countries continue to argue over exactly where the border line is.

If the site is open when you visit, you’ll see one of the largest ruins in the area, covering some 70 acres of land. The main temple complex is accessed by a long walkway and a serious of stone stairs climbing the mountain side (travelers with limited mobility will have a tough time here). Although you will be technically crossing over into Cambodia when you visit, you won’t need to have a visa to make the trip. You will have to pay a fee to visit the temple, though, and you won’t be able to enter any other part of Cambodia when you are there.

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