Phanom Rung is undoubtedly Thailand’s most impressive Khmer temples, and while not quite on par with the magnificence of Angkor Wat, it no doubt holds its own against many of Cambodia’s lesser-known temples. And it is infinitely less touristy. It is also unique to Thailand, being the only Khmer temple built on an extinct volcano, since Phra Viharn was nabbed by the conniving Khmer next door (now belongs to Cambodia). So we in fact spend much of our time nearby in Isaan’s rural rice fields (Nang Rong district), so we’ve been to Phanom Rung Historical Park a whole bunch of times now, given it is really one of very few tourist attractions within many many miles (although check the video below for other nearby tourist attractions).
The Upper Sanctuary
Arriving there are a few trinket and souvenir stalls found at the main car park and entrance to Phanom Rung, where there will always a trickle of mostly domestic tourists passing through each day. This then leads to the ancient walkway lined with bulky stone pillars, which leads to a stairway of ‘Naga’ bridges guarded by serpent heads, continuing to the top sanctuary of the ruins. It is a hot and rather sweaty climb to the top. And this is where you will find the well-preserved ruins of the ancient Khmer temple, which, unlike the predominant Buddhist culture locally, is in fact Hindu, and celebrates Shiva. On a normal day this area would be silent and peaceful, bar the creek of surrounding bamboo forests maybe, but at weekends it will obviously be busier. From the top sanctuary there are views over surrounding lands, which cross over the borders into Cambodia.
Ancient Hindu Traditions
In Fanfan’s younger years she would join school trips to harass international visitors at Phanom Rung. “Hi! What’s your name? What Country are you from? What football team do you support?” “Do you have a girlfriend” “Tee Hee!” But she otherwise learnt very little of the temple itself. However she does remember Shiva’s “Lueng”, which means Shiva’s “Penis” in English, which is found in the ‘Penis Room’, just two doors down from Sacred Cow room. And this is in fact where many of the ceremonies at Phanom Rung had taken place, where locals would worship the central stone phallus by pouring water over the head, and watch as the water flows out to fertilize surrounding lands. The water of course symbolizing semen, and the surrounding land is known as “Yoni” which is the Sanskrit word for “Vagina”. Also, keep an eye out for the sacred ‘Hee Pee’ tree, or ‘Ghost Vagina’ tree.
Phanom Rung Festival
The Phanom Rung festival is celebrated around April each year, when it coincides with the rare phenomenon where the morning sunrise aligns with the fifteen doorways of the temple’s upper sanctuary. To mark the occasion Phanom Rung Historical Park celebrates with ancient craft markets, a parade of traditional dress and culture, not to mention the dazzling night performance, of sound, light and costume design, set beneath the backdrop of the temple ruins. It truly is a fascinating event, which starts with sunrise only to end with a firework display late in the night. In fact it is one of the most spectacular events I have come across in all of Asia. I shared the entire Phanom Rung Festival here.
Prasat Muang Tam
Prasat Muang Tam is the second significant Khmer ruins in this area, found not so far from Phanom Rung, and should be covered on the same itinerary. Normally when buying tickets for either, there will be savings for the joint tickets for both sites. Otherwise Prasat Muang Tam, which again is dedicated to Shiva, is found on lower, flatter lands of this region. Where surrounding the entrance and central sanctuary are “Ba Rai” which are man-made reservoirs used to supply nearby villages with water. These regions are very arid at times (outside of rainy season) and for this reason these ancient Khmer temples are focused on collecting water and fertilizing lands. And it is said that was inevitably drought that led to the demise of the Ancient Khmer civilisations.
Travel to Phanom Rung
The closest destination to Bangkok for trips to Phanom Rung would be Korat (our Korat Guide Here). But it is still a 2-hour drive to reach Phanom Rung. Then of course it’s 2 hours back. So it makes more sense to travel further into Buriram Province, where the smart option would be the town of Nang Rong which is a short 30-minute drive from Phanom Rung. Then there’s also Buriram City which is roughly 1-hour out. For travel to Isaan (Korat, Nang Rong, and Buriram) buses leave Bangkok’s Mo Chit bus terminal and take around 3+ hours to Korat, 5+ hours to Nang Rong, and 6+ hours to Buriram. For buses, the local recommendation would be Nakhon Chai Air (027900009) which can be paid for in advance at 7-11s and have large comfy massage chairs. Alternatively there are flights to Buriram. And from any of these destinations, it will be easy to source tours or local taxis.
Where to Stay?
For accommodation, I will always recommend Nang Rong, where the main tourist hotel would be Phanomrungpuri Hotel and Resort. Which offer decent value for money, and can easily organise day tours of Phanom Rung and other attractions. Although the town itself is not overly exciting (we live just down the road). Otherwise Buriram city would be best for convenience (x2 Vibe Buriram below left), where there are plenties of comfortable accommodations to choose from (full list here). Then there is a third option with the small town of Prakhon Chai (20 mins out) where Hotel de L’amour (below right) would be the closest luxury option. Although it is hard to reach independently and is normally well overpriced (3 x Phanomrungpuri). Note, we have stayed before at all three.
The Ancient Khmer Highway
Phanom Rung Historical Park is just one of many historical sites found along the 225-kilometre long Ancient Khmer Highway leading from the revered temples of Cambodia and Angkor. And I have covered most of the major points and settlements to date, where Phimai Historical Park, which marks the end of the region’s Ancient Khmer Highway out near Korat (Korat Travel and Attractions here) would be the most accessible. Although it is still 60-kilometres from the city centre. But while Phimai is technically the end of the ancient Khmer highway, it is more like the beginning in Thailand when travelling from Bangkok. Otherwise, for a more far-flung experience, the temples of Prasat Ta Muan are found along the remote and untouched border regions of Surin. Where we literally had army escorts followings us, due to the proximity to Cambodia (it’s technically in no-man’s land).