The Phanomrung Historical Park is part of a 225-kilometre long Ancient Khmer Highway, which leads from the revered temples of Angkor in Cambodia, and ends just north of Buriram at the Phimai Historical Park in Korat / Nakhon Ratchasima. However Phanomrung Historical Park (our travel guide here) would infinitely be the more exciting of these two ancient sites, along with the nearby Muang Tham temple found nearby, and this is mostly due to the annual Phanomrung Festival, which celebrates the morning sunrise as it aligns with the fifteen doorways of the temple’s upper sanctuary (around early April each year). Which to be honest is a bit of a niche interest, but the surrounding Phanomrung Festival offers a lot to be excited about, with markets and a parade of traditional dress and culture in the daytime, along with a dazzling display of sound, light and costume design in the evening’s stage performance held before the backdrop of Phanomrung’s upper sanctuary. So in all the Phanomrung Festival would have to be one of the most fascinating celebrations I have come across in all of Asia, and for those interested in visiting, the best route would be by personal transport or car hire from Buriram, maybe. Again I would maybe make base at either Buriram (1 hour 63.0 km), Prakon Chai (29 min 25.3 km), or the more likely option in Nang Rong (32 min 29.6 km), which is where we set out from. And there will be a full guide on travel to-and-from Phanomrung to come.
The Ancient Parade
The Phanomrung Festival takes place at the Phanomrung Historical Park which is found on top of an extinct volcano, out near the Cambodian borders, which can be annoying to reach with all the rubbish drivers in Isaan. But it is otherwise an easy enough drive to reach the temple car park, which we find is chock-full of cars, as the Phanomrung Festival event is likely the biggest cultural celebration in Buriram and the Isaan region, with visitors from all over the country. However it’s not a Buddhist celebration given these old Khmer temples are Hindu, and Phanomrung in fact celebrates the deity of Shiva, meaning that it’s more of a historical celebration, where surrounding markets showcase traditional foods and ancient crafts, such as silkworm weaving. And this area is great for hiding in beneath the shade of stalls and umbrellas, given the relentless heats of the daytime in this part of the world. But the main event of the Phanomrung Festival is a procession of traditional dress and culture, with shrines in honour of the old legends and Gods of the region. This happens on the main walkway leading to the temple, where it climbs a stairway of ‘Naga’ bridges guarded by serpent heads, to the top sanctuary of Phanomrung temple. Meanwhile music rumbles over loud speakers, which reminds me of the Imperial March, as each local district parades and showcases their own dress and identity in the procession. The parade then ends with a performance of traditional dance on the various tiers of the naga bridges, and it’s really all quite fascinating.
The Night Show
We actually split the day, as it was relentlessly hot in the midday hours, and staying in nearby Nang Rong meant we could come and go relatively easily. But it was trickier than expected when leaving, as the tarmac in the car park was almost liquid after a day of unrelenting heats and traffic, and it was a bit like driving through sticky mud as we left. But we were soon back again at the Phanomrung Festival, before sunset, as we had exclusive tickets for the evening’s theatrical performance, which takes place at the temple’s upper sanctuary. These tickets can be tricky to track down however, so maybe try messaging the TAT if planning the visit, as seats are limited to only a few tiered platforms, with only a hundred or so spectators. So we find mostly well-heeled sorts at this part of the celebration, while other spectators watched on big screens covering the event on the tiers below. So the storyline follows that of Gods, Kings and epic battles which had once presided over these ancient Khmer temples many years ago. Mostly mythological I guess, but otherwise I’m clueless to what was going on, as it’s narrated in Thai. But no doubt it looks impressive, and it feels somewhat surreal, as the temple ruins make the background to a dazzling display of light, sound, costume design, dance and performance. Something Unesco may never allow if Phanomrung Historical Park joins its ranks. But we don’t quite make it to the end of the night, as with most people, given it has been a long day for most, and we are literally in the remote borders near Cambodia. For many it will take hours to return home, but we at least see the finale of fireworks on our descent to the plains of rice fields., and I have an early start in the morning.
The Morning Sunrise
The purpose of this entire festival is to celebrate the morning sunrise when it aligns with the fifteen doorways of the Phanomrung’s upper sanctuary. Which had taken place on the previous two mornings and the third would be final morning and my last chance to see it. But I have to go it alone as Fanfan dropped out completely. So it takes a lot to motivate me, but I am won over by the description on the official Thailand tourism website, which reads “The crowd collectively held its breath. Slowly, the rosy fingers of the sun reached down the corridor and everyone gasped, the whole doorway was suddenly filled with a golden light and in homage, the morning birds broke into song. For a minute, the mountaintop was under a magical enchantment”. It does sound good, but it is also the Thailand Tourism website. Anyway, I wake myself at silly o’clock in the morning, to join a tailback of cars ascending the hills to arrive at Phanomrung just before 05:00AM, with plenty of time to prepare for the sunrise. I do expect there to be lesser crowds at the time, given it was the last day of a three-day spectacle, yet I find hundreds in front of me, and any chance of a view is slim at best. But I wait it out anyway, and then it happens, the rosy fingers of the sun reach down the corridor, and I am blown away by the sheer disappointment of it all. Magical enchantment my ass. And as the sun rises, the crowds push through the doors of the upper sanctuary, and I leave. In all I would say it was a waste of life, but the sunrise was never my interest in the Phanomrung Festival, as the parades and night show were by far more fascinating. Also the morning birds didn’t break into song in homage, and maybe I was at the wrong event.