Forgotten kingdoms, one of the most spectacular temples in Thailand and near beaches await the traveler at Nakhon Si Thammarat, the Holy City of the Virtuous King.
by SeenThat on September 9, 2009
One of the biggest barriers while traveling in Thailand is the tonal language; it took me several months just to distinguish between the rising and dropping sounds. Even learning the letters was a challenge, since the vowels are placed all around the relevant consonant, depending on the mode they should be pronounced. Moreover, knowing how to read was not enough because some words kept their traditional Sanskrit spelling while they were pronounced in modern Thai. To make the confusion complete, some names had several versions; for example, Thais refer to "Bangkok" as "Krung Thep," or the "City of Angels."Yet, facing such challenges is part of the joy of traveling. In any case, the names of main destinations are always written with Roman letters on the buses and the booths selling tickets to them. Vendors selling tickets to them often speak some English. This is the case with Nakhon Si Thammarat.If traveling along the eastern coast of Southern Thailand, Nakhon Si Thammarat is on the way to Hat Yai and Malaysia. Stopping there is a pleasant break during the long trip to the southern tip especially since the city is the biggest southern cultural and religious center. That means the city can be reached in a variety of ways.CarFrom Bangkok, take Highway 4 on the Bangkok - Chumphon route and then Road 41 past Surat Thani and then taking Road 401 along the coast until Nakhon Si Thammarat. The total distance is 780km. AirSeveral daily flights connect Bangkok with Nakhon Si Thammarat; as with most other domestic locations in Thailand, reserving seats is not necessary. Iron RoosterFour railways lead out of Bangkok; they are called according to the direction they travel to: Northern, Northeastern, Eastern and Southern, the last is connected to the Malaysian railways and passes through Nakhon Si Thammarat. Daily rapid and express trains depart to there at 5:35 PM and 7:30 PM respectively. Located on Rama IV Road, Rongmuang, Bangkok’s Hualampong Railway Station is easy to find; nowadays there is a Metro station right at its door, Bangkok's Chinatown is across the highway.The services are divided into regular trains, rapid trains, express trains, and the Sprinter or special express train; they offer 3rd class, 2nd class sleeping, 2nd class and 1st class sleeping cars with or without air-conditioning. The trains are rather old; traveling across Thailand by bus is faster.BusBangkok’s EndThe best way of moving around in Thailand is by bus. Nakhon Si Thammarat can be comfortably reached with air conditioned buses from Bangkok’s Southern Terminal. Please note that the terminal was moved in recent years further away from Thonburi’s center. It can be reached with bus 4 from the Victory Monument or with a taxi. The bus 4 trip to the terminal costs a staggering thirty baht as compared to the regular seven baht fare; to that, the transport to the Victory Monument should be added. The Skytrain has a station at the Victory Monument.VIP buses to Nakhon Si Thammarat depart from there at 5:15 PM and 7 PM; while regular buses depart between 6:40 AM and 10 PM. The VIP trip longs up to twelve hours, regular buses have a less tight schedule and can take longer.Nakhon Si Thammarat’s EndThe bus terminal is north and west of the Khlong Nakhon Noi – the canal running roughly at the town’s center. To reach it from the main road – Thanon Ratchadamnoen - turn west after the Police Station at Thanon Paniet and keep walking until Khlong (canal) Na Wang is reached. The terminal is across it.Since Nakhon Si Thammarat is the main stop on the way between Surat Thani and Hat Yai, these are the two main locations served. Buses to Bangkok are also frequent.Nakhon Si Thammarat is Thailand’s Deep South Travel hub; it is easy to reach from there other popular destinations in the area. Those include Surat Thani, the Songkhla and Hat Yai metropolitan area, Krabi, Ranong and Phuket.This last point is important. Nakhon Si Thammarat is the main religious and cultural city in southern Thailand, but it is somewhat weak on beaches. The last are the main reason travelers reach the south. Thus the best way of enjoying the turquoise seas while still paying attention to the cultural highlights of the area is stopping at Nakhon while traveling among the main beaches, especially between Surat Thani (the gate to Koh Samui and other islands) and Songkhla.
Downtown Nakhon Si Thammarat is shaped as a long strip aligned on a north to south axis. The city hall, the railway station and the modern part of the city are on the north, while the Old City is on the southern end. Few cities in Thailand are easier to explore.Trucks travel along Ratchadamnoen (Royal Passage) Road - the main avenue running along the whole city - and provide the best way of moving around the city. Signal them to stop wherever you are standing; tell them to stop wherever you see an attractive sight. It couldn’t be easier.It is useful to remember that except for Ratchadamnoen Road, there are only two other main roads running parallel to it, one on each side of the main avenue. Most of the main attractions are on the main avenue, or trapped between it and the adjacent parallel road.Moreover, since the city is divided in two, the best strategy is to plan dining, shopping and sleeping in the modern part of town, while sightseeing in the southern side. If adopting such a plan, than a single trip in each direction per day would be enough.AttractionsCity PillarThai cities always include a pillar - a symbolic representation of a linga - which is considered to host the city’s guardian spirit or deity. As such, these places are located in the vicinity of – or within - larger temples and are an official center of worship for the city’s welfare, though usually they are the preferred temples for fertility rites as well.Located north and west of the Khlong Nakhon Noi, the City Pillar of Nakhon Si Thammarat is spectacular. Few similar structures in Thailand compare to it, especially due to the downscaled replicas of itself placed a few meters from the central shrine corners. The shiny white shrine was built in Srivijaya style and has become a unique landmark of the city. In size and shape, it resembles a Thai cheddi, but it has four stylized entries at the ground level and is roughly square instead of round due to geometrical restrictions imposed by the doors. The complex arches atop the doors feature smaller replicas of themselves on the structure second and third levels. The structure pointed end symbolizes the Buddhist aspiration to achieve Nirvana.Wat MahathatWat Mahathat is the most important shrine in Southern Thailand due to the Buddha relics in it. The big complex is impressive and easily recognizable as a big religious center; it includes a museum which displays a rich collection of artifacts and statues.Wat Phra Buddha SihingFurther north along Thanon Ratchadamnoen and near the Provincial Hall is the Phra Buddha Sihing Temple, where the Buddha image of that name found a loving home. This image is believed to date back to 157 AD and was brought to Thailand from Sri Lanka during the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng the Great. However, there are two other images which may be the original one; one is in Bangkok and the other in Chiang Mai.Ho Phra Isuan and Ho Phra NaraiA few blocks north of Wat Mahathat, on Ratchadamnoen Road and south of the Khlong Nakhon Noi (a canal roughly dividing the town in two equal parts) are two other temples, one in front of the other. Ho Phra Isuan is a Brahman temple displaying a Shiva Linga statue next to several bronze images. The most important ones among the last feature names: Siwa Nattarat, Phra Uma and Phra Phikkhanet. However, all the original images are at the Nakhon Si Thammarat National Museum. Across the street is Ho Phra Narai, a temple apparently dating back to the 12th Buddhist century. The temple’s main hall displays a replica of a gray sandstone image of the god Narai wearing a hat and holding a conch in the right hand. Again, the original is in the nearby National Museum.City WallLocated alongside Ratchadamnoen Road and south of the Khlong Nakhon Noi ("Canal of the Small Town") are the ruins of the former city walls. The modern canal was the moat surrounding the outer side of the walls.The original wall predates 1278; it was part of the Tambralinga Kingdom. After the city was re-founded as Nakhon Si Thammarat, the walls were repeatedly restored, especially in the 14th and 17th centuries and in 1990. The walls were 456m long from east to west, and 2238m long from north to south. The northern and southern walls had only one gate, while the eastern wall had three gates and the western five. Now, only the northern gate – named Prathu Chai Nua or Prathu Chai Sak – can be seen. What is left from the wall runs for some hundred meters east from the gate.National MuseumNakhon Si Thammarat National Museum occupies the area of the old Wat Suan Luang Tawan Ok on Ratchadamnoen Road. Opened in 1974, it displays artifacts found in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Phatthalung, Surat Thani, and Chumphon – the last three are provinces adjacent to Nakhon Si Thammarat - as well as local handicrafts.The main statue in display is of Vishnu; dating back to the 9th century, it was rendered in the Pala style of southern India. Other items of interest are two Dong Son bronze drums brought from northern Vietnam. Religious art from the Dvaravati and Srivijayan periods to modern times can be enjoyed at the Thai Gallery.The museum includes a building of the National Library, which houses a collection of rare and important books sent from the main library in Bangkok.Picnic TimeNakhon Si Thammarat has more than temples and ancient history to offer. On the northwestern side of the city – along the road to the airport – is the Somdet Phra Sri Nakharin Park. This large park includes a zoo, a bird park, a health area and a wonderful lake which provides the perfect background for an enjoyable afternoon picnic.Where is my beach!Being in southern Thailand, beaches are a compulsory part of any visit. Nakhon itself doesn’t have beaches (though there are a few nearby); yet it is worth a visit due to its cultural and religious importance. A way to overcome this problem is to make a stop along the way from – or to – Surat Thani at the town of Khanom. In such a way it is possible to enjoy a nearby beach without making lengthy detours to bad connected towns.Located an hour north of Nakhon Si Thammarat, Khanom is a fishing village with attractive beaches, two caves, a road leading to the Dat Fa Mountain and a few waterfalls. Long-tailed boats allow exploring the Khanom River, where Irrawaddy dolphins can be seen in the early morning, especially during the rainy season. Nai Plao Beach features a few guesthouses and restaurants. The town is connected during the day with frequent minibuses to Nakhon and Surat. Moreover, it is just twenty kilometers south of Don Sak, the ferry pier to Koh Samui.
Thailand’s history may seem confusing at first. Every major town was once a kingdom; several of these kingdoms encompassed large territories. If checking out the dates, some of them seem to have existed in parallel. Yet, there are no errors in the facts. Simply, early Thai kingdoms can be depicted as confederations of city-states with the main city of the confederation acting as the ruling entity. That means a proper understanding of the Thai political reality at a given time must take into account the specific cities making up the different kingdoms. Tambralinga and Ligor are some of the past names of Nakhon Si Thammarat, one of the most ancient cities of Thailand. Showing another complexity of Thai history, Nakhon Si Thammarat was even part of the Srivijaya Kingdom – a non Thai kingdom - during part of its history.TambralingaAccording to Chinese records, the Tambralinga Kingdom sent tributes to the Tang Dynasty emperor for the first time in 616 and in 873 for the last time. This kingdom has been identified with Nakhon Si Thammarat with the help of astronomical data regarding the length of a sundial stake’s shadow during the summer solstice. This city state was annexed afterwards by the Srivijaya Kingdom, which included parts of Sumatra, Java, the Malay Peninsula and other territories. The city is mentioned also as part of the Indian Chola victories over Srivijaya in the 11th century. As Srivijaya declined, Tambralinga became independent by the end of the twelfth century and conquered large parts of the Malay Peninsula and even of Sri Lanka.During the second half of the fourteenth century, Tambralinga declined and was annexed by the Thai Sukhothai Kingdom. The Majapahit Kingdom of Java - one of the kingdoms that defeated Srivijaya - recognized then Nakhor Sri Dharmaraj (Nagara Sri Dharmaraja, or Nakhon Si Thammarat, all different renderings of the same Thai spelling) Kingdom as part of Sukhothai. Negara Sri Dharmaraja KingdomDespite its length, this name is easy to remember and understand. "Nagara" means "city" in Sanskrit; the word "Angkor" was derived from it. In modern Thai, the same word is rendered as Nakhon and appears in the name of various cities. "Sri" – or "Si" (the first is a letter-by-letter transliteration, the second is a phonetic one) – means "holy." Until now it was easy. "Dharmaraja" is a complex word. The first part "Dharma" relates to the "virtuous path," or "law." The second part – "raj" – means kings and appears in many Indo-European languages in words like "regime" and "Regina." Thus this name can be translated as "The Holy City of the Virtuous-Path King."The change of name is due to an abandonment of Tambralinga – after the kingdom fell - followed by a re-founding of the city by Thai people. This new city was not completely independent; it was first suzerain of the Sukhothai Kingdom. During this period it was known to European merchants as "Ligor."When Sukhothai fell and was replaced by Ayutthaya, Nakhon Sri Thammarat became under the control of the last. It was listed then as one of the eight Great Holy Cities of Ayutthaya.Earlier I defined the first Thai kingdoms as confederations of cities. Reality was a bit more complex. Each one of the eight Great Holy Cities controlled several towns in their vicinity. Nakhon Si Thammarat controlled twelve towns, of which some are still unidentified and others have been destroyed over time.After the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767, Nakhon Si Thammarat enjoyed a short period of independence, but was subdued by King Taksin, who moved the Thai capital to Thonburi. With the foundation of the Rattanakosin Kingdom in modern Bangkok, Nakhon remained part of the kingdom, while remaining in a state of suzerainty.MonthonLittle changed until by the end of the 19th century, when Thailand was divided into the Monthon system, in what is known as the Thesaphiban Reform. In this system, a "monthon" included several of the former provinces.Monthon Nakhon Si Thammarat was established in 1896, and included the east coast of the Thai part of the Malay Peninsula (i.e. the provinces of Songkhla, Nakhon Sri Thammmarat and Phatthalung). In 1925 Monthon Surat was annexed, and in 1932 also Monthon Pattani. One year later, the monthon system was dismantled and Nakhon Si Thammarat became the sleepy provincial capital we can see today.I’m just passing through, why should I care about a monthon?The existence of a temple as important as Wat Mahathat (see that entry in this journal) in a town as Nakhon is impossible to understand without knowing at least some of its history. The fact that the city was an important part of several kingdoms, an independent kingdom for a while and one of the largest monthon in Thailand explains its religious and cultural importance. Moreover, the food and spices consumed in the area may be understood from geographical considerations, but knowing the historic relations with the Srivijaya Kingdom, makes the peanuts sauce tastier.
Several temples in Thailand feature the words "Wat Phra Mahathat" in their name, to the point it may get a bit confusing. "Wat Phra Mahathat" literally means "Temple Holy Great-Stuppa," or the "Holy Temple of the Great Stuppa," and thus are the less distinctive part of the name.Usually, the last part of the name is more special. "Woramahawihan" is a complex word. Wora-maha-wihan features again the word "great" (maha) while "wihan" is the Assembly Hall of a Thai temple. "Wora" is a noun related to royal issues. Thus, the complete name of this temple could be translated as: "The Great Royal Assembly Hall and the Holy Temple of the Great Stuppa."Such a long name, in which the word "great" appears twice, is a sure sign that this is an important temple. Accordingly, this is one of the 23 first class temples in Thailand (above them is only one of special class - Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok’s Grand Palace), and probably the most important one in the south. If visiting only one temple in the area, this is the one.Where is it?The temple is located several blocks south of Khlong Nakhon Noi (the "Canal of the Small City") along Ratchadamnoen Road’s western side. The road is the main avenue of the city. The canal was the northern limit of the Old City, originally it was the moat surrounding the city walls.In front of the temple is Wat Na Phra Borom That. In the past both temples were part of the same complex; in the present the monks living quarters of both temples are placed in it. While united, the whole complex was named Wat Phra Borom That, or "Temple of the Sacred Buddha-Relic Stuppa."How old is the temple?Historical records show the first temple in the complex was built in 311, however the oldest structures seen nowadays date back only to the 13th century.It doesn’t look Thai!Visitors reaching the temple after having seen Bangkok’s Grand Palace and other Thai temples may be surprised: the main stuppa here doesn’t look Thai at all. Instead of a smoothly narrowing structure – typical of Thai cheddis (cheddi is the Thai word for stuppa) – this one has two distinctive levels. The lower one resembles an inverted bowl, while atop it, with a base much smaller than the bowl’s top, is an almost perfect cone, shaped as concentric rings and featuring a pure gold cover on its top. The last reaches almost sixty meters above the ground. This is a typical Sri Lankan stuppa, though an earlier cheddi on the spot was built in Srivijaya style in the days the city was part of that kingdom. The modern structure was renovated in 1995. As often happens with cheddis, this one houses a Buddha relic; in this case it is a tooth. The main cheddi is surrounded by many smaller ones, as well as various important structures constructed in distinctive Ayutthaya style. The effect is striking, with the white and gold cheddi towering above the colorful roofs of typical Thai pagodas.Next to the cheddi is a gallery named Wihan Tap Kaset housing many Buddha statues. Wihan Phra Song Ma contains the staircase which leads to a walkway around the cheddi. At the bottom of the staircase are Yak (demon giants) statues as guardians. Phra Si Thamma Sokarat is a Buddha image dressed in royal wardrobe, like the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, it is located in the Sam Chom building.To the north are the Khian and Pho Lanka structures, which contain a small museum; this is a highly unusual feature in a Thai temple, testifying of the importance of this one. The museum displays banyan trees made of precious metals, jewelry and ancient Buddha statues removed from the temple’s active areas. Many of the artifacts in display were donated by denizens during the last renovations in 1995.Why does it look familiar, if I never saw it before?This temple may look familiar to many since the Phra Borom That Chedi is featured on the province seal and on the 25 satang coin. The coin is seldom seen these days, except as a souvenir sold near tourists’ attractions.
CultureA distinctive aspect of cultural life in Nakhon Si Thammarat is the shadow puppets shows, called here Nang Thalung. The puppets are prepared with dried hides and shaped as the protagonists of Thai mythological or historical tales. This type of art is very popular in Southeast Asia and can be found in several variations.A good place for experiencing the art is the Suchat Sapsin House at 10/18 Si Thammasok Road, Soi 3. The house includes a museum and offers performances as well.SouvenirsThe most popular souvenir sold at the local markets is somewhat uncomfortable for travelers. Baskets prepared with yan li phao are distinctive of the area and much appreciated all over the country. However, it isn’t comfortable for a traveler to move around with them.A type of souvenir that can be easily carried around and that does not cause troubles with customs is cloths. In Thailand, every area has its own traditional design. Colorful and unique, they make wonderful gifts. Southern Thailand is notorious for displaying a mixture of Malay, Indonesian, Chinese, Indian and Persian influences, which result in exquisite products. The best known cloth produced in the Nakhon Si Thammarat Province is called pha yok. This is a brocade type of cloth, meaning a rich silk fabric with intricate, raised patterns in gold and silver. This woven cloth was used in the past only by nobility. It is worth mentioning that many designs exists, thus the best is shopping around until the perfect gift is found.AccommodationTowns which are big local centers of activity but do not attract many tourists usually offer good-value accommodations. Nakhon Si Thammarat is not different in that aspect and the Thai Hotel, next to the intersection of Thanon Ratchadamnoen – the city’s main avenue - with Thanon Neramit is such an excellent option. Its location between the Night Market and the Bovorn Bazaar is fabulous and the rooms, albeit a bit old, are comfortable and well priced; air-conditioned rooms with hot-water cost 350B.Food SpecialtiesTypical dishes – to be found elsewhere in Thailand - are available at the local markets of Nakhon Si Thammarat. Pad Thai, curries, roti, fruit shakes and others are all here, but they are elsewhere as well. What’s special here? As most of the Thai south, Nakhon Si Thammarat specializes in sea food which every day arrives fresh from the sea: fish, oysters, prawns and similar delicacies are all recommended.A dish highly distinctive of the area is the Kanomjean. In nearby Surat Thani, it is prepared by combining green curry with rice noodles and some meat. Chicken, beef and pork are available, but the seafood is the recommended option; prawns and oysters are remarkable here for their quality and size. The local version of the dish in Nakhon Si Thammarat is even more southern since it is served also with sweet peanut sauce, making it closer to Malay and Indonesian dishes than to Thai ones. The noodles in this dish are always fresh, since they are prepared by pushing rice-flour paste through a sieve into boiling water. As a rule of thumb, the more to the south the traveler is in Thailand, the less chili is used; though exceptions exist.Yet, full attention should be given here to dishes prepared with fish. One of them – popular all over the country – is the thod mun phla, small fish cakes eaten as snacks. They are prepared with fresh, ground fish spiced with kaffir lime leaves and red curry paste and then fried. Several fish can be used in the preparation, but the point here is that in Nakhon Sri Thammarat, the fish practically have jumped straight from the sea into the traveler’s plate.Fruits should be part of any meal in a Thai market; a local specialty here is mangkut kut. This is the name given to unripe mangosteen fruits rinsed in salt water. Champedak is a fruit similar to jackfruit; here its flesh is dipped in flour, sugar and coconut milk and then deep-fried, this snack is called jampada thod.Bovorn Bazaar, along Thanon Ratchadamnoen, is the best option for tasting these and other southern dishes during the day, while the Night Market on the parallel Thanon Chamroenwithi fulfills the same function at later hours.
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