Phnom Rung is not a secret. It isn't tucked away where it can't be found. Drive to Buriram and there are signs everywhere pointing you to it. Monks make pilgrimages, Abbots pay respects, children do school trips, but there are no tourists. I think that is because tourists want to see Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Tourists sail by the heartlands of the Khmer Empire because they have not done their history revision nor understand that here the Khmer rulers built Phnom Rung as a home for the five Yogis. The teachers of Hinduism.
Phnom Rung honours Shiva and was at the heart of the empire and was the most important centre for their faith. It was built, added to, and used as a centre for learning for the entire reign of the Khmer Kings while Angkor was nothing more than a palatial show of wealth. Sightseeing at Angkor is ok but learning about Rung is a must because Phnom Rung is the reason Angkor Wat exists.
I'm not an expert on the Hindu faith. It is meaningless to me because I do not believe. But I do like to learn about SEA history and culture and why a particular place is important so Rung was a place I had long wanted to see. I have wondered why the Khmer temples fell into disuse and the new era of Ayutthaya rose so rapidly. I don't think I found the answer on Phnom Rung but it is a piece of the historical puzzle. Most of SEA's history has been decided with wars but few of these wars caused political boundary changes. The borders and rulers seem to have changed during periods of peace.
It is a conundrum for historians that all of SEA's history is a small pile of bricks from which they have to try and imagine the entire house. It's as if Buddha came and told them Hinduism, which didn't yet exist, is wrong and then one and a half millennia later the people decided he was right. A plausible reason for it is more likely social. Families in Sukhothai having more children than in Angkor and where borders met inter-racial relationships caused a spread of Buddhism which led to the demise of leaders. Despite rapid changes, which usually only come about by war, the Hindu Kings needed followers which they were losing by each generation to Buddhist nations. In the space of a century the power and wealth of Angkor moved to Siam. And that is why Thailand considers Khmer temples very relevant to their history.
That would explain the change of religion but why Ayutthaya became so powerful is hypothetical. Some claim it is geographical but Angkor is better placed. Some cite trade, and yes trade was the reason, but it wasn't the cause. I think it was more to do with feudalism. Ayutthaya was built in a ring of easily defendable rivers and around the city were vast areas of arable land and that led to Siam building up vast armies, and although they documented everything, nobody documents what they do not do, but it is probable that the Khmer temples in the outer-reaches simply fell into disuse.
40 secs in look for the damaged crash barrier and overturned truck
So, because of Rung's importance, we made the two hour drive to the extinct volcano. There is nothing to see, which is often the case when driving across Thailands open farmlands, until you get to the foot of the igneous mount. The vehicular access follows the original road laid down somewhere around 920a.d. and is dangerous, which is childishly great, so the traffic keeps to about 30kph as it climbs the winding road and the views of Buriram Province between trees are captivating, while the overturned truck and broken down coach are exciting.
The park opens at 6.00am so we arrived all of a hurry at 11.45 and found a space in the empty carpark right behind the sign to remind visitors about the rules. You'd think Thai people would know them but it is a reminder that this is considered a sanctuary as well as a relic. The rules are dress appropriately, no dogs, no alcohol, no smoking anywhere, and no graffiti. If you cannot do any of these then you will not be allowed in.
We set about looking for food. Eating out is a national sport in Thailand and probably why they are so good at it. The restaurants outside the park aren't great but they are pretty good and pretty cheap. They are also very welcoming and as the family were ordering Som Tham, which I don't like because it is noodles, and beef in red curry paste with pork skin, garlic, and bird eye chillies, I brought my own BBQ seabass from yesterdays night market. Then they ordered the second course of sweet and sour pork, beanshoot salad, and moo yang (which is not the same as the moo yang restaurant). I don't know where they put it all.
Eating like this before you go into Phnom Rung is not a good idea. There is a lot of steps and a lot of climbing to do. It's a volcano, what would you expect? I don't know why I forgot because Hindu and Buddhist build their temples as high up as they can but how can you forget when you are sat at an outdoor restaurant looking up at the mountain...
The view from the top plateau is a long one. I am reliably informed by my bro-in-law whose job is to guard the border as a member of the Royal Thai Military that this photo is of the border where the last row of trees are, and the hills behind are Cambodia. Sadly those hills are also full of land mines from Pol Pots short reign that have yet to be cleared.
Unfortunately for me I picked a rather misty day to try and photo the border but the restoration work that has gone on here is amazing. Sometimes I feel Thailand deserves a pat on the back for its enthusiasm for archaeology and preservation.
But there are differences of opinion on how much restoration should be done. So far it has been limited to archaeological digs and replacing stones that support the upper sections. There is also Khmer claims that it belongs to Cambodia and that Thailand should not be doing anything to the temple. It's an odd claim because it doesn't and never has been Cambodia territory unlike a little way along the border where Preah Vihear, an identical style temple ruin from the same period, is a persistent subject of conflict between the two countries and has been left so by the colonisation by the French of Indo China.
The French wanted a foothold in the far east simply because of the British Empire. It was jealousy and very nearly came to blows between the two but Britain proposed neither country set foot in Thailand and keep it as a neutral territory between them. France agreed and then kept moving the border of Indo China further and further into Thailand. This made the French very unpopular in Thailand while the British grew fat at the expense of Burmese oil and coal which was very popular with Thailand since they had not forgiven the Burmese invasion two hundred years earlier and did not trust the Burmese. If Britain was ruling Burma then Burma could not be a threat to Thailand's security.
The outbreak of WWII saw France colonised by Germany much to the pleasure of Thailand's Government because now they could easily recapture lost territory in the East as France capitulated. Thailand suffered for their neutrality though because Britain's inexplicable defeat in Singapore and Burma threatened Thailand's stability because it couldn't possibly defend all its borders. The result was the repeal of Thailand's constitution bringing back Siam and allowing the free occupation by Japan which would have disasterous consquences. Each of Thailand's neighbours has taken a bite out of Thai territory throughout history and that is why Thailand defends its modern borders so vigorously.
Today all along the border is relatively peaceful thanks much in part to the advent of the ASEAN who occassionally step in and make a ruling on where the border should be. It is safe to visit anyway because neither postulating side would fire a single shot on what is consecrated ground and Phnom Rung is just that. It may be the subject of disagreement but this place is sacred to the people on both sides. Phnom Rung is a serene place well worth going out of your way for. And you do have to go out of your way for it because it is 'Off the beaten track'.