Paw lets us borrow the car for the day, but he also warns before leaving about the steep climbs to reach the temple at the top. But again it is other drivers we must be wary of, as at each slope the cars would struggle in front of us, and at one point they came to a complete standstill on a slope. So it is essential to keep our distance, as every time the cars let off their handbrakes in front of us, they would roll two feet back back again. Because no-one seems to know how to hill start here. So, instead of doing similar, I would back at the start of each hill, to give space ahead, before accelerating, and building momentum until I reach the top. I then just kept doing this until the temple car park, which is already chock-full of cars by the time we arrive. This event would likely be the biggest cultural celebration in the region, and visitors from all over the country will be here today. But it’s not a Buddhist celebration, as these old Khmer temples are in fact Hindu, and Phanom Rung itself celebrates the deity of Shiva, and of course his penis. So it’s more of a historical celebration, than anything, and the main event of the day is a procession of traditional dress and shrines, which honour the old Gods of the region.
Surrounding the main walkway, leading to the temple, is an ancient market which we use to kill time before the parade begins. There are some interesting enough titbits there, like traditional foods, and demonstrations of forgotten crafts, but we are more feigning interest so we can hide beneath the shade of the stalls and umbrellas. Because it is otherwise open space elsewhere, and the midday sun is beating down directly from above. Finally the parade begins, and the procession follows the ancient walkway, to climb the stairway of ‘Naga’ bridges, guarded by serpent heads, and continue to the top sanctuary of the ruins. Music rumbles through loud speakers, and it reminds me of the Imperial March, as each local district parades their own dress and identity in the procession. But the show was all very tricky to see, and even more so to photograph, as these walkways are lined with bulky stone pillars, and the crowds have been forced back behind ropes. I’m guessing the architects didn’t consider photography when first building these ancient ruins. So Fanfan, being sneaky, lies on the ground, and stretches her body out, while keeping her feet behind the line. And the security don’t really know what to do. But we do get away with it, as we can be mistaken for international media, with our big camera, and my foreign skin.
We originally planned on staying the day, but there was just very little shelter from the sun, and the only protection I had was a brochure stuffed down the back neck of my t-shirt. And the heat just gets the better of us. But Fanfan is also paranoid after hearing an announcement over the loud speaker, saying a silver car had been damaged in the car park, and Paw’s car is silver. They did read out the make, and the model, and the license plate number, but we are all clueless when it comes to cars, and all I know is that the car is silver and it has a back window sticker which reads, in English “a life no promotion a long time at buy car”. Actually broken English maybe the better term. This is normal here, and uncle Nasek has a huge Buriram United logo on his car, which reads “Buriram Untied”. They of course know no different, so I have no reason to correct them. Anyway, I had also abandoned the car in a somewhat precarious spot, so we decide to split up the day, and drive back to Broken Road. And fortunately the car is still safe and sound. But it was trickier than expected when leaving the car park, as the tarmac had almost turned to liquid following a day of unrelenting heats, and constant traffic. It was a bit like driving through sticky mud as we left. But we are fortunate that Nang Rong is the closest town to Phanom Rung, and a thirty minute drive has us back to air-conditioning and grilled fresh water fish, which Meh had picked up from the fish hunt earlier. It’s good to be home.
But we are back to Phanom Rung before sunset, as we have 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, and we had to ask Paw to wangle some through people he knows in work. And we do find mostly well-heeled sorts from the region, as the seats are limited to only a few tiered platforms, with one hundred or so spectators. So the performance takes place on a temporary stage, which is held together by scaffolding, and will soon be dismantled again for the sunrise event on the coming morning. The storyline, from what I can tell, follows stories of Gods and Kings and epic battles, which had taken place at these ancient Khmer ruins, many years ago. I’m fairly sure they are mostly mythological, but otherwise I am clueless, as it is narrated in Thai. But it really looks impressive and it feels somewhat surreal, as the temple ruins make the background to a dazzling display of sound, light, costume design, and performance. I’m sure Unesco wouldn’t allow these sort of things. But people do suprisingly yawn and dwindle off from the opening scenes, as it has been a long day for most. We are also near the far-flung borders of Cambodia, and for many it will take hours to travel home again. So they are excused. But we don’t quite make it to the end either, although we do see the finale of fireworks as we descend the hills back to the plains of rice. I have an early start in the morning.
The entire reason for this festival was to celebrate the morning sunrise as it aligns with the fifteen doorways of the temple’s upper sanctuary. And so far we had missed the first two mornings of it happening. But this leaves us with just one last chance to see it, although Fanfan opts out comptetely. She has never seen it before, despite it being a biannual event, but she really has no real interest in seeing it either. So it takes a lot to motivate me to go it alone. But I am eventually swayed by the description on Thailand’s official 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”. How could I not go? That really does sound fantastic. So I wake myself at silly o’clock in the morning, and join another tailback of cars, as they dangerously ascend the hills to reach the temple. I arrive just before 05:00AM which gives me plenty of time to prepare for the sunrise. And given it was the last day, of a three day spectacle, I expect there will be smaller crowds at today’s event. Yet I arrive to find hundreds in front of me. Any chance of a view is slim, at best, but I wait it out anyway.
I at least get some comfort in seeing a second foreigner arrive, when the crowd had almost doubled in size behind me. Haha not a chance. He’s a backpacker sort, with a brown muscle top, which hangs loosely from his bony frame. Very easy to pick from a crowd. 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. All I see is a dark doorway behind a wall of heads, hands and cameras, and a backpacker’s wiry neck at the very front of it all. How this fella managed to worm his way to the very front is beyond me. But I’m guessing he used the convenient travel hack of “screw the locals, I wanna see”. To be fair the locals were considerate, and they had earlier opened a space to usher me through to a better position. But I would have been pushing ahead of children, parents, babies, grannies, all who made the extra effort of arriving before me. I do not deserve preferential treatment. So as the sun rises, and the crowds push through the doors of the upper sanctuary, I turn around and leave. In all I would say it was a waste of my life, and Fanfan and Maeng Da are quick to rub in, having already seen the ridiculous crowds on Twitter. Also the morning birds didn’t break into song in homage. Maybe I was at the wrong event.
In 2015 I spent a year living in a close-knit rural community in Northeastern Thailand (Isaan). I was based in the small village of Broken Road and ‘A Potato in a Rice Field’ chronicles my time there as I bumble through life, culture and etiquette within a strict family of tradition and Buddhist belief.