On the road to Angkor
By Aree Chaisatien for The Nation
Bilateral project seeks and preserves 12th-century trade route built by the ancient Khmer
Braving the sizzling late-summer heat of the border jungle between Surin province in lower Northeast Thailand and Uddor Mean Chey province in northern Cambodia, I joined researchers tracing a route trodden by the ancient Khmer from Angkor to Phimai.
"Stay on the track," we are warned from time to time. The trail has not been completely cleared of landmines.
This route has been in use since ancient times and parts of the road can still be seen - laterite blocks covered with moss and lichen.
"We are on the ancient road from Angkor to Phimai, believed to have been used since the time of King Jayavarman VII in the 12th century," explains Colonel Surat Lertlum of the Chulachomklao Royal Thai Military Academy at the Ta Mean pass in Surin Province.
The reason we are out here in the stifling heat is that this trail will soon become a "living" route, thanks to the Living Angkor Road Project. The project is a joint Khmer-Thai endeavour of the Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap (APSARA), the Chulachomklao academy, and Thailand's Prince of Songkhla and Silpakorn universities' Fine Arts Departments. Financial support has come from the Thailand Research Fund.
Stretching southeast from Phimai in Nakhon Ratchasima onto the Khorat Plateau, leading across the Phnom Dongrak mountain range on the Thailand-Cambodia border and on to Angkor, the 254-kilometre Angkor-Phimai road is believed to be one of five royal Angkor roads linking its dominions in what are now modern-day Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. They were built in the reign of Jayavarman VII, reputably the greatest king of ancient Angkor.
According to ancient Prah Khan stone inscriptions, Jayavarman VII was a follower of Mahayana Buddhism. He built hospitals and 17 rest houses for travellers and pilgrims on the route from his capital to Phimai. The laterite rest houses - agnisala in the Khmer language, dhammasala in the argot of French archaeologist Louis Finot - are of uniform size and style. Dotted along the route 12-to-13 kilometres apart, their five south-facing windows once contained Buddha images and lights to guide travellers at night.
The hospitals, or arogyasala, looked after sick pilgrims and the health of local residents.
Surat is leading our five-day expedition on foot to explore the remains of the agnisala and arogyasala, setting out from Phimai.
At the Ta Mean border pass in Surin we visit temples and an agnisala, the best preserved of all on the Thailand side, according to archaeologist Pongdhan Sampaongern.
Evidence here suggests earlier French archaeologists might have been wrong in their belief that the ancient road cut through Chong Chom, or Osmach. The agnisala and laterite suggests that this is the true route, explains Surat.
The Angkor-road project started in 2004 and is the first in Thailand to take a multi-disciplinary approach, using remote sensing to complement historical, archaeological and cultural information, says research fund deputy director Silaporn Buasai.
Other new discoveries include two formerly missing agnisala - Prasat Ampil and Prasat Chan in Cambodia - many stone bridges, and ancient industrial relics such as iron furnaces and ceramic kilns.
"These roads are like those of the Roman or Chinese empires. The Khmer used their roads as military and trading routes supplying the capital at Angkor," Pongdhan says
On the second day, entering Cambodia at Osmach we are greeted by Khmer researchers from Apsara, led by archaeologist and anthropologist IM Sokrithy.
We visit agnisalas only reachable on foot. They are dilapidated but still recognisable. Water tanks constructed of laterite are clearly visible. The original boundary markers with still-visible Mahayana Buddhist features were modified as Hindu stupa during the reign of Srindravarman a century after Jayavarman VII.
We found the Spean Toap bridge, which is in good condition and still being used today. "This is the longest ancient bridge, and about 10-metres high," explains Sokrithy.
To get an idea how large royal processions along this route were in its heyday, we view bas-reliefs at the gallery of the Bayon temple. "There were likely many hundreds of soldiers on foot, with several hundred elephants and horses," Sokrithy says.
Heavy modern vehicles will soon be banned in the vicinity of the ancient road to ensure the area's preservation for archaeological and cultural tourism.
"Culture has no boundaries and a road is a link between people. There is an old saying: 'If we have roads, we have hope,' says Sokrithy.
By the fourth afternoon we reach Angkor, entering by the Western Gate of Angkor Thom, believed to be the original departure point for the Angkor-Phimai road.
Pongdhan believes the road preservation project can generate cultural tourism and improve bilateral relations between neighbours. Surat has plans for an animation game to help young people learn and enjoy the history of the road.
The writer was a guest of the Thailand Research Fund.