Si Thep

Si Thep
Photo by Els Slots.

The Ancient Town of Si Thep and its Associated Dvaravati Monuments comprises three archeological sites representing the distinct Dvaravati culture and civilisation.

The medieval Dvaravati transformed Indian cultural and religious traditions into their own architectural and sculptural style. Buddhism and Hinduism coexisted in their town planning, and two of the sites (Khao Klang Nok and Khao Thamorrat Cave) were important Buddhist shrines. The third location, the ruins of the main town, holds the former Khao Klang Nai monastery which is decorated with unique sculptures of dwarf stucco figures.

Community Perspective: for the non-specialist, it is hard to distinguish the Dvaravati from Khmer or Indian styles. Most notable are the stucco sculptures at Khao Khlang Nai, almost hidden under a protective covering. The site, not far from Lopburi, is easy to visit by car. Thomas has provided info on how to do it on public transport from Bangkok.

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Bernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero

The Philippines - 06-Nov-23 -

Si Thep by Bernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero

I visited Si Thep 2 weeks after its inscription, and it is a telling illustration of the power of the World Heritage tag. Prior to being inscribed, the management shared that Si Thep was lucky to see 50 visitors a day. Almost immediately after its inscription, however, visitor number grew to as much as 10,000 a day! It is a bit too much and the management was caught off guard with the sudden surge, but this clearly speaks a lot of how the tag is an effective tourism magnet overall. Interestingly, the shuttle services already bear the WHS logo too! They still had no clear rule about ICOMOS member's entry, and they had to discuss if they would honor my card for a free pass, which they eventually did. What I further observed is that many visitors just congregate around the two Khmer period prangs (towers) in the inner town, when in fact they are neither unique nor the actual highlights. One can see better examples of Khmer prangs in Ayutthaya, Sukhothai or even nearby Lopburi. What these visitors fail to realize, and I discussed this with the site workers and they acknowledged this occurrence, is that the ancient town's most important attributes are the 7th century(?) Dvaravati stuccoworks in Khao Klang Nai that are said to have no equal elsewhere. The "carrying dwarves" definitely need to be highlighted more as when there were hundreds of visitors around, I found myself being the only one seemingly interested enough to check these out at that time. One question often raised is, "Are the extant in situ and ex situ artwork enough for Si Thep to embody a high point in Dvaravati culture?" It is a valid question, but I have no simple answer to that. Els' comparison with Naumburg Cathedral, therefore, resonates with me a lot. 

As I went to Si Thep on public transportation from Mo Chit-Bangkok (there is now a direct van to Si Thep town), I had to borrow a bike to see Khao Klang Nok. It can no longer be climbed, for good reasons, but it sees a lot of visitors as well. It comes as to no surprise then that many food and drink sellers have flooded the vicinity so quickly. Upon my return to the visitor center, I had to consult with the people I previously talked to how to get back to Bangkok as Thomas' experience seemed complicated. They did me a favor by contacting the bus terminal and arranging that I be picked up at a bus stand just 3 kms away. I did not have to worry about getting into the next big town anymore. They gave me a lift to get to the bus stand, and on the way, they insisted that I visit another Khmer period tower, the leaning Prang Rue Si, which hardly gets visited. The bus is what is considered as first class in Thailand and is comfortable (note that this bus leaves at 5:30PM).

Though Si Thep's rise is undoubtedly a deserved victory and the move to include outlying monuments (including a cave) was a wise move, it is my fear that it may now indirectly reduce the chances for Phu Phra Bat --an amazing cultural landscape that has been sitting in Thailand's T-List for the longest time now -- to get in as the two may be heavily compared against each other considering their Dvaravati period attributes and associations. 


Els Slots

The Netherlands - 16-Feb-23 -

Si Thep by Els Slots

As I recently in my review already called Koh Ker a ‘Tier 3’ Khmer site, Si Thep can only be Tier 4! The nomination, up for discussion at the WHC later this year, will undoubtedly focus more on the remains of the Buddhist Dvaravati culture which share the same area as the unremarkable Khmer structures of a later date.

I visited Si Thep (sometimes also transcribed as Sri Thep) by rental car from Bangkok, a car that also gave me access to the more remote Huai Kha Khaeng WHS further to the northwest. When I arrived at the main location, the outside temperature was 37 degrees, so I was pleased to see an electric cart waiting to ferry me around. We first stopped at what the driver called ‘three temples’. Two of them are quite plain Khmer-style stupas, the third is a lower rectangular structure where up close you can see that it has a beam all around decorated with funny carvings of crouching men and animals. These ‘stucco dwarfs’ stem from the Dvaravati culture. A protective roof now protects them from the elements.

After that, we went to see the excavation site where they found five human skeletons and one of an elephant, which probably date from before the Dvaravati period. And that was it – after half an hour or so I was brought back to the parking lot. Nothing visible at the site refers to “the long-distance maritime trade and exchange network with people in the inland communities … witnessed by the discoveries of glass and semi-precious stone beads, jade ornaments, and an Indian ivory comb” that the TWHS description so highly talks about. OK, the ‘dwarfs’ are memorable, but they also reminded me of the Naumburg Cathedral statues. Just a couple of interesting sculptures (most are in a bad condition anyway) surely can’t be sufficient for WH status?

About 3km further along the main road lies the second location, Khao Khlang Nok. This is one of the biggest remains of the Dvaravati architecture. It now is an enormous brick platform with a heap of stones on top. Climbing is allowed from the stairs on one side. A better introduction though is the scale model at the site entrance of what the stupa used to look like: an impressive tall white structure, somewhat Burmese in appearance (the Dvaravati was a Mon kingdom, still a major ethnic group in current Myanmar). Next to it, they have already prepared an information panel about World Heritage (in Thai only).

To me, this archaeological site is only of regional interest and I fail to see its global significance. The Mon were responsible for spreading Buddhism further into Southeast Asia (well, mainly Thailand), and Si Thep is said to have been a major religious center although little remains of that compared to for example the Pyu Ancient Cities or Bagan.

So in all, a disappointing site to visit and the Thai can only hope that the nomination at least on paper is convincing enough (or find enough friends on the WHC to support it).

Read more from Els Slots here.


Thomas Buechler

Switzerland - 15-Dec-22 -

Si Thep by Thomas Buechler

Si Thep is about 250 kilometers (3.30h) northeast of Bangkok, and a bit tricky to reach with public transportation. From the Mochit BTS Northern Bus Terminal there are regular express buses to the province of Phetchabun, taking Highway 21 where I got off the bus shortly before the intersection in Si Thep village. After just a few minutes I made a deal with a Tuk-Tuk driver who spoke no English, but with the help of some photos, he understood what I was looking for. It was a leisurely 15 minutes drive. There is an entrance fee of 100 Baht for foreigners (about 3 USD) and that includes the ride in an electro train from the small museum at the entrance to the main site. You need about 40 minutes to have a look around. Khao Khlang Nai, the central stupa was a Buddhist monastery decorated with stucco figures (dwarfs and various animals), in the Dvaravati style of art of the 9th century. Prang Si Thep is the most impressive monument in Khmer style, built with brick stones. Smaller stupas have collapsed and only their platforms remain. 
The return trip to Bangkok was even more challenging. The long distance buses did not stop in Si Thep, and I had the take the Tuk-Tuk to the next bigger town, about 30km away, Chai Badan, where they have a bus stand, located at Sura Narai 14 Alley, with hourly departures to the capital. However, it turned out to be a slow minibus, taking in some villagers on the way. Count to be about 8 hours on the road. A good idea might be to combine it with visits to Ayutthaya or Lopburi and stay overnight. 


Frederik Dawson

Netherlands - 18-Dec-22 -

Si Thep by Frederik Dawson

I was fortunate to join ICOMOS international experts two weeks field trip to Cambodia and Thailand exploring pre-Angkorian and Dvaravati arts and this trip took me to Dvaravati Si Thep, an upcoming UNESCO nomination of Thailand. Si Thep is one of the four contemporary ancient kingdoms of mainland Southeast Asia mentioned by Xuanzang in his record to India, Sri Ksetra (Myanmar’s Pyu), Chenla (Cambodia’s Sambor Prei Kuk), Cham (My Son in Vietnam) and Dvaravati, so to fill the gap, no surprised why Thailand push this site to be listed as World Heritage Site.

The first thing I saw at Si Thep was the city moat, the layout of Si Thep is quite unique. Originally the city was built in round shape, in accordance with experts’ explanation, a typical style of Dvaravati cities, then there was an expansion with rectangular form in the east, so the city looks like a mushroom, or some expert said a big lingam! Then we saw small museum with some artifacts and historical explanation. After museum there were sightseeing cars directly took us to the main temples area. The main temple or Prang Si Thep, since it was built when Dvaravati Si Thep was a part of Khmer Empire, it was clearly like what I saw in Cambodia, it was nothing interesting or unique. Not far from Prang Si Thep is Khao Klang Nai Temple, this one is better as it was built as Dvaravati Mahayana Buddhist temple, the ruined stupa is almost like a pile of brick but there are beautiful stuccos and motifs at the bottom of the stupa under protective shed, the design of these decorations especially the dwarf statues are different from other places. The temple’s Dharmachakra, a wheel of Dhamma, is also very lovely. According to the experts, while contemporary Sambor Prei Kuk and My Son were strict with Southern Indian art patterns, Si Thep is quite interesting with more liberal interpretation to develop its own style especially for Buddhist art.

I almost felt disappointed with Si Thep, apart from beautiful stucco at Khao Klang Nai, there is nothing much to see in the core historical zone. Most of Dvaravati’s discovery are artifacts, but not grand monuments like in Sambor Prei Kuk or My Son. Then we went to Khao Klang Nok Temple located outside the city moat. This temple turns out to be the real highlight of Si Thep and my favorite with the biggest laterite stupa in the world. The square stupa has very beautiful platform in shape of small palaces, this design is very Indian, another great example of early Indian art expansion. Although there is no decorating stucco, it is worthwhile to visit for its impressive size. Another main site of Si Thep is the cave temple of Khao Thamorat Mountain, unfortunately we had to cut it from the tour because of logistic issue, but the mountain has been pointed out when we were on the top of Khao Klang Nok stupa to show its role on urban planning. We later saw Dvaravati Buddha heads from Khao Thamorat at National Museum in Bangkok and famous Jim Thompson House. The story of Khao Thamorat looting by American cultural man and spy Jim Thompson was quite well known among historians similar to the story of French Andre Malraux did with Banteay Srei.              

Similar to other sights in Cambodia, if I did not come with ICOMOS experts, I doubt my idea on Si Thep will be positive since myself cannot point out or comprehend those differences on Dvaravati, Pre-Angkorian, Angkorian and Indian styles or very complicated historical timelines of each contemporary kingdoms on mainland Southeast Asia. Judging from the views of experts I came with, they were all happy to see and study Dvaravati culture at Si Thep and seemed to already endorse its Outstanding Universal Value even before final decision by World Heritage Committee. Despite its obscure information, Si Thep is very convenient to visit by 3.5 hours private transportation with superb highway from Bangkok to reach the historical park, except short dirt road to Khao Klang Nok. For casual visitor, don’t let Prang Si Thep trick you that Si Thep is another Khmer Angkorian site, and focus on Khao Klang Nok and Khao Klang Nai temples for its Dvarati art.


Site Info

Full Name
The Ancient Town of Si Thep and its Associated Dvaravati Monuments
Unesco ID
1662
Country
Thailand
Inscribed
2023
Type
Cultural
Criteria
2 3
Categories
Archaeological site - South (East) Asian
Link
By ID

Site History

2023 Name change

Upon inscription, at the suggestion of ICOMOS: from "The Ancient Town of Si The p" to ""The Ancient Town of Si Thep and its Associated Dvaravati Monuments.

2023 Inscribed

2022 Incomplete - not examined

Locations

The site has 3 locations

Si Thep: The Ancient Town of Si Thep
Si Thep: Khao Klang Nok ancient monument
Si Thep: Khao Thamorrat Cave ancient monument

Connections

The site has

Architecture
Constructions
Damaged
History
Human Activity
Religion and Belief
Timeline
Visiting conditions
World Heritage Process