Halfway House

ThaiDay, 01/07/06

My first view of Kamphaeng Phet was from a bus bound for Sukhothai. I was considering getting off to explore the small northern provincial capital, but when I finally saw the town—seemingly not much more than a highway bordered with a few utilitarian shops—I changed my mind and decided to continue to my original destination.

It was only later that I learned that Kamphaeng Phet’s bus station is located a few kilometers outside the town, and offers no suggestion of the city. Returning to Kamphaeng Phet recently for a closer look, I discovered that the city is both atmospheric and interesting, home to impressive Buddhist ruins, an attractive riverfront setting, and some excellent Thai food.
Kamphaeng Phet literally means “diamond wall”, a reference to the unbreakable strength of this formerly walled city’s protective barrier. This level of security was necessary, as the city previously helped to protect the Sukhothai and later Ayuthaya kingdoms against attacks from Burma or Lanna. Parts of the wall can still be seen today, and the former moat, which was used for irrigation as much as protection, is currently being rebuilt.

The Kamphaeng Phet of today has expanded far outside its former walls, but is still located on the banks of the Ping River. The riverfront area is a focus of the city, and is home to a vibrant night market and a recently remodeled promenade. Taking a walk one evening I saw joggers, couples cuddling under palm trees, and in what initially appeared to be some sort of trompe l’oeil, a group of teenagers playing soccer on a submerged island in the middle of the river.

Playing football in the shallows of the Ping River.

I was fortunate to have my own vehicle, and a bit of exploring revealed that Kamphaeng Phet is pleasanter than most provincial capitals. Although Bangkok-style concrete architecture dominates, a surprisingly large amount of old wooden houses can be seen, of which Kamphaeng Phet even has its own architectural style, defined by a slightly peaked roof topped with terracotta tiles. The greatest concentration of wooden buildings can be found along the northern end of Tesa Road. Another architectural highlight of the city is the hor trai or manuscript depository of Wat Khuu Yang. Built during the 19th century, this graceful wooden building in the Rattanakosin style is located above a fish pond.

The hor trai, or book depository of Wat Khuu Yang was built during the 19th century.

However the main attraction of the city, and indeed the province, are the impressive but relatively little-visited ruins. Begun in the 14th century, roughly the same time as the better-known kingdom of Sukhothai, Kamphaeng Phet’s Buddhist monuments continued to be built until the Ayuthaya period, nearly 200 years later. As a result, the ruins possess elements of both Sukhothai and Ayuthaya styles, resulting in a school of Buddhist art unlike anywhere else in Thailand.

The remains of Wat Phra Kaew are still have examples of the Kamphaeng Phet school of Buddhist artwork.

The ruins of Kamphaeng Phet are found in two separate areas. Those located inside the city walls were inhabited by monks of the gamavasi (“living in the community”) sect, and are dominated by the remains of Wat Phra Kaew. This former Buddhist temple showcases some impressive Buddha statues and a stupa decorated by some modern but less attractive restoration work. The combination of Ayuthaya and Sukhothai styles is particularly evident here, with bell-shaped chedis reminiscent of Sukhothai and a reclining Buddha similar to that found in Ayuthaya.

The remains of Wat Phra Kaeo combine elements of both Sukhothai and Ayuthaya-era styles.

Near these ruins is the Kamphaeng Phet National Museum, a small but decent collection of antiques mostly associated with the ruins. The highlight here is an ancient bronze sculpture of Shiva that was unearthed where the city pillar now stands.

Making an offering at Kamphaeng Phet's city pillar.

The majority of Kamphaeng Phet’s ruins are found a few kilometers outside of the city walls in area previously home to monks of the arani (“living in forests”) sect. There are at least 40 temple compounds in this area, including Wat Chang Rop, named for its base that boasts 68 elephants, and remarkably, a few patches of relatively intact stucco relief work. Another standout is Wat Phra Si Iriyabot, which has a four-faced altar that once held a reclining, a sitting, a standing and a walking Buddha. Today the towering standing Buddha is the only one remaining, although elements of the graceful Sukhothai influenced walking Buddha can also be discerned.

Wat Phra Si Iriyabot is home to four-faced monument of which this standing Buddha is the only intact example.

Wat Phra Non, another temple in the area, is known for possessing the largest single laterite pillar in the world. Laterite, a clay-like material that is abundant in Kamphaeng Phet, hardens when exposed to light and air, and served as the primary building material for the majority of Kamphaeng Phet’s religious structures.

Wat Chang Rop is named after the 68 elephants that surround the base of its chedi.

The historical park also boasts an excellent brand-new visitors’ center, which also doubles as Kamphaeng Phet’s tourist information office. The center, possibly the best of its kind in the entire country, offers films, interactive computer presentations and displays, all offering clear English. Like many of the attractions in Kamphaeng Phet, the ruins are best accessed by those who have their own transportation, although there are bicycles for rent at the visitors’ center.

After all this exploring I was hungry, and although Kamphaeng Phet is not known as a food destination, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. The city’s most famous contribution to Thai food is kluay khai, small sweet-tasting bananas. However much more interesting is Kamphaeng Phet’s famous egg noodles. At Bamee Chakangrao on Ratchadamnoen Road I ordered a bowl of bamee haeng, which contained at least six different preparations and cuts of pork (barbecued, par-boiled, stewed, skin, liver and deep-fried pork crackling), as well as sides of a slightly sweet broth and a bowl of par-boiled green beans and bean sprouts. The noodles used are reminiscent of smooth higher quality Chinese-style noodles, rather than the pasty yellow noodles found across much of the country.

Egg noodles with various cuts of pork is a signature dish of Kamphaeng Phet.

If noodles aren’t your thing, Kamphaeng Phet is also home to an impressive night market. Located on Tesa Road near the banks of the Ping River, this covered area is open from about 5 PM to late, and features an enormous selection of food sold to go, as well as several basic restaurants. I sat down to an excellent phat phet muu paa, spicy boar stir-fry served on a heaping mound of rice and reflected on my luck. What at first appeared nothing more than a gritty bus stop turned out to be a worthwhile diversion, perhaps even a destination.